The supervisor of the sound recording at the Radio Studio, Hollywood, relates a few of the eccentricities of friend “ mike.”
by J. V. Maresca
THE recording of sound has developed in many interesting ways, since that memorable night in 1926, when the Warner Brothers exhibited a sound-picture (in which the Metropolitan tenor, Martinelli, sang the popular “ Vesti la Giubba,” from Pagliacci), and decided to invest their tottering capital in talking pictures (a decision which enabled them later to put aside a trust fund for themselves of more than ^3,000,000). The immediate success of Vitaphone pictures caused all the studios to throw over their production plans for the year and plunge into the business of making talking pictures. Large sums were spent. Hollywood was turned upside down with excitement. Some directors and stars failed to “ click ” in this new medium of expression, while others suddenly shot up to new heights.
The first results were poor. When the excitement had abated somewhat and the first pictures had gone forth to mumble their way through the theatres, studios settled down to the business of perfecting the sound devices with the result that, in a well-equipped theatre to-day, a properly recorded picture comes very close to the illusion that is desired.
The first sound tracks were made on wax records, just as in the manufacture of gramophone records. Copies could be made and shipped with the film, the theatre operator placing the disc on a turn-table that turned at a speed in proper ratio to the machine projecting the film. This was found to be unsatisfactory. Records became worn and voices were foggy and un
intelligible. Also, there were difficulties in keeping the picture in synchronization with the sound. On the screen you sometimes saw a character open his mouth, but the words came a few seconds early or late, spoiling the effect. Now, however, pictures made with the new method do not get “ out of sync,” as we call it in the studios.
Following the wax record method came sound-on-film. It was found that sound waves could be photographed right on the edge of the film. This led to further complications. Room had to be made on the film for the sound track. This made the picture smaller. The size of the picture aperture and screen had to be changed. And when a sound-on-film picture appeared at a theatre where this had not been done, there was an ugly white margin at one side, not to mention a good view of the sound track running alongside the picture, looking like a very irregular Jacob’s ladder. Then, to make matters worse, many theatres had only disc-record equipment and couldn’t play the other pictures. All this led to changes in equipment in both theatre and studio, until the present method was reached.
Let us follow the recording of a talking-picture from the beginning. While the studios still use different systems, they are now nearly enough alike to be used in any theatre. R.K.O. studios uses what is known as the Photophone system, developed by the Radio Corporation of America, which is the system we shall follow here.
The camera is set up; the micro
phone, similar to the type used in broadcasting, is suspended from a long crane just out of the picture ; the director places his people and the inevitable “ Quiet, please ! ” is called.
In a soundproof booth the " mixer ” watches through a window. Before him is a row of dials and meters. As the sound is picked up by the microphone it is sent through the mixing-booth as a fluctuating electric current, while the “mixer” studies its quality and strength. In this booth the current is amplified 1,000,000 times, so that it will record more clearly in the recording room. The “mixer'1 is in constant communication with the man at the microphone, and lets him know at once if the “ mike ” is not picking up the sound properly.
The recording room is in some out-of-the-way corner of the sound stage. Here, over a loudspeaker, you can hear every whisper on the stage outside. And here a very busy young man has numerous things to watch. Before him is the sound recorder, loaded with raw films. This machine is controlled by a motor that turns it at exactly the same speed as the camera on the set. The sound comes over wires from the mixing-booth.
The recorder is, briefly, a machine which transforms the vibrations of electric current—received from the microphone—into a photographic picture of tiny sound waves. This is the picture, known as the “ sound track ” which I referred to above as being like a “ very irregular Jacob’s ladder.” It is afterwards incorporated with the film and eventually projected with it when the film is screened.
In a phrase, sound is recorded by a photo-electric process
The assistant recordist, who watches over the recording machine, is about the busiest man in the studio during the shooting of a scene. He must see that the mechanism is running smoothly. After each “ take ”—as the filming of a scene is called—he must select one of a row of ticket punches and punch the number of the scene on the film. This enables the cutter later to match the sound track with the picture of the same number. He must then fill out a report sheet on the recordings that are made. If he fails
to do one of these things, trouble is sure to follow. If the machine falters in speed for a moment it will produce what is called a “ wow.” A wow is a jump in pitch, more noticeable in music than in recording the voice. As this would not be discovered otherwise until after the film has been developed, the speed of the recording machine must be constantly inspected.
The recording of sound on a separate film is one of the features of the Photophone system. When the final prints are made, the sound track and picture negatives are printed compositely on positive film. Similar copies are made and sent forth to the theatres. This dual film method facilitates the development of both picture and sound records.
Reproduction of sound from the film is accomplished through a reverse photo-electric process to that described above. I do not intend going into the technical details of it more deeply, or I should fill a volume twice this size.
With the wax record system it was customary to run a “ playback ” of each take. The director heard the scene over a loud-speaker on the set immediately after it was shot. Now, however, it is left to the man in the mixing-booth, whose judgment is accepted. His “ okay ” signifies that the take sounded right as it passed through his booth. Many other forward steps have been made during the short life of sound-pictures. The ponderous camera booth is no longer used. Instead, a soundproof “ blimp ” covers the camera mechanism, the noise of which would otherwise be picked up by the sensitive microphone. It is made of cork and sponge rubber, found to be an effective combination to deaden sound.
The making of sound-pictures has been one steady march against trouble. Even the scenery has to be built of different material now. The old hard wallboard materials used to throw back an objectionable echo. Now some of the walls are made of cloth and other dead materials, which absorb sound instead of reflecting it. The arc lights, which spluttered, are electrically filtered in order to silence them.
Paper, under the microphone, must be dampened, otherwise its crackling is picked up like the report of a pistol shot.
When a company goes on location there is even more trouble. Here the exterior sounds cannot always be controlled. All the apparatus used on the sound stage is built in compact form in a large “ sound truck.” This portable equipment travels far away. Sometimes there is no line near by to furnish electricity, and a gasoline generator has to be used to run the motors which keep the recording and camera machinery going. Automobiles and any noisy machinery have to be silenced when possible, lest they spoil the take. Recently, during the filming of a night scene, men had to fire guns to silence the croaking of frogs near by, before each take.
The wind, however, cannot be stopped, so the microphone must be wrapped in a silk covering to keep out the sound of even the gentlest breeze, which would roar on the sound track. When the sound of wind is wanted, it is made artificially with a machine which is kept at the studio. The real thing doesn’t sound right. The improvement of portable equipment has been of great importance to newsreels, where conditions are most unfavourable for recording.
One of the technical joys of sound, howrever, is that it can be controlled just as easily as heat, water, or electricity. It can be turned on or off, increased or weakened, and stored for future use. The sound-effects libraries of Hollywood contain almost every conceivable sound-effect, from steamboat whistles to hoof beats. By the process known as “ dubbing ” (derived from “ doubling ”) these can be put in the sound track at the desired spot.
This phase of sound—re-recording— is one of the most interesting developments of talking-pictures. For instance, a dancing couple may be photographed as they move about the floor, a travelling microphone following them to pick up their dialogue, while the orchestra that is playing the dance be recorded in another room, if necessary, the following day. As much of the music as is wanted, and as softly as required, can then be superimposed on the sound track of the dancing couple as background for their conversation.
The operator of the re-recording machine can do almost anything -with the sound waves as they come through this machine from the original track. A low-pitched voice can be raised to a high, squeaky affair. Booming noises can be eliminated from speech. Whistles, bells, footsteps and shots can be “ dubbed ” in at will. This is especially convenient for location work, where the actual sounds cannot be picked up alone when wanted.
A love scene, for instance, might be very pretty if birds were to sing at the right moment. But birds cannot be persuaded to sing on demand. So the dialogue is shot on location and the film is returned to the studio, where the re-recording department, following the directions in the script, will put in the desired sounds, whether they be horses galloping, waterfalls, birds, or storms.
The success of talking-pictures has well warranted the expenditure of the millions which have been invested in sound equipment. Although many forward steps have been made since the beginning of talking-pictures, studio sound technicians are still actively engaged in seeking to improve the sound device until the illusion of people speaking on the screen before you will be absolutely perfect.
The world film encyclopedia, 1933
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