Jump to content

Research on technical progress in the history of the sound department


Sebi
 Share

Recommended Posts

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

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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...

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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...

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 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

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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...)!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 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.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

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…

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...
On 5/6/2022 at 9:36 PM, tourtelot said:

Don't ask me for better or worse.  You might not like my answer.  :)

Hope you don't mind me asking :) but this is where it's starting to get interesting. I mean, I can imagine what you are referring to and how the introduction of wireless changed the workflow and eventually the sound of cinema dialogue. But still I'm only making assumptions based on what I know about how it's done today and considering what was technically possible let's say 50 years ago. So in order to not just make wild guesses I would deeply appreciate some of these insights and personal opinions of the ones who have actually been there and experienced the transitions.

As I said, if you don't mind of course :) And I'm not going to quote anyone on anything without asking! Right now I'm just collecting some insights.

Thanks a lot!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Wireless meant: track counts went UP! Nonsound folk started to no longer view boom as priority, putting the emphasis on lavs instead (such a common phrase to hear in response now: "don't you have them on a lav?"). The final mix of films because of this has been changed too, often audio tends to have less of a camera perspective to it, instead it is right up in your face with the lav as the source. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

3 hours ago, Sebi said:

 So in order to not just make wild guesses I would deeply appreciate some of these insights and personal opinions of the ones who have actually been there and experienced the transitions.

 

Hello,

I guess for most of us that are over 50 of age, the domination of wireless lav mike technique is felt as a failure. As far as I am concerned, I believe our corporation/department has failed to demonstrate or convince the industry globally that the sound of a lav mike (no matter which one) is a very poor compromise that is aesthetically ugly, boring and tiring.

Like always the general audience, of which from my point of view most of the movie industry actors outside the sound prod and post-prod department are part of, including producers and most directors, is not able to express with words what is perceived from the sound of a film, apart from the intelligibility of the dialogues or the coolness of the music.

As a result, the differences in the texture of the reproduced sound of a voice, although definitely felt, maybe not consciously, is not considered a critical factor in the aesthetic of a film. As opposed to the picture where centuries of visual arts culture have forged a public vocabulary to described what is felt, and have probably developed a higher consciousness of the differences in artistic pictorial proposition.

Probably every professional on this forum is able to say if the voice that is heard has been recorded with a lav mike, a boom mike, or a combination of both. Unfortunately we have not been able (yet!) to train/educate the public to make this discernment.

 

For me the sound of a lav mike makes me feel like the person is talking at a very close, quasi intimate distance to my ear. Way too close. Only a whisper should be allowed to be heard from that close to the source. If you ever try to let someone speak in one of your ear, even at a normal level, for an hour or more, you will see how exhausted your ear and yourself will be at the end of the experience.

 

We spend a good amount of our life to develop a taste for the sound of specific mikes (boom mike) and preamps. We are able to choose a mike and its position according to the sound of the voice of an actor, but also the acoustic of the room, as well as the frame and what the scene is supposed to mean. We make sure we subjectively like how the resulting recording sounds (no need to mention that we all master the technical quality of it). We have all different tastes for it and that is what makes it interesting and valuable. Most of us believe in art and our contribution to it is for a large amount in that process. It means our goal is that the texture of a voice would make the audience feel that the character is right, believable, interesting, moving or fascinating.

Yet we are "forced" by the industry to systematically "wire" an actor with lav and radio tx. And unfortunately that lav is often mixed in large amount in the final mix. The way productions are run nowadays makes it impossible to avoid using them, and most other departments in the industry think that is the only thing we should need to hear the dialogue... It will take too long to described how a set is run nowadays but it is part of the issue.

We have had to adapt and we know how to make best use of it so it is part of our routine now. But when I started the choice of using radio mikes was almost made by the director! It was not a technical but an artistic choice. For instance when director wanted to hear the actor closely in a very wide shot, or filming actors walking away from camera and still be heard closely, etc...

As soon as it became a way to solve technical issues the boom was not able or was not given time to solve we got screwed 😀

 

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

thanks everybody!

 

2 hours ago, Fred Salles said:

Yet we are "forced" by the industry to systematically "wire" an actor with lav and radio tx. And unfortunately that lav is often mixed in large amount in the final mix. The way productions are run nowadays makes it impossible to avoid using them, and most other departments in the industry think that is the only thing we should need to hear the dialogue... It will take too long to described how a set is run nowadays but it is part of the issue.

We have had to adapt and we know how to make best use of it so it is part of our routine now. But when I started the choice of using radio mikes was almost made by the director! It was not a technical but an artistic choice. For instance when director wanted to hear the actor closely in a very wide shot, or filming actors walking away from camera and still be heard closely, etc...

Really appreciate your post Fred! When I started a few years ago I was actually kind of bothered by how unsatisfiying it is to work with lavs and started to wonder why they seem to be a go-to procedure. Of course I then also learned about multi-cam shoots, noisy locations etc... And even in smaller budget movies I worked on which didn't shoot multi-cam I had the experience that the use of lavs was always expected by production (no matter how they shot it) and 2nd boom for example was too expensive ("not necessary").

 

So there seems to be some sort of pattern here that I've seen elsewhere while researching this topic. This being mainly that most developments in technology made faster workflows possible but didn't really safe much time since the amount of work that was expected also became more. And on the other hand that developments often just make it possible to keep up with the pace of the production that is being pushed.

What's really interesting to me now is the aesthetical aspect you mentioned and how these decision were often not really made by the sound person.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't know who coined the phrase and though I understand the spirit of that phrase I really do not like it. I cringe a little bit when I hear it said by sound people because I don't think it is useful or actually instructive. So many times the words "boom is in shot" is spoken by other crew members who are not qualified to even comment or by operators who have screwed up and are trying to cover their mistake. A more useful phrase, one to say to oneself is: I feel really good about the work, I found the ideal line for my boom mic without even getting any "help" from anyone else.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...