THX’s Deep Note was created by Dr. James A. Moorer. His “The Deep Note” is THX’s sound explosion.
The sonic logo is used on trailers for THX-certified movie theaters, home video releases, video games, and in-car entertainment systems. The Deep Note debuted in 1983 at the premiere of Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi in Los Angeles.1
The U.S. trademark registration for the first version of the THX sonic logo contains this description of it:
The THX logo theme consists of 30 voices over seven measures, starting in a narrow range, 200 to 400 Hz, and slowly diverting to preselected pitches encompassing three octaves. The 30 voices begin at pitches between 200 Hz and 400 Hz and arrive at pre-selected pitches spanning three octaves by the fourth measure. The highest pitch is slightly detuned while there are double the number of voices of the lowest two pitches.2
Dr. Moorer holds a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford University, granted in 1975. Prior to that, he earned an S.B. in Applied Mathematics from MIT in 1968, and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT in 1967. His website biography says
James A. Moorer is an internationally-known figure in digital audio and computer music, with over 40 technical publications and four patents to his credit. In 1991, he won the Audio Engineering Society Silver award for lifetime achievement. In 1996, he won an Emmy Award for Technical Achievement with his partners, Robert J. Doris and Mary C. Sauer for Sonic Solutions/NoNOISE for Noise Reduction on Television Broadcast Sound Tracks. In 1999, he won an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Engineering Award (Oscar) for his pioneering work in the design of digital signal processing and its application to audio editing for film. He is currently working at Adobe Systems, Inc. as Senior Computer Scientist in the DVD Team. From 1987 to 2001, Dr. Moorer has served as Senior Vice President for Advanced Development at Sonic Solutions, and is responsible for the NoNOISE package for restoration of vintage recordings. From 1986 to 1987, Dr. Moorer consulted for NeXT, Inc., on DSP software architecture for audio processing. From 1985 to 1986, he was the chief technical officer at the Lucasfilm Droid Works. From 1980 to 1985, he was the digital audio project leader at Lucasfilm, Ltd. From 1977-1980, he was the Reponsable Scientifique (technical advisor) at IRCAM in Paris. From 1975 to 1977, he was the co-director of the Stanford Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics. From 1968 to 1972, he was a professional programmer at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.3
Dr. Moorer told Fast Company in 2015 that the inspiration for the original Deep Note came to him in a flash. He imagined a sound that told an almost Biblical story about the creation of order from chaos, all in a single note. “That story of triumph over chaos is a fundamental human story, and I wanted to tap into it,” he tells me by phone. “After all, what better way to signal the ultimate in audio quality than by trying to capture the voice of God?”4
Why does Dr. Moorer think we are still talking about Deep Note?
Well, it has legs and a persistence that I didn’t imagine. I mean that’s one of the things you shoot for of course, is to make something so gripping that people can’t get it out of their head. Although it’s funny because it’s not something you can whistle exactly.5
Why does he think it’s been so powerful? Could he have imagined sitting there that day creating this note that it would have transcended all these decades.
Well, I had a hint of it when I first started playing it around Lucasfilm because people would go out and call other people to come in and listen to it and they’re a tough audience. So that was my first hint that this thing had some power to it. Well, plus I remember when I was first asked about it, you’ve heard this part of the story, but I’ll say it again to make a point. He came up and said, I want something that comes out of nowhere and gets really, really big. And I thought I knew exactly what he wanted. And you know, from my musical studies and training, I knew what he wanted was a just tempered chord so that’s what I built, that is a random cluster that converged. It builds up to this just tempered chord. I’ve had a number of comments that the chord seems bigger than life or bigger than normal or not like a chord that you would hear from an organ, even though that was sort of the idea. It was supposed to be sort of like a great big organ chord, but with a just tempered organ, which haven’t been built in quite some time.6
Did George Lucas personally tell him to create it?
No, no, no, it was delegated. No, George has a policy of hiring from within or promoting from within. So when it came time to bring out the THX sound system, he wanted something to go in front of the film that announced that you’re listening to a THX sound system. And so he delegated it to one of the up and coming sort of middle managers. He said if he threw him the idea and said, you make a 30 second logo to go in front of, it was Return of the Jedi in 1983, and as I say, he put together this lovely video, beautiful video animation, and he didn’t say this, but I think what happened was that he spent all the money on the animation, didn’t have any money left over for the audio and since I was on salaried staff there it didn’t cost anything, so he went and pitched it to me. Lucas actually didn’t hear it until quite a bit later. I’ve never asked George about it, but clearly it made an impression because they scrambled around to copyright it shortly after it came out.7
Did he intend for Deep Note to be one of the few sonic logos that you could hear and feel?
Yeah. That was sort of the intention. I mean, I was working closely with Tom Holman who designed the THX system and when you told me how many Watts he had behind the screen there, I thought, Oh boy, here’s our big chance. Anything that can deliver that much power in a big theater, it’d be something like 3,500 Watts of audio and quite a bit of that in the subwoofer. So I figured, well boy, here’s my chance to shake the rafters.8
So how does someone get from a PhD at Stanford and degrees at MIT into a studio creating sound logos?
Well, I’ve always been a musician and I’ve always been an engineer. I wasn’t quite a good enough musician to make that a career. I did take a bunch of courses at our local music school at Florida State and Tallahassee, which is quite a large music school, but the number of unbelievable musicians that came through the place just couldn’t convince me that, that I was in way over my head. So I got into MIT and thoroughly enjoyed it there. It was like a firehose of knowledge and information and the incredible, Emilio, all the professors around you have publication lists as long as your arm. And it was quite a few of them were very generous with their time and it was a wonderful environment, I learned quite a bit. After that I got a job as a professional programmer at Stanford. But the interesting thing there was that I worked at the Stanford artificial intelligence lab where there was a group of musicians that were professors at Stanford, composers that were using the computer to make music. I found this absolutely fascinating and helped out as much as I could and then I did get admitted to, after working there for about three years, I did get admitted to the graduate school in computer science there and I did a thesis with the music group there. In fact, it was a kind of a triple major, that is, computer science, electrical engineering, and music. That is my thesis committee consists of one EE prof, one computer science professor, and one music professor and it was on transcription of musical sound by computer. It is producing a score from a musical performance and boy using the computers of the day in 1975, that was a job. That was a serious job. I’m sure it would all be much easier now. From there within the music group, it was an incredible time because this was the early days of digital audio and just about anything we did was novel and was publishable and just about any funny noise you could make, you could write a paper on it and it would be something interesting, something that people wanted to read. So it was a wonderful time. As I say, everything we did turned to gold in a sense that is it helped composers make better pieces, it helped us understand hearing better. It was a glorious time. So I guess I had built up enough street creds by 1980 when George Lucas formed the computer division that I was the first name that popped up for the audio side of it. We had a nice little project running there for some years in digital solutions to film sound. And I never got a film credit, but I have sounds in a number of films like the asylum scene and Amadeus, some of them I did some of the noise reduction work there and a number of sound effects that Ben Burton, Gary Summers used in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movies. Some of which was based on some fairly elaborate signal processing, but not strictly musical in nature. But when I was throwing the ... I had indicated previously, as I mentioned, they had the policy of promoting from within. I’d mentioned previously that I did want to do some music for films. I wasn’t quite ready to volunteer for a film score then, but any kind of music cue where I could do electronic music I would be up for, so this is the one that fell into my lap. So it’s mostly for being in the right place at the right time and apparently with the right skillset.9
Well, not only does nobody know it, it at various times other people have claimed it, which was also interesting. No, I don’t make a big deal out of it, so, well, having said that, every time I give a big presentation, like a keynote presentation or something like that, I do play it first thing just to establish some identity.10
Why does he think some sonic logos like Deep Note are so powerful and so remembered for so few amount of time and notes?
Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I honestly don’t know. I mean, as far as Deep Note goes, I absolutely deliberately designed it to knock you flat. I mean, as soon as it was mentioned to me, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I knew it would just stun everyone in the audience, at least the first time they heard it. And the others and the other composers, I don’t know. I don’t know what makes... Besides my obvious heavy handed approach to it. I don’t know what makes some of these more subtle ones so attractive. A friend of mine [Mike Hawley] once said, where does the music happen? Is it in the musician? Is it in the score? Well, his conclusion was, no, it’s in the listener. It’s in the audience. That’s where the music actually happens. So to explain why a piece has such attraction, you have to explain something about people I think and I’m not sure, quite, that I have any insight on that. He just passed away from cancer a few months ago. He was one of my hires at Lucasfilm. He worked with us for a couple of years and he worked at Next Incorporated and then he went to the MIT media lab, worked with Todd Machover, the composer among other people. But he was another one of these musical technical gadflies in the world. But, I thought that was a great quote.11
Does he have other favorite audio logos?
Yeah, I don’t know about logos. There was an Apple commercial that came out a while ago that I absolutely adored. It was a three-note piano lick. Let’s see if this is going to work. (Whistles). And then he made various counterpoints to it and built up a whole texture out of this three note motif. I thought that was absolutely brilliant.12
And when he hears his sonic logo now, what does he think? Is he still critiquing it?
Well, this last version that I did in 2014 I think I’ve taken that idea about as far as it can go. So I think I can say now that it is officially done. You know, I tried, I did have some fun playing with it, that is, I tried a longer versions of it where let’s say the random lead up lasted, I had one version that was five minutes long and then I sat down at my keyboard and just, I retuned it to be the D natural on the piano keyboard. Normally it’s a little bit high of a D and tried jamming to it, tried a little free jazz first and then try it a little boogie-woogie and that was sort of fun, but the piece as it is, stands on its own. In 2014 we did three different versions of it. A 30 second, a 45 second and a one minute. Of those I think the 45 second one is the best. The one minute one you start saying, get on with it. The 30 second one just doesn’t build up quite long enough to convey the impact I wanted. Well, my use of space, the spatialization in 1983 was a bit impoverished. They only had four channels. Sound systems left center, right and surround, that is both left and right surrounds were for one channel. So it was nice to be able to do it in 7.1 and then the Dolby Atmos 9.1, which included two overheads. That was great fun. And then getting to use up to 80 voices. It’s interesting because at some point adding more voices didn’t help, it just made it sound if you have like 200 voices then it sounds like quite noise. It sounds like, you know, a storm outside or a vacuum cleaner or something like that. But 80 was about the limit and that one you could pick out individual voices every once in a while it would rise above the noise or would get an unusually high or unusually low or something like that and I thought that was a pleasant effect. I didn’t want to lose that. The original was in 30 voices and I thought that was a little thin.13
And…finally, any funny reactions to Deep Note over the years?
Well, I did get the odd disturbing e-mail of there are some people that are absolutely terrified by it and that when they hear it coming on in the theater, they plug their ears up and bury their head in their lap until it’s over. That wasn’t exactly what I was going for. But, I can see how it might happen. Another one was very funny, which was that one of my friends commented that his dog went crazy every time the thing came on. There was one nasty little secret in the first one that, actually in the original, if you actually look at it on a spectrum analyzer of some kind, you’ll see there’s quite a bit of high-frequency material in there. And that’s because to even get 30 voices, I had to cut some corners and it produced a bunch of high-frequency hash that is not really audible, but if you put it on an analyzer, it pops right up. And I think that’s what the poor dog was hearing some stuff in the 15 to 18 kilohertz region.14