This feature was originally published in 2010
Let’s face it: sound effects aren’t sexy. We don’t often watch a TV show and announce afterwards, “I really loved what they did with the birdsong in the background.” Or walk out of the cinema saying, “Hey, weren’t the gunshots realistic?” Sound effects are there to enhance images, to give a scene more welly, and they don’t often register on the viewer because they’re not supposed to.
But some sound effects – especially in the world of SF and fantasy – are so good they deserved to be singled out and praised for the simple genius that they are. And so listen up! In no particular order, here’s a selection of sounds you should really keep an ear out for… Jayne Nelson
THE TARDIS(opens in new tab)
Chances are that if you’re British the aural accompaniment that accompanies this enigmatic blue box is as much a part of your psyche as Jammy Dodgers and grey-skied summers. It’s not just the noise of the TARDIS materialising or dematerialising that we’re talking about here, oh no, despite the fact that famous "wheezing, groaning" (© Terrance Dicks) noise (originally produced using a key scraping on along a piano wire) usually heralds either the start of a new adventure for the Doctor or the (hopefully satisfying) end of one.
No, we’re also talking about the sound of the TARDIS console in full flight (bellows, uh, bellowing) or the viewscreen sliding open (pure BBC Radiophonic Workshop brilliance) or, most poignant of all, the sound of the Cloister Bell bonging away somewhere deep in the labyrinthine bowels of our favourite police box.
Every sound that comes out of the TARDIS has become part of our cultural DNA – whether you first heard it in 1963 or last Christmas Day.
And here’s that sound effect in full:
Oh, and just for SFX ’s Ian Berriman who was very upset that it wasn't included in this Top 10, here’s the iconic Dalek Control Room sound effect – so iconic it lasted from the black and white days of Doctor Who right up to the new rebooted era of the show:
Forget the countless remakes, including the too-dark-to-see-anything 1998 Roland Emmerich update and that godawful cartoon with the great theme song but terrible mini-monster Godzuki. This is where it’s at: the original 1954 Japanese horror flick Gojira , with its tale of a prehistoric reptile awakened by an atomic test who decides to stomp on a few cities to register its disapproval.
Just listen to that roar! Half rusty gate swinging in a hurricane; half bellowing elephant about to charge a jeep full of annoying safari photographers; all Titan of the deep. Created by Akira Ifukube by rubbing a glove up and down a double bass, it’s probably one of the most terrifying sounds in cinema history. Just imagine lying in bed in the wee small hours and hearing that cry coming closer and closer…
…bugger, we just scared ourselves.
TALOS WAKES UP
Jason And The Argonauts (1968)
Naughty Hercules and cocky pal Hylas break into the vault hidden underneath an enormous statue of the titan Talos. This, it seems, is a Very Bad Idea. After the door slams shut they escape entombment thanks to Herc’s mighty strength – but once outside again, it becomes clear that they’ve pissed off Talos, and he’s not going to let being a statue keep him from kicking their asses…
And so begins one of cinema’s most wonderful fantasy sequences, as the ginormous bronze Talos (brought to life with all of Ray Harryhausen’s signature charm and talent) suddenly turns his head to look down at the pesky humans. It’s that creeeeeeaaaaaaaak of metal as his head twists which makes this so memorable: so unexpected, so PERFECT , and (as one member of SFX reminisced in a Couch Potato session many years back), so scary it’s enough to make small children incontinent.
The bridge of a spaceship, as the USS Enterprise so ably demonstrated in the ’60s, should be a repository of all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds. The bridge of the Battlestar Galactica was no exception, although the noises in this case are both futuristic and retro versions of sounds you’d probably hear on the deck of a modern American aircraft carrier. Apart from the radar…
The Galactica’s DRADIS screen is the focus of many an episode, the words “We have DRADIS contact!” usually bringing with them a thrill of fear, followed by a bloody big battle. But the sound it makes – a sort of elegant, swooping, almost hypnotic howl – is just as evocative as any sentence; by the end of BSG ’s run, DRADIS and its sinister hum had become synonymous with tension.
THE T-REX APPROACHES
Jurassic Park (1993)
I went to see Jurassic Park in 1993 not long after the smoking ban in Britain’s cinemas had been put in place. Every seat in the house was sold – something I’d never seen before – and the audience was so hyped up about Steven Spielberg’s much-mooted CGI dino-fest that they were whooping and hollering even before the credits rolled. The crowd clapped and yelled and chatted all the way through and because you don’t really have to concentrate on the dialogue in Jurassic Park , it wasn’t that annoying. It just made it more fun.
Then came a sudden, awe-inspiring moment of pin-drop silence as every single person in the cinema watched ripples on the surface of a cup of water. The low thumps of what could only be a Tyrannosaurus’s footsteps reverberated through the entire building, deep and foreboding, even with the kind of rubbish sound system an average fleapit had installed back in the early ’90s. I can guarantee to you now that the hairs on the necks of every single person in that cinema stood on end while we listened to those footsteps – and when the T-Rex finally appeared, several people screamed.
After the T-rex attack scene was over, a guy in the middle of the cinema lit up a cigarette. When a staffmember wandered down the aisle and told him to put it out, he exclaimed haughtily, “Are you kidding? I f***ing need a fag after that! I’m shaking here!”
And he got a round of applause. I think we were really clapping those footsteps though…
THE DOORS ON THE USS ENTERPRISE
Original Star Trek
Whoosh! Whoosh! Ah, how futuristic those doors must have seemed back in the ’60s, long before the Tesco’s on the corner of your street had a pair you use every day without a second thought. How extraordinary must it have been to imagine doors somehow sensing when you approached and politely sliding open for you, then dutifully swishing closed when you’d gone! And the noise they made was perfect – that "whoosh! whoosh!" the embodiment of clean, futuristic simplicity. Out of all the myriad noises that combined to make up the USS Enterprise – transporter beams, tricorders, phaser fire, diagnostic beds – that "whoosh! whoosh!" is still one of Star Trek ’s most iconic sounds, (and so brilliantly lampooned in Airplane II – see below). And if only Tesco’s had a sense of humour and installed loudspeakers, we could hear them every day…
Of course, Star Trek also has the evocative ambient pinging bridge noise; so iconic, it became the first sound you heard in the JJ Abrams reboot movie.
Star Wars(opens in new tab)
The Star Wars universe is a sound designer’s dream (in this case, Ben Burtt’s). From the multitudes of alien languages to the sound of a tractor beam powering down; from the friendly whistles of R2-D2 to the jabbering of a tauntaun freezing to death, George Lucas’s fantasy saga has given us so much aural pleasure (no double-entendre intended) that it’s in a class of its own. It was hard to pick a standout sound – how CAN you choose between Darth Vader’s breathing and the low thrum of a lightsabre? – but we decided, in the end, that TIE Fighters clinched it. And rock band Ash agree: they kicked off their debut album, 1977, with sound of the TIE Fighters screeching past.
To hear the TIE Fighters click here or on the image above.
The sound of a Transformers transforming – which sounded oddly like a recording of a Jew’s harp played backwards – was one of the essential ingredients in the success of the original cartoons: instantly recognisable, easily impersonated in the playground. What a shame Michael Bay largely replaced the transforming sound for the movies; there are vague hints of it, but only like the sound of someone whiispering in a storm, as more “realistic” but less charming and identifiable sound sculptures take over.
The Martian Heat Ray
War Of The Words (1958)
“BebebeBOO! BebebeBOO!” It’s one of the most gloriously sci-fi-ey sounds in the history of the world and, if that’s not enough, it’s a flipping alien death ray to boot. Okay, so Steven Spielberg’s modern remake of HG Wells’s classic alien-invasion tale also featured some fabulous sound effects – cinemas rumbled alarmingly across the globe as his war machines crawled out of the ground in surround sound – but nothing beats the joyous, fiery death meted out by the aliens in the ’50s version.
The manta ray-influenced vehicles don’t just look pretty, they sound exactly how aliens invading our unsuspecting planet should sound – kitschy, scary and cool. On a scale of classic sci-fi noises, this one’s a ten.
Oh, and it's worth giving a mention to the unforgettable "Ooooooooollllllaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!!"s from Jeff Wayne’s musical concept album of War Of The Worlds too – once heard, never forgotten – though we're not sure if that counts as a sound effect or a musical jingle.
RUNNING, JUMPING, GENERALLY BEING BIONIC
The Six Million Dollar Man(opens in new tab)
These days six million dollars would probably last you a fortnight in a US hospital having an ingrown toenail removed, but back in 1974 it would have bought you some very interesting procedures indeed. After a plane crash, mangled pilot Steve Austin (Lee Majors) was rebuilt using cutting-edge technology that cost the aforementioned wodge of cash and became the world’s first bionic man – which meant that he could do things “better, stronger, faster”. And what’s more, he could do them while all sorts of silly noises played to signify that he’d switched to “bionic” mode.
Those of us old enough to remember the impact of this show will have fond memories of running around the playground in slow motion, trying desperately to create the sound of steel gloves swooping along a harp to tell our mates that we, too, were in “bionic” mode. Alas, we never managed it (we usually ended up sounding like we were sing Bowie’s "Changes" very badly) but thanks to the wonders of the internet you can hear what we were trying to do right here (or by clicking on the image above).