You would think, with the decades of Star Trek film, movies, books, websites, conventions and holidays, there'd be nothing new for a fan to discover in the series. But there hasn't been a Star Trek fan quite like Spike Snell. The YouTuber and noise musician was casually watching the entire run of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the fourth time in 2011 when he locked in on something that most obsessives took for granted, yet was present in almost every scene.
It was, as he put it, his favorite part of the show. The "ambient engine noise sound."
In the intervening years, Snell has taken it upon himself to sample and loop the ambient hums of dozens of science fiction ships, building an unlikely but sizeable YouTube presence of over nine million views and over a hundred videos. Whether it’s the calming tone created by the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the throbbing pulse of Dr. Who’s Tardis, Snell aims to shine a light on an important element of science fiction that most people don’t often think about—what the spaceships sound like.
“Each spaceship sound in sci-fi culture is unique and has differences in the way that they rumble, and in the subtleties of their atmosphere,” says Snell. The background sound of the ships have done almost as much to build their respective worlds as the sets themselves, even if you don’t normally notice them. Since we don’t actually know what a warp drive would sound like, these hums and drones are created by sound effects editors who take tones from a number of sources to create some of the most recognizable spaceship sounds around.
The making of a spaceship’s ambient sound, which is usually some mix of a room tone and an invented engine noise, among other components, begins with the story. According to Peter Lago, a sound effects editor for Warner Brothers, who has worked in the business for 13 years on such shows as The Shannara Chronicles and Arrow, creating a ship’s sound is all about its character. “My overall approach to building [spaceship sounds], it starts with the direction from the creative people involved, as well as the type of ship or environment you’re building,” says Lago. “The Millennium Falcon is going to sound like the Millennium Falcon. In the movies they call it a piece of junk, so it’s got to sound a bit broken down, but still cool and badass.”
Once the nature of the ship is determined, whether it is a sleek, well-cared for vessel or a janky barge, barely limping through the cosmos, its background hum can be created using anything the sound designer can dream up. “I always try to root sounds in things that are organic, and that make sense,” says Lago. “You can easily jump on a synthesizer and press a bunch of keys, and you’ve got something. But that can be kind of stale.”
Lago recently worked on the CW show The 100, which features a century-old space station called The Ark, a vessel which had been cobbled together by an ancient United Nations, but is, during the time of the show’s story, beginning to fall apart. In creating the ambient sounds for The Ark, the age and impending failure of the station needed to subtly come across in the sounds of the location. For The 100, Lago would sometimes just create sounds from things around the house. “I’d just set some microphones on the ground and drag something slowly. I’d tie a bunch of my kids’ toys together and drag them slowly, and get a nice little recording of some weird sound, and use those pieces in there,” he says.
But even within a larger ship, the sounds can differ from location to location. For instance the peaceful solemnity of a captain’s quarters is probably going to be different from the hustle and bustle of an active cargo bay, requiring similar, but distinctive sounds. “One thing I did for The 100, I was shopping at a Fresh and Easy, and they had this freezer that made this incredible, “OOOOMMMMM,” says Lago. “ So I just stuck my recorder in there and closed it, and just stood outside of the freezer for a minute or so. Then I took that recording, and cleaned it up, and it was kind of elegant.” But a smooth elegant hum wasn’t right for all of the parts of the ratchety, old ark, so Lago used it specifically for the upscale chambers of The Ark’s ruling class, creating a distinctly different atmosphere than in other parts of the ship, while still having it feel like a natural extension of the overall space. The sounds can come from anywhere so long as they help transport the viewer into the world.
For all of the work that goes into creating the unique sound of a given spaceship, the ultimate goal is to make sure that the noise both informs the setting, but also goes unnoticed behind the sounds of dialogue and other active sounds in the world. When this delicate balancing act is achieved, the viewer shouldn’t be actively aware of the tone, “A lot of this stuff happens in the subconscious, or it goes by unknown,” says Lago. “It’s gotta feel so natural that the audience believes that [that is what this spaceship sounds like].” In other words, Firefly’s Serenity needs to sound like Serenity, and not a Starfleet shuttle.
To point out the characteristic differences between spaceship sounds, we got Lago to give us his professional rundown on some famous ship engine sounds:
USS Enterprise (Star Trek: The Next Generation) (1987-1994)
‘This ambient loop feels like a heavily processed recording of an airplane in flight. I don't hear the nuts-and-bolts of the engine components, but rather the smooth, higher and lower airy sounds, which give it a soothing and steady feel. This feels like a practical ship; a working-man's ship, but with a slight hint of something more elegant underneath.”
Klingon Bird of Prey (Star Trek: The Next Generation) (1987-1994)
“This has a heavier, hollow, more sci-fi presence. The loop has a definitive heartbeat of sorts, percussive and militaristic. Appropriately ominous.”
Event Horizon (Event Horizon) (1997)
“This feels like a more modern, heavy LFE (low frequency energy) rumble of modern science fiction films and shows. It's rich, round, steady and badass. I love this stuff.”
Battlestar Galactica (Battlestar Galactica) (2004-2009)
“This sound is similar to the Star Trek loop in the sense that it's airy, steady, and urgent. This feels a bit like a processed hot rod/El Camino/Camaro idling, blended with a slightly-flanged air conditioning return. It's not a fancy, romantic sci-fi element, but it's cool!”
International Space Station (Real life) (1998-Current)
“To hear the actual sounds of an actual space station is exciting. Its active, in motion, engaging and real. Steady air flow, high-frequency computer/electrical hums, some kind of rhythmic clanking in the loop... Listen to it long enough and you'll find yourself nodding your head to the beat.”
Snell’s Youtube channel advertises many of the ship sounds he has collected as a sort of relaxing white noise for the geek set, but more than that, each soundscape has the ability to transport the listener right into the ship they are listening to. “My favorite ship sound is still the TNG engine noise,” says Snell. “I'd love to be aboard the ship, and the sound itself is incredibly nostalgic to me.” For all the love fans give to their favorite spaceships, it’s about time they started to realize how great they sound.