Motion picture sound has been around since the late-1800s


Edison/Dickson Experiment (1894)

Kinetophone (1895/1913)

Chronophone (1902)

Phonophone (1923)

Vitaphone (1926)

Fantasound (1940)


"This Is Cinerama" (1952)

CinemaScope (1953)

"Oklahoma!" (1955)


Sensurround (1974)

Dolby Stereo (1975)

Quintaphonic Sound (1975)

Dolby [70mm] (1976)

Dolby [split surrounds] (1978)

VistaSonic (1980)

Dolby Surround (1982)

HPS-4000 [digital sound] (1985)

Dolby SR (1986)

Cinema Digital Sound (1990)

Dolby Digital (1991-officially unvelied to the public in 1992 on "Batman Returns)

DTS (1993)

SDDS (1993)


the sound and the theory 

Stop, Listen and Look
Does motion picture sound have to be loud for us to enjoy it? Does having the ability to blast out decibels from one’s speakers make for good sound? Can movies be enjoyed for the subtle passages of little or no sound on a soundtrack? Are old motion picture soundtracks bad because they were recorded and presented in monophonic sound? Is sound important to a motion picture?
In this era of theatrical digital sound and the DVD, it’s easy to dismiss the theory, history and the art of the motion picture soundtrack. To some, older soundtracks may seem antiquated. Soundtracks aren’t merely about how much bass passes through a subwoofer, or how loud one can turn up the volume on an amplifier being fed by a DVD player. Certainly, these are measures of how far we’ve come from the days of mono sound, to the extraordinary multichannel soundtracks of today. But sound goes beyond decibels. It can be appreciated for what goes into building a soundtrack on a creative level, as well. Clever and inventive uses of sound can be made to tell a story, heighten audience anxiety during a scary scene, convey a plethora of emotions in a romantic tearjerker, or blast one’s eardrums during a scene filled with explosions.
Over the history of the motion picture image, soundtracks have played a key role in the experience of watching moving images flickering on the big screen. Today, we take for granted that there are over 70 years worth of sound films that often receive appreciation by film scholars and historians, but not the general public buying DVDs. There is a world of film, from the primitive yet captivating images of "King Kong" (1933), to the sonic aggression of "Spiderman 2" (2004), that can be savored by the home theatre audience, as well as movie theatre patrons.
Soundtracks Had To Start Somewhere
To better understand how we came to the current state of sound on film, it’s essential to go back to the beginning. Motion picture sound had actually been around, experimentally, for quite some time before "The Jazz Singer" (1927). The earliest known attempt to synchronize moving images with recorded sound was undertaken in the early 1890’s at Thomas Edison’s Labs in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The images from that first test are simple: a man is playing a violin into the wide end of a huge recording cone as two men dance on the right-hand side of the screen. The sound of the violin is being recorded onto a wax cylinder offscreen, at the narrow end of the cone. The man playing the violin is W.K.L. Dickson, Thomas Edison’s lead lab technician for motion pictures, who established many of the primary film patents under Edison’s supervision. The two dancing men are lab assistants. This clip of film – which lasts only seventeen seconds – is the humble yet important beginning of the motion picture soundtrack. The cylinder with the sound on it was believed lost for many years but was discovered, broken in half, in 1998. The film is currently being restored by Walter Murch, Rick Schmidlin and Skywalker Sound. It would be easy today to dismiss this footage as simplistic, even archaic. It’s akin to setting up a camcorder on a tripod, pressing “record,” then stepping into the camera frame to play a violin. Cinematically, it’s dull. However, the Edison/Dickson Experiment would set the groundwork for soundtracks to evolve, over time, into a new art form.
Silent Films Weren’t Really Silent
There were quite a few other attempts to combine sound with film from the time of the Edison/Dickson Experiment. All of them failed, including Edison’s, because the difficulties of synchronization and amplification in that pre-electronic age were under-appreciated. Yet, cinema, though silent, grew and matured in other aspects. Like the rapid progress simulteanousely being made in automobiles, radio, aviation and electric power, turn of the century cinema progressed astonishingly quickly. The art of storytelling in film went from a simple demonstration of "Fred Ott’s Sneeze" (1891), to the editing and cinematography choices of "The Great Train Robbery" (1903). Cinema grew with the early part of the 20th century and never looked back (see The Three Fathers of Cinema & The Edison/Dickson Experiment with Walter Murch).
To a degree, the term “silent” movie was a misnomer. Films were hardly silent to begin with. In the confines of a movie palace, or even nickelodeons, these films usually had accompaniment from a live orchestra or a pipe organ. Only the audience couldn’t hear the dialogue. The audience read the dialogue via title cards intercut into a particular film, effectively imagining what an actor’s voice may have sounded like.
The camera was allowed the freedom to move, unimpeded by the eventual arrival of sound recording equipment. Film began with fairly stationary shots, where the action on-screen was the main stimulus to the viewer’s visual attention. Over time, the camera became more controlling of what audiences would see. Many of the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton featured elaborate takes in which the camera wasn’t merely a spectator, but a participant in the screen action. Directors like Abel Gance and D.W. Griffith utilized crane and dolly shots, thus moving the audience “within” the camera’s frame. Filmmaking language and techniques matured rapidly, but sound for the movies continued to be developed in laboratories around the world.
Mating Picture and Sound
The quest for reproducing sound, sans motion picture, began in 1857 with Leon Scott’s "phonautograph." Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. In 1886, A. G. Bell, C. A. Bell, and S. Tainter patented both a variable-area and variable-density method of recording a sound-modulated light beam through a small slit upon a photographic film. The history of inventors who worked on sound reproduction is long and interesting. Film sound is no less fascinating.
Mating sound with picture was continuous goal for many inventors. Early pioneers included Edison, who introduced his Kinetophone process twice, once in 1895, then in an improved version in 1913. Leon Gaumont’s Chronophone was introduced in 1902. An under-appreciated inventor named Lee deForrest developed the Phonophone system, another sound-on-film process, in 1923. But due to public’s dislike of the quality of the sound formats, none of them lasted for very long after their initial public showings. Companies such as American Telephone + Telegraph, Western Electric and RCA also had research and development done in sound.
Silent movies reigned from the late 1890s through 1927. Soon, the tides of change would alter the film industry forever; when through a mixture of corporate maneuvering and scientific research & development, sound for film would soon re-emerge. There were technical innovations which caused rapid advancements in film sound. Technically, it was because of the invention of electronic amplification (Lee deForrest’s vacuum tube), which made microphones and speakers possible. All previous recording systems (except for deForrest’s) were mechanical. The invention of the radio and 78rpm records were also making inroads into people’s lives.
Warner Bros., then a small studio struggling to survive, introduced the Vitaphone sound process. In a sense, similar to DTS CD-ROM discs, Vitaphone discs contained a film’s soundtrack (mostly of musical numbers) that ran in sync with the film playing on the screen. The first film to use the process was "Don Juan" (1926). Vitaphone was used on other Warner Bros. films, but was treated more as a novelty, rather than a standard in the film industry. By 1927, though, Fox introduced audiences to a sound-on-film presentation, the Fox Movietone News reel. The combination of sound and picture of Charles A. Lindbergh’s flight to Paris in May 1927 amazed audiences. Warner Bros. soon followed with "The Jazz Singer" in October of that same year.
The film that truly began talkies was not "Don Juan," not even "The Jazz Singer," which was, after all, a silent movie with a few random songs. No, the film that sent the most flamboyant large industry in America into convulsions was a dreadful little movie called "The Lights of New York" (1928). The first “all-talkie feature,” it was a hit with the public. In truth, "The Jazz Singer" represents the beginning of real commercial acceptance of the transition to sound films. Following the lead of the innovators-Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., and the Fox Film Corporation-all companies moved, virtually en masse to convert to sound. By the autumn of 1930, Hollywood produced only talkies.
Many silent film actors attempted to crossover into sound movies, but soon found themselves out-of-work. Their faces may have been the stuff of matinee idol star power, but their voices left a lot to be desired. Director Stanley Donen’s classic, "Singin’ In The Rain" (1952) illustrates this point brilliantly. Many silent film directors, who thrived and even ruled the industry for years, found themselves out-of-work, too. Not simply because they couldn’t figure out how the technology worked, but because many wouldn’t embrace it.
Pushing Talkies To Be More Creative
Hollywood turned to making sound pictures quickly. Walt Disney seized upon sound for his fledgling studio. "Steamboat Willie" (1928) was the first animated short cartoon with synchronized sound. What made "Steamboat Willie" special was its use of simple sound effects, mated with music and vocal talent. The cartoon was a precursor to be able to use sound more as a storytelling device, rather than as a novelty device.
Most films between 1927 and 1935 relied principally on dialogue and music as part of the soundtrack. Since recording sound was new and prone to elements of excess real world noise during takes; soundstages were built to control it. However, camera movement remained fairly stagnant. Many films of this era featured stagy camera set-ups, whereby the camera rarely moved; only the actors did the moving, much like action on a theatrical stage. The camera, for a brief period, returned to its stationary roots in early silent cinema. Though sound advanced filmmaking in one regard, it took filmmaking back a few steps in another. Films became simplistic again.
The microphones of the day were weak to pick up dialogue. They had to be placed in set pieces, on the actor’s bodies, etc., to get a decent recording. The camera itself, big, bulky and loud when running was placed inside a soundproof booth, until the invention of the camera blimp in the early thirties helped diminish that problem.
Not all films of the era were constrained to simplistic soundtrack design. Fritz Lang’s "M" (1931) was perhaps the first movie thriller to use sound as a storytelling device. The German language film starred Peter Lorre as a child killer in the ghettos of Dusseldorf. His character trait, whistling Grieg’s “Troll Dance” keys the audience into his psyche as a mad murderer. Another film, from the year before, "All Quiet On The Western Front," was one of the first war films to expose movie audiences to the sounds of war inside of a movie theatre.
As camera and sound technology progressed and became smaller and quieter, the camera began to move around more with the action on-screen. Soundtracks became more complex with better music scores, cleanly recorded dialogue and the use of Foley for sound effects. Suddenly, action movies took on a new dimension. In 1933, the film "King Kong" was not only an outstanding example of early special effects work, but of mixing sound elements into a compelling soundtrack. Most films of the era, up until this point, rarely had dialogue re-dubbed or sound edited. In fact, until approximately 1933, it was extremely rare for music and dialogue to appear simultaneously on the soundtrack unless they were recorded simultaneously. But by the time "King Kong" was released, sound effects “technicians” were able to use separate sound elements to mix into a final soundtrack mix, due to advancements in sound technology.
Some silent films were still being made during the 1930s. But some had a mixture of sound and “silent” film storytelling. Charlie Chaplin’s "Modern Times" (1936) was mostly silent and relied on standard musical accompaniment, except for a short scene in which Chaplin sings. Even today, this scene comes as a surprise in which the silence is seemingly broken. The 1938 film, "Alexander Nevsky," used a brilliant original score to augment the epic war film. Respected Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein, who didn’t like the idea of sound movies, had composer Sergei Prokofiev write a score specifically for the film. The utilization of an original score, especially one of dynamic power on all types of emotional levels, would transcend through movies such as "Gone With The Wind" (1939, composer Max Steiner), "North By Northwest" (1959, composer Bernard Herrmann), "Ben-Hur" (composer Miklos Roza), "A.I." (2001, composer John Williams), "Titanic" (1997, composer James Horner), and "Batman" (1989, composer Danny Elfman), just to name a few.
Advancing the Soundtrack From the 1930s to 1959
Over the years, soundtracks became more advanced due to improvements in microphone and recording technology. Treated as the last on a long line of craftsmen in the film industry, sound professionals toiled away at making movies sound good. There were pioneers in this part of the industry. James G. Stewart spent his early days working magic on Orson Welles films such as "Citizen Kane" (1940) and "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942).
Jimmy MacDonald was Walt Disney’s main sound effects wizard. His vocal and man-made sound effects can be heard on numerous animated shorts and features from Disney. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started recognizing sound professionals for their work, starting with the 1929-1930 Oscars. Douglas Shearer was the first person to win an Oscar for sound ("The Big House"). It’s interesting to note that on many occasions, entire studio departments, rather than individuals, would win Oscars for sound in ensuing years.
Every type of film, from melodrama to gangster films to the musical, began to utilize sound in artistic and creative ways by the mid-1930s. In Walt Disney’s "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), the movie musical was taken from the confines of a theatre stage (as evidenced in many Busby Berkley films of the era) and placed on location. The songs from "Snow White" emanated from the characters in their own environment, rather than being performed on a stage in front of “live” audience. The film "Test Pilot" (1938) was a good case for both picture and sound editing. Dialogue and the sound of airplane engines is intercut with regard to where the actors were on-screen, as well as flying airplanes both in the distance of the camera frame and in close-up. By watching "Test Pilot," one can be reminded of the fast cuts and elaborate sound editing of another film with fast airplanes; "Top Gun" (1986).
In 1940, Disney struck again with experimenting with sound in two different ways on "Fantasia." First, he had his animators combine classical compositions with their interpretation of the music, via animation. Second, he wanted to surround the movie audience with the sound reproduction of a live orchestra. Disney felt that directional effects with the sound seemingly coming from different parts of the screen or even from off screen would add to the dramatic impact of the animation. His engineers invented Fantasound, which used “four mono optical sound tracks as follows: 1. Control track; 2. Screen left; 3. Screen right; and 4. Screen center” to create a stereophonic effect. The process and the film, unfortunately, would not receive recognition for years to come. However, in 1948, there was another surround sound experiment on David O. Selznick’s, "Portrait of Jennie." It was only used once during a preview in Oakland, California. Soundman James G. Stewart developed the system.
During the 1940s, sound was experimented with on a few films to use both silence and sound as means to scare or mystify an audience. Perhaps the first “scare you out of your seat” film was David Lean’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ "Great Expectations" (1946). The idea of having silence merge into a sudden and unexpected sound emitting from the soundtrack would continue on in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s "Psycho" (1960), "The Exorcist" (1973, restored 2000), "Jaws" (1975), "Halloween" (1978), "Alien" (1979) and "Apocalypse Now" (1979, restored 2001).
By the latter part of the decade, Warner Bros. animators Chuck Jones, I. Freeling, Robert McKimson, among others, were making classic Looney Tunes shorts. On the surface, they were very funny cartoons. At their core, however, Looney Tunes were the epitome of sound being used as not only a storytelling device, but as an ingenious use of timing and comedy. Some of the best picture and sound editing can be found in these shorts. Many of the cartoons from Warner Bros. fused Mel Blanc’s impeccable voice talent, with exaggerated sound effects from the effects department, and music from Carl Stalling. Unlike many of today’s cartoons, these shorts used both quiet passages and loud passages of sound to convey a story. They also used music to underscore tension, comedy and slapstick. Even in a cartoon, not every sound effect or music cue had to be loud to make a point.
In 1952, "This Is Cinerama" re-introduced multichannel stereophonic sound back into theatres. Audiences,
which for the most part did not hear the earlier Fantasound presentations (there were only a few theatres with the capability to play back the format), were enthralled not only by the wide, three-paneled movie, but also by the soundtrack. Sounds emanated from all parts of the theatre auditorium, and audiences and critics alike ate it up.
"This Is Cinerama’s" success spawned CinemaScope and numerous other widescreen processes. CinemaScope utilized a four track magnetic stereophonic 35mm print, while the process of Todd-AO utilized six track magnetic 70mm prints. This format model was the forefather of 70mm Six Track Dolby Stereo (1976), Dolby Digital (1992), DTS (1993) and SDDS (1993). Multichannel surround sound opened up possibilities for sound engineers of the time to create aural worlds that couldn’t be possible in mono sound. Though somewhat gimmicky by today’s standards, the process of having sound emanating from a person walking from left screen to right screen, and having the sound pan with him, was quite a breakthrough in the ‘50s. Music tracks could be spread across the screen, rather than placed in the center. Sound effects could be heard behind you while you sat in a theatre. Notable soundtracks of the ‘50s included "Oklahoma!"(1955), "South Pacific" (1957), "Ben-Hur" (1959) and "Sleeping Beauty" (1959).
One film from the era that utilized sound in an innovative way was Orson Welles’ restored version of "Touch of Evil" (1958). Much has been written about the cinematic elements of the elaborate opening shot. But it’s interesting to note that sound in this scene is just as important as the planting of the bomb, the camera movement and the precise timing of the actors hitting their marks. There is a clever use of realistic sounds of the town, fading in and out of the action that is taking place on-screen.
The Emergence Of Sound Design & The Blockbuster Soundtrack
After years of technical advancements in cinema technology, both in visual and aural terms, sound seemingly took a step backwards. Even during the heyday of magnetic stereophonic sound in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, many films were still recorded and mixed in monophonic sound. But the collapse of the studio system, expensive box office failures ("Cleopatra," 1963, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," 1968, "Paint Your Wagon," 1969, etc.), and the emergence of European and independent cinema by the ‘60s, stereophonic sound and supreme visual presentation were suddenly out-of-vogue. Though many 70mm blow-ups and select 35mm prints utilized stereo sound, a significant number of films released between the mid-fifties through the early ‘80s were recorded and mixed in mono. This might seem strange to a generation raised on digital sound and DVDs with “remastered” 5.1 soundtracks. However, films like "Easy Rider" and "The Exorcist" were indeed originally recorded and released in mono sound during their initial releases. There was a “breakthrough” in sound with the advent of Universal Pictures’ Sensurround in the mid-70s. Featured, most notably on the film Earthquake (1974), it was basically a mono soundtrack with a low frequency rumble track.
One director during the ‘70s, who, surprisingly, might not be considered a “sound” director, was Robert Altman. He was known to mix numerous tracks of live dialogue together during takes, creating an overlapping combination of chitchat. Essentially, dialogue in his films reflected the way we might hear talk in the real world. Two notable 70s films by him included "M.A.S.H." (1970), "Nashville" (1975).
In the midst of the retreat back into basic sound, as far as recording and presentation were concerned, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt were reinventing the art of making the soundtrack dynamic. They were a part of a group of filmmakers that virtually reinvented cinema by the early ‘70s. This group included Francis Ford Coppola ("The Godfather," 1972, "Apocalypse Now," 1979 and “Redux” in 2001), George Lucas ("American Graffiti," 1973, "Star Wars - Episode II," 2002), Martin Scorcesse ("Mean Streets," 1973, "Gangs of New York," 2001) and Steven Spielberg ("Jaws," 1975, "A.I.," 2001). Film had a rebirth on many levels due to the efforts of these filmmakers and others like them. The re-invention of the gangster genre ("The Godfather," "The Godfather Part II," 1974); the birth of the summer blockbuster ("Star Wars," "Jaws"); and the spotlight on urban reality ("Taxi Driver," 1976) were just some of the influential films these directors had on the film industry and future filmmakers. Perhaps they didn’t necessarily set out to change filmmaking, but they certainly had an influence on cinema and our filmgoing culture.
Both Murch and Burtt were inventors of sound design, in which a film’s soundtrack emulated and augmented the world in which a film’s characters and story existed. In other words, sound wasn’t simply a combination of dialogue, sound effects and music; it was a part of the reality created on screen, be it combination of classic rock music, howlin’ Wolfman Jack and cruising hot rods in "American Graffiti," or the intricate and horrifying sounds of war in "Apocalypse Now," or the “reality” of galaxies far, far away in "Star Wars." "Apocalypse Now" is often cited as an example of great sound design, and it was the first time that most of us saw the title of sound designer.
Sound technology and the art of making a soundtrack advanced with one another in the mid-70s with the release of "Star Wars." Much has been written about the film’s box office and cultural success. The film was a watershed moment in supposedly creating “the blockbuster” mindset in Hollywood. Furthermore, the film helped advance special effects, sound effects and sound presentation to a level in which we take for granted today. The early and pioneering computer and miniature effects performed in the 1977 classic led to the sophisticated CGI effects of modern films.
Wizards such as Ben Burtt reinvented sound effects, which were done by Foley artists for years and sometimes combined with stock sound efx from studio libraries. The sound of explosions, for instance, weren’t the same ones you heard in hundreds of other films. They were no longer stale and cliché.  Steven Spielberg was one director who felt that sound was important to a film. In a recent New York Times article, written by Rick Lyman, Spielberg summed it up best. Lyman wrote, “Although Mr. Spielberg was reluctant to assess the impact that his generation of filmmakers has had, he has very definite ideas of where movies have come since the 70's — and what have been the most important technical and creative innovations that have changed them. ‘To me, it's sound," Mr. Spielberg said.” ‘To me, the biggest breakthrough in the last 50 years, certainly since Cinerama in the 50's, is the sound. When I think of the sonic experience of the first time I heard Dolby Stereo demonstrated at the American Film Institute years and years ago, it was then that I realized that we are making sound pictures. We could do a lot with sound, we could even tell a story with sound. And when we brought the best of sound together with the best of visuals in the '80's and '90's, you were able to show audiences so much more of the movie than they otherwise would have experienced.’”
A stunning example of sound elements combining for a motion picture came about in the 1981 collaboration between Spielberg and Lucas with "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Featuring Oscar winning sound work from Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker and Roy Charman, it would become, in a sense, the father of spectacular “real world” sound effects and design. When Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) punches a bad guy, shoots his pistol, cracks his whip or falls onto the floor of an ancient temple filled with deadly snakes, the audience is hearing some the best sound effects ever mixed & recorded. During the fist fight near the Flying Wing, every violent punch from Indy to his Nazi opponent, and vice versa, has substance and power. This is the kind of soundtrack one could listen to by itself without the visuals and still enjoy the story! In most big budget blockbusters from that point on ("Return of the Jedi," 1983, Back To The Future, 1985, "Aliens," 1986, "Die Hard," 1988, "The Matrix," 1999, etc.), soundtracks became bigger, badder and louder.
Dolby Stereo, THX, Dolby Digital, DTS and SDDS
Sound presentation also improved with the eventual rollout of Dolby Stereo from the late '70s through the late eighties. More mainstream films began to utilize the Dolby Stereo four-track format on 35mm release prints. In addition, a number of theatres began installing sound equipment in their complexes to play back the format. In today’s so-called digital state-of-the-art cinemas, it may be difficult to imagine that a number of theatres, prior to the installation of Dolby Digital, DTS and SDDS, were still showing movies in mono sound through the early ‘90s! Even with Dolby Stereo films on the rise during the ‘80s, many theatres weren’t equipped to play them that way. Higher profile releases, such as the "Indiana Jones" Trilogy, were released in the intricate and better sounding 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo format. On films of this caliber, sound designers, in effect, “let loose” on their creativity. The sound mixes were, in many films of the day, multi-layered and essentially laid the groundwork for the way films are mixed in today’s multichannel environment.
Lucasfilm’s THX Sound was introduced in 1983. Developed by Tomlinson Holman during his tenure at Lucasfilm Ltd., THX was a certification program for exhibitors to use improved sound and picture presentation in their theatres, via select speakers, crossovers, auditorium acoustics, etc. Beginning in 1983 with the release of "Return of the Jedi," THX became known for its famous trailer ("The Audience Is Listening") and superior presentation in select theatres around the world. Audiences sought out theatres that were certified in THX.
By the early ‘90s, at least in Southern California, a number of theatres either weren’t paying for THX certification, or simply did not qualify anymore. Some theatre owners felt that they could build their own systems that meet or beat THX standards. It was around this time that digital sound was about to make inroads in both the film and exhibition industries. The first effort was made by a joint venture between Kodak and Optical Radiation Corporation. They introduced Cinema Digital Sound (CDS) in 1990 on the film, "Dick Tracy." Though the format sounded good, it was a casualty of lack of reliability. There also wasn't a back-up system should the digital sound fail. The system only lasted until 1991.
What literally revolutionized digital sound was the introduction of three formats between 1992 and 1993. Dolby Digital (1992), DTS (1993) and SDDS (1993) changed the way films were heard in both the theatre and home theatre. The formats took six tracks of audio that were only available on 70mm prints, and put them in conjunction with 35mm film. The result was that “everyone” could hear the elaborate and spectacular six track stereo mixes that were only available on select 70mm prints. Smaller theatres could install multichannel set-ups, even in their smallest auditoriums.
Though Dolby Digital made a quiet entrance in theatres with the release of "Batman Returns" (1992), it was the combination of Steven Spielberg and a ready-made blockbuster in "Jurassic Park" (1993) that put DTS in thousands of theatres around the world. Sony developed their own digital format called Sony Digital Dynamic Sound (SDDS), also in 1993. The format received a boost when AMC Entertainment installed it in their theatres.
Digital Sound and The DVD
Unfortunately, 70mm presentation suddenly went by the wayside after the digital sound introduction. However, the new sound format did a few revolutionary things. One, digital sound upped the potential for quality sound presentation in theatres, from the small “mom & pop” single screeners, to the megaplexes of today. The drawback behind the increase in “quality” was that some theatres went overboard in the fact they had digital sound. In many cases, the sound was simply played back too loudly. In theatres where presentation was just as important as selling popcorn, digital sound wasn’t a problem.
Two, sound designers were given a more effective and state-of-the-art palette to work with. The conversion of digital sound in theatres coincided with the conversion of digital workstations in the mixing booth. Magnetic tape reels, for the most part, were replaced by digital hardrives, thus making sound recording and mixing more efficient.
Three, digital sound increased the quality of home theatre presentation to a level where it, in some cases, was better than many of new megaplex theatres. It’s pretty extraordinary that consumers can purchase equipment in which multichannel playback is possible. Add to that the availability of high quality hardware in amplifiers, DVD players, reference quality speakers and high definition televisions, movie buffs have never had it so good.
Since digital sound has, in essence, created a uniform sound production and playback chain, where will sound technology go from here? How many more channels of audio can be squeezed out of DTS, Dolby and SDDS or some other kind of future sound innovation? Ten channels? Fifteen channels? Twenty channels? Given the time constraints on post production sound, will sound designers and engineers be able to mix the multi-layered soundtracks of tomorrow in time for theatrical release? The future of the soundtrack will no doubt be as exciting and innovative in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.
Sound Appreciation
To appreciate good sound in film, one should take a journey through the history of film on DVD. Better yet, check out occasional theatrical re-issues on the big screen if they’re playing in your area. Whether or not films are shown in full-screen, widescreen, 70mm, b/w, Technicolor , mono, stereo, films needn’t be loud or remixed in 5.1 surround sound to be enjoyed. There are numerous films in which loudness and heavy subwoofer effects certainly add to the experience. Isn’t that one of the reasons you purchased a home theatre system in the first place? There are films, however, both past and present, which utilize sound in numerous capacities to help tell a story. Discovering these films, or in some cases, rediscovering them on DVD (if available), can hopefully give one a better appreciation of the awesome power of the motion picture soundtrack.

Special thanks to Walter Murch, Randy Thom, Ellen Pasternak, David R. Smith, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Academy Library and www.filmsound.org
Altman, Rick, ed., Sound Theory-Sound Practice, AFI Readers, New York, 1992
Burlingame, Jon, Sound and Vision-60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks, Billboard Books, New York, 2000
Eyman, Scott, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1997
Harkness, John, The Academy Awardsâ Handbook-Winners And Losers From 1927 To Today! Pinnacle Books, New York, 2001
Mast, Gerald, A Short History of the Movies, Fourth Edition, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1986
Weis, Elisabeth and Belton, John, ed.(s), Film Sound, Theory and Practice, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985
Various Authors, Sound For Picture, An Inside Look At Audio Production For Film And Television, Mix Books, Emeryville, CA, 1993

(Please note that due to a computer file error, some quotes from the sources below are not matched with select sentences/paragraphs above. I am working on tracking down the sources to correct this error. My apologies to the authors).
# E.I. Sponable, “Historical Development of Sound Films,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, Vol. 48 April 1947, No. 4 (Presented Oct. 22, 1946, at the SMPE Convention in Hollywood)

# Walter Murch, “Interpreting The Sound & The Theory,” excerpt taken from notes provided by Mr. Murch during the writing of this article, via e-mail, 10 July, 2001

# Murch, e-mail

# Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), pg. 174

# Eyman, pg. 175

# Mark Ulano, “Moving Pictures That Talk-How is it Possible?” www.filmsound.org, online, 23 Feb., 2001: pg. 2

# Douglas Gomery, “The Coming of Sound: Technological Change In The American Film Industry,” in Film Sound, Theory and Practice, ed. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pg. 5

# Rick Altman, “Evolution of Sound Technology,” in Film Sound, Theory and Practice, ed. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pg. 46

# David Heuring and George Turner, “Disney’s Fantasia: Yesterday and Today, American Cinematographer, April 1991, pg. 56

# Author Uncredited, “Film Sound History-40’s,” www.mtsu.edu/smpte/forties.html

# Randy Thom, “Sounding Off In A Visual Medium-Confessions of an Occasional Sound Designer,” in Sound For Picture-An Inside Look At Audio Production For Film and Television, (Emeryville, CA: Mix Books, 1993), pg. 8

# Rick Lyman, “Spielberg’s Journey Into a Darkness of the Heart,” New York Times 24 June, 2001, online

Photos: Photobucket, tcf.au.edu,

Originally posted on this site on September 27, 2004.

This article is meant to give readers an idea of the history and scope of motion picture sound. It is an evolving subject and when new pieces of information are found, they will be implemented into the article.

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