The Sounds of Blade Runner: How Music & Sound Effects Became Part of the DNA of Ridley Scott’s Futuristic World

Blade Run­ner, among its many oth­er achieve­ments, stands as quite pos­si­ble the only 35-year-old sci­ence-fic­tion movie whose visu­al effects still hold up. Direc­tor Rid­ley Scott and his col­lab­o­ra­tors’ thor­ough­ly real­ized vision of 2019 Los Ange­les rewards a seem­ing­ly infi­nite num­ber of view­ings, reveal­ing some­thing new to the view­er each and every time. Yet the sheer amount to look at can also dis­tract from all there is to lis­ten to. For a visu­al medi­um, movies stand or fall to a sur­pris­ing extent on the qual­i­ty and design of their sound, and if Blade Run­ner remains con­vinc­ing and com­pelling, it does so in large part not because of what see when we watch it, but what we hear.

This in addi­tion to all it makes us think about, some of which the video essay­ist Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as Nerd­writer, explained in Blade Run­ner: The Oth­er Side of Moder­ni­ty.” Appar­ent­ly as big a fan of the film as we here at Open Cul­ture, Puschak has also made anoth­er video essay focus­ing on the mas­ter­piece’s aur­al dimen­sion, “Lis­ten­ing to Blade Run­ner.”

As every­one inter­est­ed in its mak­ing knows, Blade Run­ner would­n’t quite have been Blade Run­ner with­out its music by Van­ge­lis, a com­pos­er who used syn­the­siz­ers (espe­cial­ly the leg­endary Yahama CS80) in a way sel­dom if ever heard at that time. But as Puschak points out, “the score isn’t laid on top of the visu­als. It’s not a guide or an addi­tion” but “baked into the DNA of the movie itself.”

Every piece of audio in Blade Run­ner, “includ­ing score, sound design, and dia­logue,” is tight­ly inte­grat­ed: “each blurs into the oth­ers.” Puschak shows us how, as in the scene above, the film keeps the audi­ence unaware of “where the music ends and the world begins,” by match­ing the qual­i­ties of the music to the qual­i­ties of the space and light, incor­po­rat­ing “faint computer‑y nois­es,” and apply­ing still-new dig­i­tal rever­ber­a­tion tech­nol­o­gy Van­ge­lis uses on both the music and the dia­logue to “fold sep­a­rate audio sources into one mas­ter track,” cre­at­ing a “cohe­sive acoustic envi­ron­ment” that empha­sizes dif­fer­ent dimen­sions of sound at dif­fer­ent times in dif­fer­ent ways — in ser­vice, of course, to dif­fer­ent ele­ments of the sto­ry.

Though still active as a com­pos­er, Van­ge­lis, alas, has­n’t returned to do the score for Blade Run­ner 2049, Den­nis Vil­leneu­ve’s much-antic­i­pat­ed sequel com­ing out lat­er this year. But the son­ic world he cre­at­ed in 1982 has had a more recent trib­ute paid to it in the form of the unof­fi­cial so-called “Esper edi­tion” of the Blade Run­ner sound­track. The exist­ing edi­tions, say the two fans who assem­bled it, “nev­er ‘got it right’ in terms of chronol­o­gy‚ or thor­ough­ness,” so, “like tak­ing pieces from a puz­zle‚ we decid­ed to sim­ply ‘cut and paste’ from all the excit­ing releas­es…‚ 1982 video‚ 1992 direc­tors cut… and con­struct some­thing fresh.” The near­ly two-hour lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence will under­score just how much putting in the right music and sound can do for a movie.

Con­verse­ly, watch­ing the five min­utes of Har­ri­son Ford’s now-excised voiceovers from the orig­i­nal the­atri­cal release below will under­score how much tak­ing out cer­tain sounds can do for one as well:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream 72 Hours of Ambi­ent Sounds from Blade Run­ner: Relax, Go to Sleep in a Dystopi­an Future

How Rid­ley Scott’s Blade Run­ner Illu­mi­nates the Cen­tral Prob­lem of Moder­ni­ty

The Art of Mak­ing Blade Run­ner: See the Orig­i­nal Sketch­book, Sto­ry­boards, On-Set Polaroids & More

Watch an Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Rid­ley Scott’s Blade Run­ner Made of 12,597 Water­col­or Paint­ings

The Blade Run­ner Sketch­book Fea­tures The Orig­i­nal Art of Syd Mead & Rid­ley Scott (1982)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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