Cracking ice-sheets sound like Star Wars blasters

This remarkable recording of ice-sheets cracking on a frozen lake sounds just like a Star Wars blaster fight. Andreas Bick, a Berlin sound designer/composer, made the recording and explains, on his Silent Listening blog: "In my experience, thin ice is especially interesting for acoustic phenomena; it is more elastic and sounds are propagated better across the surface. Snowfall, on the other hand, has a muffling effect and the sound can only travel to a limited extent. The ice sheet acts as a huge membrane across which the cracking and popping sounds spread. Underwater microphones proved especially well-suited for these recordings: in a small hole drilled close beneath the surface of the water, the sounds emitted by the body of ice carry particularly well."


Dispersion of Sound Waves in Ice Sheets (via Kottke)

(Image: Frozen Lake, a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike image from m.prinke's photostream)

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  1. I have before played hockey on a pond that was doing this intermittently while we played; it was pretty rad!

  2. That’s what it reminded me of. Chris Watson has recorded an Icelandic glacier moving;

    “‘Vatnajökull’ is the recording of ice floes from an Icelandic glacier, as it flows into the Norwegian sea.”

    I think you can hear it on last.fm or buy his album.

  3. I sometimes hear something a little like this coming from the subway tracks as a train’s approaching.

  4. Flash? Sound breaks on flash all the time. I usually just use VLC to play the Flash* file in /tmp….but that only seams to work with video, not audio.

    Wouldn’t posting an ogg vorbis be less proprietary?

  5. Doesn’t it actually come from the overhead wires in the subway?

    San Francisco Muni’s overhead trolley wires make a similar sound.

  6. Sounds very much like something in the middle of an Aphex Twin or Squarepusher record.

    I really like that everything is potentially an instrument.

  7. this sound is caused by dispersion. where the sound originates, if you were right next to it, would sound just like a crack. different frequencies of sound travel at noticeably different speeds in a lot of solid media, so it sounds like a chirp instead of a pop if you’re far enough away and the sound is started inside of an ice sheet or a high tension steel cable.

  8. Great acoustics sez he as he falls through the ice. Sorry, flippant , but I had this mental pic of someone recording thin ice cracking and…….

  9. I remember making sounds identical to these in grade school science class, we stretched a slinky across the floor and attached styrofoam cups to the ends. It was very much like a tin can telephone system, only with a slinky instead of string. When you flicked the slinky, you could see and hear the wave moving up and down it. I can’t remember exactly what the meaning behind the experiment was, probably because I was too caught up in recreating Star Wars with it.

  10. Awesome recording.

    Anyone growing up around a farm pond in an area that gets cold enough to freeze has likely heard similar sounds. You can simulate some pretty good epic blaster battles by skipping rocks across the surface.

    And, boy howdy, you get some weird sounds when there is a sudden major temperature swing!!

  11. I grew up playing lake hockey in the upper Midwest, and that’s indeed the sound. It was super-cool when we were young and Star Wars had just come out.

  12. I worked for a while as a sound engineer in theatre. Particularly at the time, and still applicable now, is that the analalogue quality and wholeness of these sounds was / is not capabable of convincing copy by computer effects.

    ie. this could well be the source of the blaster noises. If you listen closely to elements of your daily life (watch Star Wars etc to refresh your audio memory) you suddenly start noticing where the recorded sounds come from. Record, speed up / slow down, do some Beatlesy doubles on it, presto.

    eg The Clangers – the sound they make seems to come from a recorder (for the US, a plastic sort of bad flute) being blown and immersed in a vertical motion in water. My daughter did that for me.

    Light sabre – quite possibly just a noise tube, which is very like a light sabre.

    But isn’t that ice noise beautiful? Heard it all the time as a kid skating on ponds and lakes.

    1. Although you are correct that Ben Burtt recorded many of the Star Wars sound elements from natural phenomena, the blaster noises did not come from cracking ice. From the Wikipedia article):

      Before his work in the first Star Wars (now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) in 1977, science-fiction films tended to use electronic-sounding effects for futuristic devices. Burtt sought a more natural sound, blending in “found sounds” to create the effects. The lightsaber hum, for instance, was derived from a film projector idling combined with feedback from a broken television set, and the blaster effect started with the sound acquired from hitting a guy-wire on a radio tower with a wrench.

    2. Actually, Ben Burtt recorded the lightsaber sound by waving a microphone in front of a poorly grounded TV, IIRC.

  13. Hehe. There’s a huge watertower in a nearby park that makes a very loud, similar sound when you throw a small rock at it. Its a popular sport, as you can tell by the dings all over the thing! Never recorded it, but perhaps I should! :P

    1. I know exactly what park you mean, i was just there the other day! Hello, fellow CT boinger. Wow, small world!

      Yes, i’ve thought of recording those sounds also. I’ve actually been on top of the tower (it’s a bit tricky, but it’s possible to climb up the ladder on the back). There is a mushroom-shaped vent on top where the sounds are much louder/longer.

      1. Hehe, indeed! ;) You’re dead right, must be same place. :)

        Never tried climbing it. Too afraid of getting in trouble, I suppose. :p

  14. Some time ago, I listened to an interview with Ben Burtt, the sound designer for Star Wars. The ‘disco laser’ AKA the blaster effect was recorded by placing a microphone on a radio tower guy-wire and hitting the wire with a wrench. The echo-like quality is the sound wave reaching the end of the wire and bouncing back. Just like these ice sounds. An almost-perfectly natural sound.

  15. Funny, I though of Chris Watson also.

    The high quality of the sound really reminded me of some of his animal recordings.

  16. Anyone who has ever gone ice fishing will recognize these sounds. I have to say although they sound cool as recorded sounds they are very disconcerting when you hear them going off around you. There was an early comment about the sound sounding like a crack if it is close to you…that’s true too.

  17. This is not the sound of ice cracking. This is the sound of ice heaving up to relieve the pressure as it freezes and expands. If ice booms and whooshes when you walk on it, that’s a sign that it’s sound, not that it’s thin.

    And my experience is that the sounds aren’t necessarily better on thinner ice; I’ve heard weird noises from a pond frozen deep enough to support a truck (indeed, there were a couple of trucks parked on it).

    1. i was out on the lake the other day ice fishing and i kept hearing the ice “boom” around me… i could feel the reverberations go from one end of the lake to the other, and it felt like it went right between my feet and up my spine. i was ok with this at first because my theory was it was just the ice expanding as well, a good thing rather than bad. unfortunately, when my buddy arrived and walked onto the lake, he decided to jump up and down to test it, and the “boom” sounded more like an underwater explosion. possibly coincidence, but that boom i swear felt like i was about to go right thru the ice. my buddy got off instantly, and it scared me so much that i left as well.
      please tell me this was all in my head, i can’t seem to find an explanation as to what that boom sound really is. can you explain more?

  18. Analogue reverbs were made with spring-like delay mechanisms. Several guitar amplifiers had these reverbs built into them. When the amp was powered up, finger tapping the reverb casing would produce sounds similar to the antenna guy wire effect.
    Also have spent a few hours on frozen lakes and ponds, once had a crack blast right between my feet, as I was looking at that location when it happened. I do not recall if that sound was only the crack or if it had the echoey dispersion effects. And not always did the ice crack – been ice fishing a few times when there seems to have been no such sounds at all.

    Gotta love physics!

  19. It’s a fun sound to hear when you take walk on the ice but it gets a little scarier when you hear it go off right next to you.

  20. The library at the University of Delaware has large skylight roof over a three floor gallery. I remember it making similar sounds to this on partly cloudy days when the sun would go in and out of the clouds and intermittingly heat the roof or let it cool.

    The ice sounds are cooler.

  21. Dan’s observation about coil springs is right on. Spring reverb units were common before digital took over and the blaster sounds are classic pulse-into-a-resonant-reverb effects. The ice sheet acts as a plate reverb, and the crack puts a pulse of sound into it, so the similarity makes perfect sense.

    Hearing these sounds “in the wild” for the first time is an impressive experience… a sort of acoustic equivalent of the Northern Lights. “I didn’t know nature could do that.”

  22. Our X-C ski racing team used to practice on a big pond in Florida, Mass. Fresh snow & a nice, sunny day made the most terrifying deep clunks & pops – this sound, heard through the muffling filter of a few feet of snow, the sound of Lovecraft’s elder things squirming in the foothills of the Berkshires.

  23. You can get a similar effect to this in your own personal sensorium. It’s easy.

    Get a metal slinky. lift away 2-3 loops so that you can put a piece of paper over them. More sanitary that way. Bite down on the paper-covered slinky loops with your back teeth. Now drop the slinky to the floor. The sound will travel up the loops and into your back teeth and sound just like this, and loudly, and it’s a very cool effect.

  24. I lived on a (steel) ship for years, including winters, and can confirm that it does sound like this. You can hear the cracks approaching for a while, getting louder and louder, ending in a very loud bang when the crack finally reaches the ships hull. The final bang shaking your bed and throwing things off the walls is even more impressive than the sound. It takes a couple of nights to get used to :-)

  25. After so many comments and emails concerning my ice dispersion recording, I wrote another blog post about the sound effect, also as an answer to some of the questions raised here: http://bit.ly/8tPpWn – and thanks for all the positive feedback!

  26. I was in the mountains with a bunch of friends, skitouring in the middle of nowhere.

    We found this abandoned hut that still had a steel cable running for more than 300 m uphill, and when one of us hit it with a skibaton, it sounded EXACTLY like a blaster discharge. The snowy mountains around it somehow had their effect as well, and it must have been too weird seeing us guys banging on an old rusty cable in the middle of nowhere, high up in the mountains.

    Star Wars, phuque yeah!

  27. @IWood @cheqyr and @PaulR have it right.

    I remember seeing a “Making Of” show about Star Wars on TV around the time Empire Strikes Back came out. They showed a guy (Burtt, I assume) tapping on the support cables for a tower to get the blaster sound. There were similar wires attached to a telephone pole outside my garage and went out the next day to try it myself, putting my ear near the cable and hitting it with a wrench. I was delighted when it sounded very close to the sounds in the film. That was a little trick I showed to my friends for years.

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