48

It's an iconic sound but I have no idea what makes it and not much of an idea how to describe it. but I'll give it a try. It's an artificial, high-pitched whistling sort of sound. You normally hear it when the unconvincing flying saucers are moving in on Earth. If you heard it, you'd immediately think of that B-movie genre sci-fi.

Anyone know what that sound is, or how to make it?

  • 2
    I thought it was my tinnitus. – Mark Beadles Feb 28 '12 at 19:48
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    Although the Theremin was used for a lot of those movies, the Wikipedia page also points out specifically that A theremin was not used for the soundtrack of Forbidden Planet, for which Louis and Bebe Barron built "disposable" oscillator circuits and a ring modulator to create the "electronic tonalities" for the film. – LarsTech Feb 28 '12 at 23:38
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    Can you point us to an audio/video recording of the sound? – curiousdannii Aug 20 '14 at 7:26
67

It's a Theremin.

The theremin is associated with a very eerie sound, which has led to its use in movie soundtracks such as Miklós Rózsa's for Spellbound and The Lost Weekend and Bernard Herrmann's for The Day the Earth Stood Still and as the theme tune for the ITV drama Midsomer Murders.

Here's a video of the inventor using it.

It's a really cool instrument because it's actually more of a scientific device. There is one other instrument that is used to cool effect for old sci-fi movies I'll try to find it and post that as well.

Here is the other instrument that I was thinking of it's called a Water Phone. This link actually is to i09 and shows three different strange movie instruments: The Water Phone, Theremin and the Blaster Beam.

  • 2
    Lol nice links you picked... great minds think alike! – Beofett Feb 28 '12 at 13:32
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    I can't believe that no one here has mentioned the use of the theremin in "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys =P – Josh Darnell Feb 28 '12 at 15:34
  • I must have a Water Phone now! – Beofett Feb 28 '12 at 15:37
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    Strange that the theremin predates the water phone by decades. The theremin requires late nineteenth century electronics (and physics), but the ancient Greeks could have made a water phone. – Beta Feb 28 '12 at 19:21
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    @jadarnel27 That's because on "Good Vibrations", they used a Tannerin. (Although they're really close) – LarsTech Feb 28 '12 at 23:33
19

I believe you are referring to a theremin.

Here is the inventor demonstrating one.

They can be used to make a fairly wide variety of interesting sounds, and were used in quite a number of movies for both sound tracks and special effects.

Miklós Rózsa is said to have pioneered the use of the theremin in Hollywood musical scores.

Here are some more contemporary examples of some of the effects that can be created with a theremin. However, the theremin is not the only source for some of these sound effects. For example, for the movie The Forbidden Planet, "disposable" oscillator circuits and a ring modulator were used.

  • That is really cool about the ring modulator. Also here is a another contemporary example from Yo-Gabba-Gabba youtube.com/watch?v=eTokinU5rzc – Kevin Howell Feb 28 '12 at 15:09
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    @Kevin - you almost earned yourself a -1 for Yo Gabba Gabba :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 28 '12 at 15:45
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    I have a 1 year old sometimes it's a really thin line between nauseating and insanity inducing. I choose the side that has Yo-Gabba-Gabba to try prevent the insanity of the Wiggles. Plus the show has Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo on it and has had Weird Al. It really reminds me of Pee-Wee's Playhouse sometimes. – Kevin Howell Feb 28 '12 at 15:56
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    @Kevin: I have a 2 year old, and I have to admit that the music (maybe not always the lyrics) on Yo Gabba Gabba kicks ass, relative to other kids shows. They get all kinds of artists and DJs on there making songs and doing remixes (Shiny Toy Guns, Weezer, The Shins, etc.). – gnovice Feb 28 '12 at 16:06
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    @KevinHowell I also have a 1 year old, although we've so far resisted Yo-Gabba-Gabba and other kids shows. However, Yo-Gabba-Gabbe seems to have a reputation for being somewhat less nausea-inducing than other kids shows. Oh, by the way... have you seen our parenting.se site? – Beofett Feb 28 '12 at 16:12
0

Why does it always HAVE to be a Theremin? It rarely is!! Usually it is an oscillator or perhaps a slowed down or sped up recording of a standard everyday sound of familiar things.

The ufo sound sometimes is a sound of a steam whistle. Occasionally they will process the sound with a reverb or tape delay to give it a beating effect as the original pitch beats against its delayed image which is lower or higher in pitch depending on the direction of the tone (going up or going down).

If you give me a real exact example, I will solve it for you.

-1

I was expecting Raymond Scott on the Forbidden Planet soundtrack. Turns out it was the competition: Louis and Bebe Barron.

  • 4
    The question was about how it was made, not who made it. – phantom42 Aug 20 '14 at 12:35

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