The Most Iconic Sound Effects Throughout History
Discover TV and film’s most overused – or some would say classic – sound effects that audio editors have turned to again and again
Have you ever been watching a TV show or movie and thought to yourself ‘I’ve heard that sound before’? Well the chances are you probably have. Throughout the long history of TV, cinema and video games, there have been a handful of classic sound effects that sound designers keep going back to. Some, such as the Wilhelm Scream, have been around for over 50 years whereas others, like the Inception BRAAM, have only come to dominate pop culture in the last decade or so.
What is it about these specific sounds that makes them so popular with sound designers, and why do we love to hate them? Some of these sounds, like The Diddy Laugh, have been known to drive viewers insane for decades as they seemingly follow them wherever they go cropping up in TV, games and even commercials.
In this article we’re going to take a closer look into nine of the most iconic sound effects of all time and tell the stories behind them.
A truly iconic sound effect, the Wilhelm Scream first appeared in the 1951 film Distant Drums. Since then it has been used in countless (well, at least 439 as of April 2020) films and TV shows, as well as some blockbuster video games such as Red Dead Redemption and the Grand Theft Auto series.
The scream was recorded specifically for Distant Drums and first appeared in a scene where a soldier wading across a river is attacked by an alligator.
The audio recording was originally titled ‘man getting bit by an alligator, and he screamed.’ however, it came to be known as the Wilhelm Scream due to its appearance in the 1953 movie The Charge at Feather River in a scene where the character ‘Pvt. Wilhelm’ is shot by an arrow.
The naming of the scream, and its popularity in film and television, can be attributed to sound designer Ben Burtt, who discovered the SFX whilst working on the Star Wars movies. The scream debuted in A New Hope when Luke Skywalker shoots a stormtrooper aboard the Death Star, however you can hear it throughout the franchise across the original trilogy, the prequels and a few of the recent sequels.
A brief nod here to the Wilhelm Scream’s little brother, the Howie Scream. Originally called ‘Gut-Wrenching Scream and Fall into Distance’, the Howie Scream gets its colloquial name from its use in the 1996 film Broken Arrow where its used in the death scene of Howie Long’s character.
Though not as widely used as the Wilhelm Scream, the Howie Scream is still a bone fide cinema classic appearing in films such as WALL-E, Tarzan and Natural Born Killers.
The Inception BRAAM is a sound instantly recognisable to anyone who’s seen a blockbuster trailer in the last 10 years. Originally created for the Inception trailer it's that bassy, brassy impact which is now found in almost every action movie trailer around.
The credit for the sound's creation is a source of controversy. Master film composer Hans Zimmer is often assumed to have created it, having scored Inception and many of the film’s trailers, Zimmer did in fact claim responsibility for the creation of the sound in an interview with Vulture. However, composer and sound designer Mike Zarin responded to Zimmer’s claims with disapproval in an interview with IndieWire, stating that many more people were included in the creation of the original BRAAM, himself included.
Zarin worked on the sound design for Inception’s very first teaser trailer a project in which Zimmer was not involved at all. Zarin and his team created and refined the sound until it fitted in with director Christopher Nolan’s vision for the trailer – the Inception BRAAM was born. You can hear Zarin’s BRAAM in the teaser trailer below.
Zimmer became involved with the scoring and sound design process for the second trailer, and it’s here where he can be given credit. Though, as he explained to IndieWire, Mike Zarin and his team created the original BRAAM, Zimmer did provide his own interpretation of it for subsequent trailers. It can be heard in the first official full length trailer below, breaking up Zimmer’s arpeggiated strings with a more musical version of Zarin’s original sound.
The BRAAM has now become a staple of the movie-going experience, it has been described as the Wilhelm Scream of movie trailers. Many of Nolan’s subsequent film trailers have contained a similar sound as have trailers for Marvel, Star Trek and Terminator movies plus many more – it’s now so ubiquitous.
Having discussed the Inception BRAAM, it’s probably worth mention the new kid on the block, the Winding Down sound. It’s another sound that can be found in countless modern movie trailers, as you can see in the video below.
It’s that bassy slide that happens all the time in movie trailers before a momentum of impact, and though it’s not as iconic as the Inception BRAAM, it’s still really overused!
In Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the screech of the giant eagles signifies hope where there was previously none. Be it Gandalf escaping from Isengard, the eagles defeating the Nazgul in front of the black gate, or the rescuing of Sam and Frodo from the volatile slopes of Mount Doom – each time the Eagles swoop in to save the day we hear their iconic screech.
However, that screech does not in fact belong to an Eagle but to the red-tailed hawk, a substitution that is made all the time by hollywood sound designers.
The reason for this is that eagles don't actually have a very impressive call at all. Of course, that won’t cut it in a dramatic hollywood blockbuster – thus the cliché of using a red-tailed hawk’s call in place of an eagle’s was born.
Though no one's quite sure where The Diddy Laugh originally appeared in popular culture, the sound was first identified by Steve Paget who initially heard the laugh in the game Diddy Kong Racing – after that he began to hear it everywhere. He started cataloguing appearances of it in film and TV and eventually set up the blog The Diddy Laugh for the world to see.
The Diddy Laugh has shown up in plenty of high profile productions. The list includes Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Mulan, Sherlock, Taken and many more, for the full list check out Paget’s blog.
But why is this sound so popular? Paget’s theory is that it’s hard to record children laughing. He shared his thoughts in an interview with Vanity Fair - “to get kids laughing takes time and preparation. Someone’s got to take them out of school and bring them in … then you have to prompt them to laugh”. This is different to say, the Wilhelm Scream, which in theory should be an easy SFX to replace.
The Diddy Kong Racing composer Graeme Norgate originally intended the sound to be a placeholder in the game, however the project ran out of time and it was never replaced. Little did he know that in running out of time he would create a niche cultural phenomenon that would drive people insane for decades.
It’s fallen out of favour in recent years but artificial laugh tracks have been an essential part of the TV sit-com for over half a decade. They were first conceived in 1953 by sound engineer Charley Douglass who found real studio audiences laughed at the wrong moments, didn’t laugh enough or laughed too much. To counter this problem, he built the prototype of what would eventually become his genre-defining ‘Laff Box’.
The ‘Laff Box’ could be compared to a mellotron or a modern day sampler. It contained tape loops with various recorded snippets of laughter which could be controlled with a keyboard. Say Douglass wanted a light chuckle, someone laughing too early, or even someone not getting the joke but laughing anyway – there were buttons for each of those sounds.
Douglass monopolised the market for the laugh track, adding canned laughter to just about every sitcom on TV throughout the 60s and 70s. He used tapes that would loop so attentive viewers, who were familiar with the laugh tracks, could predict which laugh would play next.
This has carried through even to modern day sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, where the same infuriating high-pitched laugh is used repeatedly.
Of course, as the century rolled on the laugh track would be an unmissable feature of some of the biggest TV shows of all time, such as Seinfeld and Friends, before finally losing favour with modern sitcom audiences. Nowadays, shows such as The Office and Arrested Development have moved away from the “filmed in front of a live audience” feel, opting instead for a subtler approach.
That being said, many reality shows still used canned audience reactions to heighten the drama of particular situations, and it’s not just laughs, an absolutely classic audience reaction is this gasp sound:
This gasp is used in games, movies and reality TV shows such as America’s Got Talent. In fact the sound effect is so overused that in one episode of Masterchef it appears three times in one minute!
The final sound on this list is one you're not likely to hear in modern day productions, however it’s all over some absolute classics from throughout the 20th century. The sound in question is known as Castle Thunder, a lengthy and ominous thunderclap which was originally recorded for the 1931 film Frankenstein.
The sound has been used in such monumental hits as Bambi, Citizen Kane, Star Wars and Back to the Future as well as countless cartoons like Scooby-Doo, Peanuts and various Disney animations.
The sound fell out of favour after the 1980s as recording technology improved and Castle Thunder started to sound more and more dated, however it will long remain an icon of cinema.
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