Artistic licence and hyper-reality with machines.

Listen to the sounds in scifi films like "The Matrix", "Stargate", "Mission Impossible" and so on. These sounds are hyper-real. There are no machines that make noises like this. Atomic bombs don't have bizzare clockwork mechanisms and pneumatic actuators. The countdown timers (why do they use them?*) don't beep and click. The button that releases the escape pod bay doors isn't going to make a satisfying clunk-hiss, at least not in the cabin. So does that mean we should just abandon all physical principles and leave machine sound design purely to our imagination? No, not at all. While such sounds may be fanciful they work because they invoke and extend psychological responses indicative of real mechanics and electronics. We have to take basic familiar physics and build upon it. Before we can move into hypereality we need to establish a solid operational base in reality, then by extrapolation, exaggeration and morphing we can reach out into the unreal.

Basic components

Starting with principles based in reality what kinds of sounds are going to need? A perfect machine would make no noise at all. Why? Because a noise indicates some inefficiency, either friction, collision or some other waste of energy. Yet whenever we encounter alien races of vastly superior intelligence it seems they have also failed to grasp basic mechanics because their spaceships and machines whirr, grind, click and rattle as bad as the next species. No matter what part of the universe you visit you will always find these few basic devices:

For now we are going to place limit on how far into unreality we go. A later section deals specifically with scifi noises, mainly for pickups and space weapons. At that point we will wave goodbye to all semblance of physical reality, let go of any grounding in what is possible and start to work in purely synthetic sounds that we judge on the merits of how cool they sound.

Control level

The last item on the list above is special. As usual I will attempt to give a context by building a few more elaborate demonstration sound scenes using the generators and techniques developed throughout this part. However, as we go we will meet more and more sophisticated control level programming. Many machine sounds are themselves complex, being made of several subparts. We will frequently use message delay [del] and metronome [metro] atoms to create fast sequences of messages. Sometimes choosing the precise timing values for control is as important as the audio DSP making the actual noises.


* see point 15 in the "100 things I'd do if I became an Evil Overlord" guide Advice for evil overlords

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Designing Sound Textbook