A Century of Sound. the History of Sound in Motion Pictures

By Pritchard, Brian | Journal of Film Preservation, April 2016 | Go to article overview

A Century of Sound. the History of Sound in Motion Pictures


Pritchard, Brian, Journal of Film Preservation


Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archive has now completed the second instalment of his epic work, A Century of Sound, which is available free of charge to educational, archival, and research institutions, and to qualified individual educators, researchers, and scholars as a not-for-profit educational resource. As well as receiving resources from UCLA and the Rick Chace Foundation, the project has also been funded by The Louis B Mayer Foundation, Tuscan Corporation, and Underground Vaults and Storage. Donation of services was also provided by some of the well-known companies in the film-sound and digital field.

In his introduction, Gitt explains that, although the work covers some developments in Europe and other countries, it is constructed mainly from an American point of view of the coming of sound and its effect on the Hollywood Studios. While this might seem to devalue the work for those viewing from other countries, it is not so as there is sufficient detail and background information on other pioneers' work to give universal appeal to students of sound.

The first instalment, The Beginning: 1876-1932, started life in 1992 as a live presentation, and, after screenings in several cities around the world, in 2007 was made available as a 183-minute DVD. It included sections on "Hollywood's Stars Confront Sound" in the transition period, excerpts from oral histories held at the Margaret Herrick Library, a timeline, and a bibliography. This second instalment The Sound of Movies 1933-1975, initially also a lecture programme, consists of four Bluray discs which took eight years to complete.

Having covered the development of the sound technologies of the telephone and phonograph to the emergence of Vitaphone sound-on-disc and the adoption of optical sound on film in the first instalment, this second part deals with the development of variable density and variable area sound and the competition between the two, and includes the evolution of microphones used for film production, development of recording and mixing techniques, and improvements to movie theatre loudspeaker systems. Other chapters consider magnetic recording, including ¼" tape, the introduction and evolution of stereo sound, and widescreen formats such as Todd-AO and Cinerama. The final chapter covers sound up to 1975, Type A Dolby noise reduction, the introduction of Dolby noise reduction for optical tracks, Eastman Kodak two-track optical sound, and Dolby Stereo for motion pictures.

One of the joys of the work is the fact that all the 96 samples, many of which include images of the sound track, are not just a few seconds but several minutes long, giving the viewer the chance to understand the salient technical points of the sound, and hear and see the track. It is particularly valuable when discussing such things as the different forms of noise reduction to be able to see and hear at the same time. For example, in Disc 2, Chapter 7, Gitt discusses attempts by the studios to expand the dynamic range of soundtracks. One technique was the intercutting of variable area and variable density tracks: the explanation would be fairly meaningless unless one were able to see when each kind of track was used and hear the appropriate difference. The work has also tried to make sure that what one hears is a close representation of how the tracks would have sounded when they were first issued, not an easy task on Blu-ray with state-of-the-art sound reproduction.

Gitt's explanations and descriptions are delivered in an easy-to-listen-to style, making the viewing of such a comprehensive and technical work a pleasure. …

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