In this exclusive A Sound Effect guide, they share their tips and ideas on how to get this vital sci-fi sound element just right; from the conceptual phase, the sound sources, tools and methods, to designing the actual spaceship sound itself.
And along the way, they provide plenty of examples + bonus Massive patches for you to design from. Happy reading – and sound designing!
There is no sound in space. But there is no such thing as silence for a sound designer, otherwise, we would all be without a job! That’s why hover cars, spaceships, and even black holes always buzz, whistle, and roar, as long as there is a thirst for novelty and a man that turns synthesizer knobs. From TIE Fighters in Star Wars, the Enterprise in Star Trek, and auto jets in THX 1138, to spaceships in Star Citizen – the fictional technology has been developing and refining over the years of film and game making.
In this article, we continue uncovering the aspects of designing sci-fi sounds — this time, spaceships, their sonic structure and some methodology behind the sound generation.
Spaceship sound components to consider:
Spaceship exterior sounds:
1. The engine:
- Engine start — the sound of an engine gradually coming into motion, flames
- Idle sound — this is the first sound we should hear in a ship after the engines have been switched on, that would tell us of an engine status — is it on and running well?
- Loaded sound/Thrust — the main engine sound when a vessel starts moving. It’s the roar that overpowers everything else with its sonic display of thrust
- Stutter sound — optional “stutter” layer that can be added underneath for more organic overall sound.
- Servo sound — optional metallic type of sound. If the ship has moving parts either inside the engine nozzle or somewhere around it, this layer should add to the credibility of the mechanism.
- Optional maneuvering thrusters.
- Rumble layer – LFE-kind of sound that adds the mass and might to an
- “Special” speed mode — aka FTL, Warp Drive, Quantum jump in various films and Unique engine drive mode which boosts the ship to unbelievable faster-than- light speeds.
- Shutdown – engines off, system
2. Force fields:
- Static force field sound — a sound of a functioning defense
- Force field damage/puncture.
- Field regeneration.
- Field fully destroyed.
3. Landing gear extension/retraction:
- Door open/close.
- The chassis/legs movement (servo, mechanical).
- Metal bangs.
Weapons – our favorite component of all, which we discussed in detail in previous article dedicated to futuristic guns — How To Design Supreme Sci-Fi Weapon Sound Effects.
Spaceship sound examples from Ruslan and Gleb’s Driving Forces SFX library
Spaceship interior sounds:
- Main ambience — a static room tone with some optional distant movements (maybe there are pneumatic pipes hissing in the distance, or electronic equipment buzzing nearby).
- Energy generator/power core — humanly assumed to the extent of imagination, every spaceship should have some sort of internal power generator or the working concoction of an engine itself. Fun to design however you like, but should reflect its function — sound like a generator
- UI sounds — the requisite for a believable sonic concept. All internal controls, switches, and on-screen information should be reflected by the sounds, without overwhelming the player/viewer.
When thinking of the spaceship sound concept, two defining roles can be considered:
- Functional – the sound should be informative. It should convey the engine state — is it loaded or idle? Moreover, the sound should reflect the levels of thrust and speed. It can also indicate any quick manoeuvre as well as any faults in the engine
- Aesthetic – the sound should match up with the appearance of a ship, its rank, technical features (rear and front engines, side thrusters, warp jump mode) and support the narrative.
Is it a shuttle ship? – Then it probably should also have suborbital engines for descending into the planet atmospheres, not just space engine.
Is it a fighter ship? – Then it should sound fast and aggressive.
Is it a mothership perhaps? – Usually a humongous megastructure, that is capable of housing a myriad of all other ships and millions of people. How would this sound?
The overall goal here is to come up with a sound that is unique, powerful, and expressive.
Essential sound sources:
• Air – spray cans, dusters, the wind through various pipes, air freshener, whipped cream, steam, air conditioner, gas, etc.
• Fire – static burning of different materials, gas torch, moving flames for pass by, gas stove.
• Static noises — various appliances like fridge, microwave, grinder and other things that buzz and rattle around your house. Monotonous noises such as computer fan, blow dryer, etc.
It comes with 120 Designed sounds such as Apartments, Doors, Halls, Alarms, Engine Compartments, Gates, Spaceship Cockpit ambiences, Interior Malfunction, and many more.
It also includes a vast construction kit with sound elements such as Air, Alarms, Boiler Room, Computations, Drones, Electricity, Engines, Field Recordings, Fire, Foley, Pneumo and Servo sounds, Steam and Water.
• Car engines — good source for post-recording dissection and layering with the other sounds.
• Servos, motors, and other machinery — servo drives (cd drive, screwdriver, car windows and seats), motorized equipment like a vacuum cleaner, blow dryer (start and stop).
• Things attached to a rotating motor — pieces of duct tape, tinfoil, metal objects, wires.
Try recording the objects with both cardioid and contact microphones. Contact microphones don’t record ambient noise and work well with the mechanisms, servo motors, etc., to capture the intricate details that other microphones cannot. Naturally, aim for the highest possible sample rate when recording to be able to manipulate the audio without the quality loss.
One of the most essential generated sound sources to have on hand is obviously noise — this element is indespensable in making pass bys, engine roars, turbine whistles, and plenty of other things.
Cyclic sounds — bassy, tonal, atonal, high pitched… All these sounds can help adding that feeling of a “working” engine.
Complex harmonic sounds — atonal sound elements, best used for servo motors, electric engines and such.
Electrical buzzing — suitable for power cores, force fields, and many other objects.
How To Design Stellar Spaceship Sound Effects – an essential Sci-Fi Sound Design Guide:
Granular delay / sample-based synth — this one opens the list, because of its sheer creative use and ability to turn seemingly dull sounds into something that fits right in. A granular delay is often used for making cyclic sounds that may become layers for the engine design, or just to add a bit of variation to an existing sound layer. Regardless, even if you’re not sure what you want, this class of plugins will certainly give you a wide area for experimentation. We like grain delay plugins such as Argotlunar, SoundHack’s ++Bubbler and Pitchdelay, Robert Henke’s ml.Granulator, NI Reaktor, and Ableton built-in granular tools.
Pitch shifters — another important group of plugins, particularly in creating variation and movement. Pitch shifters can be used for anything: crossfading sounds of different RPMs to create motion, making startups and shutdowns from static textures, and adding subtle inconsistencies in the engine tone. Some of the good plugins are QuikQuak Pitchwheel, Waves SoundShifter, SoundHack ++Pitchdelay.
Ring/Amplitude modulation — for that popular engine stutter effect. The modulation gives good results on frequencies between 0.1 and 10-15 Hz.
Doppler – Doppler effect plugins are a fast and easy way to create realistic fly bys. We tend to use plugins from Waves, Max For Live, and Aegean Music. Although they are very simple and relatively effective to use, sometimes it’s better to do it yourself. If that’s the case, Proximity plugin and any pitch shifter is a good combo to simulate the Doppler effect manually with an increased accuracy.
Chorus – timeless classic that’s quite often used in spaceship design. Interior, as well as exterior sounds, can substantially benefit from the stereo widening effect of Chorus, and obtain a “larger” sound character.
Flanger – another quite standard tool to use, especially when designing a spaceship in motion. Sounds particularly good on fly bys.
Reverb – no spaceship element can be done without reverb. From scattering the sound to an unrecognizable drone to adding just a little of it to accentuate interior sounds — the reverb is absolutely irreplaceable everywhere.
Filters – last but not least, filters help a great deal to sculpt the dynamics of engine sound. High and Low-Pass filters when strategically automated can smooth out the transition between the engine states, and Bandpass – add realistic fluctuation into the tone.
NB: If you don’t receive the email with the download link, please check your spam folder. Oh, and existing newsletter subscribers can of course get the sounds too.
Designing the spaceship sounds:
Interior ambience/room tone
The interior ambience is equally straightforward and tricky thing to do. On one hand it’s just some kind of noise, on the other — quite sophisticated soundscape that’s somewhat difficult to get right. The interior ambience should reflect the ship’s size, character, and engine state. The state may include the levels of engine thrust in the cockpit (coming from either interior, or from the power core inside), the health of the ship (by various additional sounds like buzzing of a ripped electrical wiring, or a glitchy stutter of a power core indicating that it’s faulty), and most importantly immerse into the experience. Speaking of creating the interior ambience, the final sound is usually multi-layered. Rarely can you design a synth patch that would sound complete within a single plugin instance.
The main “room tone” can be seen as a combination of layers:
- low-frequency noise (app.2 kHz 50 – 500 Hz)
- mid frequency resonant component (~ 200/300 – 2 kHz) — this can be a layer with wind howling, whistling, resonant filtered noise (to emphasize the size of an interior) or any other additional texture.
The audible presence of higher frequencies is usually avoided in a room tone as to not overwhelm the listener and create space for other sounds such as UI, and miscellaneous interior ship sounds (robotics, mechanics, electrical equipment, etc.). Additionally, you can add an LFE “rumble” layer to the ambience, and automate it along the visuals for dynamic sound — for example, gradually adding the rumble in as the ship starts moving.
For the synthetic generation of these components, any synth with a decent set of noise oscillators and filters will suit.
In the “Large Ship Interior” example three layers were generated using NI Massive. The first layer is a low-frequency noise made with a brown noise generator, a low-pass filter to roll off the mid frequencies, and reverb to “spread” the sound. The second layer is the same brown noise but with a Bandpass and comb filters put onto it. The Noise Amp knob has an LFO modulation to create a sense or irregularity (the LFO was modulated by another LFO with random wave function), and the Filter Mix crossfade parameter is modulated by the second set of LFOs, thus using up all available modulators. The third layer utilizes a Metal setting on a noise generator and both Bandpass and comb filters, again, to create a resonant interior layer that somewhat sounds like the distant heating tubes with oil/steam streaming inside. The additional sounds used in the example are the “power core” sound from our Driving Forces library, and UI sounds from Signal Frontiers.
0:05: the designed ambience
0:42: the room tone alone
The second “Small Ship Interior” example, makes use of more resonant room layers, that were additionally processed with a convolution reverb to create the illusion of small narrow space by using a “small studio room” preset. The example also shows the use of a rumble layer, pitch shifting of an engine tone and some other elements that contribute to the whole soundscape.
0:10: engine start
0:13: engine idle
0:19: rumble gradually comes in
0:22: engines boost to hyperspeed. notice the metallic layer
0:27: we’re cruising
0:42: cockpit ambience
1:18: jet roar layer
1:56: rumble layer
When designing a particular space, the acoustic tendency is that smaller interiors sound more resonant in low-mid frequency region due to the short reflection times. Small spaceship cockpit may sound a lot more “boomier” and/or have resonant frequencies along the mid range, while, bigger spaces in turn sound less resonant and may even be a bit “shallow” — with a dip in mid region.
While synthetic sounds offer more control in design processes, using recordings is a fun and effective technique with a bonus of unmatched authenticity. Things like air duct, conditioner, fan, gas pipes, kettle, and many others alike, when processed are a great addition to the ambience design.
Ruslan Nesteruk and Gleb Bondarenko have done several dedicated sci-fi SFX libraries – here’s a selection:
Exterior engine sounds:
The roar sound is typically designed starting with a noise generator, a bunch of filters, and distortion. The key is to find a good combination of high and low frequencies by shaping the noise with filters, and seasoning with an assortment of distortion and exciter effects.
For ideas how it can be managed in Massive, look at the corresponding example Engine Roar synth patch.
“Tonal stutter” sound is another quintessential trend in sci-fi engine sound design and a centerpiece of all best sounding vehicles. This sound can be generated in any modern synth, as well as recorded and manipulated. For this article, we shortly mention a few nuances of synthesizing the sound. Best contenders for the task are additive and wavetable synthesizers with a decent set of filters and unison spread option. The example Massive patch uses oscillators 1 and 2 for the main tonal sound, and a third oscillator for the bassy layer. When choosing the settings for waveforms, oscillator tuning and voicing we primarily focused on getting an inharmonic tone with complex spectra. As a result, the oscillators were set to Formant mode, and have eight osc unison spread over seven semitones.
The patch was initially designed for maximum variety of movement, thus has an RPM Macro control knob which controls not only the speed of amplitude modulation but also the interchange of sonic layers throughout the range of motion. In detail, the RPM knob controls the following: LFO Rate for stutter effect, LFO Amp to gradually transition between a static “Idle” engine sound and the stuttering that occurs at higher knob values, Amplitude of the third oscillator (this controls how much of it is heard at different “speeds”), and the overall pitch of tone which is made by routing the output to a Frequency Shifter.
Comb Filter, Chorus, and Flanger are all added in the patch as optional sweeteners. There is also an additional Tone Macro knob for controlling the Unisono spread.
0:01 full spaceship flyby
0:09: so called “servo” layer (jet plane sonic analogy)
0:16: “jet roar” layer
0:25: tonal stutter layer
Once we’ve established some of the typical spaceship components and collected enough sound material, it’s time to think of the fluency of ship’s movement. This stage can also be the starting phase during which you define the character of movement and base your subsequent sounds on. The overall fluency of movement dwells on various engine “states” that can be utilized and switched between, without any noticeable interruptions.
Let’s make an analogy with a car engine and think of the following simple structure:
Startup <–> Idle <–> Loaded <–> Idle <–> Shutdown – where the Loaded sound can have some transitional “RPM” states.
The key here not in how many sound chunks the whole movement from start to stop can be broken into, but how they sound as a whole. Just like with a gas pedal, the engine reacts to the control going from a quiet rumble to a heavy roar. Thus, every audio component should have handles – head and tail for crossfading with the others in the line of motion.
0:06: all layers together (manipulated thru pitch shift, lo/hi-pass filtering, fades)
0:29: tonal stutter layer
0:56: servo aka metallic layer
1:22: jet turbine layer manipulated
1:44: noise roar layer
2:02: LFE rumble layer
The more intermediate layers you have for a real-time manipulation, the better the overall fluency will be. For instance, you may have 3-4 levels of “engine thrust roar” and 3-4 states of turbine sound plus a pitch shifter on each layer. This layout enables great versatility in creating and controlling the engine states. In game audio middleware, however, there is a simpler solution to use dynamic pitch shifting and low-pass filtering on static sounds to do more for less, but it’s really the combination of split layering and processing that helps to succeed.
To get started, try designing a few static engine states first — this will help you see how many elements your final sound will be composed of
To get started, try designing a few static engine states first — this will help you see how many elements your final sound will be composed of. Then, think what layers you can manipulate to create “Startup/Shutdown” sound, without too much processing. For example, the whole process of engine starting may have the sequence: faint whistle for when the ship’s systems have been turned on but the engines are off, then a bassy tone that goes up in pitch once the engines have been switched on, along with that tone somewhere in the middle a metallic noise appears, then “stutter” sound gradually picks up the pace, and finally at the end of the sequence — deep and powerful rumble along with the noise blast indicating throttle.
Because of the sheer amount of options, you may end up having to create additional one-shot sounds for the Start/Shutdown sequence. The structure is limited only by your imagination. Once you have all your plugins on those layers, it’s easy to start crossfading between the engine states in a seamless motion, automating the engine movement, and get great results.
The structure is limited only by your imagination
Listen to how the engine sounds in fly-by too — if it doesn’t quite please your ear, you may want to take a step back to revisit the components that went into it, because the final design should sound great from all perspectives.
One crucial rule applies to all exterior and interior sounds — no sound is steady. Electricity sparkles, wind howls, flame crackles and hisses… Everything naturally has a bit of inconsistency and when your sound has it too — it sounds much better. Add random amp and frequency modulation to sound sources, make slight timbral changes, or automate any other parameters to liven up the sound.
Ruslan Nesteruk and Gleb Bondarenko have picked four examples of great spaceship sound design:
Spaceships can’t be utterly bad in the film that nailed pretty much all other aspects of a good sci-fi sound. We like the mothership moving sound for its distinct tonal, yet powerful character. Those small round fire engines were spot on too.
This one doesn’t need any introduction. The largest and most meticulously designed space simulator is no doubt serious about spaceship sounds. Nice combination of futuristic and organic sounds. Ships that fly in the atmosphere sound more like fighter jets, and ships that fly in space, respectively sound more futuristic, which is quite logical.
One of the best game series of all has so many memorable sounds: from Omnitool and Collectors to Reaper ship and Mass Effect Relay jump. However, one sound that follows the players throughout is the sound of flying cars — they are everywhere either in the background, scenic views from the stations, or the cutscenes. This cutscene offers a close-up on car sound design, which is very articulate. The best thing is that the cars sound a lot like motorcycles in THX 1138 – instant respect.
Another big player on space simulator scene which lately clearly experiences revival. Uniquely sounding ships.
Making something sound convincing can be an exciting but painstaking job, especially if it’s the objects nobody has ever seen before. The basic formula for a good space ship sound design is to make up a detailed concept – how the sound reflects looks, how ship would move, ship’s purpose etc., then split it all into layers and start assembling the design.
Due the creative and experimental nature of sound design practice, the article only hopes to clarify some commonly confusing areas and mentions a few subjective observations relevant to the process. The main driving force of designing good sounds, however, is personal experience. Stay curious, observant, and keep designing!
Please share this:
+ free sounds with every issue: