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Synthesizing Star Trek

Transoniq Hacker Articles

Here are both of Kirk’s original 1990–91 articles from the Transoniq Hacker. These two succinct articles say more than a hundred geeked-out usenet rants about the real art-and-science behind the sounds.

After you’re finished here, turn the page to listen to audio examples in The Star Trek Listen Lab.  We compare and contrast Kirk’s synthesis replicas with the originals from the 1960’s.

Kirk has just a couple notes about these articles:

    “The SQ-80 still has a lot of unexplored power.  I always make an unkind facial expression anytime someone refers to some synth (especially the SQ-80) as ‘obsolete’ or ‘a dinosaur’.   I mentioned that the most powerful and ferocious animals ever to walk the earth were dinosaurs. I am reminded of that when I go into music stores nowadays.”

The second thing Kirk wants you to keep in mind while reading these articles? 

    “The byline ‘Captain’ Kirk was not my idea.  The editor insisted on it, so don’t blame me.”


August 1990

Transoniq Hacker - Issue 62 - Page 6

Kirk Slinkard

Where No Synthesizer Has Gone Before

Perhaps the title is a bit presumptuous, but, as it implies, this article is about sound effects from the classic Star Trek television series. Back in the sixties when it was in production, you couldn't just go down to your local music store and buy a computerized, polyphonic synthesizer to create science fiction sound effects like you can today. The synthesizers of that time were big expensive modular jobs that were hard to come by and were just beginning to be commercially available. By today's standards, those synthesis techniques were pretty primitive. Samplers were basically either mellotrons or tape recorders and razor blades. Earlier, in the fifties, Louis and Bebe Barron did the music and sound effects for "Forbidden Planet” with several individual custom-made circuits. The Star Trek sound effects creators used a combination of some of these techniques. For example, the sound of the Enterprise doors is a recording of an air gun played backwards.

One of my inspirations for doing these sound effects is a compact disc I got of the original Star Trek sound effects, produced by Neil Norman. Another inspiration is Jim Johnson, who, as can be seen in photos as recently as Issue #53, has Star Trek classic sideburns. [Editor's note: Rest easy, readers-Jim's sideburns are intact.]

"BKGRND" (background) is a transporter room background noise that is made by simply adding together three sine waves so that they produce beat frequencies that give a tremolo effect.

"VUSCRN" (viewscreen) is two sine waves with a little dynamic LFO modulation to give one of the Enterprise bridge sounds. Try playing this one once every two seconds.

"WHISTL" (boatswain's whistle). I believe this was originally a recording of the real thing. Here it's just two unison envelope-modulated sine waves with a little noise added for realism.

"RDALRT” (red alert klaxon) originally came from I don't know where. This one gets brighter as you go down the keyboard because of the formant waves. An LFO sawtooth wave modulates the pitch while an LFO square wave of the same frequency modulates the volume in an on-off manner.

I only did four effects because they fit nicely on one page that way. I find Star Trek sound effects easy and fun to synthesize for the most part, so maybe this article will turn out to be 'Part One.'

Mod you later,
Captain Kirk


January 1991

Transoniq Hacker - Issue 67 - Page 18 

Kirk Slinkard

The Wrath of Star Trek Sound Effects

In keeping with the true spirit of Star Trek, here is an article that is a sequel. Before we begin, I should mention that the cast of the sixties television series all seem to agree that their series should not be referred to as the "old" Star Trek, but instead should be called the "original" Star Trek. So anyway, on to the patches.

"SENSOR" is probably the most mandatory background sound used on the bridge. It is just a sine wave with both the volume and pitch modulated by square waves and the volume also modulated by a descending ramp on envelope 4. The hardest part of this patch was getting the LFOs synchronized like the original sound. If you have just loaded this one, you might want to play some other patch for a bit to "randomize" the LFOs. This will make the notes sound different from each other, like the original sound.

"PHASER" was originally based, I believe, on an audio test signal called "narrow band noise." Instead of covering all the audio band like white noise or pink noise, this one covers the range of just a few notes. This patch needs to be played in a very specific way to sound accurate. Go to the next-to-highest octave and play F, F#, and G simultaneously for the sound of a hand phaser. Play this along with the same notes in the highest octave
to get the sound of the ship's main phaser banks.

This patch has the mod wheel set up to be used in a manner similar to the patch select buttons on the VFX synthesizers. Move the wheel all the way forward to turn off two of the oscillators at their DCAs, then play low D. This sounds a little like the background sound of the engineering room. There are also a couple of options you might want to try. Go to DCA 4 and turn the pan modulator depth up to +63 for a little stereo effect. Also try turning the Mod 2 depths on all three oscillators up to +63. This sounds like a phaser on overload while it is being fired.

"SICBAY" (Sickbay) has two separate sounds and is optimized for middle C. The first sound combines the sawtooth and bass waves for more brightness than a sine wave can give. These are pitch-modulated by an envelope. Tape echo plays a large part of the sound of many of the old (sorry, "original") show's sound effects. This patch uses LFO 1 to give an echo-like decay.

Turn the "patch select' wheel all the way forward to get the "heartbeat" sound.  I have always been convinced that this sound was originally achieved by playing a bass guitar into a tape echo, so I chose the bass waveform. The volume is modulated by a sawtooth wave and a descending ramp from envelope 4 to give an echo sound.

"TRIBBL" (Tribbles) also has two different sounds. With this patch, I tried to capture the Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the tribbles' personality. This one is optimized to be played on or around middle C. To get the sound of a tribble cooing, I used LFO 1 to simultaneously modulate a sine wave's pitch and volume. Envelope 1 also gives the pitch a little downward motion. Turn the "patch select" wheel forward to get the sound of a tribble who was just shoved into a Klingon's face. This one uses basically the same technique as the cooing sound but the pitch is higher, the LFO has a sawtooth wave, and the envelope has a different shape.

Well, I hope you can have some fun with these sounds. May you synthesize long and prosper.

Mod you later. - Captain Kirk


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