An Ode to my Favourite Ambient Sound Effect, Found in Alien, Blade Runner, & Star Wars

Featured in Alien, Blade Runner, and multiple Star Wars films, there's one ambient sound effect more satisfying and relaxing than any other ...

Alien. The 1979 horror masterpiece by Ridley Scott, one of the most acclaimed horror films of all time; a truly terrifying experience. Also, my go-to relaxation movie. There’s just something about it, or, rather, everything about it. The slow camera moves, Jerry Goldsmith’s music, and the realistic, tangible set design of the Nostromo. It’s the film I’ve watched the most and, as violent and scary as it can be, it has a comforting and cosy quality. I watched it so many times late at night when I was young, back when Film4 showed it multiple times a week, with the volume turned down real low, and now I can easily use it to drift off to sleep. It’s like ASMR but with gore and rape metaphors.

It’s the sound effects, too. One in particular: the ambient sound of the medical bay. It’s exquisite. A white noise mechanical drone, a pulse with a satisfying upwards and downwards inflection. I don’t know what creates the sound, in real life or in the world of the movie, but it’s like the ship is breathing. I know it’s a cliché to say but the Nostromo is a character unto itself. The sound is like a Star Trek warp drive by way of a David Lynch ethereal whoosh.

It’s become the ambient soundtrack to my life. It’s always great to go back to the source and watch the film but I’ll listen to a handy YouTube lopped version most days, either at work, doing household tasks, or as a sleep aid. Yes, I’m listening to it right now while writing. I have Alien: Isolation forever downloaded on my PlayStation 5, a game I enjoy far more as a walking simulator than a horror game, just in case I want to stand in the medbay and listen. Ironically, the medbay scene and music in Alien: Covenant, a highlight of that movie, is at the opposite end of the relaxing scale.

Alien: Isolation Ambience - Nostromo Medical Bay

I’ll forever associate the sound with Alien but that’s not the only film in which it can be heard. I remember watching Blade Runner for the first time, this was after many viewings of Alien, and immediately picking up on hearing the same ambient pulse in the background of scenes set in Deckard’s apartment. It’s very slightly different, a tad slower, but it’s there. Blade Runner is a continuation of so much of Scott’s work in Alien, a natural evolution, that it makes sense to use it again. But it’s probably going too far to use it as evidence for the shared universe theory, though.

A few years ago, when first becoming more obsessed with the sound outside of just watching Alien, a vague Internet search revealed it features in yet more films. I was shocked to see that its origin was not Alien in 1979 but rather Star Wars in 1977. It’s a film I’ve watched since being a child, almost as much as Alien, but I’d not noticed it before. All the other sound effects and dialogue and music must have hidden it from me but there it was, the ambient sound of the tractor beam, no doubt a piece of sound design created by the legendary Ben Burtt.

The sound returns in The Empire Strikes Back, briefly heard in the lower levels of Cloud City during a break in Luke and Vader’s duel. Maybe it’s the natural sounds of the machinery or maybe the ugnaughts just pump it through the speakers to make working there more pleasurable. It’s even in my personal favourite Star Wars film, the one from my youth that birthed my fandom: Attack of the Clones. I’d never noticed before but there it is in one of the final scenes, pulsing away in the background as Dooku and Palpatine meet in the dark industrial district of Coruscant.

At the time of my Star Wars discovery, I couldn’t find any other examples of the ambient sound being used in other movies or shows. That has since changed. There’s been a resurgence in the past few years. As a kind of audio easter egg, it can be heard briefly in Deckard’s new Las Vegas apartment in the shockingly good sequel Blade Runner 2049. I remember watching the film for the first time and seeing everyone talking about the themes and ideas and visuals and I just wanted to point out the cool whooshing noise. And then it could be heard in the penultimate episode of the first season of Star Wars series Andor when the Cantwell-class Arrestor Cruiser tries to use its tractor beam to capture Luthen.

It’s weird, I know, to have such an affinity for an ambient mechanical pulsing whine buried in the sound design of sci-fi films. It’s such a relaxing noise but also a deeply satisfying one, too. And we all may be hearing it a lot more in the near future. An endless stream of Star Wars content is flowing, a new Alien film and TV series are in production, and even a Blade Runner series is being worked on. The opportunities for sound designers to include the sound effect are opening up. We might be entering the prime period for my favourite ambient sound.

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