Most Star Wars fans are aware that there are certain audio differences between the different versions of the original movie. In fact, there are actually six different sound mixes for the original Star Wars (another three if you include the mixes for the Theatrical Special Editions in 1997, the DVD in 2004 and the Blu-ray in 2011.) This article explains the background behind the various mixes and details the key differences between them.
History of the various sound mixes
After shooting, the sound editing team began by preparing pre-mixes know as “stems” (typically: music, dialogue, FX-A, FX-B and foley). These stems served as the basis for the initial theatrical showings of the film, on both the 35mm format with Dolby Stereo (4 channels matrix-encoded into two optical tracks), and the deluxe 70mm prints, which featured the Dolby “baby boom” audio on 6 discrete magnetic tracks.
It is clear that Ben Burtt and his sound crew scrambled to create the initial two sound mixes in the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere. During post-production, sound mixer Derek Ball was sent to Shelagh Fraser’s house to record replacement dialogue for Beru Lars. Also, according to Anthony Daniels, C3PO’s tractor beam line was recorded long after filming had finished, on his own in a broom cupboard in London. The recorded tape was biked to the airport so the line could be inserted into the movie ref - although perhaps it arrived too late as the line did not appear on the initial mixes. Star Wars Year by Year : A Visual History states that the line was first included in the July 1978 theatrical re-release.
At the time the original Dolby Stereo mix was created, it was envisaged that this would be a single inventory release for all domestic theaters. As this was a relatively new idea, the Dolby Stereo mix reflected a somewhat cautious and conservative approach to properties such as dynamic range, width of stereo image and low frequency content - the concern being that the majority of houses at the time were equipped with generally low quality mono sound systems, and there was little confidence that those that did have the facility for stereo reproduction were set up properly.
The 70mm “Baby Boom” format used the same 70mm format as Todd-AO with some slight modifications. There were three speakers behind the screen designated left, center, and right. There was also one surround channel and two low frequency effects channels that accepted frequencies below 200 Hz. This format, with discrete channels, greater clarity and dynamic range characteristics, and bass extension, obviously offered more options for the mixers to draw on.
There was also a mix created for the 35mm four-track magnetic Stereo format, destined for international prints. Very little information is available regarding the properties or content of this third mix.
After completing the multi-channel versions for the first prints, the sound editors created yet another mix, a single-channel monaural track. This mix was to be included on prints destined for theatres not equipped with stereo sound systems, and for ancillary markets. While the mono mix could have been created from the Dolby Stereo master by “folding” the tracks into one, instead the team decided to create a new dedicated mono mix from scratch.
At the time, the extended life of a film was played out through television broadcasts. It was thought that long after the film had disappeared from the big screen, this was how it would be remembered, and it seemed logical to refine the mix to this end for archival concerns. Thus, the editors took the opportunity to revise and enhance selected portions of the soundtrack. Sound designer Ben Burtt recalls: “Because we were always trying to make the film better and better and fix things that were not right, there was some ‘sweetening’ done; things like different Stormtrooper or C-3PO lines, additional sound effects, or some different ADR.” ref
Some members of the production felt the mono mix represented the definitive soundtrack of the movie (not in terms of a sonic experience but, rather, in terms of audio content), and felt that the multi-channel versions were a novelty that only select audiences would be treated to during a brief theatrical run. “George put a lot of effort in that mono mix,” Burtt remembers, “and he even said several times, ‘Well, this is the real mix. This is the definitive mix of the film.’ He paid more attention to it because he felt it was more important archivally.” ref
Official home video releases
The early home video releases on VHS and laserdisc (also more obscure formats such as Betamax, CED and VHD) featured the Dolby Stereo mix, identical to that heard on the 35mm theatrical prints. The superior source being the Japanese pan & scan laserdisc released in 1991, which contains uncompressed digital stereo audio. Playing the mix through a home Dolby Pro-logic decoder authentically recreates the original 4-channel surround experience.
In 1985, when Fox decided to re-release Star Wars on video with a digitally remastered audio track, sound designer Ben Burtt asked to be involved. What Burtt actually ended up doing was creating an entirely new sound mix for the film - so the audio for the 1985 video release is actually the fifth official Star Wars audio mix. It’s possible that the 1977 35mm magnetic 4-track master was used as the source for this new mix. Among the clean up and digital repairs, some interesting new changes were added. These include sweetened sound effects, new stereo’d effects and the addition of C-3PO’s line in the Death Star. This new sound mix was used for every subsequent video release until 1993.
The sixth mix, digitally remastered by Ben Burtt and Gary Summers, was created for the THX-certified Definitive Collection laserdisc boxed set released in 1993. Supposedly a mix of the best elements of all three original mixes (ref), a critical comparison reveals it is primarily a fold-down of the 6-track 70mm mix, with some mono mix elements and additional effects “dialled in”. An interview with Dave Schnuelle, then with the THX LaserDisc Program, corroborates these observations. ref
The original theatrical version on the 2006 DVD release bonus disc also sports this 1993 mix.
The original mono mix and 70mm mixes have never been released on home video (the 1985 home video mix may be equivalent to the 35mm 4-track mix).
A fan project to restore the original mono mix (as sourced from various recordings of TV broadcasts), lead by an originaltrilogy.com member named Belbucus, was completed in 2007. The project thread can be found here.
The only references available for the 70mm mix were “in-theatre” recordings made by fans with portable cassette recorders. A comparison of one of these recordings against the 1993 mix can be viewed here. A fan project to recreate the 70mm mix was completed by a member called hairy_hen; details can be found here.
These fan-made audio tracks have subsequently been used in several restoration projects, including Harmy’s “de-specialized edition”.
Comparison of the different mixes
- The original Dolby Stereo mix has narrow stereo imaging (soundstage), and a low dynamic range (volume difference between quiet and loud sounds).
- The 6-track mix has considerably more dynamic range, a much wider stereo image, and a significantly “weightier” presence overall.
- The original Academy mono also has a low dynamic range (obviously no stereo imaging).
- The 1985 remix has a wider soundstage, but still a low dynamic range.
- The 1993 remix has both a wide soundstage and a high dynamic range.
Specific content differences
(compared to the initial 35mm Dolby Stereo mix)
Original 70mm 6-track mix
In terms of content, the 6-track is almost identical to the Dolby Stereo mix, because the two mixes were both mastered from the same stems. There are however a few spots where the effects mix differs noticeably, mostly to bolster the impact of loud sections in the main channels as well as the boom track.
- At the points where the blockade runner hits the screen, and where the escape pod is launched, there are additional sound effects in the centre (and boom) channel(s) offering a sharper attack and heavily pronounced bass.
- When Han takes out Vader’s first wingman in the trench, the explosion sound is completely different - a deep explosion that emanates primarily from the left and boom channels.
These differences can also be heard in the 1993 remix, and were not part of Burtt’s additions at the time.
Original mono mix
There are a multitude of minor content differences in the mono mix. Some are listed below; you can also listen to the changes on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/aeXpcYcZNDw
- The alarm on board the rebel blockade runner makes a different sound.
- Most of Aunt Beru’s lines are different takes (see the discussion here).
- Chewie has several extra growls in the mono mix that are not heard in the Dolby Stereo mix.
- When Luke and Ben come across the slaughtered Jawas, R2-D2 beeps.
- As the group heads into the cantina, a cantina band musical cue can be heard.
- The cantina patron known on set as “Snake Head” (known later as Dice Ibegon) makes chirping sounds in the mono mix.
- When searching for the droids, the stormtrooper at Mos Eisley says: “Alright, check that side of the street. It’s secure. Move on to the next one.” Instead of: “Alright, check this side of the street. The door’s locked. Move on to the next one.”
- The chess monsters make more noise and sound more vicious.
- When the Falcon comes out of hyperspace there is a pronounced deceleration sound–a winding down sound effect.
- After Han says, “Chewie, jam its transmissions” a radio frequency type sound effect is heard when Chewie flips the switches.
- A different sound effect is heard when the Falcon is caught in the tractor beam.
- C-3PO’s tractor beam line is added. “The tractor beam is coupled to the main reactor in seven locations. A power loss at one of the terminals will allow the ship to leave.”
- The comlink communication to Tarkin is a different voice. An additional line is also present. “Governor Tarkin? We have an emergency alert in detention block AA-23.” Instead of: “We have an emergency alert in detention block AA-23.”
- When Chewie beats on the trash compactor door, a knocking sound is heard.
- When Luke is trying to contact C-3PO from the trash compactor, some of C-3PO’s lines are different takes. “What? Use the comlink? Oh my, I forgot, I turned it off.”
- The hard, repeating echo in the chasm is not heard. “I think we took a wrong turn… think we took a wrong turn…” etc.
- When Princess Leia fires the blaster in the chasm there is a distinct gunshot sound. Usually referred to as the “.44 magnum”.
- The “Close the blast doors!” line is added.
- More sound effects are heard as Luke charges up the gun turret on the Falcon.
- Luke’s line “So, you got your reward and you’re just leaving then?” is a different take.
- Porkins’ scream is not heard in the mono sound mix.
- The voice on the Death Star–“The rebel base will be in firing range in seven minutes.” etc.–is different.
- Luke says “Blast it, Wedge! Where are you?” instead of “Blast it, Biggs! Where are you?”
- Many transmissions heard over the speaker during the battle of Yavin are not synthesized, e.g. “Rendezvous at mark six point one.”
Content of the 1985 mix is very similar to the original Dolby Stereo mix.
There are some newly “stereo’d” effects (Jawa voices after Artoo’s capture) and, most noticeably, the addition of C-3PO’s line in the Death Star (“The tractor beam is coupled to the main reactor in seven locations. A power loss at one of the terminals will allow the ship to leave”).
Since this mix is primarily a fold-down of the original 70mm mix, its content is mostly similar, but there are numerous effects that were added during the mastering session:
- Additional explosion sounds have been added to the initial Tantive/Star Destoyer battle.
- A low rumble effect has been added before the imperial troops start to cut throught the Tantive door. †
- The laser blast that convinces 3PO to get into the escape pod now has an added impact noise.
- Additional electrical sparking sounds when the Jawas attach the restraining bolt to R2
- When Luke and Ben come across the slaughtered Jawas, R2-D2 beeps. †
- The cantina patron known on set as “Snake Head” (known later as Dice Ibegon) makes chirping sounds. †
- Chewbacca responds with a short growl when Han says “get back to the ship”. †
- When the Millenium Falcon exits hyperspace into the meteor shower, the sound of debris whizzing past the ship has been added.
- Sound of laserfire has been added when the imperial fighter flies past the Falcon.
- During the blaster fight in the detention block, additional laserfire and the sound of shattering glass has been added when the wall “cameras” are taken out.
- Additional laserfire effects have been added to the fight before our heroes escape down the garbage chute.
- A knocking sound has been added when Chewie beats on the trash compactor door. †
- The noise of water and a mechanical noise of the trash compactor has been added †
- Various additional laserfire effects added for imperial fighters and death star gun turrets in the final battle sequence.
- Additional explosion effect when R2 gets hit by Vader.
(† these additions can also be heard in the original mono mix.)
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