Very few programs in television history can be easily identified by their sound effects alone. The original 1966-69 run of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek belongs in that select fraternity, thanks to the efforts of sound mixer Doug Grindstaff and other craftsmen who toiled on the classic science-fiction series, setting the tone for the multimedia franchise to come. The sound effects on Star Trek are as cool as they are relentless. This is, in short, a noisy version of space exploration. Despite the supposed lack of oxygen in the vast reaches of the cosmos, the onslaught of beeps, bleeps, pings, clicks, and whooshes never really stops during the average Trek episode. And that’s wholly by design. Over at Audible Range, having interviewed Grindstaff and other experts on the topic, writer Mark Altman has assembled a revealing historical article entitled “Kittens, Kisses, And Razorblades: Behind Star Trek’s Iconic Sounds.” Here, to set the proper mood, is some genuine LBJ-era Trek ambiance.
According to the article, the show had “wall-to-wall sound effects” because Roddenberry wanted it that way. Cacophony was very much part of the Star Trek brand. In those early days, the TV series did not have the budget to compete with feature films, so sound effects helped create the illusion that scenes were taking place on strange alien worlds. Roddenberry wasn’t aiming for realism but drama. So committed was Roddenberry to this idea that he even had Grindstaff add a sound effect to a scene in which Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) administers a shot. “Gene Roddenberry wanted to paint the whole show like you were painting a picture,” Grindstaff explains.
Some tricks of the trade are also revealed here. Composer Alexander Courage, who created the original music for Star Trek, was hugely important in determining how the series would sound, working hand in hand with effects people to create weird, often electronic-based noises. Certain noises, however, were decidedly low-tech. When the Enterprise swooshes across the screen during the opening credits, for instance, that’s Courage himself blowing into a microphone. The sound of the Tribbles, meanwhile, came from doves, while the parasites of “Operation: Annihilate” were represented by “sampling about a hundred kisses.” Fascinating, Captain.
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