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TRON Sound Designer Frank Serafine Interview

By TronFAQ on Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 9:21 PM
The TRON Wiki has a new interview with Frank Serafine, who created virtually all of the sound effects for the original TRON film.

In the interview, Serafine reveals exactly how he created the sound effects for the Light Cycles, Recognizers, Identity Discs, Tanks, and more. He also shares a few tantalizing tidbits about the upcoming TRON sequel. (To read what Serafine revealed, and for plenty of other news about the sequel: please visit this previous article.)

Congratulations to TRON Wiki founder Mr. Sinistar for scoring this great interview with Mr. Serafine.
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4 comments so far.

  1. Anonymous January 29, 2009 3:39 AM
    Tom R. Halfhill wrote an article in the September 1982 issue of Compute! Magazine, called "The Sounds of Tron", where he interviewed Frank Serafine. The article focused specifically on the use of an Atari 800 and Apple II for "many" of the sound effects in the movie. You cannot find this article online (though it is referenced at http://www.atarimagazines.com/compute/index/). Compute! went out of print in 1994 and it's doubtful you can find any issues at most libraries nowadays. I, however, happen to have my own collection. :)

    These are some notes from the article:

    It says Serafine created a system called "Electronic Sound Assembly". It was used for the first time in Tron. It was described as doing for sound "what word processing does for writing." It allowed "the manipulation and fine tuning of work on a video screen."

    "Serafine can digitalize sound effects, feed them into a Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument), plot the waveforms on a monitor and tinker with them almost endlessly. In fact, he can actually alter the sound directly on the screen with a light pen. The results are sounds honed to an unbelievable degree of detail. Serafine says he was inspired by the sound-layering techniques pioneered by the Beatles in the 1960s with considerably less sophisticated equipment, 'They achieved a subliminal effect, something which made you want to listen to their music over and over again to hear every sound. That's what I tried to do with the sound effects in Tron.'"

    It said Serafine assembled more than 50 different sounds for the light cycles. When a cycle makes a 90-degree turn the sound effect is a combination of video game tones generated on an Atari and the recording of a buzz saw. Likewise the sound of tanks prowling around were a compilation of dozens of sounds made with the Atari, all layered together.

    It said the video game bleeps and zaps used for the grid bugs, the shock prods wielded by the guards, and the collisions of tanks with walls were all done on the Atari.

    The Apple II was used with plug-in sound cards from Mountain Hardware and Alpha Centauri keyboard. These gave it a wider range of sound capabilities than the Atari. It was used for the "bonging" noise of a thrown disc. The sound from the Apple was overdubbed with recordings of a bullwhip and monkeys screaming at the San Diego Zoo.

    It was Disney's idea to use personal computers in the sound production.

    The first time Serafine worked for Disney was when they hired him "to put together a multimedia presentation for the grand opening of Space Mountain at Disneyland in 1977."

    Atari lent Serafine what was called the Atari Sound Development Disk, "a well-guarded, powerful utility package rarely entrusted to anyone outside Atari itself." The sounds that came from the Atari were programmed by Ed Rotberg, and Laurent Basset who was 17 at the time. Basset was the son of one of Serafine's friends.

    "He's a whiz kid," says Serafine. "This kid was actually able to do anything I wanted done on the machine. I would dream of a sound or a concept, and he would come back to me the next day with the finished programs.

    All the thousands of sound effects created on the computers or collected on tape were cataloged on the Atari with FileManager 800, a data base program by Synapse Software. Serafine says it saved his studio hours of tedious filing. The record for any sound effect, listing its characteristics, source, and location on tape, could be retrieved in 1.5 seconds."

    Serafine said, "The amazing thing to me is the purity of the sound that comes out of the Atari, and also the Apple. Their sound chips produce an extremely clean, pure sound which is even superior to some synthesizers I've worked with. We had no trouble using those sounds in the movie."
  2. TronFAQ January 31, 2009 8:38 PM
    Mark, thanks very much for going to the trouble to type (or scan) all that! Much appreciated.

    The info from that older article makes a nice complement to the newer interview with Mr. Serafine, and provides us with a more complete picture as to how he created all the sound effects.
  3. Anonymous January 31, 2009 11:33 PM
    No biggie. I just typed it. The article was longer. I think the older article from Compute! focused on the two computers because the magazine had regular coverage of them, among many other microcomputer models. Serafine talked about these computers in the blog interview, but made them sound like minor players compared to all of the natural sound that was recorded, and the engineering he did with synthesizers. I remember thinking after I read the Compute article that somehow they generated a majority of the sound effects on the computers. It turned out, like with the computer world visuals, most of the effects were created using old-fashioned techniques. It sounds like Halfhill might've overemphasized the role of the computers a little, which is not out of the question. I remember Compute placing more importance on things than they deserved sometimes. Their enthusiasm got the better of them.

    Something I didn't mention from the article is it said that Lisberger was in on the sound design. He wanted the movie to communicate with sound. Serafine said that for example with the flying discs, Lisberger wanted a "sad" sound associated with them. While they looked neat, he wanted to get across that you wouldn't want to be hit by one. So they used the screeching of the monkeys to add a kind of "whine" to the sound.

    In the recent interview, when they talked about favorite sounds, I remembered a little sound effect you hear in Tron when Alan turns on his terminal in the cubicle. You hear a brief high pitched "BUZZ". I know that sound anywhere. It was a built-in warning sound the Atari made when you were reaching a limit, like maximum line length for input. Good memories.
  4. Anonymous February 02, 2009 10:41 AM
    Very cool! I hope Frank is working on the new movie. Gotta go read the article. I've been admiring his work since discovering him from the same article that Mark talks about. I have it too. (^_^) I was an Atari 800 users then, so it was great to see him using it in the original film. The 800 had a great sound generator.

    I'd love to hear what Mr. Serafine would come up for the new film today, building on his original work. Let's hope he gets involved in sound effects for the new video game too.

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