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The 40 greatest synth sounds of all time, No 22: Star Wars - R2-D2

Set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars is acknowledged as one of the most culturally significant sci-fi series of all time, with the films grossing over $10 billion worldwide to date.  

Musically, the Star Wars franchise is best known for the epic orchestral arrangements written by John Williams. However there are also a lot of sound effects peppered through the films, from the hyperspace engines of the Millennium Falcon through to the fizzy sounds of Luke’s lightsaber. 

While a lot of these sounds were created using real-life sound design techniques, a number were made using synthesis, including the chirpy, robotic dialogue of R2-D2, synthesised using a classic ARP 2600.

Although R2-D2 didn’t speak a recognisable language, sound designer Ben Burtt wanted the robot’s vocal to have a relatable, human quality. 

Let’s recreate R2-D2’s vocal stylings using Synapse Audio’s DuneCM, which offers all the flexible modulation options we’ll need.

R2-D2 synth sound

(Image credit: Future)

Step 1: Firstly, push the Osc Mix up to 100%, so we can only hear Osc 2. We can use frequency modulation (FM) later on to add depth. Next, set Osc 2 to a sine wave; this basic tone is the building block of our robot sound. Now, we can use modulation to make our sound talk.

R2-D2 synth sound

(Image credit: Future)

Step 2: To mimic R2’s chirpy tones, use an LFO to modulate the pitch of Osc 2. Set LFO1 to the Sample & Hold waveform, then assign it to Osc 2’s Semitone control in the Mod matrix at +50. We’ve used the Sample & Hold LFO waveform as it imparts a random quality to the pitch modulation.

R2-D2 synth sound

(Image credit: Future)

Step 3: Assign the mod wheel to a couple of DuneCM’s parameters. In the mod matrix, assign MWheel to FM 2 at +100. As you increase Mod Amount, you’ll hear extra harmonics being added to the sound, making it simple to add variations, whilst adding realism.

R2-D2 synth sound

(Image credit: Future)

Step 4: Assigning pitch bend to LFO1’s Rate at +25 lets us speed up the LFO for a more R2-D2-esque sound. We’ll also assign PWheel to Osc 2’s Semitone control at -25, changing the tuning while speeding up the LFO. Set Output Control to Mono, so you can only play one key at a time.