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Research on technical progress in the history of the sound department


Sebi
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Hey everybody!

I have a little research question concerning production sound throughout the history of cinema since the first “Talkies”. This applies to sound-post as well but I’m aware that there are less people on the forum with that focus.

 

I am actually still studying at university and while I’ve been pretty busy with projects over the past years I’m now focusing on finishing my master’s thesis. A main subject of it is the influence of technical progress in audio equipment on the storytelling through sound as well as the factor of limitations/constraints in creating sound design. Which effects did certain developments have on the work of production sound mixers/sound editors/re-recording mixers and in which way were they influential on the narrative and the way movies for cinema were made in general. There’s more aspects I’m going to look into but I hope you get the general idea already.

 

Even though I’m way too young to have any experiences with a Nagra recorder, it’s not really a big deal to do the research on the equipment itself. There’s good documentation and I already enjoyed reading some of the “Nagra stories” in the very rich thread here on JWS. We also have some historical devices at university.

What I’m curious about is some individual perspective of (former) professionals on how certain tools have changed your way of working and which were maybe the most influential improvements or which “revolutionary” developments weren’t actually changing anything. Or were some major events not even changes in the sound department but rather other departments which then effected recording sound heavily (for better or worse)? There’s probably as many opinions as people but this is exactly what I won’t find in the books.

I’m also anticipating some differences between the US and Europe for example. I have a feeling that especially in the 60's most of the dialogue in US-cinema was production sound while a lot of French Nouvelle Vague and Italian movies where using mostly ADR and I even read that some didn’t even record production sound at all. Whether this was simply an artistic choice of certain influential filmmakers or if it was rather a lack of satisfaction with the possibilities of production sound at that time is another interesting topic I want to look into.

 

Every experience and opinion is much appreciated.

 

Thanks a lot and best wishes from Hamburg!

Sebi

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I know that it not exactly the area that you are working in, but there might be some inspiration in this paper from 2020 about the changing role of sound engineers/technicians in the BBC:

 

https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/files/33017740/2018heathtphd.pdf

 

It is aimed at describing the changes for TV sound people (in broad terms) more than Film production, but I guess that some conclusions will be the same. And in any case, it might be an inspiration, or you can checke sources of the paper...

 

I have been working in film post production (currently I am working with broadcast technologi), and I would say that one of the most important technological changes for the last generation has been moving from tape based recording to file based systems. Not only did the new(ish) digital recorders allow faster turnover, but they also made it possible to record ever more simultaneous tracks. And transfer the material to the editing department much faster, so that editing could start almost immediately after the recording had ended.

 

One thing to notice, is that the changing roles and working conditions for sound production has also been influenced (a lot) by ever increasing workload and ever smaller budgets...

 

 

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Thanks for the reply and the paper! I'll definitely have a look and there's probably lots of parallels to cinema in some workflows. Even though the narrative aspect of sound for TV is not what I'm going to look into.

23 hours ago, dela said:

One thing to notice, is that the changing roles and working conditions for sound production has also been influenced (a lot) by ever increasing workload and ever smaller budgets...

Yes, that's something I'm still unsure about wether I want to cover that aspect or not. Productions adapting budget and deadlines whenever any process can be done faster is the reality every department (and probably most jobs outside film business, too) has to face. It's impossible to ignore it and I will have to consider this at some point but I might try to approach the topic from a sort of idealised point of view and then put that into context of the industry. The "business" aspect of movie making affects it all but that alone could fill a thesis that I'm sure a lot of production students have already written.

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I would guess that one of the largest "disruptions" in sound work was the introduction of portable location recorders (especially the Nagra III in the early 60´ies). Before that it took a sound team and very heavy machinery to record any kind of location sound. After the advent of portable recorders it became possible to work with 1) hand held cameras, which came at that time, and 2) a much smaller sound crew, perhaps even just 1 person.

The next big shift came with the flash/hard drive recorders (and better wireless microphones), which made it possible to easily record more tracks/microphones. So the portable recorders made hand held recordings possible, and the multiple tracks made it possible to be even more flexible, once the boom mic wasn't´t (about) the only source when out recording.

 

My background is in danish film post production (now TV), and one of the things that we saw with the advent of multiple track recorders was that more work was given to the people doing the recording. Before that their main task was making the recording and handing in the tapes. Since there was just 1 or 2 tracks available, all attention could be given to record these 1 or 2 tracks optimally. With the new recorders, not only did it take more time to mic the actors up, but since the editing department was pressed for time (the budgets, again...), the recordist now also had to make a temp mix on site, so that he/she could deliver a 2 track mix for editing. That was quite stressful for some, and I remember several occasions where the recordist had to redo the 2 track mix for delivering it to replace the first mix in the editing department on a daily basis. In some ways it was like the proverbial washing machine: When you get the washing machine it makes it faster to wash, but that just means that you are washing more...

 

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hi Sebi,

 

Try to find an english language book in a library (or try to buy it secondhand online ...)

 

Film Style and Technology - History and Analysis

by Barry Salt

published Starword 1983/1992

 

It goes through technological changes and the effect on 'film style' decade by decade from the beginning of cinema to the 1970s, taking in just about everything - so cameras, stock, lenses, sfx etc before you reach sound - so whilst it's not as comprehensive as a similar study focusing just on sound technology its a good read about film technology as a whole and probably a decent potted summary within that of film sound technology (that might unearth some forgotten historical gems).

 

Aside from that book a great (now-) historical archive of material can be found in SMPTE Journals and its predecessor SMPE Journal - such as reports from the time on the various experimental and finally adopted technologies in making Fantasia, just as one fine example: you'll have to look for a decent national reference library probably to browse these (especially in Germany) unless SMPTE have got around to / decided to make the historical stuff available online.

 

Happy hunting!

 

Jez Adamson

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On 4/5/2022 at 1:57 PM, The Immoral Mr Teas said:

 

 

Thanks for the hint Jez!

It's actually quite amazing how much stuff is available online. SMPTE has a digital library with documents and every journal article reaching back to 1916... I even have access through my students account here in Hamburg. Same for the Barry Salt book which is also available through the library-network so I'll definetely have a look at it (even though I prefer getting an actual book from a library instead of pdf's...)!

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  • 5 weeks later...

Yes, portable recorders made a huge difference.  I think the device that made even more of a twist in the recording of dialog for motion pictures was the wireless mic pack.  I lived through that change, and don't ask me how I feel about Vegas and early Audio Ltd RF rigs if I have been drinking.  The introduction of these game changers was unique to the whole presentation of cinema dialog.  Don't ask me for better or worse.  You might not like my answer.  :)

 

D.

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On 5/6/2022 at 4:36 PM, tourtelot said:

Yes, portable recorders made a huge difference.  I think the device that made even more of a twist in the recording of dialog for motion pictures was the wireless mic pack.  I lived through that change, and don't ask me how I feel about Vegas and early Audio Ltd RF rigs if I have been drinking.  The introduction of these game changers was unique to the whole presentation of cinema dialog.  Don't ask me for better or worse.  You might not like my answer.  :)

 

D.

The last sentence. Oh yes…

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