Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Talkie Technology in 1930

By September 27, 1930 the talkies had hit their stride. The technology had advanced to a point where procedures for recording sound were standardized and efficient, but as the wonderful Morris Markey tells us in his New Yorker article entitled "Hit the Switch!", things were still uncertain in the studios.

Markey takes a trip to Stage B "in the Paramount studio at Astoria" to see the filming of a new movie (possibly "Follow the Leader") starring comedian Ed Wynn. He discovers that studios are no longer sound-proofed and cloistered the way they were in the early days of the talkies, but some new equipment has certainly arrived.
There were four cameras. Three of them were the familiar movie cameras, a little bulky with their sound-insulation but recognizable. The fourth was the sound camera. Instead of a lens, it was fitted with a microphone at the end of a very long, very thin telescopic arm. The arm thrust out from the camera like the tentacle of an insect, and the microphone at its end was poised immediately over the spot where the action was to take place--high enough to be invisible to the lenses of the other cameras. As the actors moved about, the arm could be extended or shortened, raised or lowered in an instant so that the sound-collecting microphone always hovered over them.

The sound camera does not carry its own film. It merely carries certain electrical equipment which transmits the sound from the microphone to a telephone wire. The telephone wire carries the speech of the players to the central sound-recording room in the basement.
It's interesting that Markey doesn't know the names for any of this equipment, and so relates to it as though it were simply refurbished from the silent film days. The "boom microphone" is a "sound camera," even though it has nothing whatsoever in common with the other cameras. The cable which carries the sound is a "telephone wire."

He goes on to describe the somewhat magical goings-on inside the basement room where another camera stares at "infinitesimal reeds" which vibrate to the transmitted sound impulses. The light which shines between these vibrating reeds creates the visible sound wave which is recorded onto film for later playback. Was this REALLY how it was done?

He also mentions the "control booth," a little "soundproof room on wheels." Inside sits a man who monitors the recorded sound and controls the volume. This man -- credited as a "sound recordist" and possibly Ernest Zatorsky -- actually stops the entire shoot by walking out and protesting:
"There's a hum," he said, glancing vaguely toward the ceiling and the arc-lamps.

"What kind of hum?" asked the director.

"Something technical," said the young man. "It's an induced hum. I told 'em they'd have to fix it. This stuff sounds lousy."
The director, unable to solve or even understand the problem, walks helplessly off the set. "Like lost sheep, the actors and the helpers drifted out after him and the young man of the booth, nodding with satisfaction, picked up his hat and went home."


Gary said...

See the PBS series, "History Detectives," for an interesting look at early sound recording. The technique described in the episode is close to the one in this post.

Here is the episode:

It's also a story on how fame and fortune eluded Eugene Lauste - a brilliant inventor who got left in the dust.

Adam Thornton said...

Thanks Gary! I tried to watch it but it's "Unavailable," which probably means it's Geotagged.

I hate region-restriction.