Not Just Rockford’s Phone, But The IDEA Of A Phone Itself

Phone05.) The Universal Telephone Ring

For the majority of my life, I was bothered by the sound design in a scene in Ghostbusters, when Dana answers the phone in her apartment.  There is near silence, then a slightly distorted, very loud ring.  It sounded so out of place, as if it was obviously artificial.  When I heard the film was remastered, I was hoping they would fix this, not at all piecing together that it was the same ring tone in Tootsie, The Sting, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, WarGames, and most tellingly, the intro to every episode of The Rockford Files.  You may even recognize it from elsewhere:

maxresdefault-1I didn’t even realize this sound effect had a name until I found myself going down a Wilhelm Scream wormhole one day online, when I found this to be the runner up in terms of audio sound gags that are inserted in films to the delight (and horror) of sound designers everywhere.  Unlike The Wilhelm Scream, the origins of this telephone ring effect seems to have been lost to the ages.  It seems to have been first used in early Leave It To Beaver episodes, but most likely was used then only because it was in the Universal Studios sound library at the time.

k11230325By the ’70’s, the effect became ubiquitous in Universal’s dramas, and you can hear it all over Six Million Dollar Man, The A-Team and Magnum P.I., along with countless other Universal Productions.  In the ’80’s, the tone of television began to shift, and sound designers became much more sophisticated, making custom effects for most projects.  A few jokes here and there slipped into the overall body of television and film, creating a sort of intra-designer code through the use of sounds like this one.  As with all codes, it was only noticed by other sound-nerds, and much like razor tape editing, is largely unnoticed by the average listener.

Something about the Chickenman universe just screams for this kind of sound effect as part of its landscape, and since there are a number of phone-call conceits to the structure of the show, it seemed like the right move for this presentation.  Something about this just feels right.

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