The Sounds of a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Original STAR WARS Audio

Originally published in 2006

star wars

With the announcement that later this year Lucasfilm will be issuing on DVD (for the first time) the original version of STAR WARS — that is, a version preceding the "Special Edition" that debuted in theatres in 1997 and on DVD some years after — there has been a vibrant debate online among fans about the source of the video masters and the completeness of the video transfer that will be used. Never has so much virtual ink been spilled on whether or not a 16:9 anamorphic transfer has been done!

But in these online discussions, I've noticed some trivia about differences among video releases and broadcasts of STAR WARS (Okay, STAR WARS, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE, for those too young to know the difference) which are intriguing, in that they not only point to alternate sound takes and different mixing levels among music, sound effects and dialogue, but to dialogue that has been re-looped (and not in all cases by the same actors).

There are differing opinions about what constitutes a definitive version of a film, and for many (myself included) the original release of STAR WARS is THE one. But there are questions (and some circumstantial evidence) of disparities in the soundtrack of STAR WARS in its initial release (starting from the fact that there are differences among the stereo 70mm, stereo 35mm and mono soundtracks, since studios in those days offered mono prints to theatres not equipped for Dolby stereo).

In 1977, being a film music aficionado and a John Williams fan in particularly, I was ecstatic with the 2-LP soundtrack album release for STAR WARS, but even that generous collection did not provide every music cue. And so I attended showings of a 70mm print at the Paramus Triplex (in its day the largest screen in New Jersey) and recorded the film onto a small cassette recorder — first sitting down front on the far left side of the theatre, then again on the far right side.

With the aid of a patient friend and his reel-to-reel tape recorder, I then ran both tapes concurrently to create a stereo master, mindful of the inherent limitations of this procedure:

  1. In order to keep both tracks pretty much in sync, the speed of a playback unit had to be slowed down if one track started gaining on the other. Sometimes a too-abrupt slowdown on the tape player's motor produced a draggy effect.
  2. Because the tracks aren't perfectly in sync, music and dialogue often went out of phase, creating a much more echoey effect than what was actually heard in the theatre.
  3. At those points where a cassette tape turnover was required during initial recording, only one of the two tracks could be used so the sound would briefly shift from stereo to mono then back again.

Despite these drawbacks, what we produced was a reasonably clean reproduction of the soundtrack, and complete (although the cinema's reel change cut off the end of Gran Moff Tarkin's declaration, "We will then crush the rebellion with one swift stroke," and the cinema's choppy print was also responsible for missing part of C-3PO's line to R2-D2 about Luke blasting him into a million pieces). It was a heck of a lot of effort, though, and — apart from a stereo recording of the original release of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (another John Williams masterwork that has certainly gone through more contorted changes than STAR WARS) — not one duplicated by me, thank you very much.

Re-listening to it now, it is painfully clear that using digital editing software like Cool Edit could probably eliminate these sync problems, cut down on hiss and maybe even reduce or eliminate the incessant and irritating Pops that occurred when the volume of the movie house speakers was too much for the little cassette recorder to handle. But, well, LIFE IS TOO SHORT to revisit these tapes with an ear towards re-doing this — and no, don't bother asking. Nevertheless, as a cultural artifact — and an archeological one — this may be of interest to those who debate, for example, whether Luke really said "Blast it, Biggs, where are you?" or "Blast it, Wedge, where are you?" (it was the former), or who may be convinced that the Luke/Biggs reunion scene in the rebel hanger towards the end was in the initial release prints (it wasn't).

[Internet Movie Database has a long laundry list of changes among theatrical and video releases and broadcasts of STAR WARS here. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all the notations on that list, but to contradict what one writer suggests, the stormtrooper signaling "Close the blast doors" is NOT heard in this 70mm version, even though the line was included in the 1977 commercial release "The Story of STAR WARS." And when you find that someone has had the time to write a web site dedicated to the STAR WARS Mono Sound Mix, you realize that information on the history and development of classic films is an important tool, no matter how specific.]

So as we await the DVD release — which may or may not be the ORIGINAL original, if you listen to some online savants — the three MP3 files of this recording below will allow students of film history and STAR WARS arcana to lay to rest any questions about the origin or authenticity of certain film elements. Compressing these sound files down may have made them sound even worse, but the stereo separation is still there, as are the stentorian tones of yours truly who, for some reason, read the opening crawl into BOTH left and right tracks, heaven knows why.

Click below to access the following three files:

  • SW1977_Part1.mp3 (Approx. 45 mins.)
  • SW1977_Part2.mp3 (Approx. 45 mins.)
  • SW1977_Part3.mp3 (Approx. 30 mins.)

    And remember, this archival recording is posted for educational and historical purposes only. (Hopefully my friends at ILM can back me up on this.) Once the DVD comes out, that disc's proper, THX-ified (and in-sync!) stereo track should sate the purists and completists far more than this rough-around-the-edges home-made soundtrack can.

    UPDATE: Once I posted these online, there were calls from forum members at for a cleaned-up version, on which I initially demurred, knowing how much time it would take even with some decent audio software. And, life is too short. But I finally figured I would at least try my hand on a section of the soundtrack and see how easily (or not) it went.

    So I dubbed the original left and right track tapes for the final battle scene (about 15 minutes), saved each as WAV files, them merged them into a single stereo WAV file. I then chose one track and periodically slowed down segments to try to keep it running in sync with its sister track. (Simply aligning the two tracks from end to end didn't work, and changing the speed wholesale wouldn't keep them in sync for long, so I'd end up having to sync it up every minute or so.) It grew to be as annoying as the original audio work done three decades ago, only this time with computers!

    And yes, life is STILL too short.

    So I have posted the test file that resulted — (SW77Redo_FinalBattle.mp3), so those who downloaded the original can hear for themselves whether the extra effort is worth it. Given the Original Trilogy DVDs' release — and the fact that life doesn't get longer — I'd say no.


    Audio of TV commercials for the wide re-release of STAR WARS in 1978, sounding as if they'd been written by someone who hadn't seen the film yet.

  • STARTS TOMORROW — "This was how it all began..." (the opening flyover sans music); "What if this were all happening right now?"; "No legendary adventure of the past could be as exciting as STAR WARS..."; "In danger ... in love ... in STAR WARS"; 'Every great story ..."

  • NOW PLAYING — "This was how it all began..."; "What if this were all happening right now?"; "Thrilling ... beautiful ... dangerous..."

  • Episode II:

    EMPIRE STRIKES BACK's 70mm Audio

      empire strikes back

    UPDATE 2011:

    The posting a few years back of the in-theater audio recording dating from the initial 1977 70mm engagement of STAR WARS as described above did more than just help settle debates that had been brewing among fans studying changes that have occurred in the film since it premiered, and of the differences inherent among the 70mm 6-track stereo, 35mm 4-track stereo and 35mm mono soundtracks, none of which exactly match in sound effects, dialogue, or sound levels.

    While I'd remembered doing a similar in-theatre recording at a 70mm screening of "The Empire Strikes Back" in 1980, I did not have the tapes and figured they had not survived. But, they did.

    I recently located the raw right and left channel tapes, and have put them together, using a different process than I'd done with the reel-to-reel deck three decades ago. Transferring both channels into WAV files, I used the right channel as a guide track and sped up/slowed down the left channel to sync as closely as I could, though it's not always perfect. There are still sync and phasing issues, and a few dropouts, but the sound is good enough to provide a window on how the film existed in a 70mm engagement in the summer of 1980.

    I did no equalization or adjustment of the original audio, and the stereo doesn't kick in until the opening crawl ends when both left and right tracks are up and running. (At least I didn't READ the crawl out into the mic as I did with STAR WARS.) The two instances where I had to flip over cassettes necessitated that the sound would be briefly in mono. Also, for part two (about half an hour), I have not located the left channel cassette, so that section as presented here is in mono only.

    Still, for those researching differences in the soundtracks of the 70mm and 35mm versions of ESB, let alone with the special editions and various video releases, I figure these files will help answer those questions.

    Here are the files:

  • ESB_part1_stereo.mp3 (62MB) (approx. 54 mins.)
  • ESB_part2_mono.mp3 (44 MB) (approx. 38 mins.)
  • ESB_part3_stereo.mp3 (36MB) (approx. 31 mins.)

    The changes made from the original 70mm 6-track soundtrack to the 4-track Dolby for its 35mm engagements were not nearly as drastic as the differences among the tracks of the first STAR WARS release. There are several discussions on the forums that delineate these changes or discrepancies, including added or alternate sound effects and different dialogue takes - much more minor than in the first film, but to STAR WARS scholars still worthy of noting. Also, images of changes made between a 1993 video release and the later special edition which offers useful reference.

    And before you ask, no, I did not do a similar recording of RETURN OF THE JEDI, which I found a disappointment (though with the advent of the prequels its estimation is perhaps raised a bit in my eyes now).

  • copyright 2006, 2009, 2011 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.