This episode was written & produced by Kevin Edds.
Whether you're 6 years old, or 96 years old, one of the most memorable parts of going to the movies for the last three decades has been the THX "Deep Note" trailer. Unfortunately, they lost the original sound file. What happened? Also, what do sound designers & musicians think about it? Featuring Andy Moorer, creator of “The Deep Note” and global director of marketing for THX, Rob Cowles. The episode also features Musician, Producer and Professor Thomas Dolby, and Scott Simonelli, the founder of Veritonic.
MUSIC IN THIS EPISODE
Red Dot - Watermark High
INY (instrumental) - Night Fevers
Poetics - Steven Gutheinz
Fear (instrumental) - Andrew Judah
Test Flight - Blake Ewing
Open Eyes (instrumental) - Cello
Across the Sea - Blake Ewing
Glory - Chris Coleman
Pure Air - Dexter Britain
Paper Planes - Steven Gutheinz
Steady - Roary
You Will Find Me (instrumental) - CHPTRS
Keep (instrumental) - Night Fevers
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View Transcript ▶︎
[SFX: THE THX DEEP NOTE]
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story… of the THX Deep Note… Part Two.
That somewhat ominous sound you just heard is the THX audio logo known as The Deep Note. At first it seems to go everywhere, and nowhere, and then comes together at the end for a larger-than-life resolution. The Deep Note is an announcement that’s been played during the trailers in movie theaters for decades. It started way back in 1983. It let audiences know they were in a THX-certified theater and that their audio experience would be phenomenal. THX certification was pioneered by George Lucas. It made sure that Return of the Jedi would be experienced with the best sound theaters could provide.
In the last episode we explored how Andy Moorer used cutting edge computer technology to make it. We also found out that everyone at Lucas Film loved it… but, before it could be used in theaters, they lost the only recording of it. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s hear what sound people think when they hear the THX Deep Note. Our producer Kevin Edds took a stroll around our studios here at Defacto Sound to hear what our staff thinks.
Jai: I think at some point in my life it did feel uncomfortable. And actually like, the thing it reminds me the most of is [SFX 2001 a Space Odyssey crossfade to THX slowly underneath this section] at the very, very beginning of the 2001 Space Odyssey where it's just black and there's just this very dissonant, creeping score. And there's just no visual with it at all. And it kind of reminds me of that. That it's interesting feeling, why does this make me uncomfortable and then so quickly it changes from that to just feeling like this big, epic thing.
Nick: It's awesome. It makes me really excited for the movies...and just gives you chills...and, it's a sound I always have a physical reaction to. The hair on my arm always raises up. It sounds like some chord, it sounds like some alien thing...something like an orchestra tuning up but like so other-worldly, and so out-there. I guess whenever I hear that and I feel the power of the system - because they only play that on systems that are rated for it - you know the power of that system, you know you're in for something good.
Colin: I can imagine seeing this for the first time and you hear these weird sounds. You're like, "What in the world is happening?" This THX logo comes on and you're like “huhh”, there it is, this full frequency range spectrum, like, ta da moment comes in. Yeah, I can imagine at first it definitely is really funky and weird, you know. It's not like if I was designing a sound like this and trying to show off my sound, I wouldn't necessarily go for creepy. But now it's so iconic and the way it comes altogether is really impactful, I think.
Sam: Oh I loved it. It's more of just this, Dah sound effect and you're like, oh my God, this is so cool. This is about to happen. Man, it sounds so 80s.
While our staff has a keen an ear for sound, what do musicians think?
Thomas: It emerges from the ether, you know? It starts off almost in a sort of distant white noise and then has some actual note content to it. Those elements slew around and come together.
That’s Thomas Dolby. No relation to Dolby Labs. He’s an electronic music pioneer, early MTV icon, and acclaimed music producer. He also wrote this song:
[Play “She Blinded Me With Science!”]
Thomas: It's sort of like a sound emerging from the primordial soup of molecules of carbon and water vapor and ether. By alchemy, these are brought together into this sort of pillar of the final chord. It's like building structure from chaos.
A big part of the Deep Note’s allure is the different reactions you get from listeners. Some people absolutely love it, others dislike it, and some even have a case of “THX Phobia”—a true fear of the Deep Note. A YouTuber named Sean Leary put it this way:
[Sean Leary Clip “The THX logo is the single-most terrifying thing, ever. Like it just starts up like, waaaaaaa-aaaaaaaa. The THX logo makes me so, like, uneasy. I’m like ugh, no, I don’t want this…THX scarred me, for life. And that’s real. It scares me. It really does.”]
Andy Moorer, the sound designer who made the Deep Note, even has his own personal opinion.
Andy: Well, in the beginning, the cluster is very, very thick. I find it reminiscent of a piece by Olivier Messiaen, where he has the entire orchestra do bird calls. But not one at a time, all at once, and of course the thing is just mess. It's just a cacophony, you can't hear anything.
It sounds a bit like that to me, and what I like to do during that part is listen to the various voices as they rise up and just see how long I can grab hold of one of the voices and hear it fade into the cluster. And then of course as soon as everything starts rising up, you get this feeling of anticipation. Something changed. Something is going to happen. Something's happening. And it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and louder and louder and louder and then finally clicks into focus when that last tone reaches its target.
The Deep Note elicits many different emotions. But the emotion George Lucas felt when he first heard it was positive. He wanted it to play in theaters right away to announce that his movies required a great sound system. But there was only one issue.
Andy: The problem was, about a week later they came back to me and said that they had lost the master, and could I please make another one.
When Andy submitted the original Deep Note track, that was the only copy. There were no backups.
Andy: So I said, "Okay, that's fine." So I go up and I hit return. And they say, "Well that one's nice, but it's not like the original."
I said, "Um, okay. What's different?" He said, "Well the original one had this big tone, really loud tone, that goes right down to the bass note." And, you know, I groaned and thought to myself, "Well, gee. Well that's pure randomness, right? That the tone that went down, happened to be the one that was louder than all the others."
So I had to run off several different ones until I got one that the kind of thick, mysterious texture [SFX: Bass tone] at the beginning that I liked.
So we sat there for about ten minutes, running off different versions of it until we got one that they liked, that sounded sort of like the original that had that big tone going straight down [SFX: Big tone], and didn't do anything screwy during the beginning, or the cluster. And so the one you hear of the original, was a re-take of it.
Imagine if the Mona Lisa was actually Da Vinci’s seventh attempt. How much different would versions one through six have been? Was Mona Lisa smiling too much in #2? Or frowning too much in #4? Was she wearing a pink dress in #5?
Thomas: The extraordinary thing is that faced with so much choice you could ever make a single selection of something and you say, "This is it. This is going to be our audio logo." That's a tremendous responsibility.
Of all of the thousands of possibilities they get gradually eradicated one by one until you end up with the solution.
Until you hit on the single one that just pops a light bulb with a flash of inspiration.
I always worry with those things that years later Moorer will look back and go, "It sort of haunts me that number 143 was really the one and we went with number 283." You know? Because it's just very hard to stay objective when you're so deeply entrenched in possibilities.
At the time, for Andy, this was just another work project. Something he was asked to do by his employers. He had developed sound effects for movies for years, but with little fanfare. However, the Deep Note was something very different.
Andy: It was the staff screening of Return of the Jedi. George Lucas would take over a big downtown movie theater and the entire staff would go to it. And they were dead quiet for not only the logo theme, but for the entire movie, because the whole staff wanted to hear every word and every shuffle and every squeak. And then they went crazy over the credits of course. Everyone seeing their name up there.
The first couple of times I tried to hear it in a movie theater, the audience was clapping so much at the opening of Return of the Jedi that you couldn't hear it. I mean, the audience was going crazy, it was going absolutely nuts over the release of the final piece of the trilogy. So I actually didn't hear it until somewhat later.
I've enjoyed it thoroughly and I've also enjoyed the send offs on it, of which I think The Simpson's one is the best. [SFX: Simpson’s clip] But the Tiny Toon's one was good, too. [SFX: Tiny Tune’s clip start at :15]. The Wayne's World version of it was entertaining as well. [SFX: Wayne’s World example]. In fact, I will make a boast that it’s the most widely recognized piece of purely computer composed synthesized music ever.
After a few years THX decided to make alternative versions of the Deep Note [SFX: THX Cimarron version] [SFX: Grand version] However, these versions didn’t seem to have any staying power.
Andy: The other versions got panned apparently. Nobody liked them, nobody remembered them. And everybody remembers the THX logo theme.
In 2015 THX decided to remake the Deep Note using modern technology and updated surround sound capabilities. We’ll hear how they did it. After the break.
In 2015 THX decided to remake it’s iconic Deep Note. ...and, they brought in Andy Moorer to do it.
Andy: Since I didn't have the audio signal processor, that was long gone, I had to reprogram it entirely in C to run on a desktop machine.
I don’t want you to miss that. Andy reprogrammed the entire Deep Note software from the ground up.
Andy: That took one week to get an audio synthesizer working that was capable of synthesizing it. And then one more week to put it together, musically, and tune it.
Between 1983 and 2015, computer technology advanced so much that Andy was able to use a home computer to create the new Deep Note. Thanks to these advances, Andy had many more voices to work with. Voices are basically how many things can play at once. So this time around, the challenges were more creative than technical.
Andy: I found that if you use too many of them, it made it very muddled and you couldn't hear the individual voices, so I ended up making a different one for each format. The stereo one is the original 30 voices. Then when we go to five-one, it's more like 40 voices. And the seven-one is more like 60 and then the nine-one is more like 80. So I used different number of voices for different formats.
The people at THX also wanted more radical spatial effects. In the original Deep Note there's very little. [SFX: Original Deep Note] The sound comes up in one speaker and then slowly spreads to the others. But this time they wanted the sound to move all over the room, [SFX: binaural mix of New Deep Note with nine channels]
Andy: Gary Rydstrom was in when we recorded the new one and he loved it. And Ben Burtt just happened to be there so we heard it in the mixing theater at Skywalker Sound, and he loved it. I think people really liked it.
It's really challenging to gauge the Deep Note's impact on the movie industry. But, it's something Rob Cowles thinks about a lot.
Rob: Since 1983 we have actually certified over 5000 cinemas and studios.
Rob is the Global Director of Marketing for THX. He’s in charge of how consumers are embracing the THX brand.
Rob: And so if you imagine the average cinema probably has three or four shows a day... probably has ten theaters, that trailer was being played, in just one cinema, at least 30 times a day. So then do the math and say there's 5000 worldwide, you can sort of get to a number. What's really interesting, particularly now after the company's been around for 35 years…
When I took this job telling people "Hey I work for THX," all I would have to do is go to YouTube and play the deep note trailer and immediately everyone recognized it. So I think we were just really fortunate that Andy Moorer created a sound that is completely associated with cinematic experiences.
Thomas Dolby: I think that when you sit in a comfortable cinema seat and the lights go down and the commercials are over and you know that you're about to be hit with the main feature, it's like a focusing of the brain. It's like a sort of collective experience of an om chant, [SFX: om chant played under dialog] you know, to get us all focused on the immersive environment that we're now sitting in for the next couple of hours. And it's sort of a collective agreement to surrender our senses to the immersion of the movie we're about to see, and I think that's really why it's so powerful.
In marketing terms the THX “Deep Note” is what you’d call an “Audio Logo.” It’s a sound mnemonic that’s played in conjunction with the visual logo of the brand.
Scott: A great audio logo isn't just memorable, it's really good at evoking a certain emotion, or kind of creating an instant paradigm in three seconds, and the best ones do that.
That’s Scott Simonelli, the founder of Veritonic, a marketing intelligence platform for sound. Veritonic is used by brands, agencies and publishers to to measure audio effectiveness in their marketing.
Scott: Clearly, there's a dramatic nature to the THX one I think that is really unique, because it kind of created that experience of theater, and drama, and "I'm at the movies," and to do that with just that noise, is amazing.
You know you'd hear that and it would kind of go around the speakers, and there was surround sound, and there was this immersive experience, and it just, you know, it upped the game.
It kind of just sets the tone that, "Get ready, because there's gonna be sound all around you." It's a very dramatic moment, for sure. It speaks to the power of audio, but it also speaks to how potentially strong that is as an audio logo.
But, unlike a lot of audio logos, which only appear at the end of the advertisement, THX Deep Note, it's also the message itself. It's different than say, a McDonald's commercial, where you're seeing people eating, and having a good time, and then at the end you hear [SFX: Ba-da, ba-pa, da!] With THX, the Deep Note is not only the logo, it’s the message. It’s almost as if it’s challenging the audio capabilities of the theater it’s playing in.
Marketing is very audience-focused. The goal is to match your product or service to the exact demographic who needs it. But some of the most effective brands can target everyone, of every age.
Scott: I put it on, on my laptop just to refresh my memory, and my 11-year-old son whose maybe been to the movies twice, because different generation, immediately goes, "I know that sound! That's from the movies." I was stunned that he had the recall on that. I can't think he's been to the movies more than two or three times in his entire life, and he knew it instantly. I was floored, really, it was amazing, and granted, that's an anecdote of one, but it's a very ... very good example of somebody whose maybe heard it once or twice, and knew instantly, and associated it.
Some people have a sense of fear when they hear the THX Deep Note. Some feel like the beginning sounds like a plane in a nosedive. [SFX: plane diving] Or a siren alerting [SFX: siren wailing] people of danger.
Scott: That's one of the things we analyze, so my curiosity. Now that I'm hearing more, and learning more about the details, I'm getting more, and more curious. So, yeah, I think fear could be the kind of thing, and we see it with certain clients, especially, pharmaceutical clients, where they want to create tension early in a spot, and then resolve that tension later. Like, you've got this probably, or this pain point, and we're gonna help you feel better about it. Also, it does you know, fear, and kind of just like a general call to be alert, maybe in a more benign way you kind of want that, you want to grab people's attention.
Andy Moorer created one of the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. But why was the creation of the THX company so important to the movie industry? Andy explains.
Andy: Well, George Lucas said that sound is half the movie. Now, having said that, it doesn't get near as much money as the picture does of course. The one data point I have is Empire Strikes Back where the movie itself cost $34 million and the sound budget was $2 million and that's a pretty common ratio, that 16:1 or so.
But the thing about sound ... look, you carry a device in your pocket every day, most of whose purpose is to convey sound. If you get on a subway or a bus, everybody is plugged in. They're not all listening to music, they're maybe listening to NPR, or to a podcast or some such. But sound is considered so important that we want to carry it with us everywhere and we want to carry our favorite sounds with us everywhere. And we want to be able to listen to them anytime, or something like them.
Sound is just such an integral part to our being and to our way of life.
So, my feeling is that the picture is nice and all that, but what really moves us to our core is the sound. And the sound has ways of influencing us. That is, making us cry or making us rejoice. That's hard to do just using the image.
The THX Deep Note is a fascinating piece of music. Or should I say technology? Or marketing element? In fact, it’s all three. Maybe that’s why we are so subconsciously fascinated by it.
Thomas: It arrived at a time where movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars and so on had really captured the public's imagination, and the fact that THX came out of Lucas Film, it came from one of the premier filmmakers of the day rather than from a random engineer, I think had a lot of significance for the audience.
Rob: I'd actually like to do some research, where you literally have two side by side theaters and people go in and watch the exact same movie and the only variable is that one group actually hears the deep note and one group does not, because I really think that subconsciously people got more excited about movies when they heard the deep note.
Scott: What’s cool about I think the THX logo with an anecdote from my son, is it's not a generational thing if you've been exposed to it. It has the same effect on somebody who has a whole different set of experiences, and is obviously a lot younger than me. Does that translate to an 11-year-old child? Sound design is a very interesting and complex art.
There are so many ways to dissect the THX Deep Note, to unwrap it layer by layer. But the truth is, no one had ever heard anything like it before. Andy Moorer may have been inspired by Bach… or maybe the Beatles. But he looked at music in a way that a few pioneering artists did at that time. Not bound by the limits of acoustic instruments, or analog recording systems. He created a sound that the world will always remember. Whether you’re 85 years old or 6 years old.
Andy: The way I look at it is that a piece of music is a story. Tell me a story. As long as there's been people, there have been stories.
Stories have form. That is, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Pieces of music are stories, too. That is, if you hear a Mozart Sonata, you hear the theme at the beginning, the development, and the recapitulation of the theme. It comes back.
Storytelling is so deeply ingrained in human beings that it becomes the most important thing in the world.
THX logo theme is a story It has a beginning, which is unsettling. Then it has an anticipation, a sudden reversal - a change - an evolution. You could make a relation between the THX logo theme and the Hero's Journey. Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. That is, the hero starts out an unformed being, or starts out with a conflict, goes on a journey, and then achieves the godhead. That is, either meets a god or undergoes some mystical experience and then comes back from that transformed, never to be the same again.
Well, the THX logo theme is a microcosm of that whole experience.That was deliberate on my part. I wanted to give it a story arc. I wanted to tell a story starting from nothing and then building up to some big shining bold conclusion.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. A sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at defactosound.com.
This episode was written and produced by Kevin Edds… and me, Dallas Taylor… with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.
Many thanks to Andy Moorer, a software engineer, musician, and sound designer of the THX Deep Note. ...and thanks to acclaimed musician and producer, Thomas Dolby. Thomas is currently professor of a brand new degree course called “Music for the New Media” at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. And thank you to Scott Simonelli from Veritonic. Learn more at veritonic.com. Finally, a special thanks to Rob Cowles, Global Director of marketing for THX. To learn more visit THX.com.
The music in this episode is courtesy of our friends at Musicbed. Having great music should be an asset to your project, not a roadblock. Musicbed is dedicated to making that a reality. That’s why they’ve completely rebuilt their platform of world-class artists and composers with brand-new features and advanced filters to make finding the perfect song easier and faster. Learn more at musicbed.com/new.
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