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Where no beep had gone before

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 1999

Like an aging movie star, the beep has seen its glory days in Hollywood fade over the past 30 years, paralleling its fall in the public sphere. The 1960s television series Star Trek and its later offshoots provide a case study of how the beep has fallen from high-tech symbol to low-tech annoyance.

In the original series, which ran from 1966 to 1969, the beep was a star. Machines on the bridge of the starship Enterprise emitted a constant backdrop of beeping and booping to accompany the plot line. During the height of the 1960s space race, beeping was considered cutting-edge chic.

In recent Star Trek incarnations, the beep makes only cameo appearances. Gurgling, swishing and speaking have taken its place. The banishment of the beep was a conscious decision by the producers of Star Trek: the Next Generation in 1986.

"We pulled up the sound of the bridge from the original series," said Peter Lauritson, who has worked as a producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as the later series Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. "It was a loud, constant, harsh environment. In contrast to that, we tried to make things softer and calmer."

Like the electronic interface designers of today, the Star Trek producers tried to serve the aesthetic thresholds of humans. The Star Trek characters live aboard the ships for years on end, Lauritson said. "The reality is they wouldn't be able to take it," he said.

"We tried to keep the sounds fairly gentle and minimal until something needed to be said with the sound. We were hoping it would convey sophistication, that things had advanced."

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the sound designers aimed for a so-called pastel range of electronic sounds that were muted and subtle. But then they realized harsh beeps and boops had a necessary role.

As a result, the background sounds in Deep Space Nine and Star Trek Voyager aimed for a more "primary" sound palette, with harsher electronic noises.

"We originally went overboard in making things so sophisticated that it was boring," Lauritson said. "We had to start backing off of that a little bit to get a little more life into the scene."

The beep's prestige has diminished as it has become more mundane. "I think that the beeps and the boops sounds in the earlier days were kind of a futuristic signature," Lauritson said, "whereas now, they're kind of everywhere."

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