Bizarre scifi movie sounds and the instruments that love them
June 25, 2011 12:37 PM   Subscribe

The bizarre musical instruments behind classic scifi movie sounds. Includes the Waterphone, Theremin and Blaster Beam.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (26 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Leon Theramin, who invented the instrument, is more interesting for being the inventor of a "tuned circuit" passive eavesdropping device, among other spy gear.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:24 PM on June 25, 2011


I want a blaster beam, but I can't think of anywhere I could play it. Does anyone have a spare blimp hanger I can borrow and about 500,000 watts of sound gear (and maybe an Echo Plex)?
posted by doctor_negative at 1:35 PM on June 25, 2011


It'd be nice to see a broader article about SF sounds; this is really thin. It's well-known how the TARDIS materialization sound came about, and I recall a public radio story about the flying cycles sound from Return of the Jedi (the sound designer ended up sampling a pneumatic tool from a worksite near his house), but I'd love to know where original phaser noises came from and things like that. There's probably a book or a short documentary in this.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:36 PM on June 25, 2011


It'd be nice to see a broader article about SF sounds; this is really thin.

Feel free to make one, you clearly have some time on your hands.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:40 PM on June 25, 2011


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HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO MAKE MY NEIGHBORS CUM?
posted by nathancaswell at 1:42 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Needs more deinterlacing.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:49 PM on June 25, 2011


Always wondered what that gizmo, the waterphone, was called.

Personal anecdote: The first and only time I saw a waterphone was at the amazing Daphne Hellman's town house here in NYC in 1969. I knew her son, Digger, and went over for a visit.

Amid the numerous instruments from different parts of the world, (she was the mother of Sandy Bull, also an also an accomplished musician who sometimes played unexpected instruments), art and eccentric furniture was this bizarre looking musical instrument in the corner of the living room. She told me the name, which included the word water. It had sticks protruding up and I wondered how the hell it was played but became distracted by other interesting things in the room, like the myna bird hopping around.

Since Daphne was a harpist I thought it might somehow related to a harp but until now I didn't know how. Apparently a waterphone can be played a number of ways.

It's been 42 years now that I've wondered what that thing was and how it sounded. so great to have a name for it, finally. Thank you for that.
posted by nickyskye at 1:51 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Brandon, the comment was on the article, not your post; the article title seems to promise more than it delivers. No need to take it personally.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:50 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


How dare you say that about my mother, she never meant to hurt the theremin!

Not sure what you by original phaser noises, are you talking Star Trek or Star Wars. Either way, there's definitely a book about sound effects in Star Wars.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:18 PM on June 25, 2011


That link has a video which describes where the laser gun sound in SW came from though.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:19 PM on June 25, 2011


On further research, prompted by this post, I found out the strange instrument I remembered was not a waterphone because the sticks protruding up I recall were glass, but a Cristal Baschet, another marvelous sci-fi instrument played with water.
posted by nickyskye at 3:24 PM on June 25, 2011


I usually link to a video of a woman playing her theremin bra whenever theremins come up. But not this time.
posted by Sailormom at 3:24 PM on June 25, 2011


I usually link to a video of a woman playing her theremin bra

Had to see the theremin bra thing. Whoa.
posted by nickyskye at 3:52 PM on June 25, 2011


Here's my photo of the waterphone played by our symphony for the Star Wars concert to make that creepy "space" sound effect.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:18 PM on June 25, 2011


Compendium of articles on Star Wars sound effects can be found here.
posted by Wolof at 7:00 PM on June 25, 2011


I always assumed the seismic charges in Attack of the Clones were just created by playing a standard explosion through a digital delay with maybe a 100hz delay time, and a reeeeally long feedback/decay.
posted by ShutterBun at 7:29 PM on June 25, 2011


UKers of a certain age are well aware of the Cristal Baschet: it was the source of the theme for Picture Box.

I have a theremin within arm's reach. I have, also within arm's reach, an instrument which can out-eerie the weirdest of the space instruments: a banjo. Srsly. Replace the soundtrack to your favourite scarymovie with banjo, and things get grim right quick.
posted by scruss at 7:42 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here a min, there a min, everywhere a min min.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:44 PM on June 25, 2011


Replace the soundtrack to your favourite scarymovie with banjo, and things get grim right quick.

Good point. And things certainly couldn't have gottten much grimmer in Deliverance if the scene had used dueling thermins, for example.

note to self: record "Dueling Theremins"
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:48 PM on June 25, 2011


None of the links on the linked page about the Blaster Beam seem to work, so here's a little demo.
posted by sneebler at 7:54 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The missing Blaster Beam mp3 (via archive.org).
posted by gubo at 9:00 PM on June 25, 2011


The Beam plus this = still the best music I've heard in a sci-fi movie, even thirty years later.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:21 PM on June 25, 2011


I got to see a smaller beam (a mere 12 feet) played as the opening act for a free jazz combo. At the time, I was taking my own music VERY SERIOUSLY so this guy getting up and smacking this... thing... was kinda frustrating to me, musically. Of course, these days I'd give my teeth to play one.

(And RIP, MusicThing.)
posted by lekvar at 11:28 PM on June 25, 2011


Forbidden Planet monster attack

Classic SciFi and horror sound clips
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:04 AM on June 26, 2011


I think Louis and Bebe Barron need more than just a minor mention here, as the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet is not just the first all-electronic film score, but so far the only one ever to be scored by instruments created specifically for virtually every cue. L & B were glorious experimenters in this whole process, building circuits that they'd overload until they started to fail, creating these unbelievable torrents of amazing sound, furthered by manipulation via tape and other processes until they were just exactly right. There's such a delicious balance of play and craft in that soundtrack, and L & B's process presages the kind of fringe-of-disintegration music that later musicians took to other wondrous places.

If my praise is a little florid, it's because no one had ever done what they did with such simple circuitry before, and few have done so well since. As an electronic musician myself, I continue to reference that process and that soundtrack as a bar they set for me to chase, and those moments when I'm close enough to touch that sound make my semi-permanent musical obscurity something that doesn't bother me at all.
posted by sonascope at 8:29 AM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I will also add the little known fact that most of the bird sounds in The Birds are actually the work of the wonderful Oskar Sala at the controls of the Trautonium. If there's a vintage instrument that really deserves a full-scale revival, it's not the tedious and highly limited showpiece of the theremin (in the interests of full disclosure, I was a builder of semi-fine theremins for a decade and a half, until I became completely disillusioned with the damn things)—it's the Trautonium. What a wonderful, expressive machine.
posted by sonascope at 8:39 AM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


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