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Motion Picture Sound - part 1

Motion Picture Sound - part 1

Motion Picture Sound 1910-1929

sound-on-disc ERPI/Warner Vitaphone sound-on-film ERPI/Fox variable density sound-on-film RCA/RKO variable area

1930-1989 - see Motion Picture Sound part 2
1990-2000 - see Motion Picture Sound part 3

1910 - Eugene A. Lauste was born in Paris in 1857, worked at Edison's Orange N.J. lab 1887-1892 under W.K.L. Dickson, joined Major Woodville Latham 1894 to develop the Eidoloscope, a wide film projector that used the Latham loop, first exhibited publicly in May 1894 in New York. While working for Edison, Lauste read a Scientific American 1881 article about Bell's Photophone and sought to use this method to record sound on 35mm motion picture film. He applied for a patent in England on Aug. 11, 1906, and granted in 1910, for a "new and improved method of and means for simultaneously recording and reproducing movements and sounds." (Fielding p. 173). His first device used a mechanical grate, then mirrors, and by 1910 developed a light gate of a vibrating silicon wire between two magnets. Lauste made many sound films 1910-1914, but was halted by the war.

Edison Kinetophone, 1913
from Edison NHS
1913 - Edison developed the Kinetophone that connected a special cylinder machine with oversize long-playing cylinders to a film projector by means of an overhead belt with 3-inch pulleys. The speed was governed by the phonograph behind the screen and the projector at the other end of the theater in the projection booth had a braking device to slow the film speed to keep synchronization.

1915 - Harold Arnold began program at Bell Labs to improve sound recording using the vacuum tube amplifier, condenser microphone, balanced armature loudspeaker, and light valve. This would lead to the electrical recording technology used by the two basic motion picture sound systems: sound-on-disc and sound-on-film. Edward B. Craft was asst. chief engineer at Western Electric 1918-1922, then VP of Bell Labs 1925. He led the motion picture sound project. He arranged demonstrations at Yale Oct. 27, 1922, and in Feb. 1924 for the sound-on-disc method that produced better sound than the sound-on-film method. A recording studio was set up in 1923 to make experimental films. The Western Electric sound-on-disc system made test films in room 1109 at 463 West St. by H. M. Stoller, under project chief J. P. Maxfield. T. L. Downey designed the recording turntable; H. C. Harrison designed the electrical recording head with cutting sylus; E. C. Wente designed condenser microphone (Patent No. 1,333,744 filed December 20, 1916) and an improved light valve for sound-on-film (Patent No. 1,638,555 filed May 1, 1923).

1917 - Theodore W. Case developed the Thalofide photocell that used thallium oxysulfide. By 1922 he developed the Aeo-light as a source of modulated light. E. I. Sponable worked with Case after 1916 and from 1922 to 1925 he shared equipment with de Forest. Case and Sponable in 1924 developed a sound recording mechanism for a modified Bell and Howell camera using the Aeo-light tube. After breaking off from de Forest in 1925, Case began to develop a projector sound head, offset 20 frames at a speed of 90 ft. per min., using a narrow slit with a helical filament. General Electric and Western Electric were developing their own sound systems, so did not wish to buy into the Case-Sponable system. William Fox licensed the system July 23, 1926, and organized the Fox-Case Corp. with Courtland Smith as president to develop what became known as the Movietone News service. Sponable left the Case lab to join Fox in designing the recording studios in New York and Hollywood, and he designed in 1927 a screen that allowed sound to pass through the screen. The Fox-Case Corp. licensed amplifiers and speakers from Western Electric in 1926 and from ERPI organized in January 1927.

1918 - J.T. Tykociner developed a sound-on-film system at the University of Illinois that used mercury arc light and a Kunz photocell (a cathode of potassium on silver).

1921 - Charles A. Hoxie developed a sound film recorder called the "Pallophotophone" (meant "shaking light sound") at GE, a company that had a well-established photographic and motion picture laboratory under C. E. Bathcholtze for company use and publicity. He recorded speeches by President Coolidge and his Secretary of War and others that were broadcast on WGY in Schenectady in 1922. He developed that Pallotrope that was a photoelectric microphone to be used as the sound pickup. His film soundtracks were variable-area type. GE gave demos in 1926 and 1927 of the Hoxie system with loudpseakers and amplifiers from Bell Labs. The GE system was called the Kinegraphone and used to exhibit a "road show" version of the Paramount film Wings in 1927, using multiple-unit cone-and-baffle type loudspeakers in a bank on each side of the screen. The soundhead was placed on top of the projector because sound projectors had not yet been installed in theaters. Film speed was 90 ft. per min (24 fps) and the optical soundtrack was recorded on the edge of the film, image size haveing been reduced from 1 inch down to 7/8 inch to make room for the variable area soundtrack. In 1927 the film project was transferred from the Engineering Laboratory to the Radio Dept. for commercial manufacturing. GE would work closely with Westinghouse and RCA in the manufacturing of sound film equipment.

1922 - Western Electric presented an experimental animated sound-on-disc film "The Audion" at Yale on Oct. 27, 1922. Cecil B. DeMille began using the Western Electric public address system to instruct extras on his movie sets at Paramount.

1923 - The Rivoli Theater in New York exhibited on April 15, 1923, one of the first programs of de Forest short Phonofilms. It featured vaudeville stars Weber & Fields, Sissle & Blake, Phil Baker, Eddie Cantor, Eva Puck & Sammy White, Conchita Piquir. The next year de Forest made a 2-reel sound comedy, Love's Old Sweet Song, with actress Una Merkel. But studios resisted spending millions to equip theaters with sound equipment.

1924 - "The first experimental, electrically recorded talking picture was exhibited with success in Woolsey Hall at Yale University in New Haven in October, 1922. The New Haven success was followed by a

E. B. Craft demonstrates Vitaphone, from AT&T Archives
1924 film called Hawthorne. This was a film with sound-on-disc showing Western Electric's role as the manufacturing unit of the Bell System. It was the first industrial sound picture and was shown at the Hotel Astor in New York at a dinner given by C. G. DuBois, then president of Western Electric, to 250 Bell System officials. By 1924, many people thought sound motion pictures should be commercialized. Because of the numerous failures in the USA and Europe, the Bell System decided to produce a series of test films with professional talent. The superiority of the Western Electric's new sound picture equipment was repeatedly demonstrated. Even so, by the end of 1924, practically every major producer in Hollywood had rejected Western Electric's sound picture system.
Vitaphone engineer George Groves at a 1925 electrical disc-cutting lathe for sound movies, from AT&T exhibit "The Dawn of Sound"
The motion picture producers had large inventories of silent films, and performers were under long term contracts. Studios and theaters were not equipped for sound, and the costs for conversion were staggering." (from "BTL Historic Record Collection - Background Information" 1979)

1925 - Warner Bros. was the only studio interested in the Western Electric system. Warner had bought the Vitagraph Co. 1925 and started the radio station KFWB in LA 1925. Nathan Levinson was the West Coast rep of Western Electric and took Sam Warner to a demonstration in New York City in April 1925, and Warner bought it and it became the Vitascope system. "Early in 1925, N. Levinson, Western's radio specialist from the Pacific district visited Bell Labs at 463 West Street to see the latest developments in public address equipment. During this visit, he attended a sound picture demonstration of one of the musical shorts made in 1924. A few weeks later, he returned to California and told Sam Warner of the WE sound motion picture successes. Later in 1925, Sam Warner arrived in New York with Levinson and attended a demonstration. His reaction was that the system

billboard 1926,
from AT&T Archives
was "the greatest thing in the world." Subsequently, the Vitaphone Corp. was organized in 1926 [sic - correct date for the formation of the Vitaphone Corporation is 1925, after Walter J. Rich signed a formal agreement with Western Electric May 27, 1925, to create a sound film company, and sold half interest of the rights to Warner Bros. June 25, 1925 - see Hochheiser p. 281] and on August 6th, 1926, Western Electric and Bell Labs in collaboration with Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc., and the Vitaphone Corp. showed the world's first successful commercial sound picture, Don Juan, featuring John Barrymore, at the Warners' Theater in New York. The success of The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson in 1927 completed the conquest of the "silents" by the Bell Labs/WE system." (from "BTL Historic Record Collection - Background Information" 1979)

Vitaphone record,
from AT&T exhibit
"The Dawn of Sound"
1926 - One of the first Vitaphone shorts was made with Bryan Foy in the Manhattan Opera House in New York, with subway noise frequently interrupting the recording, according to mixer George Groves. Vitaphone used a 12-inch or a16-inch disc on a turntable geared to a projector with a Western Electric 4-A pickup, at 33-1/3 rpm for 9-10 minutes, from inside to outside, on one side only, with a lateral-cut groove. Victor made the Vitaphone records with much less abrasive filler, causing the discs to wear out after only 24 plays. Vitaphone discs had a needle force of 3-6 ounces and frequency response of 4300 Hz. The Fox sound-on-film was 8000 Hz but had more wow and flutter and more noise caused by light cell reading film emulsion grain. The RCA-GE Photophone system used the variable area method that had less noise than the Fox variable density method. Wente's light valve in the Western Electric variable density sound-on-film method was capable of a frequency response of 8500 Hz. On Dec. 20, 1926, Western Electric and AT&T created the Electrical Research Products Inc. (ERPI) to license non-telephone technology, including Vitaphone and microphones and amplifiers and loudspeakers. On Dec. 31, Fox signed an agreement with ERPI to combine its Movietone sound-on-film method with Western Electric's amplifification methods for theater use. This variable density system would compete for the next decade with the RCA variable area system that was adopted by RKO after 1928.

1926 - Warner moved the Vitaphone studio to the old Manhattan Opera House in NYC (would move to Hollywood 1927/07). Production began on the first Vitaphone short May 24, The Volga Boatman. the music for Don Juan was recorded by the New York Philharmonic in June for the film's premier Aug. 6. E.C. Wente brought the last equipment needed at the end of July: loudspeakers that were installed in the Warner Theatre orchestra pit only 2 weeks before the August premier. "On August 6, 1926, the glitter of Broadway was intensified by illuminated billboards announcing the

Warners' Theatre,
from AT&T Archives
premiere of the world's first commercial movie with sound. Those lucky enough to get in paid a record $10 to witness the passing of one era and the birth of another. Instead of watching a silent flick accompanied by a lone pianist in the pit, they saw moving images of the 107-member New York Philharmonic play and heard the symphonic sweep of the overture to Wagner's Tannhauser. Later, Elman, Bauer and Zimbalist played and Martinelli sang in a series of Vitaphone shorts. The main feature presented John Barrymore and Mary Astor in Don Juan, with a synchronized musical background." (Western Electric press release, August 6, 1976)

Vitaphone theater,
from AT&T Archives
1927 - The first theater loudspeakers were put below or to the side of the screen, until Earl Sponable's development of the porous screen in 1927 allowed speakers behind the screen. This center placement of sound became the standard after 1927 until CinemaScope in the 1950s.

1927 - The Jazz Singer premier Oct. 6 by Warner Bros., using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc method.

1928 - Steamboat Willie was Disney's first sound film, featuring Mickey Mouse whose animation was drawn by the beat of a metronome, with a fully-synchronized soundtrack of music and sound effects and dialogue, recorded optically as sound-on-film.

1929 - The Broadway Melody premiered Feb. 1, the first of MGM's "all talking -- all singing -- all dancing films," after the studio licensed the sound-on-film process from ERPI. The film was produced at a cost of $280,000 but grossing $4, 000,000 and winning the Oscar for Best Film. When Irving Thalberg ordered one of the musical numbers re-shot, the actors saved time and money by mouthing the songs from the first version's soundtrack, and thus introduced the technique of dubbing separately-recorded sound into a new scene.


Sources:

  • Madam, Will You Talk?
  • American WideScreen Museum
  • "BTL Historic Record Collection - Background Information," Bell Labs manuscript, August 24, 1979, AT&T Archives, Warren, NJ.
  • Culhane,John. Walt Disney's Fantasia. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983.
  • Daniel, Oliver. Stokowski: a Counterpoint of View. New York: Dodd Mead, 1982.
  • Edison National Historic Site Historical Photographs
  • Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound Hollywood and the talkie revolution, 1926-1930. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 413 p.
  • Fielding, Raymond. A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television; an Anthology from the Pages of the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967.
  • Hochheiser, Sheldon, "What Makes the Picture Talk: AT&T and the Development of Sound Motion Picture Technology," IEEE Transactions on Education, vol. 35, no. 4, November 1992, pp. 278-285.
  • Klapholz, Jesse. "Fantasia Innovations in Sound," Journal of Audio Engineering Society 39, Jan/Feb 1991, pp. 66-70.
  • Mead, William. Cinema Technology Page, including SDDS FAQ. 1 June 1997.
  • Mordden, Ethan. The Hollywood Musical. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.
  • MSP - Movie Sound Page
  • Sun, Perry. Movie Sound Page. 25 May 1997.
  • Thrasher, Frederic M. Okay for Sound; how the screen found its voice. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946. 303 p.

- 1999 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.

Part 2 | Recording Technology History Notes | this page revised Oct. 6, 1999
 
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