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Men stand at music record turntables in studio
Three Thirds of the Nation. Showing sound effect set-up on stage for the War Production Board (WPB) radio show "Steel," presented May 5 over the Blue Netwoerk. Left to right: Bill Nugent, Carrol Fraser, Jack Schnell and Carl Schoele. Photo by David Bransby. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b06645

Sound Effects on Record

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The following is a guest post by Bill Corrigan of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress.

Recently, we received a fascinating collection of 78 rpm records from the California Radio Historical Society, abandoned by a radio station, that provide a good example of a typical sound effects library as would have been common during the “golden age of radio” in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Represented here are recordings by all the major producers of sound effect records – Gennett, Major Records, Speedy Q, Silver Masque and a few others – that sold records to radio stations via mail order. The collection also features a large number of instantaneous lacquer discs – these were records that were not mass-produced but were cut on recording lathes one at a time – and while it would not have been unusual for a station to make copies of commercial releases onto lacquer for their own use, it is likely that some of these are unique, made to order recordings. The sound effects artists of the time blended these recording seamlessly with the effects that they performed themselves live in the studio.

What is fascinating to us about these records is the way that they serve as documentary field recordings of particular times and places, even as they were used to help create the fictional sound worlds of radio. On Gennett Records 1125, for example, you can hear the sounds of a hog calling contest at the Fayette County Free Fair, while Major Records 5055 has the sounds of the Coney Island carousels. Some are more mysterious in their sources, and some are themselves sonic fictions – one record features imitations of mice and coyotes produced by a “Ford assembly line compressed air hoist.”

Advertisement for Major Records
A typical newspaper advertisement for Major Records

 

Gennett and Major were run by two of the biggest names in the business – Harry Gennett Jr. and Thomas Valentino. Valentino had worked as a piano tuner at Starr Piano, the company that produced Gennett, and apparently Valentino was the first to suggest that Gennett Jr. get into sound effects. During the Great Depression, when the Gennett label’s musical productions had slowed to a halt, Gennett Jr. sustained the business through sound effects. He and Starr Piano employee Joe Geier ran a recording studio out of a converted truck and enjoyed a period of itinerancy, traveling the country in search of fascinating sounds. Valentino became a sales rep for Gennett, and later set out on his own as a producer of Major Records, while Gennett Jr. continued releasing recordings with the Speedy-Q label.

Valentino, like Silver Masque, had provided sound to theater productions in New York, and they were both known for the clarity of their recordings of transportation, many of which were recorded onto film. On Major Records 5031 can be heard the sounds of the Lexington Avenue subway station at 116th Street in Manhattan. Valentino had parked his recording-studio-in-a-station-wagon outside and took up a position leaning towards the third rail with his microphone but was nearly forced in front of the oncoming train by what he recalled as “ several hundred commuters pushing, swearing and grunting to board a train and me waving a mike under their noses like a red rag before a herd of bulls![i]” Gennett Jr. also courted danger while recording lion roars at the Cincinnati Zoo for Gennett Record Company 1038, having been permitted to stay at the zoo at night but warned that he might be shot by the guards if he should leave his car.

Man in headphones shuts car door and uses music records on turntable
Sound effects artist Vic Rubei on three turntables and a car door. From Radio Sound Effects: Who Did It, and How, in the Era of Live Broadcasting, Robert L. Mott, 1993.

 

These records also evidence a unique tradition of sound effects production for radio that presages production practices of today. When people think of radio sound effects, they tend to visualize those mechanical and acoustical tools of the Foley artist – ratchets, clattering boxes, buzzers – but many sounds could not be simulated in such a fashion, and indeed the most powerful creative tool in sound effects was the record library.

Broadcasters typically used systems of two or three turntables, with volumes controlled by individual dials rather than the faders familiar to the contemporary DJ. Even with the addition of tape to the arsenal of sound recording, the ability to grab a record and drop a needle onto a visually identifiable cue would have been an asset in a live radio environment – many of the records in this collection bear crayon marks that were used to cue sounds. One of the most striking features of the more elaborate systems was the addition of a second arm to one of the three turntables, enabling mixing between two tracks on the same side of one record. The track configuration for many of these records hints at this intended use. One recording of a DC-4 airliner (Radio Recorders RR 16331) begins with a “climb to cruise power” on the first track and a “continuous cabin” sound on the third; the technician would mix between the two sounds with the freedom to choose their own timing.

Close-up of music records on turntable
Instructions in the art of sound cueing, from
Radio Sound Effects: A Manual for Broadcasting Stations, Sound Effects Technicians, Students, and All Others who Use, or are interested In, Modern Sound Effects Technique, Joseph Creamer and William B. Hoffman, 1945.

 

Variable speed controls and high and low pass filters were also used to transform sounds. Robert L. Mott describes an instance in which he was asked to provide the sound of a Nevada atomic bomb test for a film reel to be screened that night on CBS News:

“…all the dynamite explosions and earthquake rumbling had to be played at a slower speed. The problem with that was that by slowing the speed of the turntables, all the sounds were mushy – they had no impact. To offset that, an extremely versatile record was used for the impact of the atom bomb: not a recording of an explosion, but a constant roaring sound. By slowing its normal speed of 78 RPM down to 40 RPM and cutting off the sound from the pickup arm, the sound level of the record could be raised to its maximum without being sent over the air. Then, when the picture of the detonation occurred, the sound from this record could be suddenly reinstated to become the impact sound of the bomb. That initial explosion followed by all the other sounds mixed together.[ii]

Interestingly the California Radio Historical Society collection also includes a lacquer marked “Bikini atom bomb blast,” obviating the need for such a fiction – though it is not unlikely that the record itself was produced by the mixing and manipulation of other sources.

These recordings testify to a nearly vanished art – that of the radio sound-effects person – one which curiously prefigures our contemporary mix-and-match approach to docu-fiction.

[i] Jacobs, Stanley S., “Noises are Big Business” Swing, February, 1951, p. 80.

[ii] Mott, Robert L., Radio Sound Effects: Who Did It, and How in the Era of Live Broadcasting, pp 70-71. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2005)

Comments (2)

  1. I would love to hear the imitations of mice and coyotes that were produced by the compressed air hoist! It would also be interesting to hear some of the more historic recordings mentioned, like the hog calling and the carousels at Coney Island.

  2. Very informative and enjoyable.

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