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Madam, Will You Talk?
Madam, Will You Talk?By STANLEY WATKINS
Bell Laboratories Record
Figure 1 - The photograph at the top of the page was taken by Warner Bros in the Manhattan Opera House studio. The set for a "Short" featuring Anna Case; showing camera booth and mercury lamps later discarded in favor of incandescents because of electrical interference. Sam Warner (with coat on) near the booth. In front of him Herman Heller, director of the premiere features.
"Madam, will you walk?
Madam, will you talk?
Madam, will you walk
and talk with me?"
--From an old song
It must seem strange to those who are young enough never to have seen a movie without sound to realize that it is but twenty years since the first successful presentation of movies with sound took place.
The first successful presentation. Not by any means the first attempt or even the first public showing, for since the invention of motion pictures in the last century attempts had been made to wed them with sound. The writer saw his first "singie" in a London "Picture Palace" a few years after the turn of the century, quite innocent of the fact that, a score of years later, he was to have the good fortune to play a part in the transformation of the motion picture industry. The commercial failure of these early efforts can he laid to the fact that, for a new form of entertainment to be put across successfully, two things must be brought together. The first of these is technical performance good enough to be acceptable in comparison with the existing arts, and the
Figure 2 - Phonograph recording the old way. Acoustic pick-up, performers crowded together, special types of instruments, and orchestra limited in size.
second is courage and imagination on the part of the producers and backers to insure an adequate presentation to the public. When the successful introduction of sound into the movies took place, the first of these requirements was fulfilled by the Western Electric Sound System, the second by the Warner brothers.
The interest of the Bell System in the recording of sound is a perennial one. In fact it goes back to the System's founder, since Alexander Graham Bell was a co-inventor of the use of "wax" in making phonograph records. As a part of the study of sound, the ability to record it has been a necessary accomplishment of Bell Telephone Laboratories quite apart from any directly practical applications there might be. These usually present themselves in due course, and in this case a commercial outlet arose in the following manner.
In the early Twenties the phonograph industry was suffering from the competition of the new broom, radio. The fight was an uneven one as long as the quality of the recording was limited to the possibilities of the old acoustic method. The radio broadcasting technique with its sensitive microphone pick-up allowed the artists freedom of action, permitted the use of full symphony ensembles, and made possible great improvement in quality through an ever-increasing knowledge of the use of studio acoustics. In the Laboratories, recording research had been going on for some time in two groups, one headed by I. B. Crandall experimenting with sound on film, the other under J. P. Maxfield with sound on disc. As this latter method was in line with the experience and facilities of the photograph industry, it was decided that the development of electrical recording on disc should be pushed rather vigorously and recordings made for demonstration to the industry. The major phonograph companies quickly showed interest and in 1925 Columbia and Victor signed contracts within a few weeks of each other to install it in their studios.
From an engineering point of view, the Laboratories' main contribution to the development of electrical recording was to bring to bear on the problem the skills and methods acquired in the process of improving the art of communication. After all, an electrical recording system is a telephone system in which the receiver transmits its vibrations to a recording stylus instead of to the ear drum. The methods of design are those of the transmission engineer and the skills are those developed in the search for the most perfect microphone and the most perfect receiver. The condenser microphone of E. C. Wente was already in being and the "rubber line" recorder was produced by a brilliant piece of work on the part of H. C. Harrison and E. L. Norton. These instruments, with the amplifiers which were the outgrowth of the telephone repeater, formed a system whose quality was on a par with that of the best contemporary radio.
Throughout the development of the Laboratories' sound system and its adoption by the phonograph and motion picture industries, major credit is due two men: E. B. Craft and H. D. Arnold. The arts of communication owe much to Arnold for his insistence that the highest attainable quality be aimed at in all developments, sacrifices
for commercial reasons being made afterwards, if at all. Craft with his unconquerable enthusiasm inspired those of us who had the good fortune to work under him, even when the going was not smooth and when the enterprise did not meet with wholehearted support in all quarters.
Outside of the phonograph industry the possibility of other applications of the new recording method arose. A set of records was made to provide a running commentary to a Bell System motion picture entitled "The Audion," an animation explaining the workings of the vacuum tube. In order to play the records in time with the film, a somewhat crude but adequate method of synchronization was used. Two revolution counters were mounted side by side, one connected to the motion picture machine, the other by a flexible shaft to the record turntable. The motion picture operator could keep the two counters reading alike to within about a second by means of a rheostat on the picture machine. This was close enough for a commentary.
The Audion film with its records was exhibited by Craft at Woolsey Hall, New Haven, on October 27, 1922. The occasion remains very vivid to the writer who, since his voice had been used in making the records, was induced to sit up in the organ loft during the performance with a microphone to carry on in case the reproducing system should go on strike. Through some last minute change in lighting or what-not, he was unable to see what was happening on the screen, so it is as well that the electrical system worked. There might otherwise never have been any talkies!
Figure 3 - Alexander Graham Bell's contribution to recording included the development of the "wax" disc, here examined by E. L. Norton, D. G. Blattner (in front), J. P. Maxfield, A. C. KeIler and H. C. Harrison
Figure 4 - H. M. Stoller (left) and Pfannenstiehl with the first commercial model of the disc record attachment for the motion picture projection machines
This experimental use of sound with a motion picture was so favorably received that it was decided to attempt the making of a real talking picture, accurately synchronized and the subject recorded and photographed at the same time. The early attempts at coupling sound and scene had always suffered from the fact that the two could not be simultaneous. It is difficult to get a satisfactory picture of an actor when he has his head in a horn as was required by the acoustic method of recording, and so you took his picture first and recorded the sound as nearly as possible in step afterwards. The solution of the synchronizing problem reflects much credit on H C. Harrison, H. M. Stoller, H. Pfannenstiehl, and co-workers. The great difficulty was in keeping "flutter," or non-uniform speed of rotation, out of the disc turntable. The phonograph people did it by using weight-driven recording machines, but in the talking picture system the machine had to be driven by motors and through gears.
In the spring of 1923 the Laboratories' first real "talkies" were made at 463 West Street. The performers in these first pictures included J. P. Maxfield, T. L. Dowey, C. R. Sawyer, G. H. Stevenson, and the writer, but not even this could discourage
Craft, who decided that the results warranted making some pictures with professional talent for demonstration purposes. Musicians and a camera man were engaged and a series of short subjects "shot" in Room 1109, where now most appropriately sits W. C. F. Farnell, the guardian of all the Bell System's famous firsts. Room 1109 is not large, as movie studios run, but there is a convenient roof outside the window. With the camera in a little shed on this roof, there was just enough room inside for lights, artists, and a director.
A projection room had in the meantime been improvised somewhere on the tenth floor and visitors began to arrive, motion picture executives and financial men. Among them was Sam Warner, who came at the urging of Nathan Levinson, then Western Electric's west coast representative for public address and broadcasting matters. Sam Warner saw at once that the turning point in the movie industry had come and brought in his two older brothers. The fourth brother, Jack, who was producing their pictures in Hollywood, stayed on the job, probably feeling that lie might as well finish the pictures already started, just in case. Harry M. Warner, the eldest and head of the firm, was as enthusiastic as his brother Sam after the demonstration, being particularly struck with a little orchestra number from which he visualized the making of synchronized musical scores to accompany the feature pictures so that, even in the smallest theaters, music composed especially for the picture and played by a great symphony orchestra would be heard.
Figure 5 - The Warner Theater as it appeared in August, 1926. Photo by Warner Bros.
In the meantime Western Electric had licensed Walter J. Rich to form a company to exploit the sound movies commercially. Rich and the Warners took to one another at first sight and jointly formed the Vitaphone Corporation. By the summer of 1925 plans were under way for making a program of features with which to open at the Warner Theater on Broadway. Production was to start at the old Vitagraph studios in Flatbush, and a small band of Laboratories' engineers found their way there and began installation of recording gear. One of the glass-roofed stages was selected and sound-absorbing material--old carpets from the property room--hung up. In a nearby room the amplifiers, recording machines, monitoring loudspeaker, and recording staff were installed.
There were minor difficulties. Shooting had to be sandwiched between the arrivals of the trains at the Avenue M station which was very close, and a long pole was kept handy for discouraging the pigeons that sat on the roof girders and cooed appreciatively during emotional scenes. Nevertheless, some of the subjects recorded in these circumstances came out reasonably well and one was even used at the opening performance. It was clear, however, that the production plans, which now included a 107-piece orchestra and some large sets, transcended the possibilities of Flatbush and, after Sam Warner and the writer had visited all the likely facilities in the metropolitan
area short of Madison Square Garden, the Manhattan Opera House was leased and production started on the grand scale.
The Opera House was void of pigeons, but other nuisances manifested themselves from time to time. When Reinald Werrenrath was to be recorded in a woodland setting, a resourceful member of the technical staff brought in a boxful of field crickets for sound effects and some of them escaped. Entomological note: crickets are difficult to locate and sing loudest when the director says "Quiet."
Technical advances made during the production of the premiere features included improvement in playing back from the wax record, which has always been a difficult matter, quieting of the camera (this was enclosed in a soundproof booth on wheels which could easily be moved by eight strong men), extension of the monitoring position out to the neighborhood of the set, and the transfer of recorded material from one record to another, known as dubbing. At the same time the reproducing system was not neglected. J. L. Reynolds produced the "fader" for going smoothly from one record to the next. A remarkable emergency feat of design and production engineering by A. L. Thuras, E. C. Wente and D. G. Blattner resulted in making available in record time an electromagnetic loudspeaker with adequate power capacity for theater use. As the dimensions of the undertaking increased, the operating and development functions were separated, and the writer, with a group of Laboratories' engineers, went on leave of absence to form the engineering department of Vitaphone in May, 1926.
Figure 6 - The synchronized camera used for the first Vitaphone productions being studied by Stanley Watkins, H. C. Humphrey, C. R. Sawyer and A. C. Millard.
On August 6 the premiere took place. Extraordinary precautions were taken to avoid technical mishaps and everything went smoothly. A special edition of Variety hailed it as Broadway's record sensation and the silent picture became obsolete overnight. It was not, however, until a year later when Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer introduced singing and speech for the first time in a full-length feature that the rest of the motion picture industry capitulated. The two brief bits of spoken dialogue in this picture had not been planned in the script, but were uttered quite unexpectedly by Jolson, and the first of them, prophetically enough, was the ejaculation: "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!"
Becoming convinced that it was now "sound or sink," the big producers signed license contracts and the orders for studio recording equipments came in. Western's manufacturing department went into production at an unprecedented speed--five studio equipments wanted at once--the order changed to ten before the ink was dry--fifty equipments under way before the first order was weeks old. To the credit of designers and manufacturers be it said that this equipment, turned out under great pressure and involving highly precise workmanship, remained the standard of quality for many years. In the theater field a similar state of affairs arrived as the exhibitors scrambled to get sound equipment before the supply of silent pictures dried up or the public demand for sound closed their box offices. The talking picture as we now know it did not spring into being at once. First there were "Sound Pictures"--musical accompaniment only, then "Talking Pictures" like The Jazz Singer, followed by "All Talking Pictures," and finally "100 per cent All Talking Pictures."
At the end of 1926, Electrical Research Products Incorporated--ERPI--was formed as a subsidiary of Western Electric to handle extra-telephonic matters. ERPI
granted the licenses to producing companies and theaters, and supervised and serviced all installations in studios and theaters. Its engineering department carried out the kind of development work called for by the changing methods of movie production and the growing pressure of competition. ERPI presided over a scene of growth and change: film replacing disc; the freeing of motion picture technique from the shackles of early sound cautiousness--having made the movies talk it was necessary to allow the talkies to move; wholesale theater conversions reaching a peak of more than twenty installations a week; and the rise of many competing sound systems and the fall of some. Talking pictures were soon being made for industrial, medical, and educational purposes.
ERPI crossed the oceans, bringing Western Electric Sound to Europe, and to such far places as India, Japan, South Africa and Australia. In England, the company equalled its American record for high-speed conversion of theaters. Studios were equipped in England, France, Spain, Italy and other countries.
Figure 7 -The program of the opening performance in the Warner Theater
In 1937 ERPI stopped supplying sound reproducing equipment to domestic theaters and licensed others to manufacture such equipment. At that time the theater servicing business of ERPI in the United States was sold to a group of its employees who formed Altec Service Corporation. In 1941 ERPI was merged into Western Electric and became the Electrical Research Products Division of that company, continuing to carry on its licensing functions and remaining active in the sound recording equipment field. It maintains a laboratory in Hollywood for carrying on engineering and design of recording equipment furnished to studios, calling upon Bell Laboratories for fundamental development.
One of the biggest things that happened to talking pictures after their launching came about without the public's being conscious of it, namely the conversion to sound
on film. It was a foregone conclusion that this would ultimately take place and, as has already been mentioned, the development of sound recording on film was being carried on alongside that of sound on disc in the Laboratories. However, although the status of film recording was such that it might possibly have been used from the start, disc recording had one great advantage at the time in having at its disposal forty years of experience in the commercial processing of the discs, whereas the past experience in the developing and printing of motion pictures was not much help when it came to processing the sound track. It was necessary before sound on film could be adopted, not only to introduce sensitometric methods into the film processing plants but to persuade the film technicians to change their methods even in handling the picture, in order to get the best results in the combined print. The credit for managing this delicate matter, as well as for working out the new film recording and processing techniques, belongs to Donald MacKenzie, while E. C. Wente again came forward with a major contribution in the form of the electromechanical light valve.
The quality of the sound of motion pictures is not always maintained at the highest level possible. The processing of the sound film is not always faultless, the studio microphone pick-up does not always conform to the principles of acoustic control laid down so convincingly by Maxfield, but, by and large, the sound system has taken its place beside the camera as an artistic tool capable of meeting the director's most exacting demands. And the Laboratories can take just pride in the Western Electric Sound System. Although ERPI and Western Electric withdrew from the domestic theater equipment business on September 1, 1937, about twenty-five per cent of the theaters in the country still use Western Electric Sound Systems installed before that date. Western Electric recording is used in the studios of most of the major motion picture producers, including Paramount, M-G-M, 20th Century-Fox, Universal, Columbia Pictures, and a dozen or so others among which are the Movietone, Paramount and Hearst newsreel companies.
THE AUTHOR: Stanley Watkins was born in England and received engineering degrees in 1908 from London University and from the Imperial College of Science where he taught physics and electrical engineering for the next three years. In 1911 he joined the Western Electric Engineering Department where he worked on development of such devices as ringing systems, public address systems, and, during World War I, anti-aircraft directors and gun ranging systems, before shifting in 1919 to electrical recording. In 1922 he began work on experimental talking pictures and in 1925 was in charge of the Laboratories' group which installed and operated the first commercial sound picture recording system in the Vitaphone Studios at Flatbush. In 1926 he took a year's leave of absence from the Laboratories to become chief engineer of the Vitaphone Corporation during the period when the opening program of sound pictures was prepared and presented. He became director of recording engineering for Electrical Research Products Incorporated in 1927 and was responsible for the layout of sound studios and their recording installations in Hollywood and New York. The years from 1929 to 1936 he spent in England and on the continent as European technical director of ERPI, becoming also a Director of Western Electric Limited with responsibilities that included supervision of engineering, recording, installation, maintenance, merchandising, and local manufacturing departments. In 1937 he returned to the Laboratories where he has since worked on such projects as the Voder, which was displayed at the New York World Fair's Bell System exhibit of which he was an assistant manager; experiments in visible speech; and research on disc recording. World War II brought him back to electrical gun directors, this time to write textbooks and organize instruction courses in their use.
- 1999 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.
Return to Recording Technology History Notes | this page revised July 25, 1999