Interview: Ben Burtt and J.W. Rinzler - 'The Sounds of Star Wars' A new book chronicles how legendary sound designer Ben Burtt developed the clicks, whirs and otherworldly hums for the audioscape that revolutionized film soundtracking. The bonus, for movie buffs? It comes with a headphone jack and playable audio files.
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'The Sounds Of Star Wars,' Now At Fans' Fingertips

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'The Sounds Of Star Wars,' Now At Fans' Fingertips

'The Sounds Of Star Wars,' Now At Fans' Fingertips

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It takes only about two seconds of this:

(Soundbite of light saber)

HANSEN: Or possibly three seconds of this:

(Soundbite of Darth Vader breathing)

HANSEN: And maybe another four seconds of this:

(Soundbite of lasers shooting)

HANSEN: know that you are positively not in Kansas anymore. No, these sounds are from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. These are the sounds of "Star Wars."

(Soundbite of special effects)

HANSEN: There's something about these sound effects that envelop you. It's not just the surround sound speakers but you can feel their three-dimensionality, and instantly know that you have been transported to another universe.

Since the first "Star Wars" movie hit the theatres in 1977, movie soundtracks have not been the same. All these sounds, and more, have been collected for a new book and audio collection called "The Sounds of Star Wars." It's written by J.W. Rinzler, and with a foreword by the renowned sound designer Ben Burtt. J.W. Rinzler and Ben Burtt join us from the studios of Skywalker Ranch -appropriately - in Marin County, California. Gentlemen, thanks so much for making time for us.

Mr. J.W. RINZLER (Author, "The Sounds of Star Wars"): Hello. Thank you for having us.

HANSEN: J.W., before "Star Wars," most sci-fi film sound was electronic. Why wasn't George Lucas satisfied with that for "Star Wars"?

Mr. RINZLER: George Lucas wanted to depart from that direction of the science fiction sonic world. He wanted his universe to sound real, kind of used, ordinary you might say, and very natural. So, his suggestion was, well, don't go to your synthesizers first and generate echoing electronic tones for me, but rather go out into the real world with your tape recorder and record motors and animals and bring back familiar sounds, which we can modify into something otherworldly.

HANSEN: And so, Ben Burtt, what was the task put before you.

Mr. BEN BURTT (Sound Designer): Well, I was given a Nagra tape recorder, which is a high-quality portable reel-to-reel machine, and told to go collect a library of sound.

HANSEN: And so where did you start?

Mr. BURTT: Well, I started in my own apartment with, you know, the appliances, the, you know, blender in the kitchen, that sort of thing. And I moved outward into the neighborhood recording traffic through pipes under the freeway and kept going until I found myself in the desert recording wild animals, bears and things at a ranch. I collected bits and pieces of sound from everywhere.

HANSEN: I think Darth Vader's breathing is, you know, something that - it's a little like when music in a movie comes up and you know that the villain is coming. But this wonderful breathing sound, how did you get that?

Mr. BURTT: At the time, the script had described Vader as wearing some kind of life support suit that had machinery to keep him alive. And I went to a local scuba diving shop where they give lessons and I just asked if I could go in the back room and record different scuba masks and regulators and things, and they said sure. So, I just spent an hour or so back there trying out the different breathing apparatuses that were laying around.

And ultimately that, which was me breathing, once brought back to the studio was slowed down a little bit, became the breathing of Darth Vader.

(Soundbite of Darth Vader breathing)

HANSEN: So, it's your breath slowed down just a bit?

Mr. BURTT: Yes, to give it a little more weight. You know, Vader was a much bigger character than I am and also to give him sort of a massive feel.

HANSEN: R2-D2 sounds electronic but his language, his voice, his sound, I mean, whatever you call it, was that a big challenge for you?

Mr. BURTT: R2-D2 was the hardest task I had, the one that took me the longest. There wasn't any precedent in movies for a character like a robot that was to be so expressive but not use any words in English or any language.

(Soundbite of R2-D2)

Mr. BURTT: And I went to synthesizers at first but the results sounded too much like a machine, just something cold, didn't seem to have a soul. And after struggling for a long time and auditioning things, we found that in conversation, George and I, were making verbal sounds to imitate what we thought the robot, you know, the intonation of the robot, making funny little (makes sounds) - this kind of thing.

We kind of had this language. Then suddenly one day I realized, well, why don't we just do something like that. And so I began to make my own sounds.

(Soundbite of beeping noises)

Mr. BURTT: I found a way of performing at the same time that I could work a keyboard on an Arp synthesizer.

(Soundbite of beeping noises)

Mr. BURTT: So, that ended up being the recipe, which was kind of 50 percent electronic and 50 percent human. R2's voice was born.

Mr. RINZLER: But the scream, I think, of R2-D2, that was a once in a lifetime scream.

Mr. BURTT: Yeah, I screamed for that. I used to record - I had a room in George Lucas's house where the offices were, but I was down in the basement. So, when I wanted to record something I didn't have a recording booth. I used to get under a big table down in the room where I worked with a microphone and kind of curled up in the corner.

And one day I just made a scream. I just screamed.

(Soundbite of R2-D2 screaming)

Mr. BURTT: Maybe there was stress behind the whole thing, but that scream sped up was used pretty much straight up for R2-D2's scream.

HANSEN: I'm speaking with sound designer Ben Burtt as well as author J.W. Rinzler about their book together, "The Sounds of Star Wars."

J.W., your book is so detailed, so much information about how the sounds were conceived and how they were made. But you can actually play the sounds and look at the pictures. Did you design this to appeal not only to "Star Wars" buffs but, you know, a casual viewer?

Mr. RINZLER: Oh, definitely, yeah. This book is meant to appeal to anybody who's interested in cinema or sound. But I have to say the idea for it came from the packager, Becker and Mayer. They had just done a bird song book, and they came to us at Lucas Film and said, you know, we think the technology is good enough so we could do a "Sounds of Star Wars" book. And then I contacted Ben, who was, I think, justifiably skeptical.

Mr. BURTT: Yeah, I was worried that, you know, how would an explosion or something or one of the spaceships sound like played over a tiny speaker. I wasn't sure.

(Soundbite of special effects)

Mr. RINZLER: And then Ben suggested that we include a earphone jack or stereo jack.

Mr. BURTT: Yeah, the earphone jack is so kids can take the book to bed and get under the covers with their headphones and their parents won't know.

Mr. RINZLER: And also won't drive the parents crazy.

Mr. BURTT: Yeah, in the back seat of the car.

HANSEN: Yeah. One sound I have to ask you about, because it's one that's imitated so often, the light saber.

(Soundbite of noise)

HANSEN: You know?

Mr. BURTT: Sure. Yeah, even the actors in the more "Star Wars" prequels found that when they were fighting on the set they were making those sounds verbally unconsciously, 'cause they might have done it as boys from the original film. But the light saber sound was one of the first sounds - in fact, I think it really was the first sound that I made for "Star Wars." I had a kind of immediate inspiration for it.

(Soundbite of light saber)

Mr. BURTT: I was a projectionist at that time at USC cinema. And there's a motor in the projection booth, had a humming sound when it just sat there idling. It had a very musical sound, a nice tone, you would say, almost a hypnotic tone. And I thought immediately that would be a good element for the light saber.

So, I recorded that motor and a few weeks later I had an accident with a broken microphone cable and the microphone picked up hum from a nearby television, had kind of a scintillating angry buzz. Normally you'd throw that away thinking it was a mistake, but I saved that picture tube buzz and I combined it with the sound of the projector motor. And the two sounds together became the basis for the sputtering hum of the light sabers.

(Soundbite of light saber)

HANSEN: J.W. Rinzler, as the author of this "Star Wars" sound book, did you come to this as a fan? Is that why you wanted to do it?

Mr. RINZLER: I come to it as a person who just loves cinema. You know, I grew up with the "Star Wars" films and I think they're among the best. But I just come at them hoping that people will learn about cinema with sort of "Star Wars" as the teaspoonful of sugar.

HANSEN: J.W. Rinzler is the author of the new book, "The Sounds of Star Wars." Ben Burtt is the sound designer for the "Star Wars" movies and many other films. Both gentlemen joined us from Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. Thanks so much and good luck with the book.

Mr. RINZLER: Thank you.

Mr. BURTT: Thank you.

HANSEN: And you can go to our website to hear how Ben Burtt made some of the other signature "Star Wars" sounds, like Death Star's planet annihilator laser and the sonic signature of the Millennium Falcon. What about Chewbacca?

Mr. BURTT: Oh, he's a bear.

HANSEN: He's a bear. That's what I thought.

Mr. BURTT: Yeah, mostly a young bear.

(Soundbite of Chewbacca)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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