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New Podcast Details Secret Sounds of Star Wars

Northwestern’s SoundTank podcasts feature award-winning sound professionals

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February 15, 2016

EVANSTON, Ill. --- What makes the electrified hum of a lightsaber?

Academy Award-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who worked on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” explains the mysterious sound behind a Jedi’s trusty weapon in the new Northwestern University SoundTank podcast series.

SoundTank, a collaborative brainstorming space for artists, musicians, sound designers, researchers and engineers is a linchpin to the School of Communication’s new master’s degree in Sound Arts and Industries.

The new podcast features industry professionals like Rydstrom, who is known for the sound design behind films such as “Finding Nemo,” “Saving Private Ryan” and Jurassic Park.” It will also highlight student work and faculty collaborations.

“Most programs put out a newsletter, but since we work with and through sound, we thought, ‘what better way to convey what we’re doing than in sonic form?’” said Jacob Smith, associate professor in the department of radio, television, and film and director of the new master’s program.

“It’s a way to highlight the great sound work done by Northwestern faculty and to broadcast that work out to the world by podcasting, one of the most dynamic new platforms for audio.”

SoundTank emerged from the 2014 Lambert Family Sonic Boom Conference at the School of Communication, where Rydstrom was the keynote speaker. The incubator was launched last fall.

“What I found fascinating at the Northwestern sound conference was that it included people outside my area, people studying the neurology of sound, the biology of sound,” Rydstrom said in the podcast. “I’m fascinated by how sound works, how music works. How does it affect our brain? How does hearing affect our emotions?”

The new one-year MA in Sound Arts and Industries seeks to continue the work done at that conference, bringing together sound artists, scholars, and scientists in collaborative ways.

In the podcast, Rydstrom discussed several aspects of his career, including his first professional sound credit for the movie “Cocoon” and his experiences designing sound for Computer Generated Imagery (CGI)-animated features.

He also addressed some of the challenges he faced in updating the iconic sound effects of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, such as the hum of lightsabers, the scream of TIE Fighters, the beeps of droids and the voice of Chewbacca.

The inaugural SoundTank podcast is titled “A Sonic Boom.” It features interviews with Northwestern professors Nina Kraus, Bryan Pardo, Jacob Smith, David Tolchinsky and Neil Verma. Original music is by Brendan Baker, who runs the “Love + Radio” podcast.

“Gary Rydstrom: Secrets of Star Wars Sound Design” is available on iTunes and SoundCloud. You can hear it and learn more about the program on the School of Communication website.

-- Story by Cara Lockwood