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Synthesizing Star Trek


This article re-introduces some famous synthesizer sounds. These sounds were, in turn, based on even more famous Star Trek sound effects.  Even if you have no interest in synthesis, you may be surprised to learn how these sounds were developed, and how a talented synthesizer programmer went about re-creating them. 

Who knows? maybe this will encourage you to download the free SQ8L software synthesizer.  Like many before you, the SQ80/ESQ-1 synthesis platform may be your introduction to the world of sound design.

Starbase 11Sounds Like the Future

People have been recreating Star Trek in their own image for years. Usually this involves fan productions, artwork or renderings of 3D models.  Even the official copyright holders gave the show a 3D facelift for the high definition release.

In the audio realm, a stereo surround mix of the original production was created in the 90’s for the syndication market.  This was augmented with a quite remarkable 5.1 remix that accompanied the DVD release of the episodes.

But rarely has anyone researched and re-imagined the fantastic sound elements that went into the making of the original 79 episodes.  --Enter another “Kirk” to the Trek continuum, sound designer Kirk Slinkard, who has recreated many of the most famous sound elements on the equally venerable ESQ-1/SQ80 synthesizer. Kirk designed and originally published these sounds in the Transoniq Hacker magazine in 1990.

On The Record

In the mid-80’s GNP Crescendo released a comprehensive CD of the original sound effects.  Besides providing unprecedented access to the production-side of a bit of TV history, the CD is also a heck of a lot of fun. If you grew up with the show, the sounds are instant nostalgia. But even if you are unfamiliar with the many Trek tropes that pervade society, the disc is an amazing “audio document” that should interest any musician, sound designer or even casual listener. Grab your own Star Trek Sound Effects CD at this link, and marvel at the ingenious work performed years before samplers and soft synths were invented.

Star Trek: Sound Effects from the Original TV Soundtrack  

What you’ll hear on this CD demonstrates the high art that pre-digital sound editing achieved by the late 1960s. Some effects were modified from existing sources, some were brand new, but all of them create a distinct sonic thumbprint unequaled ‘til the defining work of Walter Murch and Ben Burtt almost a decade later. 

But that’s what makes Kirk Slinkard’s Star Trek patches all the more remarkable.  Like the best of pre-CGI special effects, none of these original sounds were generated digitally.  Strips of real magnetic tape and optical tracks were manipulated to achieve the originals.

Stone Knives and Bear Skins

Uhura Beauty ShotSimilarly, unless you count the ESQ-1’s built in waveforms, Kirk didn’t use a digital sample in the entire bunch of the replicas.  In fact, many of the synth recreations are based on common sawtooth and sine waves. These patches are all created using standard subtractive synthesis techniques. 
--Techniques which were still being discovered when the Classic Trek effects were first produced.

Kirk maintains an “aw-shucks” attitude about his achievements, but how many other classic synthesizers boast recreations this accurate? Heck, how many modern synthesizers can render imitative sounds this well without sampling?  Some of these patches are nothing short of amazing, considering that a few of them are actually two different sounds on a single patch, with no split or layer in sight! And this is on a synth that does not feature “vector” morphing between patches!

This feature is dedicated both to synth guru Kirk Slinkard, as well as original Star Trek sound editors Jack Finlay, Douglas Grindstaff and Joseph Sorokin, whose sonic DNA served as ear candy for an entire generation.


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