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Viewers who are familiar with the electronic sound effects associated with bionics are often surprised upon first viewing of the 1973 telefilms and first season to discover virtually none of the familiar effects are heard.
The first of the sounds to appear would later be used for Steve's eye, but the sound first occurred as the sound of the missile silo controls in "Wine, Women and War". Before it would be used for Steve's eye in "Operation Firefly", the eye would gain its first onscreen sound effect: a "computer" sound used only once, while Steve reads in the dark in The Solid Gold Kidnapping. After Operation Firefly, the eye became one of the most consistently used of all the Bionic sounds.
For the duration of the pilot telefilms and Season One, Steve's bionic strength was presented for the most part with only music or "metal fatigue" (for bending or breaking) as an aural accompaniment. This pioneering period for televised bionics was punctuated by the rare use of a sound that would later become associated with bionic strength.
The first use of this sound was in 'Day of the Robot," the 4th episode of the series, but was used here 4 times as the John Saxon robot character, Mr. X, swings at Steve and once as he tosses Steve's metal bar away. The sounds were again used toward the end of Season One for "Dr. Wells Is Missing", but again primarily for an adversary, making the episode jarring from the hindsight of the series' future (however, the 2010 DVD release of this episode does not have the sound effect). Then in The Coward Steve's assault on the bandits with a log uses the sound, and so does a leaping kick. Early in Season Two, this approach recurs in "The Pioneers." Its use would change dramatically in "The Seven Million Dollar Man".
The "bombs away" whistling, heard when objects are thrown through the air with bionic strength, was first heard for the anti-missle test in Day of the Robot. In the following episode, Little Orphan Airplane, Steve bombards the Kataran troops with rocks, which make a whistling sound as they sail through the air, making the soldiers believe they are under mortar attack. This then became standard in The Last of the Fourth of Julys with Steve's tosses of the grappling hook.
A rising and falling synthesized tone associated with bionic jumping in Season Three, made its first appearance all the way back in Season One's The Last of the Fourth of Julys, as Steve practices pole vaulting. This one-off use was revived in Oliver Nelson's Season Two score for "The Seven Million Dollar Man", as first Barney and then Steve jump off the telephone pole. The sound's integration with the score can be observed through its recurrence in reuses of the score, e.g. "Stranger in Broken Fork," where several new iterations of the sound are added to the two wedded to the score. Later the use of this type of sound for bionic jumping was incorporated into the sound design generally.
The types of sounds fall roughly into four categories:
- Steve's eye
- Jaime's ear
- Bionic strength
- Bionic events
Bionic events is an eclectic category which includes such sound design elements as the "bombs falling" sound for objects thrown bionically, as well as the rising and falling synth sounds introduced later for Bionic jumping. There are some unusual bionic sounds as well, such as the "charging up" sound from the tail of the show intro, used when Steve moves into action at the end of "Stranger in Broken Fork", and when Steve thaws and breaks his bonds in "Hocus-Pocus". Bionic events can also be sounds that imitate machinery, such as Steve removing lug nuts at high speed or drilling his buggy's rollbar into a cliff wall.
In a number of first season episodes, as well as an early version of the weekly opening credits, a heartbeat sound effect was also occasionally applied during a bionic scene.
The establishment of the bionic sounds as the standard presentation for bionic strength came in the second season of The Six Million Dollar Man, particularly with the episodes "The Seven Million Dollar Man" and "Stranger in Broken Fork".
In The Seven Million Dollar Man, an aggressive sound mix used the sound from Day of the Robot frequently for both Steve and his Bionic opponent, creating a strong association between the sound and bionics, rather than mere "acoustic drama." This was followed by several episodes where Steve's Bionics were shown with the sounds, in particular the similarly aggressive mix for Stranger in Broken Fork. This sealed the "contract" of understanding between the show and the audience that the sounds were meant specifically for bionics. After the early period, the positioning of the sounds gradually moved from the resultant action (say someone flying through the air after being pushed) to the impetus (the actual pushing). This had the effect of underscoring the Bionics themselves, rather then their dramatic results. By the end of Season Two, Bionics could no longer be presented without the sounds, as they had now become "the sound of Bionics". Season Three was even more consistent, applying the sound to most opportunities. An ironic demonstration of this came with the sequel to "The Seven Million Dollar Man"– "The Bionic Criminal", in which a flashback to the arm-wrestling match from Season Two has bionic sounds over it, where none were before. By that time, in the middle of Season Three, showing the match without the sounds would be unbelievable to the audience, so ingrained was the usage by then. The very episode which played such a big part in pioneering the sound's usage, had to itself be updated. So where can you get the noise of bionic woman when she uses her powers?
Several new sounds were introduced in the 3rd Season of The Six Million Dollar Man; primarily for jumping. After reusing the unique sounds in Oliver Nelson's score for "The Seven Million Dollar Man" in Season Two, a new class of sounds were introduced to motivate Steve and Jaime's bionic jumping. The sounds were, like their Season Two predecessors, synthesized, but the new version had more of a "pure" tone, wearing it's electronic origin on its sleeve. First used in "The Return of the Bionic Woman," they became the standard way that bionics would be presented going forward, ultimately supplanting the use of the "bombs away" sound formerly used for objects thrown in the air.
Another innovation was a second type of sound used for bionic strength, more reverberant than the Day of the Robot classic, that ultimately became the "bionic aftershock" sound. This sound would be used at first for bionic strength, but increasingly it would be paired with the classic strength sound as cause and effect, paired for example as in: shove and go flying, jump and land hard.
In this latter day scenario, as a rule we would see Steve (or Jaime) begin to jump, and hear the classic "Day of the Robot" bionic strength sound. Then as he leaves the ground, the "new" bionic synth tone kicks in, rising as he does, falling likewise. As he lands, the "bionic aftershock" sound kicks in.
When Wine, Women and War was re-edited for syndication, bionic sounds were added to some (but not all) uses of bionics in the original telefilm. Since the altered film is Steve's second outing, this change has altered the perception by some, unfamiliar with the original versions, of the history of the use of bionic sounds.
The syndicated versions of neither the pilot ("The Moon and the Desert") nor The Solid Gold Kidnapping were altered in this way, however some sounds were removed from The Solid Gold Kidnapping: Dr. Bergner's memory had a unique sound associated with it, removed for the reedit, and Steve's eye is given "computer" sounds when he scans the Contessa's passport in the dark, also removed for the reedit.
Do Bionics actually make these sounds in the world of the story, the "diegesis"? The use of music is a prime example of sound that exists outside the diegesis, e.g. the score, and within, e.g. music on the radio in a scene. The music on the radio preports to be happenstance, a byproduct of reality. The score, on the other hand, openly seeks to manipulate the listener's emotions. Like the score, the sounds are meant to tell the audience how to feel about what they are seeing. Viewed thusly, the old complaints of "doesn't anyone hear that noise?" "how can it be a secret if it makes all that noise" are irrelevant; the sounds are to enhance the experience of watching the show. They communicate the wonder of Bionics to the audience. A different view would be that the sounds are made by the Bionics, internally and are only heard to the degree presented by the Bionic person in question. Certainly there is no indication in any of the episodes that any characters actually hear the sounds, with the probable exception of the "metal fatigue" and "object flying" sounds, however these are made by the actions of the bionics, not by the bionics themselves.
(note: this information is in need of corroboration) While Universal was known in the 70's for recycling stock footage and sounds, Charles King, the Sound Designer for the shows, is reported to have braced a metal ruler or yardstick on the edge of a table, pulling and releasing the extended end, then slowing the resultant sound to 25%.