I think we’ve reached a geekdom singularity. Nintendo Wii controller + physical computing + OpenSoundControl + Mac + Kyma granular synthesis = Star Wars lightsaber sounds?
Ready to do this yourself? Full details on how-to at kyma-tweaky, the Kyma collective, for users of this advanced DSP-powered synthesizer.
This demonstrates the potential power of granular synthesis, so geeking out aside, there is something to be learned here. What’s fascinating is just how much power it takes to reproduce the original sound, which was far simpler (and yet still sounds better). Sound designer Ben Burtt explains:
… we had a projection booth with some very, very old simplex projectors in them. They had an interlock motor which connected them to the system when they just sat there and idled and made a wonderful humming sound. It would slowly change in pitch, and it would beat against another motor, there were two motors, and they would harmonize with each other … it was just a humming sound, what was missing was a buzzy sort of sparkling sound, the scintillating which I was looking for, and I found it one day by accident.
… the microphone passed a television set which was on the floor which was on at the time without the sound turned up, but the microphone passed right behind the picture tube and as it did, this particular produced an unusual hum. It picked up a transmission from the television set and a signal was induced into it’s sound reproducing mechanism, and that was a great buzz, actually. So I took that buzz and recorded it and combined it with the projector motor sound and that fifty-fifty kind of combination of those two sounds became the basic lightsaber tone.
From FilmSound.org, which has more wonderful Burtt stories and lots of other fantastic info on sound design. You could probably learn everything you need to know about sound design just from sound cues from Star Wars.
Still, there’s a lot to be learned from synthesizing sounds, too. Lay people I think don’t appreciate how much harder synthesis is than recording. What the two have in common: listening closely. Ben Burtt had an unusual talent for that, one that makes you want to pick up a microphone and a synthesizer. Well, after you’re done playing lightsaber battle, anyway.
Previously, because I never get tired of talking about this: