A science-fiction film or television series needs numerous elements to become a true classic. Memorable characters, intelligent stories, and top-notch special effects all contribute. But, honestly, it helps if the spaceships in these shows and movies make cool noises, too. At Atlas Obscura, writer Eric Grundhauser offers an examination and celebration of sci-fi’s best ambient engine sounds. It’s an aspect of the genre that many fans never give much thought, but for some it’s an obsession or even a profession. In his investigation of the topic, Grundhauser speaks with Spike Snell, a YouTuber who catalogs his favorite sci-fi engine sounds, and Peter Lago, a sound-effects editor occasionally tasked with creating such noises.
Sci-fi engine sounds, it turns out, are like snowflakes or fingerprints. Professionals like Largo labor to make sure that each vessel, like The Ark from The 100, has its own distinctive drone or whine. Acolytes like Snell revel in these differences. Snell has taken it upon himself to create lengthy loops of particularly beloved sci-fi engine sounds, like the inimitable purr of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) from Star Trek: The Next Generation. “I’d love to be aboard the ship,” Snell says, “and the sound itself is incredibly nostalgic to me.” Lago offers his professional assessment of the Next Generation noise: “This ambient loop feels like a heavily processed recording of an airplane in flight.”
Lago similarly reviews several other ambient loops of sci-fi engine sounds, including the title vehicle from Battlestar Galactica and the real life International Space Station. Of the former, he says: “This feels a bit like a processed hot rod/El Camino/Camaro idling, blended with a slightly flanged air conditioning return. It’s not a fancy, romantic sci-fi element, but it’s cool!” Of the latter: “Listen to it long enough and you’ll find yourself nodding your head to the beat.”
Lago also gives away the tricks of the trade. The signature sound of The 100, for instance, was recorded at a Fresh & Easy grocery store with a particularly enchanting freezer. “I just stuck my recorder in there and closed it,“ Lago remembers, “and just stood outside of the freezer for a minute or so.”