Space is the Place

The Electronic Sounds of Inner and Outer Space

Trevor Pinch

Sound and Sci Fi: Aliens and Outer Space

Science fiction as a genre has an interesting relationship with sound and sonic experiences, as Trace Reddell (Reddell 2014) has recently argued. He examines an early pulp science fiction story by Harry Bates (Bates 1940), “Farewell to the Master”, which became the basis for the classic Science Fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In the original story, two alien visitors exit a spaceship that has landed on the lawn of the US Capitol. One of the aliens, Klaatu, has a humanoid appearance and is shot dead by a deranged gunman. His companion, an eight-foot tall, green metal robot, called Gnut, then uses recordings of Klaatu’s voice to recreate a physical duplicate using “an apparatus which reversed the recording process, and from the given sound made the characteristic body” (Reddell 2014: 6). This extraordinary sound reversal apparatus is not present in the movie, which contains numerous alterations of the original story (including Gnut becoming Gort), but the movie scores a notable first in its use of sound. It is, as Reddell notes, “one of the first science fiction movies to explore the expressive capacity of electronic tonalities and magnetic tape manipulation” (Reddell 2014: 6-7). The movie also presents one of the first uses in science fiction of the electronic instrument the Theremin (Glinsky 2000; Wierzbicki 2002), the unearthly wails of which are used to accompany Gort’s leaving his spaceship and his first appearance on the Capitol lawn.

The association of electronic tonalities with the theme of space exploration and the presence of aliens is most well known in the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956). Electronic timbres and tones are used throughout the score rather than just reserved for the domain of “special effects”. As Reddell points out, this is unusual. Quoting Vivian Sobchack (Sobchack 1987), who has written one of the few discussions of sound in science fiction movies, he notes: “Given SF film’s “preoccupation with the ‘future,’ with innovation, with ‘otherness,’” one might expect that such films “would utilize music in a different way than do other film genres. To the contrary, most SF films use music in the manner of other films, if not with even less distinction” (Reddell 2014: 10-11). Forbidden Planet is a notable exception (Wierzbicki 2005). Electronic music pioneers Louis and Bebe Barron were hired to produce the score. They possessed one of the first commercial tape recorders available in the US and had worked with John Cage. [1] Louis Barron constructed home-made cybernetically-inspired electronic devices. The tones generated have been described as "bleeps, blurps, whirs, whines, throbs, hums, and screeches". [2] The circuits had short life spans and were deliberately fabricated in such a way as to resemble a living organism which would itself die. Unfortunately the specific circuits and devices have long been lost, but it is known that some of the effects were made with delay, echo, and tape reversal and with the use of what is known as a ring modulator. [3] Ring modulators produce metallic-like sounds and clamorous bell-like tones. [4] The guiding principle of their method seems to have been to avoid anything that sounds like a conventional instrument. As Bebe Barron herself has said:

I just knew instinctively that that’s what it had to sound like when you’re travelling through space. If our circuits started doing things that even remotely resembled conventional instruments we just tossed it out. [5]

[1] For an emulation by Ben Burtt of some of the sounds used in Forbidden Planet using a tape recorder and other analog gear see this clip.

[2] Described at

[3] A device for multiplying together two wave forms such that the output contains the sum and difference of the frequencies.

[4] It is a well known sound effect to conjure up the voices of space aliens. The voice of the Daleks in the 1964 BBC TV Show Dr Who (now the longest running science fiction show ever) was made by Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop using a ring modulator to modulate an actor’s voice. The metallic sound of course links directly to the metallic robotic appearance of imagined space aliens – in the case of a Dalek, a green squid-like creature surrounded by a metallic cyborg shield.

[5] Bebe Baron, interview with Jane Brockman.

The Sound of the Mind

One of the most memorable sounds from Forbidden Planet is the sound of the space “monster from the id”. [6] Interestingly, it is not actually a real monster, but a creation from the subconscious mind of one of the main characters, Dr. Edward Morbius. Psychoanalysis was gaining popular attention at the time, and this association between electronic sounds and the extraordinary powers of the mind is a notable feature of several mid-1940s and early 1950s movies. The eerie wailing sound of the Theremin in particular was used to denote weird psychological states being experienced by characters. Spellbound (1945) is set in a mental hospital, and the main character is a psychoanalyst. The Theremin can be heard just at the moment when one of the characters suffers a form of delusional amnesia. In Lost Weekend (1945) the wailing tones of the Theremin are used to signify the pathos and delirium of the main character’s alcohol binges (Wierzbicki 2002).

According to Reddell, the association of unusual sounds generated by weird technological contrivances with the mind is also a reoccurring trope in science fiction writing of the period. For instance, he points to Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, where jingles of “agonizing, unforgettable banality” are used against evil and invasive mind probes. Mind control through sound is a familiar theme of a J.G. Ballard 1963 short story, “The Sound Sweep” and of Frank Hubert’s novel Dune (1965). Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) features something known as the Penfield Mood Organ, which is an electronic synthesizer which allows its user to “dial up an array of affective states” (Reddell 2014). [7]

Space exploration – what we might call “outer space” – and the fantasy of the aliens who might occupy it thus became familiar themes associated with electronic-type sounds at the dawning of the space age (see also Wierzbicki 2014). Sputnik was launched in 1957, and America’s conquest of space became a national priority, leading to the “space race” with the Soviet Union. In other countries space was an inspiration. London producer Joe Meek had a big 1962 hit with “Telstar” (the name of a satellite). [8] The unusual tonalities of electronic sounds, however, also came to symbolize what we might call “inner space” or journeys into the mind itself. It is this double theme of the exploration of outer space and inner space which is later combined in the sounds of the electronic music synthesizer and its use for recordings and concerts in the 1960s.


Domestic Space, the Hi-Fi Craze and Space Pop

Sound and the connection with outer and inner space in the 1950s to early 1960s also came to be linked with another sort of space – domestic space. The decade 1954-1964 “witnessed the rise of the airy, open-ended nature of living space” (Taylor 2001: 81). The newly expanded sorts of domestic spaces found in American homes were often filled by new sorts of sounds. The high-fidelity craze in the US of the 1940s and 1950s meant that, “new suburban living rooms had hi-fi music composed especially for them” (Taylor 2001: 81). For example, in the 1950s, as Taylor notes, Columbia introduced a series entitled Music for Gracious Living. “Music was composed, orchestrated, and arranged to exploit the high-fidelity capabilities”(Taylor 2001: 81). With the invention of stereo in the late 1950s, music was written to give a sense of space, e.g. by bouncing sounds between speakers. It was, as the vice president of strategic marketing at RCA noted, “almost effects set to music” (Taylor 2001: 82). Many of the albums made for hi-fi aficionados were accompanied by reams of technological specs as to how the recordings were made, details of the equipment, and so on, in what seemed to be an attempt to scientize domestic space. There is, as Taylor notes, a gender component to all this with hi-fis mainly being marketed to men and providing a way for men to reclaim domestic space. [9] Classical music was arguably regarded as effeminate by hi-fi buffs, and thus the sound of special effects further reinforced this gender division (Douglas 1992).

One of the special effects reproduced by hi-fi was the sounds of outer space. Taylor (Taylor 2001: 82) quotes an article in Hi-Fi/Stereo Review published in 1960, [10] which claims “In the search for new material albums were made of sports car sounds, cracklings from outer space, and ski lessons.” [11] Exotic travel and the encounter with “the other” – other sorts of music – were at the heart of what was known as the exotica genre in popular recordings of the late 1940s and 1950s. Taylor (Taylor 2001) notes that “space-aged pop” was part of exotica. Middle-class Americans went on journeys from the luxury and safety of their homes, and one such journey was into space. Taylor argues that space was equated with femininity, as symbolized by the exotic scantily-clad females whose images bedecked the covers of these space-age pop albums. The space explorers were gendered masculine. Thus the traditional story of male conquest was now translated into the imagery and sounds of space.

The Theremin featured prominently in these space-age pop albums, such as Harry Ravel’s Music out of the Moon (1947), conducted by Les Baxter (the first ever LP with a color cover – see Figure 1). Taylor (Taylor 2001: 84) suggests that the eerie wailing sound of the Theremin, representing the sounds of space, contrasts with the sound of the earthbound human orchestra, which eventually conquers and dominates the sound of the aetherial and seductive space sirens. The Theremin is used on another album from this era Music for Heavenly Bodies (1958) which also displays a scantily clad woman (presumably another heavenly body) above the Milky Way (Figure 2). The liner notes describe the Theremin’s ability to convey the “awe-inspiring feelings of asteroids and comets” (Taylor 2001: 91). [12]

Figure 1: Music Out of the Moon by Harry Revel sleeve cover

Figure 2: Music for Heavenly Bodies by Paul Tanner sleeve cover

Figure 3: Space Escapade by Les Baxter sleeve cover

One thing of interest from this period is the role of wind in space. A good reference point is the track “Winds of Sirius” from Les Baxter’s 1958 album Space Escapade (Figure 3). Here the rather crude (in technical terms) version of the wind, which seems to be produced by blowing into the microphone, stands out against the standard orchestration. As we shall see below, synthesizer wind sounds are an important part of the space effects deployed by the psychedelic space futurist rock band, Pink Floyd.



[6] The term “id” is, of course, Freud’s original 1920s term for the subconscious in his structural model of the psyche.

[7] Wilder Penfield is the neurosurgeon noted (or maybe notorious) for his experiments on memory using direct electrical stimulation to the cerebral cortex of patients under local anaesthesia during the 1950 and 1960s.

[8] Telstar, featuring The Tornadoes, uses the clavioline – an instrument often seen as a precursor to the analog electronic music synthesizer.


[9] Taylor (Taylor 2001: 81) notes that one album cover “Do-it-yourself” depicts dad and junior working at something at the basement tool bench while mom sits and demurely knits. Synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, who as a kid shared a Queens basement workshop with his dad, would fit this image perfectly.

[10] J. Ball (1960). “The Witch Doctor in Your Living Room.” Hi-Fi/Stereo Review March: 62-65.

[11] The sound of ski lessons is not what one usually thinks of as an iconic sound (perhaps the swish of blades across snow?), but fits in well with the image of a newly-moneyed middle class with the ability to travel and indulge in leisure sports.

[12] The Theremin player, Paul Tanner, later became famous as the Thereminist on the Beach Boys 1966 hit song, “Good Vibrations”.

Enter the Synthesizer


How did the first electronic music synthesizers developed by Robert Moog (Figure 4) and Don Buchla (Figure 5) in the period 1964-70 impact conceptions of space (Pinch and Trocco 2002; Holmes 2012). The potential for generating sounds that might be associated with space aliens was obvious to people as soon as they got to play with the new modular synthesizers. Their voltage control capability – the ability to sweep the pitch of an oscillator through the whole audible range – plus the capacity to filter sounds, such as by filtering out the higher harmonics, enabled them to make squelchy and warbly sounds. A device known as the sequencer (invented by Don Buchla) generated discrete control voltages in continuous cycles to produce sequences of notes or arpeggios of sound.

Figure 4: Moog Synthesizer in his Factory Studio

Figure 5: Buchla 200 synthesizer played by Suzanne Ciani

The psychedelic rock music made using the newly invented synthesizers was often referred to at the time as being “spacey”. People who took drugs were also “spaced out” or spacey. The use of the word “spacey” is interesting in this period as it seems to allow for the cross between the inner exploration of mind produced by a psychedelic trip through what was popularly known as the “Doors of Perception” and the outer exploration of space. [13] Here is how electronic music composer Ramon Sender, one of the organizers of the famous 1966 Trips Festival in San Francisco (Pinch and Trocco 2002; Turner 2006), describes his goals for the festival:

What I wanted to do was run Big Brother through Buchla’s Box and I wanted to just sit there and crank the ring modulators up very slowly and then just take them out further and further […] It was a gathering of the tribes as we called it … the gathering together of musicians to play the spaciest music they possibly could. [14]


Figure 6: Buchla’s Box

Around the same time Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters troupe staged “Acid Tests” in an attempt to turn on America through the use of LSD (which was still legal at the time). [15] Kesey, who attended the Trips Festival, captures perfectly this association between outer and inner perception. He scribbled on a screen at the Trips festival: “THE OUTSIDE IS INSIDE. HOW DOES IT LOOK?” (Pinch and Trocco 2002: 96)

Spacey music meant listening to the sort of music that evoked the feeling of being “spaced out” – that is, feeling high, and certainly one of the aspects of being high is a distorted sense of perception and the realization that sound vibrations are part of how “interior mental worlds” are linked to the so-called “exterior” world. Of course questioning the very nature of reality and whether there even was an exterior world at all separate from mental experience was part of the counter-cultural sensibility. The idea of the “trip”, which with the 1950s exotica and space-age pop was a musical consumption experience – a way to experience otherness – now became something quite different: a trip into your inner being or psyche.

The sorts of spaces where sound was being experienced were changing as well. Music was now being consumed communally. Many of the 60s early festivals, such as the original “gathering of the tribes” in San Francisco at Golden Gate Park, were held outdoors. Domestic space was also changing, with “gracious living” rooms being replaced with grubby couches and communal living. One of the first known uses of the Buchla to make sounds associated with space – in this case space aliens – is reported by Ramon Sender, who was living at the San Francisco Digger commune at the time:

We put the speakers up in the top end of the orchard and we were playing all these Martian sequencing sounds, and hippies would emerge out of bushes, stoned on acid, convinced that the UFOs had landed, staring in amazement. [16]

What did the Martians sound like? We cannot say for sure (especially as you are unlikely to be reading this article in the same tripped-out state experienced at that commune!), but the best-known recording of the Buchla synthesizer from that era was made by Sender’s fellow composer Morton Subotnick. Silver Apples of the Moon (1968) is performed on a Buchla 100 synthesizer, and listening to it gives a little taste of the range of sounds in the Buchla 100. [17]

Figure 7: Silver Apples of the Moon sleeve cover

Figure 8: Robert Moog on Stage at Opening of Island of Electronicus

The special effects that had previously been heard in private on hi-fi could now be experienced live and by a communal audience. For example, the “Island of Electronicus” was an early Moog venue on a man-made Island off the coast of St Petersburg, Florida. Cushions were arranged on the floor below the “Love and Peace” stage where several early minimoog synthesizers were set up (see Figure 8). The compère for this show, David Van Koevering (later a legendary Moog Salesman [Pinch 2003]) found that sports car sounds and motorcycle sounds were particularly effective. These sounds could be projected around the space with an early version of a surround sound speaker system:

And we’d start a motorcycle up – you’d hear a minimoog sound like a motorcycle, you’d hear ‘em kick it over, and then we’d take noise, and you’d hear me choke it […] and you could hear that filter screech and wheel would chirp... with the Doppler effect […] we’d have this minimoog motorcycle flying around the room […] now we did this with two minimoogs – a four cylinder sports car would start its engine[…] And you’d hear the motorcycle going one way and you’d hear the sports car going the other way, and a horrendous crash would happen over the stage and parts were rolling all over the room. And the audience would go nuts. They’d stand and they’d cheer and they’d clap. [18]

The Moog synthesizer’s ability to generate unusual timbres and little washes of sound soon became part of the classic sixties psychedelic rock sound. The Moog’s presence at one of the best known festivals of the sixties, Monterey Pops (1968), sealed forever its association with psychedelic sound. Moog’s West Coast Salesmen, Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause were set up in a small tent at the Monterey Fair Ground. Monterey Pops was where the recording industry discovered the so-called “San Francisco Sound”, and it brought into alignment several key things: musicians, money, drugs and a new machine to spend money on – the Moog! What happens next is described by one of Moog’s salesman, Bernie Krause:

Little by little, as people got more stoned, they came skulking into the booth. And we’d set things up like thunderclaps and Hammond organs and people were really impressed […] and they came in all guises [...] Like representatives of the Byrds, a couple of folk from the Beatles were there, and the Stones and lots of different groups. And ultimately many of them, because of the large advances that the record companies were offering, ended up buying the synthesizers from us right there on the spot. And I think we probably sold six or seven synthesizers at $15,000 a crack at that concert alone in maybe one afternoon. I mean it was unbelievable. [19]

It is interesting the role that special effects, such as thunderclaps, played in convincing these musicians of the need to acquire a Moog synthesizer. Of course, these thunderclaps, when experienced on head phones with the aid of psychedelic drugs, would have a peculiar sonic power (and perhaps evoke another powerful symbolic technology of the period – the atomic bomb). [20] But note how different the space was now to the 1950s hi-fi sets being listened to in the gracious living rooms. These musicians were at the hippest music festival on the planet, and they could envisage the power of the Moog sound when added to their recordings. [21] The festivals in this period were important places for technologies to be discovered and experimented with (Schulte-Römer 2013).

For example, the Doors experimented with using the Moog on their album Strange Days (1968). [22] The sound of an oscillator filtered and mixed with Jim Morrison’s vocal on the title track makes the music seem spacey. The Moog was used to produce little psychedelic washes of sound, such as on the Byrds’ album, Notorious Byrd Brothers, [23] and, perhaps most famously of all, on Abbey Road (1969) by the Beatles, including the track composed by George Harrison, “Here Comes the Sun”. [24] Soon the Moog was being used as the sole instrument in psychedelic music, such as in TONTO’s Expanding Head Band’s release Zero Time (1971). [25]


“Strange Days”, The Doors, Strange Days


“Here Comes the Sun”, The Beatles, Abbey Road


“Cybernaut”, TONTOs Expanding Head Band, Zero Time


[13] The phrase comes from Aldous Huxley’s explorations of psychedelics in his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception (London: Chatto & Windus).


[14] Interview with Ramon Sender 7/11/2000.


[15] Kesey had a Buchla Box installed in his bus, FURTHER, which he used on his famous road trip across the US to visit East Coast acid guru Timothy Leary. For details, see Tom Wolfe’s account of this epic journey in Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

[16] Interview with Ramon Sender 7/11/2000.

[17] Silver Apples of the Moon is regarded as a precursor to the 1980s rave and house music due to the sequenced rhythmic arpeggios of sound.

[18] Interview with David Van Koevering 1/30/1999.

[19] Interview with Bernie Krause 10/24/1998.

[20] Indeed, one of the early synthesizer “happenings” staged by Don Buchla and his synthesizer was a mock nuclear attack. For details, see (Pinch and Trocco 2002: 101).

[21] The modular Moog synthesizer was still too large and unwieldy for use in live performance – rock performer Keith Emerson was the exception, using his “monster Moog” in his band Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the early 1970s.

[22] The Moog studio musician was Paul Beaver.

[23] The Byrds were one of the few bands that the Beatles acknowledged as influencing them.

[24] Carl Sagan wanted to include “Here Comes the Sun” on the famous 1977 Voyager Golden Record mission, discussed by Stefan Helmreich (this issue). The Beatles gave permission, but EMI opposed the idea. If it had been included, the sound of the Moog would now be further out in the Galaxy than any other known synthesized sound. 

[25] A nice link between Inner and Outer Space is captured on their album Zero Time. One side of the LP is called “Outside” and the other side “Inside”.



Another important early synthesizer manufacturer was the ARP company in Boston (Pinch and Trocco 2002). [26] Their synthesizers are particularly significant in the history of electronic sounds and space because of their use in Star Wars (1977), the first movie to use a synthesizer to generate the first versions of all the special effects. [27] Ben Burtt was the synthesist on the project and got most of the sounds of the robots R2D2 on his Arp 2600 synthesizer (Figure 9). Expressing robot emotion with electronic sound seems to have been a trial and error operation – perhaps more interesting was the way Burtt achieved the sound of the spaceship bypass of the Millennium Falcon. [28] Of course space ships in the void of space are silent, but it seems we expect space ships in movies to roar credibly. Burtt found sounds for the Millennium Falcon bypass on his ARP 2600, but he felt the sounds lacked credibility and in the end recorded a Goodyear Blimp engine. It is notable that the sounds of the TIE Fighters in Star Wars have higher frequencies (sounding more like angry wasps). It is as if the “evil empire” itself is encapsulated in the TIE Fighter  engine sound. An ARP synthesizer (in this case the much larger ARP 2500) was also used to generate the series of five tones used in an attempt to communicate with the alien mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Figure 9: ARP 2600 Synthesizer


The sound of the Millenium Falcon space ship from Star Wars


The sound of a TIE Fighter from Star Wars


Five Note Sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The VCS3


To complete our own voyage into electronic sounds and space, we will turn now to the little known smaller cousin of the Moog and ARP synthesizers, a synthesizer produced in London by the EMS (Electronic Music Studios) company known as the VCS3. [29] This synthesizer was used by many well known artists, including Brian Eno and Pink Floyd (Figures 10 and 11). The EMS company was a tight-knit affair. Famous for their extravagant lunches, it was founded by Russian aristocrat, Peter Zinovieff, experimental composer, Tristram Cary, and engineer, David Cockerell (Pinch and Trocco 2002). Cockerell began designing electronic devices as a teenager because he wanted to make the sounds of the Dalek monsters from Dr Who. So, in this case, rather than space inspiring a new device, it is the sound of space as rendered by an electronic device used in a popular TV show which itself inspired the new synthesizer. The VCS3 was a much cheaper synthesizer than the Moogs and ARPs – the prototype was built from parts purchased from army surplus stores in London. It has a unique patch bay that works by connecting modules using a matrix of pins (originally a computer surplus item). The filter uses a ladder of diodes (rather than the ladder of transistors as on the famous Moog ladder filter) [30] and hence has a very different sound than the characteristic Moog filter. It also has a ring modulator, stereo sound, reverberation, and panning. Also, along with the synthi AKS (a sister synthesizer designed to fit in a suitcase), it has one of the first digital sequencers (a 256 step sequencer).

Figure 10: Brian Eno at the VCS3

Figure 11: Pink Floyd using the VCS3

The unique patching matrix gave its operator enormous flexibility, as Brian Eno notes:

The thing that makes this a great machine is that whereas nearly all other synthesizers are set up to have a fixed signal path […] with the EMS you can go from the oscillator to the filter, and then use the filter output to control the same oscillator again… you get a kind of Squiging effect. It feeds back on itself in interesting ways, because you can make some very complicated circles through the synthesizer… (Pinch and Trocco 2002: 214)

 The versatility and cheapness of the VCS3 made it a favorite amongst bands in London’s burgeoning psychedelic “underground” scene. The London band Hawkwind used this synthesizer to make their early space rock music. Hawkwind released an album In Search of Space (1973) accompanied by a “Log Book” recording an epic space journey. Michael Moorcock, the London-based science fiction/fantasy writer, often read passages from his books on stage with them. [31] This description of Hawkwind from the London underground magazine, Frendz, nicely captures the band’s blend of working class make-do, electronic freaks, and space (see also Figure 12): 

It was Del the longest haired building labourer in the world, who entered with a hod on his back. And in the hod a bleeping, chirping, wherping, blaspheming machine […] “It’s a sympathizer” he said “It must have heard sound coming from the room and started to sympathize. And now I can’t stop it.” Nik Turner [saxophonist] the birdman peered through the curtains. The room was curiously vibrating. “Hey” said Nik, “The room appears to be in Outer space […]” Dave Brock [the founder of Hawkwind] pulled back the curtains “Right we are.” He burst “We are in space. We’ve taken off. What now?????” Del and Dik Mik are both electronic freaks with no musical upbringing and not enough money to purchase a Moog. (Pinch and Trocco 2002: 215)

Figure 12: Hawkwind using the VCS3

Track one on side two, “Master of the Universe”, from the 1971 album In Search in Space

Tracks such as “You shouldn’t do that” or “Master of the universe” start with the growls and groans of filtered oscillators, before the typical Hawkwind sound of an oscillator slowly being cranked up in pitch set against rhythm guitar comes in, to be followed by the bass guitar picking out a distinctive pattern and frenzied drums, followed by layer-upon-layer of swirling oscillator sounds, screeching guitar effects and saxophone riffs. The effect is to achieve a kind of sonic “lift off”.

The preeminent London underground band from this era of psychedelic rock was Pink Floyd. Started in Cambridge by madcap genius Syd Barrett (who later left the band after a mental breakdown), they had a regular gig as the house band at the famous London UFO club. They explored unusual timbres and sounds through the use of feedback, effects boxes, Rick Wright’s eerie tones with his Farfisa organ, and Syd’s zippo lighter running up and down the strings of his Telecaster guitar. They were known to play with backward tape loops and used accidental sounds such as a seagull-like sound discovered after a roadie connected a wah-wah pedal incorrectly. Their dynamic liquid light and strobes light show was part of the act. Early tracks, such as “Cirrus Minor”, “Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, displayed their space exploration credentials. “Freak out” moments, warnings to a mysterious Eugene to be “Careful with that Ax” and general acid madness, mayhem, and mental derangement (paralleled tragically by Syd’s own mental breakdown) was also a repeated theme of their early music. One of the weapons in the Floyd’s sonic arsenal was an early surround sound-system controlled by a joystick from the soundboard.

Listening to Pink Floyd in a big space outdoors could be a memorable sonic experience with giant speakers set up around the crowd. Often tape loops of sound effects, such as motor cycles or bird sounds, were played to the audience for up to half an hour before the show, further breaking down the distinction between electronic sound and field recordings (played back on most of the tape loops). I recall seeing Pink Floyd perform “Atom Heart Mother” (1970) at the open air arena at Crystal Palace Garden London in July 1972. The concert started with a motorcycle sound going round and round the stadium. 

It was thus no surprise that Pink Floyd were early users of synthesizers and, being based in London, that they turned to the VCS3. Its first use is on a track “Echoes” from their album Meddle (1971). One of their most recognizable sounds on the VCS3 is the sound of wind made by routing the oscillator and noise sources through the filter. This sound can be heard clearly at the start of “Echoes” played on the Pink Floyd Live at Pompei Directors Cut DVDListen to the wind here and compare it with the 1950s wind in the Winds of Sirius” from Les Baxter’s 1958 album Space Escapade.

The VCS3 was particularly adept at making sound effects – such as explosions, heart beats, and the sound of breathing – all used at different points on the Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon (1973). [32] One track replete with VCS3 sounds is “On the Run”, which processes the output of the sequencer from the Synthi AKS through the filter to make sustained ominous drones and bubbles of sound mixed in with disorientating sound effects. The theme of outer space and inner space and the threat of mental derangement and, of course, Syd Barrett’s sad demise are interlinked on this album. Some of the synthesizer work on the track “On the Run” recorded at Abbey Road can be seen in the DVD Director’s Cut of Pink Floyd Live at Pompei


[26] The ARP acronym was based on the name of the company’s founder, Alan Robert Pearlman.

[27] Some of the actual recorded sounds used in the movie, such as the Millenium Falcon space ship sound discussed below, were eventually generated with “natural” sources.

[28] The history of space ship “bypasses” on screen is itself fascinating. For instance, the pilot episode of the television show Star Trek has the USS Starship Enterprise passing through [across?] the screen in silence. But the first episode of the series has the sound of the USS Starship Enterprise roaring towards viewers from the screen. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is notable for how its uses silence (technically correct, given our understanding of sound waves in space) as the space ship moves in space – the use of the sound of the breathing of the astronauts in their space suits set against the silence of space is particularly powerful.

[29] The VCS3 (Voltage Controlled Studio No. 3) was marketed in the US as the “Putney” after the location in London where EMS had its offices.

[30] The ladder filter, a low pass filter, was the only item on the Moog synthesizer that Moog held a patent on.

[31] It was a strange scene because Hawkwind also has a stripper perform on stage at the same time. 

[32] Dark Side of the Moon of course went on to become one of rock’s classic albums. 

Space is the Place


One of Robert Moog’s first customers for a prototype of his new minimoog synthesizer in 1969 was the jazz musician, Sun Ra, who used it in compositions such as “My Brother the Wind Volumes I and II”. There was a consensus amongst those who were lucky enough to hear and see Sun Ra use the Moog in live performance with his Arkestra that he made sounds no other musicians had heard. [33] For Sun Ra – who supposedly came from Jupiter and who lived in a commune with his followers (the Arkestra) – space was his home, and its exploration through music and ritual promised to return African Americans to this utopia (Szwed 1998). [34] His music and writings were vast and complex, and he has been hailed as an important inspiration for the philosophy of Afrofuturism (Eshun 1998). This projection onto space of a utopian vision of a better world is something Sun Ra shared with the space explorers of the counter culture. For them too, space was a place that could not be left in the hands of the military industrial complex of the US government. As the Jefferson Airplane and friends reminded us in their classic San Francisco rock album Blows Against the Empire (1970), [35] the goal was to “Highjack the starship, Carry 7000 people past the sun, And our babes'll wander naked thru the cities of the universe, Cmon, free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music, the day is on its way the day is ours”. The ultimate trip for heads! The gender divisions noted earlier in the 1950s space-age pop still permeate the counter culture – one assumes the “naked babes” wandering through the cities of the universe are female.

The Moog, Buchla, ARP, and EMS synthesizers were, as the Theremin, clavoline and Louis Baron’s circuits were in an earlier period, an integral part of the new sounds of space. The novel electronic tones these instruments produced symbolized the novelty of space exploration, the vastness of space, the journey into space, and the sorts of alien life forms and robots that might be encountered. The electronic sounds were also important in fusing inner space and outer space and for shaping new gendered spaces of listening. The electronic sound was a shape shifter [36] – a way of providing a new liminal space which listeners could themselves explore.

[33] As well as Moog musicians recall of Sun Ra this point is borne out by John Szwed, who writes, “Truly, no one had ever gotten sounds like this out of an instrument of any kind” (Szwed 1998: 277).

[34] Sun Ra’s birth name was Herman Poole Blount, and his legal name in 1952 was Le Sony’r Ra. 

[35] They were renamed the Jefferson Starship for this album (which became the subsequent name of the band).

[36] The notion of a Shape Shifter is further developed in Pinch and Trocco (Pinch and Trocco 2002).



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