AES Section Meeting Reports

New York - September 15, 2009

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About 50 members and guests gathered in the Digital Cinema dubbing theater of Sync Sound to learn the fascinating details of the history of sound for motion pictures. The evening opened with Bob Auld and Ron Hutchinson explaining the workings of the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process. They used system drawings and vintage photos showing the theory and installed equipment of the day.
Ron also showed an 16-inch Viatphone transcription disc which had been recorded at 33-1/3 rpm to yield a playing time of ten minutes. This matched the length of one 35mm film reel. He then passed around a massive oil-damped tone arm from a Vitaphone playback turntable. It required a tracking force on the order of two ounces and a steel needle which had to be replaced after each use. Talking pictures proved to be so popular that the number of theaters equipped for sound jumped from about 200 in 1927 to over 12,000 by 1930.

Ron also explained the mission of the Vitaphone Project: to collect as many Vitaphone discs as possible from around the world and reunite them with their matching mute film reels so that the movies and shorts can be restored to optimum quality and exhibited in theaters. Many are being released in DVD collections.UCLA and the Library of Congress are assisting in a major way.

Movies with a musical accompaniment were presented for many years prior to 1927 using live musicians in local theaters. Producers saw the new technology as a way to eliminate those thousand of jobs by supplying films with built-in music — and limited sound effects to boot. Early results were of poor quality because theaters did not have electrical amplification for their playback systems -- only underpowered acoustic horns. This mode of presentation was a big money-loser, due to the poor sound quality.

With the advent of amplifiers using Lee de Forest's Audion vacuum tubes, adequate playback systems became possible and the new electrical recordings could be heard properly for the first time. Restored films such as those heard in tonight's presentation sound remarkably wide-range and distortion-free using modern reproduction technology. De Forest benefited greatly from the pioneering research and development efforts of Theordore Case and Earl Sponable, who worked tirelessly to perfect recording and reproducing systems. Many scenes of Case's filmed experiments appeared in tonight's documentary presentation "The Dawn of Sound." An interesting historical aspect of this research was the business side, with Warner Brothers and Fox Films vying for Case's technology while denying him overt credit for his efforts. Studio executive Sam Warner actually died one night prior to the world premiere of his studio's breakthrough film "The Jazz Singer." The documentary was filled with numerous scenes of sound-on-disc and then sound-on-film musical and news footage.

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