TINY MUSIC MAKERS: Pt 3: The THX Sound

"I like to say that the THX sound is the most widely-recognized piece of computer-generated music in the world," says Andy Moorer. "This may or may not be true, but it sounds cool!"
>> You can hear the sound here. It's called 'Deep Note'.
>> It was made by Dr James 'Andy' Moorer in 1982, who has had a very cool career: Four patents, one Oscar. In the '60s he was working in Artificial Intelligence at Stanford. In the '70s he was at IRCAM in Paris, working on speech synthesis and ballet. In the '80s he worked at the LucasFilm DroidWorks, before joining Steve Jobs at NeXT. Today, he consults, repairs old tube radios and plays banjo.
>> At one point, the THX sound was being played 4,000 times a day at cinemas around the world (that's once every 20 seconds).
>> The Simpsons got permission for this [mpg movie] parody. Dr Dre was less lucky. He asked permission to sample 'Deep Note' but was turned down. He used it anyway, to open '2001', and LucasFilm sued.
>> Stanford student Jesse Fox tried to recreate 'Deep Note' for a course. His version sounds like a nasty accident in an organ factory. Details here.
>> There are various theories on the web about how the THX sound was created - some people say it was a Yamaha CS-80, others that it was a Synclavier. I emailed Andy Moorer to ask how it was really made. The short answer was "On a big-ass mainframe computer at LucasFilm". But I thought I should give you the long answer here in full, just because it feels like Andy's writing his own history for the first time...
>> "I've never written the THX story down (nobody ever asked). So, here's the whole story:
>> "I was working in what was then called the "Lucasfilm Computer Division" that existed from roughly 1980 to 1987 or so. It spawned several companies, including Pixar and Sonic Solutions. I was head of the audio group. In about 1982, we built a large-scale audio processor. This was in the days before DSP chips, so it was quite a massive thing. We called it the ASP (Audio Signal Processor).
>> "At the same time Tom Holman was also working at Lucasfilm. He had developed what is now called the THX sound system. It was to premiere with Lucasfilm's "Return of the Jedi." They were making a logo to go before the film. I was asked by the producer of the logo piece to do the sound. He said he wanted "something that comes out of nowhere and gets really, really big!" I allowed as to how I figured I could do something like that.
>> "I set up some synthesis programs for the ASP that made it behave like a huge digital music synthesizer. I used the waveform from a digitized cello tone as the basis waveform for the oscillators. I recall that it had 12 harmonics. I could get about 30 oscillators running in real-time on the device. Then I wrote the "score" for the piece.
>> "The score consists of a C program of about 20,000 lines of code. The output of this program is not the sound itself, but is the sequence of parameters that drives the oscillators on the ASP. That 20,000 lines of code produce about 250,000 lines of statements of the form "set frequency of oscillator X to Y Hertz".
>> "The oscillators were not simple - they had 1-pole smoothers on both amplitude and frequency. At the beginning, they form a cluster from 200 to 400 Hz. I randomly assigned and poked the frequencies so they drifted up and down in that range. At a certain time (where the producer assured me that the THX logo would start to come into view), I jammed the frequencies of the final chord into the smoothers and set the smoothing time for the time that I was told it would take for the logo to completely materialize on the screen. At the time the logo was supposed to be in full view, I set the smoothing times down to very low values so the frequencies would converge to the frequencies of the big chord (which had been typed in by hand - based on a 150-Hz root), but not converge so precisely that I would lose all the beats between oscillators. All followed by the fade-out. It took about 4 days to program and debug the thing. The sound was produced entirely in real-time on the ASP.
>> "When we went to sync up the sound with the video (which I hadn't seen yet), we discovered that the timings were all different. I readjusted the times, generated a new score, and in ten minutes, we had the sound synced up with the video perfectly.
>> There are many, many random numbers involved in the score for the piece. Every time I ran the C-program, it produced a new "performance" of the piece. The one we chose had that conspicuous descending tone that everybody liked. It just happened to end up real loud in that version.
>> "Some months after the piece was released (along with "Return of the Jedi") they lost the original recording. I recreated the piece for them, but they kept complaining that it didn't sound the same. Since my random-number generators were keyed on the time and date, I couldn't reproduce the score of the performance that they liked. I finally found the original version and everybody was happy.
>> "If you get permission from THX, I can supply you with the written "score" for the piece (in music notation - this was used to get the copyright) or even the original C program that produced the parameter lists. I can't supply you with a program that makes the sound itself.
>> "The ASP was decommissioned in 1986 and later sold for scrap."
>> Thanks, Andy. You are truly a Music Thing Hero.

NEXT UP: Apple, Korg and the fattest bassline ever
PREVIOUSLY: Windows 95 and Brian Eno


Comments:
WOW thanks for such a thorough post, and thanks andy for telling your story! too many blogs are just links to other posts it's great to see some real research. and holy crap what an odd way to design sound, even in the 80s!
 
Hello... yes, a most enjoyable read and honestly, not such an unusual way to design sound :) The difference is, at that time it would have been considered "long-hand", but any old IRCAM hand, or anyone with a decent understanding of synthesis may well have gone down similar tracks... All in all, there's a system for every one and every one has a system in them. Much admiration for Andy's skill, I must say.

Andrew Garton
 
woo hoo!

thats great to know..it wasnt twenty cs80s linked up...it was something way cooler..(mind you twenty cs80s linked up would be pretty cool)

great post,

thanks

avery
 
Music Thing would make an excellent investigative television programme.
 
I've really enjoyed this series of posts, it's been eye-opening. I also get the feeling some relatively unknown artists are finally getting a bit of the credit they deserve...
 
Here's a fun idea for a Music Thing reader contest... Entrants attempt to re-create Deep Note using whatever means they want. Winners get a T-shirt, or a free CS-80, or something of value in between these two things. Which is not that big of a range, since I really want a Music Thing T-shirt.
 
Dave, you give me a CS80, and I'll make you a special personalised MT t-shirt, printed with (a small quantity of) my own blood.

Deal?

Comp is a good idea, though. Will try to secure a prize...
 
And we can ask Andy Moorer to judge it!
 
Fantastic Story!

Although I first heard "deep note" on the Beaver and Krause album "In a Wild Sanctuary"

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000002MS6/qid=1117034288/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl15/103-1450367-7800640?v=glance&s=music&n=507846

I can't remeber where exactly on the record it was, but the sound comes out of an extended ambient moment and bursts into a rollicking free form instrumental jam.

Good stuff, indeed!
 
Great story, thanks Music Thing and Andy!

I have to learn Csound, that's for sure...
 
Does anyone remember Dr.Dre getting sued by Lucasfilm for mannnnny thousands for sampling the THX logo at the beginning of one of his recent LPs?

Gee, never thought he'd get caught for that huh? (duh)
 
3DMix, an app that shipped with BeOS, had an About window that played a sound _very_ similar to the THX sweep. You could click or drag on the screen to change its pitch.

The BeOS R5 welcome sound, recorded by Baron, was really nice as well.
 
I will continue to hold my ears every time I am subjected to this, the most monumentally unpleasant sound in sound history.
 
If you get permission from THX, I can supply you with the written "score" for the piece (in music notation - this was used to get the copyright) or even the original C program that produced the parameter lists.

This bit kind of stuck out: it's possible to copyright a randomly generated piece of music? Is it considered the (in this case) _programmer's_ original performance or the program's? :)
 
"The ASP was decommissioned in 1986 and later sold for scrap."
They had to kill it off before it started asking for royalty cheques.
 
I first heard it on this cd
The Digital Domain: A Demonstration - Elliot Mazer
(at the end of the first track)
The cd was published in 1983 to demo the then new media of digital cd's. It was a big deal back then to have a fully recorded cd (DDD) usually everything was recorded analog. Then converted to digital.
 
speaking of sounds that EVERYONE recognizes, here are two that I have found:
1: Another common video sound, the "20th Century Fox" drumroll with band in background and flashing spotlights
2: I have found that it takes the average person less than 5 seconds to recognize and name the sound that the dentists "moisture-sucker" makes as it sucks the moisture out of your mouth
 
The trade mag "Keyboard" had a two-page article on LucasFilm's studio and the ASP synth, including some rather spiff detailed close-ups of the front panel - several banks of knobs, each with its own small alphanumeric LED display.

If I had access to my Keyboard archive (in storage in another state, alas) I would scan it and mail it to you ...
 
The album "Astra" by the popular 80s Prog Rock band Asia has a song on it called "Countdown to Zero" which starts with a sound that is either the THX sound or an official or unofficial version of the THX sound. Does anyone know the story about this or if this is the sound or something similar?
 
The album Passion and Warfare by Steve Vai features a song called 'The audience is Listening'. I'd be interested to know if it is inspired by the THX experience.
 
The first time I ever heard the THX sound was at age six... I must say the depth of the logo and the dark opacity of the sound freaked me out immensely... but now I consider it to be my favorite sound effect ever... Thank you Lucasfilm for this sound... it makes me forgive you for crappiness of Episodes I and II...
 
>> Stanford student Jesse Fox tried to recreate 'Deep Note' for a course. His version sounds like a nasty accident in an organ factory. Details here.


i was laughing my ass off at 4:30am listening to this.
 
>>> Anonymous said...
>>>
>>>i was laughing my ass off at 4:30am >>>listening to this.

ROFL!!! Same here dude! That amateur attempt at recreating Deep Note is very, very funny indeed. Poor bastard. At least he gave it a try... ;-)

Now, as for the THX sound, I honestly feel that it's the most perfect piece of sound ever conceived. I'm in pure shock-and-awe mode every time I hear it!
 
Australian musical comedy act Tripod used to drop an awesome a capella version of the THX sound into their sets. Yes, that's right, I said a capella.
 
Really awesome article. I am trying to create a piece of music with the same type of feeling...this is no easy feat.

Thank god for Software DSP's.
 
A wonderful piece. I can still recall attending the first theater in my city to feature THX sound. We were blown away, and THX was forever embedded in sound terminology.
 
Hey - I tried recreating deepnote via 12 hand picked oscillators with some chorusing/EQing to thicken it up. It sucks, but here is a link

http://www.jthibault.com/mp3s/thx.wav
 
the_idle_machine:
This bit kind of stuck out: it's possible to copyright a randomly generated piece of music? Is it considered the (in this case) _programmer's_ original performance or the program's? :)

I'd say that is very interesting. But isn't it how patents are sometimes made? Randomness certainly plays a huge factor when experimenting. Sure, you can choose to use 'design of experiments' and see how a process reacts to the manipulation of key variables, but I guess it's cheaper to let luck decide for you.



anonymous: Hey - I tried recreating deepnote via 12 hand picked oscillators with some chorusing/EQing to thicken it up. It sucks, but here is a link

http://www.jthibault.com/mp3s/thx.wav

Well, I'd say that is a great attempt, as the THX sound can be distinguished. Perhaps there is a diference in the 'convergence' time or something like that.
 
I'm a bit confused:
At the very beginning of the article it says, "It was made by Dr James 'Andy' Moorer in 1982, who has had a very cool career...".
However, the Internet Movie DataBase lists "When A Stranger Calls" as the first film to use the effect, and it was released in '79. When watching the movie, you can definetly tell that you're hearing that memorable THX sound. It's even listed in the "Trivia" section on the IMDB. *scratches head*
 
This was written directly from a new email interview with Andy M, so I'd trust his account better than a trivia page on IMDB...
 
i love the simpsons parody of the sound!
 
At the risk of being bombarded as amateur, here we go anyway:
It might have been "hard and inventive" when this sound was created and I surely appreciate that the original creator not only invented the character of the sound but also programmed the synthesis side by himself.

But today If you just have an access virus TI and you create a waspy sound and put it in 2 x unisono, then you assign the "keyboard follow" envelope to a controller, you randomize the panning of each note and you program a very huge chord in cubase ranging from very low c major to very high ,(12 note c maj chord spread across the keyboard)

Draw your chord on the cubase editor (make them hold 10 seconds or so)

then you program (draw) the controller of the keyboard follow to gently go from 0 to 32 and voila

your own THX sound.. Variations in the program ing might be needed but i'm convinced this can be done very easily nowadays
 
I am afraid of the THX Sound. I CRREEEEEPS me out, man.
 
In all fairness to Jesse Fox, the task of re-creating the THX sound is a standard homework assignment here at Stanford's CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics) in an introductory course entitled "Fundamentals of Computer-Generated Sound" ( http://ccrma.stanford.edu/courses/220a/ ). Every year, twenty or so students attempt to re-create the sound using (currently) LISP and Common Lisp Music. Jesse's homework is now gaining far more notoriety than he ever dreamed or ever deserved.
 
Forget the Access Virus, the Nord Modular Rack shipped with the factory patch called "Welcome" as the default voice when it turns on. It may not be EXACTLY correct, but it is very very close to the THX sound, and you don't need to program diddly squat.
 
The cool thing about the Simpsons and the THX connection is that the Simpsons crew asked for permission to use it in one of their episodes (cannot remember which atm, but it didn't have to do with the story other than they were watching a movie) but then the Lucasarts people went ahead and telecined a real version of the spoof to play as the offical THX video/audio before some movies in the theaters. I never saw it myself but it apperently ran for 3 - 4 years in front of a lot of comedies and such. - Tony R.
 
This bit kind of stuck out: it's possible to copyright a randomly generated piece of music? Is it considered the (in this case) _programmer's_ original performance or the program's? :)

Actually i believe the copyright belongs to the operator of the program, in this case that would be the same as the programmer, but if you have software on your computer randomly compose music you own that music as long as you don't use copyrighted samples to put it together.
 
FWIW the Wikipedia points out that, "Deep Note is also similar to the orchestral crescendo heard on The Beatles' 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, on the track A Day in the Life. As early as 1955, a very similar effect can be found in the first minute of the Iannis Xenakis piece, Metastasis, which begins on a single tone and slowly spreads into a quarter tone cluster."

I have never heard the Xenakis piece but I can vouch for A Day In The Life; and when it came out my mates and I were just as impressed with that bit as we all still are with Deep Note...almost _forty_ years later. Check it out for yourself. :)

You can only imagine what the Beatles might have done if they'd had THX...
 
I want my THX Deep Note ringtone!
 
This bit kind of stuck out: it's possible to copyright a randomly generated piece of music? Is it considered the (in this case) _programmer's_ original performance or the program's?

Sure, you can copyright a randomly generated work. Copyright covers any work when it is recorded in a fixed medium -- printed, written, taped, digitized, whatever. You can copyright articles, books, music (notation and lyrics), film, audio, etc. You can copyright random words written on a piece of paper. You can copyright the image randomly created by spin art. You can copyright a bathtub full of cowbells going down a flight of stairs. Jackson Pollock's art looks pretty random, and those images are copyrighted. What copyright covers is that fixed medium. So you can't copyright a performance per se, like you can't copyright a parade. But you can copyright a film or video or audio recording of that performance or parade.

It appears that what they did here was file copyright on the written musical notation describing Deep Note, the audio recording of the music, and the written code used to create the music. Covers all the bases.
 
"I'd say that is very interesting. But isn't it how patents are sometimes made? Randomness certainly plays a huge factor when experimenting."


I don't know how patents are made, but that's certainly how they are awarded... randomness certainly plays a huge factor... that and having a big wad of cash. The US patent system is broken and corrupt.
 
This is sooo cool! I wish I had the source...
 
Good for dre for using the sample anyways. fuck sample copyright laws and their money-grubbing stupidity.
 
I've been able to do this with several polyphonic synths. Not exact, but close enough for people to say "THX!" when they heard it.

On a JP8, turn up the vca attack slider for a long attack.
Mash 4 notes down on either side of the keyboard, turn up the glide to max and then play two 4 note major chords in the middle with both hands. Some vcos will go up, some will go down, many will cross each other, but they'll all land on musical notes of that chord.
 
I'm like radiohead. You post is make my hart to cry.

Andrey, smart-tricks
 
that THX sound...

...has got to go! It's totally unnecessary and spooky; each time I accidentally hear it with that blue box on the screen (the audience is listening), I would have to run outside of the room until it finished...whoo!! so intimidating.
 
Hey, actually nice stuff .) I've really enjoyed of your post! Thnx for interesring ideas :-)
 
The first time I ever heard this sound, now known as deepnote, was as an intro at the beginning of an old Chi-Lites song: (For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People. The original. I find it interesting that when you try and get your hands on this song now, the intro has been changed. But this so-called "deepnote" sound was the intro to this Chi-Lites song which was release in 1971. And if it is not the same sound, but was invented by Lucas Films, or whatever, why is it that listening to reprints of the Chi-Lites song no longer has this intro? Very curious indeed.

Dana Adams
 
Thanks for information!!!!!!!!!!
Huge archive legal mp3s!

http://legal-mp3s.svg2.info/
 
Regarding Beaver and Krause's "In a Wild Sanctuary" it comes in at the very end of the track "Spaced" It was done on a MOOG in 1970, well before 1982. I put up a short post on it here. Tom Oberheim reportedly thought that the original analog version sounded richer than the digital used for THX.
 
Hello, I love this sound, it inspired me in doing this one:

http://www.fileden.com/files/2007/7/11/1256972/deep_note.mp3

It is not cool and complex like the original, but has a nice floating sound. I made it with a modular soft synth.
If you want to use it please contact me: alberto.fiore@email.it.
 
qjWhen I was a kid, I used to get creeped out when I heard this. But I'm not creeped out now. It's amazing how such a piece of sound can prove we are listening. The only sound that still scares me is the WGBH crescendo that they used back then. It was totally creepy.

Oh, the simpsons parody of the trailer is funny. Tiny Toons also had a parody, too. Instead it says, THUD: The Audience is Now Deaf. LOL!
 
Nice to see! :)
 
Why. Seriously. Why.

Why do people INSIST on posting broken linkk (you can hear the sound *here*). Sometimes I think website morans are the moranest morans of all.
 
Hi all, here is my attempt at recreating this sound with SuperCollider with a little tutorial on its details:

http://bit.ly/15aVeo
 
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