The sounds of 'Star Trek': This man makes them happen

For Ben Burtt, the "Star Trek Into Darkness" sound designer, nothing was more useful in deciding what the audience should hear than knowing intimately what the original TV show sounded like.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
'Star Trek Into Darkness' sound designer Ben Burtt working in his studio at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NICASIO, Calif. -- Growing up in the 1960s, Ben Burtt was such a big "Star Trek" fan that when he went off to college at a school where he had no TV, he had his father record the audio from each week's episode and mail it to him.

Sitting in his dorm room, Burtt would listen to the shows with headphones on, taking in each new episode with no pictures. But he didn't need the video to understand what was going on. "It was so vividly portrayed with excellent sound effects," Burtt said, "it helped me" with what he wasn't seeing.

Watch this: From phasers to warp, the sound design of 'Star Trek'

Today, Burtt is one of the most important people in the Star Trek ecosystem. As the sound designer on the brand-new "Star Trek Into Darkness," as well as 2009's "Star Trek," along with the last five "Star Wars" films (plus, he worked on the original "Star Wars"), there may not be anyone alive today with a better sense of what it takes to put a major sci-fi movie's sound together.

And as genres go, sci-fi may be in more need of a sound designer than any other. After all, Burtt said, in science fiction, "everything is imaginary -- the weapons, the creatures. And [everything] needs sounds created after the fact."

So who better to make that happen than the man who, by his own admission, has pretty much the whole archive of "Star Trek" sounds in his head?

Same same but different
If you've ever traveled in Thailand, you might know the phrase "same same but different." That might just apply to the way Burtt and director J.J. Abrams approached the sound design for "Star Trek into Darkness."

"When I began thinking about the new 'Star Trek,' it's not a direct imitation," Burtt said, sitting in his studio at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch here. Surrounded by a career's worth of priceless mementos -- the microphone used to record Darth Vader's breathing, the "Official 'Star Wars' sound effect map," a sheet of music dedicated to Burtt from composer John Williams, and much more -- Burtt adds that in the new film, "When you look at the concepts, you recognize them. They feel right. The Enterprise looks generally the same, though in details it's a bit different. Likewise, I wanted to do the same with sound."

Burtt keeps a lifetime of priceless memorabilia in his office, including the microphone used for, among other things, recording Darth Vader's breathing in 'Star Wars.' Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For inspiration, Burtt turned the most logical place he could: the original "Star Trek" TV show. "I didn't want to imitate or copy it," he said. "But...let's expand, [make it] grander, and higher quality. And get a more visceral impact."

Indeed, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is an auditory treat, especially for Trekkies who live for the sounds of everything from the mundane -- say, the sounds of buttons being pushed in the bridge of the USS Enterprise -- to the extreme, such as the overwhelming sound of the Enterprise blasting into a warp tube. "There's a bigger weapons bay, and engineering [aboard the Enterprise] is so vast," Burtt said. "All of these things require sounds to color them out, and give them a sense of credibility. An illusion is created with sound....All of these amazing visuals need to have appropriate sound with them."

You'd think that with the nine-figure resources of a J.J. Abrams "Star Trek," everything would be modern, fully digital, state-of-the-art. And while some of what Burtt had at his disposal was, he also knew that authenticity comes with using authentic tools. To wit, in a studio office crammed with high-tech mixing equipment, Burtt still uses an old synthesizer, tucked against the wall with a sign on it reading "PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH! Settings are critical."

An old analog synthesizer Burtt uses to maintain an authentic sound. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And consider some of the sounds Burtt incorporated into Abrams' blockbuster. To record the overwhelming sound of a giant boiling lava field, Burtt went totally local, stepping out of the back of his Marin County, Calif., house with his daughter and throwing a bunch of dry ice in their creek. Flip on his recorder as a volatile froth bubbled up, and voila! Boiling lava.

Or take perhaps the most violent scene in the film, one in which a character's skull is crushed. Burtt knew just the trick for that -- cracking walnuts inside a grapefruit skin.

Burtt's work, in fact, is very much a family affair. "Star Trek Into Darkness" features frequent explosions. Many of them were from the real-life recording by Burtt's son, of a rocket sled test conducted at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. As the rocket went supersonic and then coasted for miles, it created a true explosion and a long whining sound that was perfect for the film.

Indeed, Burtt's family must be exhausted by his penchant for recording everywhere he goes, such as when he surreptitiously left a small recorder in the soda case at a supermarket while he shopped in order to capture the sound of its fans and compressors.

Cats and lions and dogs, oh my
But what makes Burtt a true professional is his commitment to finding just the right sound for a particular moment. And that's just want Abrams demanded of him, especially when it came to creating weapons sounds. "I went through many, many versions of weapons," Burtt said, "mixing cats and lions, and dogs barking in explosions."

The USS Enterprise, as seen in 'Star Trek Into Darkness,' which opens today. Paramount Pictures

But one of the joys of designing sound for "Star Trek" is that Burtt was able to stay true to one of the original TV show's concepts: sound effects with a pleasant, musical quality. "When someone pushes a button on the bridge of the Enterprise, you don't just hear it click," Burtt said. "It plays a musical tone. That was something we could exploit in the new film, that everything is fun to listen to."

That notion of using sound to bring something to life was ideal for setting the scene in one of the movie's signature battle sequences. As the Enterprise and another starship face off, the audience hears pleasant sounds coming from the Enterprise, while buttons and switches aboard its enemy ship sound discordant, off-key, and nasty.

For Burtt and his crew on the film, this was a chance to do several movies' worth of work, all on one project. Normally, Burtt said, a movie has a library of about 400 or 500 new sounds. But for "Star Trek Into Darkness," Burtt created 1,517 new sounds. Plus, "We have enough weapons to keep sci-fi going for 50 years."

And being able to help make "Star Trek" movies? An unqualified blessing for Burtt and his team. "I can speak for my crew on this, because so many of them were die-hard classic 'Star Trek' fans," he said.

"During the darkest times making this film, where it was the hardest for us, and we were maybe the most discouraged, it was our love for 'Star Trek' that kept us going. We'd just look on the screen, and there we were with Spock and Kirk, and all the other characters we loved, and we could vicariously be part of their adventure. And we're still little boys inside. You want to get on that ship and go have an adventure. And so participating in the sound...that was a reward."

'Star Trek' spaceships through the years (pictures)

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