From recording animals having sex to phrasing a sound loop to match the human heart beat, we take a look at five iconic film, TV and video game sounds and soundtracks and their origins.
If your housemates dislike you because you scream-sing the intro to every episode of your favourite series, or you find yourself wincing at the squelch of someone being slowly shanked by a sword – you’ve got to pay due credit to the sound designers and composers out there doing the hard yards to keep you aurally entertained.
Whether it’s a film, series or game, music and sound have an important role to play, so here are five examples of iconic audio and the story of how they came about.
Game of Thrones Dragons
By this point, if the discussion of dragons in Game of Thrones is a spoiler to you, then you’re a lost cause and we’ll have to leave you behind here.
Everyone else can most likely recall the development of Daenerys’ dragons throughout the series, and outside of simply looking bigger, there have been many gradual sound design transformations to ensure they sound bigger each time too. The secret? Animals boning.
Game of Thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield revealed in a 2016 interview with The Frame that the secret to the dragons’s roar was layering recordings of animals having sex, and as they got bigger, so too did the animals she recorded.
“While I was trolling around, I found a sound of two giant tortoises having sex. I’m not kidding, and the moan from the male is what I took as the basis for the purring of young Drogon.”
Paula described to The Frame, going on to say, “it was just automatic because it has such a primal element still in there. Knowing that, as I proceeded through the seasons, I have actively looked for sounds of larger and larger animals having sex.”
From eagles to moose, up to ten different animal sounds were layered and pitched to create the dragons various noises, while the sound of the large chains around the adult dragons was created by dragging a metal manhole cover over concrete.
The X-Files theme
When asked by X-Files creator Chris Carter to produce a memorable intro theme to a new sci-fi series, film and TV composer Mark Snow pulled up his sleeves and got to work on something big.
However, unlike many TV series of at time, Carter didn’t want ‘big’, and had imagined something that provoked feeling through being modest and distinctive rather than overproduced.
After a few failed attempts, Mark asked for some time alone to start over with the piece. In exhaustion, he leant his arm on his keyboard and out of pure luck, happened to produce a sound with an interesting delay effect.
After refining the four note echoing phrase, he began to scour through his sound-banks for a unique lead sound to play over the top.
As Mark explains in an interview with American Television Foundation, he soon stumbled on “Whistling Joe, number 126 on the Proteus Synthesizer” – a digital emulation of a whistle.
To make things even more authentic, he recorded his wife whistling the lead line and then layered it in the mix to complete the chilling intro.
Dr Who’s Tardis
Until the day that one is actually invented, a time machine can ‘sound’ like anything really. Who knows, maybe the day we finally crack time travel we also discover that tearing through the fabric of time itself sounds surprisingly like a fart in a shallow bathtub, and they’ll have to recreate the sound of the Tardis to match.
For now, the eerie grinding tones that we hear in Dr Who came about through sound designer Brian Hodgson’s bright idea of scraping a house key down a piano string, as he explained in a 2013 interview with the Telegraph UK, “We did that several times on the bass strings on an old Sunday school piano that had been taken apart.”
The samples were then sped up and slowed down, and fed back onto themselves to create a delay effect. For the landing, the same sound was simply reversed and a crack effect was placed on the end.
Space Invaders Music
Why did you feel like your heart was beating hard enough to fly out of your chest and onto the little arcade machine buttons? How did that simple 4 note descending loop cause so much emotional suffering? Simple, it’s a trick called psychoacoustics.
The game designers behind Space Invaders set the tempo of the phrase to that of the human heartbeat – around 60bpm, as the game intensifies so does the tempo of the music, and this has a psychological effect on the player.
This was one of the earliest examples of music being used as a stimulus within a video game and consequently changed the way future video game and sound designers approached music and gaming.
Seinfeld Sounds and Theme
Seinfeld’s use of music was a crucial element in the show’s success. Beyond the masterpiece of an intro theme, composer Jonathan Wolff also custom scored Jerry’s opening comedy routines for each of the 180 Seinfeld episodes to ensure that the music fit the pacing of his delivery, and didn’t mask the words.
In a 2015 article with Vice, Jonathan explains his process: “There was no timing obligation for [the bass]. And it was in a frequency range that did not compete with his human voice.”
The signature slap bass sound that you hear throughout the series is a variety of live bass samples played back on a sampler keyboard and modified using pitch bend and heavy vibrato. Wolff justified his use of this method in a 2015 article with Vice by explaining, “There were things like pulls and bends that a real bass, even my six-string, couldn’t do. It was a more efficient, more flexible, stronger, better to do it that way”.
The same method was used for all of the percussion, which Wolff recorded with his mouth. Cleverly placed motifs throughout the show help to reinforce the humour behind every gag, and along with the memorable intro theme, the Seinfeld sound is still one of the most recognisable today.
Check out Wolff talking about the sounds of Seinfeld below: