the birds & subharmonics

I just watched, or should I say re-re-re-rewatched Alfred Hitchcocks film The Birds and while it will never quite disturb my senses the way it did the first time it still is a sharp reminder of the power of memory versus reality & the idea of being open to lateral solutions to complex problems. When you think of a film as scary as The Birds you immediately start thinking about the score & while many of Hitchcocks films were scored by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann, The Birds is a film with no score! Herrman was employed as a ‘sound consultant’ on the project but the sonic power of the film originated solely from the sound effects… this would be considered a brave move nowadays but it must have been even more so back then..

So what does provide the scares? One reason the sound effects in The Birds directly touch the fears of the audience is that they are relatively abstract—especially the bird cries. Quoting from Chapter 8 of The Silent Scream – “There are seven attacks in all, and Hitchcock clearly was challenged by a desire to differentiate them. There are two sets of variables that he seems to be manipulating in relation to the sound effects: whether the birds are introduced first aurally or visually and whether the birds are ominously noisy or ominously silent.”
Hitchcock himself has described how for the seventh and last attack he no longer needed to have the birds scream. “When Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds we inserted the natural sounds of wings. Of course, I took the dramatic licence of not having the birds scream at all. To describe a sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue. What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, “Now we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.” That’s what the birds were saying, and we got the technicians to achieve that effect through electronic sound.”

Now Hitchcock is describing the pyschological effect of the sounds but bearing in mind the film was made in 1963, how & by whom were the sounds generated?

Meet Oskar Sala & the Trautonium

Oskar Sala was (he died at the age of 91 back in 2002) a 20th century German composer and a pioneer of electronic music. He played an electronic instrument called the Trautonium & helped develop it into a device he called the Mixtur-Trautonium. This is where it gets a little technical but bear with me, its worth it… or you know, skip down to the end & listen to the mp3s!

According to the excellent site 120 Years of Electronic Music the original Trautonium had a fingerboard consisting of a resistance wire stretched over a metal rail marked with a chromatic scale and coupled to a neon tube oscillator. The performer on pressing the wire touches the rail and completes the circuit and the oscillator is amplified via a loudspeaker. The position of the finger on the wire determines the resistance controlling the frequency and therefore controls the pitch of the oscillator & when the finger glides over the string a continuous glissando results over the entire tonal region. The Trautonium had a three octave range that could be transposed by means of a switch. An additional series of circuits can be added to control the timbre of the note by amplifying the harmonics of the fundamental note, non harmonic partials can also be added by selective filtering. This unique form of subtractive synthesis produced a tone that was distinctive and unusual…. have a listen:

download Trautonium sample 1 mp3
download Trautonium sample 2 mp3
download Trautonium sample 3 mp3
download Trautonium sample 4 mp3
download Trautonium sample 5 mp3

Oskar Salas Mixtur Trautonium used subharmonic frequency mixtures to generate sound. The sounds produced by conventional instruments and in the natural world are a combination of notes each with a different pitch; each fundamental has various overtones, so-called harmonics, above it. Subharmonic sounds are produced by dividing the frequency of the fundamental “undertones” — subharmonics — are the result. Subharmonic sounds do not exist in nature and differ from the sounds produced conventionally by synthesizers and software programmes for electronic music. Fax records released 2 CDs by Oska Sala, one called My Fascinating Instrument and the other called Subharmonic Mixtures

Now watch the trailer & feel the fear!

5 thoughts on “the birds & subharmonics

  1. Ricard Casals


    It was very cool to see the article of AC about Splet & Dune.
    After trying to read it, I asked it to a friend of mine, who receives all these magazines and has them bound.
    I OCR’d the article and have kept on finishing off the result and now I have one, almost perfect, pdf document.
    I would like to put it on internet to all crazy sound people, but I have the doubt about copyrights and if I would have difficulties with the editorial of the magazine.
    What do you think?

    By the way, I work on a film sound postproduction studio in Barcelona, Spain (original productions and dubbed versions) and I mixed the Spanish version of Terabythia.
    Very good sound, congratulations!

    Thanks for your blog!

    Ricard Casals

  2. tim

    HI Ricard
    I think the Dune article with Alan Splet is such a great informative & inspiring article that it really is a shame if it it isnt available… I have posted that fuzzy scan of it with the thought in mind that I would instantly remove it if anyone was to complain…
    hey so how long does it take to mix a language dubbed film like Terabithia?
    It must be hard work for ADR editors trying to lip-sync…

    I’d love to visit Barcelona again – I was there a few years back & also went to the Dali museum in Figueres.. what a beautiful country you live in!

  3. Ricard Casals


    In fact, we were two mixers doing 2 dubbed versions (Spanish Castilian and Catalan languages) at the same time (4 days: 11 or 12 h/day) on two ProTools mixing stages. We were mixing the reels (double reel AB) as they were coming from the editorial department. At the end, Pepe, the other mixer did the Dolby Digital MOD for both versions on the same last day.

    Dubbing (voice actors) was done during a week on two ADR rooms. When each reel was voice recorded (trying to do with only one 35mm print,.. maybe one version was done with a QT picture) a sound editor cleaned up the tracks and did some re-syncronization (even time-stretch) and, probably, find a take to be re-recorded (text error, differences between versions, etc).

    Usually, a mix of the dub version would take a week of 5 days. The first day includes seeing the original mix of the whole film, preparing materials and ProTools session and start mixing. The last day, friday (if is it possible), MOD and backups.

    Regards from a sunny day in Barcelona

  4. Pingback: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and more | Electronic Media Studio Spring 2014

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