The History and Technological Development of Sound for Film A Brief History of Sound Design

Sound design is one of the most important elements to provoke and stimulate emotions in media, especially motion pictures, video games, and even advertising. Well thought- out and planned appropriately, great sound design surprises, engrosses, and can move us.
The terms “Sound Design” and “Sound Designer” or “Engineer” first came into use around 1979 by none other than Francis Ford Coppola, while he was in postproduction on “Apocalypse Now”. He wanted his audiences to feel like they were surrounded by “helicopters in a jungle full of gunfire.” Ultimately, this film became the first film to be multi-channel mixed using a computerized mixing board, and the first movie ever to be screened with a totally new speaker concept; three speakers in front of the audience, and two from behind, thus immersing the audience into the action as never before.

The title of “sound designer” was first bestowed upon the legendary Walter Murch, who oversaw all the sound design for “Apocalypse Now ”. According to Coppola, the responsibilities of a films sound designer include “being ultimately responsible for all aspects of the film's audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording, re- recording, and the final mix of the final track.”

Although Coppola coined the phrase, perhaps the true father of sound design was Luigi Russolo. He first conceived of the idea of using sound to enhance visuals as far back as the start of the 20th century. Russolo was part of what is called the “Futurist Movement”, a time where individuals celebrated machines and technology. Russolo is considered to be the conceiver of using sounds and noise, rather than music, to further the emotional impact of a film and other visuals effectively. With his unusual work and his embracing of nonmusical noises, he set the foundation for generations of sound designers to come.

“Forbidden Planet”, a 1956 film, is also considered a landmark in sound design. Louis Barron was the designer behind the sound effects in this film. He actually built a “ring modulator”, and then added effects, like reverb and delay.

The development of certain technologies, assisted by computer samples and sound synthesis machines, such as the Moog synthesizer in the ‘60’s, helped to create a whole new, more advanced, tapestry of sound. With the creation of sound libraries, filmmakers, along with their sound designers, began to experiment more and more using sound as an integral part of the post-production process.

Another film with historic importance in the development of sound design is Alfred Hitchcock's horror movie “The Birds”. Released in 1963, Hitchcock used a combination of real bird sounds and electronically synthesized noises, with the aim to audibly assault the audience, especially during the attacks of the birds. His idea worked brilliantly.
All this work and effort to improve and enhance sound design can literally fall on deaf ears and can only be fully appreciated through top-quality speakers or headphones. This started to become important with the development of surround sound. Many movie
theaters have upgraded to multi-channel sound playback systems like Dolby Atmos, thus achieving the sense of 3-D immersion into the film experience.

Sound design has come a long way in its 100 year journey, to a place where sound effects and other non-musical noises are no longer “back seat” novelties, but welcomed as an integral part of the creative process. 1

Luminaries of Sound Design

The advances in sound design over the last several decades are due to the efforts and determination of individuals who worked hard with endless creativity. Here is a brief review of some of the incredible pioneers responsible for these achievements and accomplishments:

William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860-1935) was a Scottish born inventor, who assisted Thomas Edison in developing early motion picture cameras (called Kinetoscopes.) The first celluloid film (essentially, 35 mm film, still in use today) for this device was invented by Dickson. He worked side-by-side with Edison for several years, developing a working prototype of the kinetoscope in 1891. In 1895, Dickson left the employee of Edison and moved onto other things. He formed his own business, one that produced the mutoscope, essentially a hand cranked peep-style movie machine. 2

George Groves (1901-1976) was a pioneer in film sound editing who also played an important role in the technology that produced sound for the silent screen. He's actually credited as being Hollywood's first “sound man”, and his career with Warner Brothers lasted 46 years. He later went on to become their Director of Sound, and subsequently won two Academy Awards. Prior to Warner Brothers, Groves did research at Bell Laboratories. In 1925, Bell Laboratories was acquired by Warner Brothers. George begin working for Vitaphone, a subsidiary of WB, where he was assigned the responsibility of the soundtrack to the John Barrymore picture “Don Juan”, which truly began his sound career. He was also the father of ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement), and the use of radio microphones. 3

Jack Foley (1891-1967) was the inventor and developer of sound effects used in the production of movies. He invented the addition of post- production sound elements such as footsteps, breaking glass, gunshots, crowd sounds, and the like, thus coining the phrase “Foley artist.” Foley's art involved creating real time sound effects, done in time to the action on screen, in order to give a realistic, all-encompassing, sense to the film. 4

Jimmy MacDonald (1906-1991) was born in Britain. He started off his career as a voice actor, and quickly became the original head of the Disney sound effects department. (Incidentally, he was the voice of Mickey Mouse from 1947- 1977, as well as many other characters throughout his sound effects career.) Responsible for dozens of sounds (and character voices) used in earlier Disney films, MacDonald developed a number of unique inventions to create all of his specialized effects. 5

Carl Stalling (1891-1972) This American born artist is widely known for his Warner Brothers Association with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (animated short film series.) He began his career as a composer/arranger, averaging one complete music score weekly for 22 years. Although he started his score- composing career with Disney, he remained there all of two years. He had an amazing, notable career with Warner Brothers, working with music and sound cues in every capacity possible. Carl retired in 1958.6

Ben Burtt (1948 to present) An
American sound design
innovator, Ben attended USCLA
on a scholarship and graduated
with a Master’s degree in film
production. In the 1970’s, he
was hired by George Lucas and
Francis Ford Coppola, and
became their first sound
engineer. He pioneered modern sound design, predominantly for sci-fi and fantasy film genres. He was a true innovator, and created the sound design on such films as “Star Wars”, “ET the Extra-Terrestrial”, “WALL-E”, and “Indiana Jones/Crystal Skull.”

Walter Murch (July 1943 to present) This American film editor and sound designer started his career editing and mixing sound for Francis Ford Coppola in 1969, the year American Zoetrope was founded by both Coppola and George Lucas. He then moved back and forth between working for Coppola and working for Lucas. Murch oversaw sound design on movies such as Lucas’ “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti.”, and Coppola's “the Godfather II” and “Apocalypse Now”, for which he won his first Academy Award in 1979. Murch made many significant contributions to the field of sound design. 8

American Zoetrope was founded by Francis Ford Coppola (with some assistance from George Lucas, who is considered a cofounder) in 1969. Coppola
had recently returned from a tour of Europe, where he was introduced to many types of early motion picture making equipment, as well as alternative filmmaking gear. Once back in the US, Coppola was inspired to build a totally unique, somewhat divergent, sound facility.
Although Coppola and his world-famous winery are located in
Napa, California, American Zoetrope was founded in and is presently located in the North Beach area of San Francisco. California.
Coppola chose the name "Zoetrope” for his company after receiving a zoetrope as a gift. (A zoetrope is one of several pre-cinema animation devices.) American Zoetrope quickly became one of the most famous ancillary motion picture companies in the world. 9

Skywalker Sound was conceived of by George Lucas the in early 1970’s. Originally called Sprocket Systems, the company was located in San Rafael, California.
The first thing George Lucas did was hire a young USCLA graduate named Ben Burtt. Burtt was their first "director of sound." The transition of Sprocket Systems to Skywalker Sound was official in 1987, and the business moved to its present location in Marin, California.
Lucas’ vision for Skywalker Sound was to build a facility "by a filmmaker, for filmmakers”, thus becoming one of the largest, most versatile pre-production, production, and post-production (“full-service”) institutions in the world.
Skywalker sound is definitely at the forefront of all the latest, newest and greatest, technology. 10

(More information regarding these individuals/facilities will be covered further in this paper).

From Silence to Surround Sound; People, Production, and Progress
Not long after 1918, in the early days of cinema, filmmakers were attempting to put sound to their movies. Ernest von Siemens really began the evolution of sound being introduced to film. He invented the dynamic transducer also known as the moving coil, which then led to the development of the loudspeaker. The loudspeaker was a serious improvement over all the old sound systems. 11

Considered the true father of movie sound design is Luigi Russolo. A true Futurist, he wrote his manifesto entitled “The Art of Noises” in 1913, and went on to design and construct several noise-generating devices, thus being able to form a noise orchestra, and would perform with them. He and his brother, Antonio, actually recorded one of the first “records” ever. (The first “record player” having been invented by Thomas Edison and William Dickson.) 12

Thomas Edison is known for many civilization-changing inventions throughout his life. With the assistance of another motion picture luminary Bruce Dixon, one of these inventions was the “Kinetoscope”, a device that played back sound recordings which could accompany a film on vinyl discs (which were, incidentally, invented by Emile Burrell, as well as the carbon microphone.)

Tri-Ergon (a German-based conglomerate) was the next pioneer who stepped up to make a noticeable development in sound technology. Rather than using vinyl discs, their new device could record audio to a filmstrip, which would run synchronized to the visual film. FOX purchased the rights to this technology in 1926, and used the cumulative research and existing products to produce a more precise and functional sound system named Movie Tone. The Movie Tone system produced considerably better sound quality, utilizing the same style of recording onto filmstrips.
Another notable invention soon after, the Phono-Film, was pioneered by Lee De Forest. His device worked much like the Tri-Ergon equipment did, but with slightly better sound quality. This technology was also purchased by FOX, who combined both technologies (Movie Tone and Phono-Film) and made a significant difference in the movie sound experience. The combination of the two devices crushed their opponents Warner Brothers, who, at this time, were still recording movie sound onto vinyl.

The company Bell Industries, had in its employ two very talented sound engineers; George Groves and Stanley Watkins, who together invented the Vita-phone. They changed dramatically the technique of recording to flat disc, which subsequently became the front leader of sound recording devices.
The Vita-Phone was purchased by Warner Bros. in 1925. It was an integral piece of equipment in the production of the film "Don Juan", the first movie with synchronized sound, thus positioning Groves in giving him the honor to become the first-ever sound mixer.

In 1925, a young music composer by the name of Carl Stalling joined forces with Walt Disney, who was at the time producing animated shorts in Kansas City. Stalling scored several early cartoon compositions, and even spoke Mickey Mouse's first words in "The Carnival Kid" in 1929.
Carl left Disney after only two years. Finding New York production companies weren't really in need of his services, he moved (in 1936) to California, where he joined Iwerks. That year, Warner Brothers hired Iwerks for project, and Stalling left the company and went to work for Warner Brothers, where he remained employed until his retirement in 1958.
George Groves was also a huge part in the development of sound dubbing. One way he accomplished this was by using multiple automatic vinyl recordings. He would then mix them together using a soundboard made of relays, in effect, like the early phone systems.

The system that made the biggest impact at this time (1930) was called Sound on Film. This system essentially ushered in the new era of “talkies.” Such as “The Jazz Singer”, “Lights of New York”, and, as mentioned before, “Don Juan.” "Don Juan" was the first film to combine sound effects with a soundtrack and spoken words. George Groves was instrumental in every advancement and development in sound design in history so far.
In 1936, Jack Foley created of the art of Foley, which he first utilized in the film “Showboat". He introduced expanded sound effects, such as footsteps, doors opening/closing, movement of people and objects, and the sounds of props. He would record all of these effects in one session, recording to just one track. Jack Foley's development certainly changed the path of sound design. (One incident that is a favorite among sound engineers; Foley needed to add the sound of engine noises emitting from a submarine, and formulated the brilliant idea to reverse a recording of himself burping. It worked like a charm!)

Jimmy MacDonald was hired by Disney in 1934 to oversee their new sound department, and his developments at Disney made him one of the most recognizable and respected sound designers around. He is known for inventing hundreds of different devices in order to capture any sound effect he needed to. He had the distinct privilege of playing the voice of Mickey Mouse for several decades, and his legacy is still honored through hundreds and hundreds of Disney sound effects he created, some sounds that Disney still uses today.
Ben Burtt must be mentioned here. He experimented with sound effects and music, and ended up becoming famous for producing all of the sound design for the Star Wars films. He had the opportunity to create a whole new world through sound, and he rose to this challenge and created one of the best sound tapestries ever. He is renown for the number of sounds and soundtracks he has produced and mixed for many films during the 80's and 90's. With this design and techniques frequently studied by up- and-coming sound designers, this makes Ben one of the most influential sound designers ever in the industry. 

Burtt is best known for the following specific sound effects:
  • §  R2-D2’s beeps and whistles: vocalization by Burtt himself, made using an ARP 2500 synthesizer.
  • §  Darth Vader's breathing: created using a recording of Burtt breathing through a Dacor scuba regulator.
  • §  ET the Extraterrestrial: Burtt recorded his wife as she was suffering from a cold.
  • §  He's a frequent user of the Wilhelm scream (more on that to come.)
  • §  Burtt has employed the ‘audio black hole’ technique in which there is a brief
    moment of absolute silence followed by a large resident sound (such as the seismic charges in "Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones".) 14
    Walter Murch is another sound engineer who has created some of the most original and critically acclaimed sound work. He created the sound canvas for such films as "Apocalypse Now". He has won many awards, including an Oscar for his unique, naturalistic style. He is infamous for foregoing music at certain parts in films, instead choosing to create a world of sound, in order to immerse the viewer into the film. Murch is mostly remembered for his sound design in the film "The Godfather", where he used an inordinate amount of sound to depict the menacing, brooding environment of the Italian gangsters. 15
    Throughout the most recent years in sound engineering, there have been brilliant people and the creative things that they develop popping up all over the industry. Here's a list of some of those people and inventions, and even an occasional anecdote: 

  • Notable Examples of Equipment and Sound Design Development
§ DAW - Digital Audio Workstation isn't electronic, software driven, tool used for a wide variety of configurations for sound. DAWs have made a great impact in the world of sound design. With the invention of programs such as Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro, Avid Pro Tools, and Sony Acid, everyone from beginners to experts can find a program suitable for their needs and experience level.

Various incarnations of DAWs have existed since the 1970's and 1980's. What would be considered the first digital audio workstation came about in 1978. With the advances in both hardware and software over the last 35 years, DAWs have exponentially been developed and improved. 16

§ Film Genre Particulars and Differences in Sound Design - as sound design and engineering has developed, different effects and even types of musical scores have found their way to different genres of film. For example, science fiction and fantasy movies and video games have sort of cornered the market on the type of sounds associated with the genres. As mentioned previously in this paper, sound designers like Ben Burtt paved the road for specific sci-fi sounds, especially once associated with the Star Wars franchise, some Spielberg films, and a bevy of other sci-fi inspired films. Western movies for example, rely heavily on Foley work, as they are most frequently shot outside, where sound is much less controllable. Comedies and dramas tend to rely heavily on voice recording, so shooting on set whenever possible is preferable because of the ability to control ambient noises. Many films of these genres use a lot of ADR (automatic dialogue replacement, which is most often recorded on a soundstage, with the original actors re-enacting their speaking roles from the film.)

In Conclusion
Sound creation, design, and engineering has come very far in the last 100 years. Some of the earliest pioneers of sound made some of the most important contributions. Over the years, as film sound went from vinyl discs to DAT machines to DAWs, sound technology has exploded into the amazing, film-going experience is today. With the introduction of IMAX, the field of sound design was prepared to welcome this new, expansive film format.
It will be exciting to see what new, unimaginable advances still remain to be discovered in sound engineering and design.

____________________________________________________ FOOTNOTES, January 2014
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, Wikipedia, October 2014 George Groves, Wikipedia, May 2014
Jack Foley, Wikipedia, October 2014
Jimmy MacDonald, Wikipedia, October 2014
Carl Stalling, Wikipedia, October 2014
Ben Bertt, Wikipedia, May 2014
Walter Murch, Wikipedia, October 2014
DAWs, Wikipedia, October 2014