Star Wars and the Sound Revolution of ’77

by Saul Edmonds

The Force / Of Sound

“It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”(Star Wars Episode IV)

The success of Star Wars was underpinned by the creative brilliance of Sound Designer Ben Burtt.

George Lucas’ resolution of diverse story elements - from fantastical characters to futurescape weaponry and worlds - is indebted to the imaginative sound solutions intuited by Burtt.

Sound Maketh the Man

Consider Vader, R2D2, The Lightsabre, The Tie Fighter

In many instances these sounds have become as iconographic as the characters themselves. The audio was carefully hand crafted by Burtt from a creative palette that extended to found sounds, field recordings, electronics and studio based technical enhancements.

Welcome to 1977

Significantly, 1977 also saw great progress in the evolution of cinematic sound.

Star Wars became one of the first films to fully exploit the new surround sound technologies of the Dolby A System.

As a sound designer Burtt made full use of the capabilities of the Dolby A System Standard, which specifically featured an enhanced tonal range and better sonic and textural response. In effect, this technology specifically enhanced the illusion of cinematic realism.

Dolby & Star Wars

Dolby Laboratories was founded by Ray Dolby in the mid 1960’s.

The initial goal was to develop a sound system for cinema that reduced noise level and permitted a greater frequency range to be utilized.

Innovation and marketing by Dolby led to the development of an ‘optical stereophonic system’. This enabled high quality audio to be fully integrated with the 35 mm prints used by studios and cinemas. The Stereo System itself consisted of three loudspeakers placed behind the screen (left, centre and right) with a fourth surround channel using various speakers throughout the auditorium which broadcasted non-directional sound.

Star Wars’ sound designer Burtt evinced a great understanding as to how an audience responds intuitively to a sound landscape at a subconscious level. He noted the significance of spatial positioning where sound content is best perceived within a dramatic context. The Dolby Stereo System offered the ‘three-dimensionality’ needed by Burtt to effectively create the heightened realism required to realize the Star Wars experience.

The success of Star Wars ensured that subsequent film makers appreciated the potential for sound technology to greatly enhance the cinematic experience. There are now over 70,000 Dolby equipped cinemas.

It is of interest to note : since 1977 - all but one oscar winning ‘Sound Categories’ movie has featured a Dolby Stereo Soundtrack.

by Saul Edmonds