More than any other period of the last century, the '50s was probably the decade that introduced the world to the concept of electronic sound and electronic music through its usage in the emerging genre of sci-fi films.

Prior to this, few people had really heard electronic music and its use in soundtracks was limited to a few eerie chords played on a Hammond or possibly the occasional use of a Theremin or perhaps Ondes Martenot.

During the '50s, however, more and more use was made of electronics to produce effects and sounds for this new breed of entertainment. Of course, a lot of it was very unsubtle use of the Theremin and, of course, many of the films were rather shabby 'schlock-horror' B-movies.

But one movie stands out from the crowd and that is "Forbidden Planet".

Released in 1956, "Forbidden Planet" was loosely based on Shakepeare's play, "The Tempest". The story takes place in the far future with the crew of the United Planets cruiser C-57D  on a mission to Altair IV in search of survivors from a previous expedition. Much like the lost island of the original play that is buzzing with the spirit of the faeries, the landscape of Altair IV is alive with strange extra-terrestrial mystery. On the planet, the crew of the rescue ship encounters the mysterious Dr Morbius and his beautiful daughter Altaira, the only remaining  survivors of the spaceship Bellerophon which  had landed on the planet twenty years earlier. 

Morbius shows the crew of the rescue mission the advanced technology left behind by the now extinct Krell who once inhabited the planet. Morbius has been using this technology to expand his intellectual powers but in doing so, has released a monster (the 'ID'), an invisible manifestion of the dark side of the doctor's mind. The crew of the C-57D must battle to save themselves and escape the planet. It is dark and sinister but as light relief, there is Robby the robot (above), a modern-day equivalent of Caliban from the original play.

It's a marvellous film with special visual effects that were extremely advanced for the time. However, the soundtrack was of particular special interest.

Created by Louis and Bebe Barron, a husband and wife team based in New York, "Forbidden Planet" was the first movie to have a totally electronic soundtrack AND it was credited as such ... as 'Electronic Tonalities' ... and it was to be a major influence on the use of electronic music in the movie industry for years to come.... even to this day! This was not an orchestral score with some gratuitous Theremin thrown in as an afterthought - for the first time in the history of movies, here was a totally electronic music soundtrack that was an integral part of the film and hearing these compositions for the first time must have been a truly 'out-of-this-world' experience for most people at the time.

But, of course, the film was made almost a decade before Robert Moog would show his protoype synth modules at a trade show! So what did the Barrons use to realise this innovative soundtrack?

In a time before commercially available synthesisers were available, the Barrons designed and constructed their own circuits. They didn't build a synthesiser as such... instead they built circuits with particular sounds in mind.

They would view the footage or read the screenplay and discuss the kind of sounds or atmospheres that were required for the characters or the scenes and between them. They would set about building the circuits required for the job.


They described their circuits as 'non-linear' and they tried to imbue their designs with an 'organic' quality but the process was subject to serendipity - that is, their circuits had flaws and imperfections and didn't always behave as expected.

However, if anything, this was a strength that the Barrons exploited to highlight the human flaws in the characters or, indeed, the unpredictability of an alien landscape.

These sounds would then have been recorded with tape delays, spring reverbs and other (primitive) processing and the whole collage would then be assembled using intricate tape splicing techniques.

The Barrons were undisputably at the vanguard of early electronic music and we owe them much. Apart from "Forbidden Planet", they also contributed their talent to many other (less well known) films as well as making their studio available to pioneers of the time such as John Cage and others. If nothing else, their work on "Forbidden Planet" contributed towards putting seriously constructed electronic music into the mainstream of public acceptance. The couple divorced but still continued to work together. Sadly, Louis died in 1989 but the last thing I heard was that Bebe (now 77!) is still active in the field.

"But what has any of this to do with this website?" you ask. Well......

I have long been using Native Instruments' REAKTOR to design and build my own 'circuits' in software in a similar vein to the Barrons' ethos - to create 'organic' instruments that can generate eerie soundscapes almost at random and which have an unpredictable life of their own. On offer here is a collection of samples from these instruments. Although the technology is thoroughly modern, the sounds themselves don't come more 'vintage' than these!!

I make no claim that any of the sci-fi samples in Nostalgia are authentic recreations of the Barrons' work but a close friend of Bebe Barron says that they are "Very much in the spirit of Forbidden Planet, and in most cases dead ringers for the original"!

All the sounds are single samples recorded at C3 but mapped out from C1-C6. As a result, they will speed up and slow down if played across the keyboard range. However, this is perfectly in keeping with the Barrons' original work who used different tape speeds to affect the playback of their recordings.

The 'landscapes' are stereo whilst the rest are mono. All have been sampled with primitive reverbs and delays appropriate to the era.

If you'd like to hear the Barrons' original work, the soundtrack for "Forbidden Planet" is available on CD at Amazon