Instruments of Horror: Creating Iconic sounds from Horror Films


With Halloween creeping closer, this is the perfect time to introduce film genre into audio engineering. Some movies just have a classic sound to them that you hear over and over. Today we can achieve those with digital instruments and computers, but believe it or not there are still people out there that prefer them in analog. Turn your lights down low and take an eerie trip to learn how to create iconic sounds from horror films.

The Waterphone

This first instrument is likely to make the hair on your neck stand up. It can be hammered, bowed or plucked and create a different sound and effect for each.

The Waterphone was invented and is patented by Richard Waters. Each instrument is unique and made to order. He personally makes, tunes, signs and dates each Waterphone. It can be heard in such movies as The Matrix; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Aliens among many others.  Its characteristic unique vibrato and shrill metallic sound is recognized just about anywhere. A resonator may contain a small amount of water giving the waterphone a vibrant ethereal sound. You can actually build your own, but Waters has taken over 40 years of experience to perfect it. You can always buy a custom one from him here.

The Theremin

The Theremin is another unique instrument that you are sure to recognize. Used as early as the 1920s, it is often used to create sounds of ghosts, aliens and haunting melodic tunes.

It is named after its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928.

The instrument’s controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas, which sense the relative position of the thereminist’s hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand and amplitude (volume) with the other. The electric (electrical engineering) signals from the Theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.

The Theremin can be heard in such films as  Monster House, Ed Wood, The Machinist and Dark Shadows.

You can purchase kits to make your own theremin, but be sure that you practice away from neighborhood cats and dogs.

The Blaster Beam

Used more in Sci-Fi, this instrument can also create a very strange and unpleasant sound. The Blaster Beam is a concept electronic musical instrument consisting of a 12- to 18-foot long metal beam strung with numerous tensed wires under which are mounted electric guitar pickups that can be moved to alter the sound produced.

The instrument is played by striking or plucking the strings with fingers, sticks, pipes or even large objects such as artillery shell casings. It produces a very distinctive bass tone, the sound of which is often described as “dark” or “sinister.” It is heard often in the Star Wars and Star Trek movies.  Some people often confuse this with striking piano strings.

Experiment with each instrument if you dare for a frightening Halloween and don’t forget to join our mailing list to receive our helpful blogs straight to your inbox!

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