Old pipes? A vintage airplane? Mechanical equipment?

Ben Burtt, Hollywood’s master sound designer, is remarkable for his economy and resourcefulness. That’s evident in this charming video in which he demonstrates how he evoked breaking machinery to realize the sound of the Millenium Falconnot going into hyperdrive.

The cinematic challenge is significant. It’s a bit joke, a running gag, but it has to simultaneously build tension in the film. And like the rest of Star Wars, the future is evoked by the past. (It is, after all, a galaxy long ago – and to impact audiences, couldn’t in fact be so far away.)

So, how to make cues that would be recognizable and resonant for an audience, but without sounding like a World War II movie sound effect had been dubbed over fantastic science fiction? The answer: clever layering and re-contextualization.

Watch the corner of Ben Burtt’s mouth as he smiles playing the found sounds on the reel to reel – this was partly the lucky to happen across wonderful sounds, and the skill to recognize them once he had them. Also, I was struck, as a fan of Burtt’s sound effects, that having thus deconstructed and reconstructed it, the sound … actually doesn’t work. Timing is everything. (You need great sound editing and direction, not just great sound design – there’s a lesson for anyone in music production there, too, where all three form the cinematic impact of a track.)

Once combined with John Williams’ score, plus the combined delivery of Harrison Ford and the movie action itself, the cue is perfect.

We face this challenge, now, with the open-ended possibilities of our computers. We could agonize over a sound like this, and wind up doing, frankly, too much work. Without the natural constraints of physical multi-track tape and mixers, the secret, like cooking, is likely to get a few really high-quality ingredients that can harmonize. (Watch, too, Burtt move the balance of the elements on the mixer with muscle memory in his hands, without missing a beat.)

Here’s a 10-minute documentary for more juicy Burtt action.

A sound you know from childhood – and what it can teach you about sound design and composition.

Also, our friends at Synthtopia have over the years written some great stuff about Burtt:

Ben Burtt tag @ Synthtopia

So, too, has dedicated sound blog Designing Sound:
Ben Burtt tag @ designingsound.org

That should keep you occupied for a few hours. Or… years.

Millennium Falcon image here (CC-BY) Kory Westerhold.