The Next Generation Transporters, by Fenzel
With a twinkling imitation of a cluster of stars, they are transported to a heretofore unseen world — they step out of their dull but demanding everyday lives and onto distant ground full of sights unseen and dangers yet to face. But when the time of exploration is over — and at some point it always is — that twinkling comes back, sometimes saving you, sometimes dragging you back to where you always are. Every overthinker ought to appreciate the Star Trek transporter — it’s meta to the extreme. The audience sees a representation of their own experience; of the escape they look for from science fiction — and they hear it, too.
Most of my fondness for the transporter sound effect works across properties — and I think it’s the most important and well-used sound effect in the series — but TNG is the gold standard for how to do transporter scenes. The other interpretations feel to me, for good or ill, like deviations from how it “really” works. About a minute in, this clip does a really good job showing the difference between the TNG and original series transporter sounds. Note how much fuller, bolder and more encouraging the TNG sound effect is. (Heh, I noticed I chose the same clip as Belinkie. Well, watch it again. It’s a great one for sound effects.)
TNG had wonderful sound design. The next time you watch an episode, pay special attention when they turn on the Red Alert siren. It grounds the change in mood perfectly — urgent without being frenetic, dissonant without being angsty. I almost listed that Red Alert sound effect as my favorite, and I think it deserves an honorable mention.
Sound effects in TNG are used somewhat sparingly, usually to mark off changing beats. When the action moves to the Enterprise, the dull background hum of the ship (heck, I’d make that sound effect #3 in my book) tells you exactly where you are. The rhythmic beeping when a character turns to a computer terminal justifies whatever revelation comes afterward (how much more willing are you to accept that the computer can track down the name and picture of that random guy who was alive on a distant planet 300 years ago after that beeping than you would be without it, I wonder). The metallo-electric whoosh of the replicator is just friendly enough to let you know that it’s time to sit down for some candid conversation with green bubbly beer or Earl Grey Hot.
But the transporter has the heaviest burden to lift. The sound effect has to say either “here comes the unknown” or “here comes the familiar” with notes of both dignity and fantasy. Resembling nothing as much as the cascade of a hundred miniature Aeolian harps inside one of those big plastic spinning noisemaker tubes, it is lyrical enough to imply magic, but steady enough to reflect human artifice and technology. That same sound effect introduces one of the most broadly diverse arrays of settings and experiences in television, and the audience never misses a beat, never questions what is happening.
Every time you hear that sound effect, you know that something is changing, that something has arrived. And you accept it instantly. It’s form, it’s function, it’s design — and even outside that, it’s a pretty cool sound just to listen to.
I don’t like the ones with steadier tones as much, like the original series transporter. They shrink the scope of the storytelling and underplay the wonder of what is taking place. TNG definitely is the best in this regard. But the superiority of TNG should come as no surprise to anyone with even passing familiarity with these shows. And that’s something you can flame me for in the comments.