From Ben Burtt to Rouge One – a sonic empire


Ever heard of Ben Burtt? Well maybe not, but you have definitely heard the sounds of Ben Burtt, like the sound of the lightsaber, R2D2, Darth Vader’s breathing – it’s all Ben’s creations (and not Ben Kenobi this time). The sonic universe created by Ben and others has been explored to minuscule details, but as the saga moves on, so does the sound creation teams behind it. With Rouge One the sound creators had to reinvent themselves once more. Not only do you need to be true to the legacy, but you also need to push the audio experience to capture new robots, new spaceships and what have we. Rouge One has been describes as one of the best Star Wars movies since The Empire Strikes Back. Its epic war film aesthetic is a real leap forward for the franchise, and a lot of its realism can be directly attributed to the sound design.

In a 30-minute video Star Wars’ sound designers at Skywalker Sound in Northern California discuss how they utilized samples—like field recordings of handicap access motorized doors—to make Star Wars’ futuristic weapons and battle scenes sound more menacing and less fantasy-like.

We also discover the secrets of Foley artist Ronni Brown and Foley Mixer Frank Aglieri-Rinella who reveal how they made the Rogue One stormtroopers sound more menacing.

Skywalker Sound’s supervising sound editors Matthew Wood, Christopher Scarabosio and David Acord are the keepers of the “Star Wars” sonic universe and its gigantic library. Not only have they created and mixed soundtracks for numerous “Star Wars” feature films, but they’ve also worked on the official “Star Wars” games, series and animations. They are part of a continuing legacy, with access to every sound ever made for “Star Wars.” And they’ve contributed their own sounds to that legacy.

In a recent interview Matthew stated: Yeah. We’re in charge of that library. That’s sort of one of the reasons why they have us work on all of the Star Wars productions. We are doing Rebels, the TV series, and we’re doing video games and all that. The Lucasfilm Story Group keeps the story straight across everything, and we’re in charge of doing that with sound. And we have sounds from all the way back to the original sounds that were created by Ben Burtt in the ’70s which are fantastic and we just wanna keep those restricted to our Star Wars productions. What’s special, when someone sees a TIE Fighter, it sounds like a TIE Fighter. You know, it’s not gonna sound like something from another movie. And then everything that we make, Chris is cataloging. We’ve got Krennic’s shuttle and the U-Wings and the TIE Strikers. And even though there’s kind of a closed loop at the end of this movie where everything kind of goes, but who knows? You know, there could, if something springboards out of this film we wanna make sure that we have access to all that material that’s been created and is created especially and it’ll just be used in Star Wars.

“Sound has that way to subliminally take you, to connect you to things, and it’s a very easy way to do it. It’s not onscreen. We don’t have to render it. We pay special homage to the lightsabers and the wookiees and the wampas and the TIE fighters and the X-Wings. All of that has a connection back. So those sounds we don’t really want to alter much.”

Ben Burtt was a film sound buff as a child (he recorded and replayed the sound tracks of his favorite movies) Burtt enrolled at the university of Southern California’s film school with the intention of becoming a director. He received a student job cataloguing the Columbia sound library, which had been donated to the University. A call by Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz to U.S.C. led to a successful interview for Burtt. He was given carte blanche to work out of his apartment near the U.S.C. campus in order to collect at a leisure pace those sounds that might be useful.

He spent a year recording anything that could be turned upside down and backwards to make Lucas world come alive.

“In my first discussion with George Lucas about the film, he – and I concurred with him – that he wanted an ‘organic’, as opposed to the electronic and artificial soundtrack. Since we were going to design a visual world that had rust and dents and dirt, we wanted a sound which had Squeaks and motors that may not be the smooth-sounding or quite. Therefor we wanted to draw upon raw material from the real world: real motors, real squeaky door, real insects; this sort of thing. The basic thing in all films is to create something that sounds believable to everyone, because it’s composed of familiar things that you can not quite recognize immediately”

Burtt said his first attempts at creating Artoo’s voice were too electronic. He used a synthesizer, but he couldn’t capture emotion with it. He tried something else. He said, “We ended up with a 50/50 mix of electronic synthesizer-generated sound and my voice making funny inflections. The combination camouflaged the two sources, and we found that we could get Artoo to act. But it was something that we arrived at very slowly.” The sounds of the engines in the pod-races particularly stand out. Each vehicle was different because Burtt gave each of them a personality. His team used the sound of actual engines from cars such as Porches and Mustangs and tools such as the Kyma (a sound synthesizer) and wave-table chopper to make the podracers come to life.

Kyma has the unique ability to morph sounds, melting them into each other like plastic. This is completely different to the usual crossfade effect, because pitch, timbre and rhythm all change simultaneously. Kyma-X has been used in heaps of films to create the sound of an androgynous singing voice, half way between male and female pitch and timbre. But it’s also been used in adverts, morphing the sound of typing into a Caribbean holiday jingle. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes to make morphing possible. To morph two sounds you run them through an analysis process which creates a special non-audio file that includes all of the ingredients needed to rebuild the sound, and then plug them into one of the morphing modules. After analysis pitch, timbre and time stretching can all be controlled independently, and with only a little more effort you can morph manually with a slider, or under LFO or envelope control. You can also control a morph by listening to incoming audio, and pick out whatever feature you want to use as a controller – from average loudness, to the volume of one very specific frequency band.

The elegant lightsaber sounds come with a range of noises — powering up and down and strikes in combat — but they’re all familiar. Burtt said the noise was there from the beginning: “Oddly enough, it was the first sound I ever made for Star Wars. When I read the script, I immediately had something in mind. It was an old motor on a projector at the USC Cinema Department. I went and recorded it right away. The humming sound was partly based on that motor.”

One might think that everything in the new Rouge One is done by synthesizers, compared with yesterday’s more hands on approach, but the team behind Rouge One still believes there’s value in the old fashioned way. “We’re still recording stuff, yeah. Part of the U-Wing sound is these racing drones that actually my son had showed me a clip of something on YouTube. And I tracked down the guy. He’s from the Bay Area. And had him come out and we did some recordings of these racing drones. They were pilots that raced these things. And they do a bunch of tricks and crazy flying.  They did like five different drones. So those became an element of the U-Wing. Yeah, we recorded a door motor for a handicap access door for K-2SO’s motors. So yeah, we’re out recording all the time. We’re always looking for new sounds, fresh sounds. Found sounds, whatever.”

Regarding the droid, K-2SO; “We tried a bunch of stuff but what we actually ended up with was fairly simple, just a short delay like a flange, using the Audio Ease Speakerphone plug-in. We used it fairly lightly. The thing with processing voice is that if you process it too much you start losing intelligibility and that is not good for telling the story…”.

Speakerphone uses mainly impulse responses of a wide variety of loudspeakers as its point of sonic focus. It allows you to recreate anything from a megaphone to a mobile phone, and everything in between. There are literally hundreds of speaker emulations to choose from. For those unfamiliar with the principles of convolution, both Altiverb and Speakerphone are based upon the application of impulse responses. These are very precise snapshots of the acoustic characteristics of an environment, surface or object, which are captured and rendered, for want of a better word, into digital recordings that can be used to effect whatever signal you choose. This means you can have Salisbury Cathedral as your reverb chamber should you wish, or the inside of a jam jar, and the results are astoundingly realistic.

Speaking of synthesizers also the music direction has changed as John Williams was not assigned to this one. John Williams has previously, as most already know, written the music for all other Star Wars films. It was interesting then to hear that he would not be returning to write the score for Rogue One. Back in 2015 it was initially reported that Alexandre Desplat would composer the music, having worked with director Gareth Edwards previously on 2014’s Godzilla. However, perhaps due to the reshoots that changed the film’s postproduction schedule, Desplat was no longer able to write the score. In September of that year it was announced that Michael Giacchino would be replacing Desplat. Coming onto the project hot off the heels of finishing the music for Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Giacchino apparently had only 4 ½ weeks to write the entire score!

The music matches well with the quality of any of the epic Star Wars scores that we’ve all come to know and love from previous films. We can at this point only assume that the music was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London with The London Symphony Orchestra, as shown by the clip below and based on the fact that the scores for the Prequel Trilogy were recorded there and all 6 other film scores performed by the LSO. It’s entirely possible however, that it was recorded elsewhere, since last year’s The Force Awakens became the first Star Wars score to have been recorded in the United States and the first without the LSO.