Way back in the late seventies, I was a big fan of the audio cassette, that outdated recording medium that vied for supremacy with vinyl before the advent of the compact disc. The beauty of cassette’s was the ability to record sound as well as play it. Some years previously, I had enjoyed sessions recording music and sound with my older sister on her massive reel to reel tape recorder, such as the Captain Scarlet opening titles and the Robinson Crusoe and Department S themes. After I got a second hand tape cassette player as my first real music player, I spent ages recording the top twenty on a Sunday evening, patiently waiting to edit out the DJ’s patter with a hasty press of a button.
As I didn’t get a record player till a year or two later, I often bought cassette tapes, such as Jean Michel Jarre’s seminal ‘Oxygene’ and in 1977, my very first foray into the film soundtrack with Star Wars.
At the time, I only really bought the soundtrack as a piece of memorabilia and never considered that I might actually enjoy or appreciate the rousing orchestral theme. However, as time went on, I soon realised that John Williams memorable soundtrack was as integral a part of the Star Wars mythos as the stunning visuals.
My only real regret with the soundtrack was the decision to buy the cassette version as opposed to the LP vinyl release, which came in a glorious black gatefold sleeve with a slim booklet of gorgeous photographs and a fold out poster of John Berkey’s fabulous artwork of the Death Star Battle. I did acquire a copy of the poster itself, by cadging an ex display copy in a record shop, but to my eternal shame, I still haven’t got the LP version.
However, I did discover a peculiar and very unusual aspect to the cassette recording, which came to light one evening as I lay on the floor of my bedroom, playing the tape as I busied myself with my models.
At the point in the film where Luke examines Artoo in the homestead garage and discovers that he has “something jammed in here real good” and activates the partial hologram message of Princess Leia, Williams scores the scene with a plaintive flute harmony against a background of strings, capturing the air of tension and anticipation.
On the remastered CD release of the soundtrack, the piece is titled ‘The Hologram/Binary Sunset’, but on the original tape, the track is referred to as ‘The Princess Appears’.
After probably the tenth time I had played the tape, I was enjoying the music in peace and quiet in my room. There is a natural pause between the parts of the flute solo, counterpointing the action on screen, as Luke releases the flickering image of the Princess and as the music played, I was imagining the scene in my head.
What I didn’t expect or had not noticed before was a very soft and unmistakeable ‘sigh’ in the pause between the flute sections, almost as if the Princess herself had appeared in the room. So subtle was the sound, that I immediately stopped what I was doing as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up – and waited for a repeat during the second pass. There was no sigh on the second part, so I stopped the tape and replayed, with the volume turned up and as I had suspected, there was the sigh, faint but unmistakable on the tape.
I assumed that it was an intentional inclusion by the producers to enhance the atmosphere and took it as part of the soundtrack. It does not appear in the film and all other recordings I have heard do not feature it. It wasn’t till many years later that I had the chance to compare the recording properly, when I bought the remastered double cd with previously unreleased music and sure enough, the mysterious sound was not present on the cd version.
While clambering about in the attic recently fixing a leaking roof, I came across the tape again, after several years and played the relevant section, recording it on the pc. The recording isn’t brilliant, as I had to position the microphone near the speakers on an antiquated stereo in a busy household (you can hear the dog padding by at the beginning), but it does faithfully capture the faint sigh between the movements. I recorded a section of the remastered version too and compared them, there’s no trace of the ghostly sound on the new recording.
Putting the two soundbites into an audio engineering programme that I use to edit the Swordcast, I compared the waveforms for both recordings. Naturally, the digital cd track is much cleaner and smoother, but inspecting the spectrogram for each file, a graphic representation of the frequency and strength of parts of the audio track, the ‘sigh’ is clearly visible as a series of blips in both left and right stereo channels. The newer digital track just shows the background music, without the apparent vocal.
For me, it’s become an integral part of the soundtrack over the years, as well as being one of my favourite tracks. The remastered version always appears dry and soulless now in comparison, perhaps its because the spirit of the princess no longer inhabits the wavelengths…
Listen to both tracks yourself, preferably with headphones and see what you think. Bear in mind the ‘tape’ recording is also picking up the ambient sounds in the room (such as my dog walking past and the hum of the tape player itself) , but clearly plays the mysterious ‘sigh’ almost as if it has been deliberately orchestrated as part of the performance.
Apologies here to Bill Everratt for my ham-fisted explanation of sound engineering too!