One Trek Mind #39: Favorite TOS Sound Effects
By Jordan Hoffman - August 22, 2012
If you got into the original Star Trek at the same time I did and lived in the New York area, it meant watching reruns at midnight. Not always an easy thing to do when you had school the next day. As such, I'd be lying if I said that I always stayed awake through the entire episode. Not that I wasn't always enjoying it, but considering I was already in the guest bedroom with the lights down low, well, let's just say that it took a really long time until I finally saw the ending of “The Alternative Factor.” (I'm still waiting for the day when I understand it, but we’ll save that for another day.)
Star Trek lulled me to sleep in my early adolescent years, so while the stories, performances and bright colors are all very dear to me, the music and sound effects have a particularly special resonance. Since they were drilled directly into my subconscious when I was at my most vulnerable, I figure now is the time to ring the klaxon for my 10 favorite TOS sound effects.
10 – Heartbeats On The Biobed
My parents turned a blind eye toward my staying up late to watch Star Trek. I guess they figured it was better that than to be out running with a gang or shooting dice. (Yes, I grew up in a Damon Runyon story.) Still, I was never one to risk drawing too much attention, so I always kept the volume down low. As such, some of the more mysterious moments would be in McCoy's sickbay, with everyone staring at the rise and fall of the medical readouts.
There'd be near silence except for the quiet thrumming of life-signs. Bomm. Bomm. Bo-bomm. It was one of the more low-tech sounds, and for whatever reason always kinda spooked me. That -- and the fact that no one ever, ever got under the covers.
9 – Alien Materialization Gong
Okay, this one may be hard to explain, but I'm gonna do my best. There were a number of times on TOS when our heroes would encounter an alien force that could either make something disappear or materialize out of nowhere. It was oftentimes accompanied with an echoey, slightly electronically distorted gong sound.
Even though it happened in multiple episodes, the only one I can pinpoint in my mind is “Whom Gods Destroy.” It's the sound you'd hear when Garth of Izar would perform an act of Antosion cellular metamorphosis. (Nice to think that other culture's similar acts would create a similar sound.) The near-comic resonance of this effect is the aural equivalent of simply shrieking WHAAAAAT?!!?? at an unexpected story development. You kinda have to love it.
8 – Phasers
A phaser is going to stop you in your tracks, make you glow red and then make you DISAPPEAR. It had better have a sound that will make your ears bleed a little.
Piercing, coarse and, frankly, not that nuanced, this is the sound of pure energy slicing through space and bringing destruction along with it. If it is headed your way, it will make sure you're giving it your full attention, right before your molecules evaporate into subatomic particles.
7 – Tricorder Scan
This high-pitched, trilling tone is the perfect way to express all the technological mystery that is the Tricorder.
I've always been a little vague on what precisely the Tricorder can do – but this ethereal sound, endless vibration on science's thinnest harp string – makes me believe that its “readings” can reach beyond the infinite.
In the hands of Mr. Spock, that crazy tape recorder with a mini-TV screen may as well be communing with angels.
6 -- Communicator Chirps
I don't know whether to call them chirps or cracks or smacks or something else. It definitely isn't the cool, steady sound of a dial tone.
Star Trek was incredibly prescient in predicting ubiquitous mobile communication devices, but they were a little off with the noises they'd make. I like to interpret the many chirps as something like sparks flying out into the stratosphere – little electric currents firing off in all directions until one hits the right frequency and is able to connect to another device. What's also so neat is just how many you hear. It isn't a standard three – it's more like ten. This somewhat random, haphazard quality makes this one of the more unique sound effects in all of TOS.
5 – Photon Torpedoes
Even though I know how these sounds were made – by striking a coil and processing the sound through an echo effect – they're powerful, round TWONGs still fill me with awe.
They may have just been bright streaks on a TV screen, but they conjure the image of full, prismatic agents of light hurled through the blackness of space. These full, rich, very outer-space sounds have a thrust and momentum that means business – enough to destroy a cloaked Romulan Warbird, for instance.
4 -- Sliding Doors
To younger readers, my tales of pre-TNG fandom may make me sound like an old man, but I'm not so old that I can't recall a time without automatic doors. But to original TOS viewers, this was a big deal, such that the doors that “knew you were there” had their own trademark sound effect.
This one has been mocked a bit more than some others on the list (who remembers Airplane 2?), but it is a lovable piece of classic Star Trek that every fan has to like.
My main question – is it me or don't ALL the doors on the Enterprise sound like they can use a little WD-40?
3 – Red Alert Klaxon
There's a neurological condition known as synesthesia wherein certain centers of perception are, for lack of a better term, cross-wired. Sometimes numerical concepts have a smell, or phonemes have tastes. A common form of synesthesia is for sounds to have certain colors.
I think that anyone who considers themselves a Star Trek fan would agree that a rising blaring tone that recurs is red. Blood red, at times, for this is the sound that will accompany a brutal space battle.
This is the sound of action on deck, and no Trek episode worth its salt goes without it.
2 – Transporter
Believe it or not there are some people out there who have never seen Star Trek. But even these people know “Beam me up, Scotty.” (We true fans, however, know that this exact phrase was never used.)
There have been many variants of the transporter sound effect, but they all have the same rising, twinkling haze at their core. The transporter may have started as a budget necessity, but it came to symbolize the wild imaginative aspect of Star Trek we all love.
1 – Viewscreen
I began by saying that TOS's sound effects would often drift into my subconscious when I first watched the reruns late at night. The sound that connected with me on a deepest level is what (after some deep research) I realize is the chiming of the viewscreen on the bridge.
There are numerous whirrs and tones wafting around on the bridge. But that high-pitched, echoey tone that repeats like glowing bird chirp spiraling above all the other noises is the one that does it for me. In my young mind, that was the sound of the very galaxy itself ricocheting off all of the powerful sensors. The inclusion of a very similar sound aboard the Kelvin at about the three second mark in Star Trek (2009) proved to me that somebody in the making of that film had some very similar opinions to my own.
I know I left a lot off (like the Boatswain's whistle! And the Computer!) but you can't list everything. Let me know if I got to yours and, if you got a kick out of this, maybe I'll revisit this idea with some sound effects from the post-TOS world.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at UGO.com for more than four years. He has produced two independent films (look 'em up!) and is a member of the New York Film Critics Online. In 2005, he was named the Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast by IFC. Jordan fell in love with Star Trek through TOS reruns just as TNG was getting ready to launch. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels. He has a funny story about the one time he met Leonard Nimoy.
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