Production Sound & Video

Summer 2018

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36 OVERVIEW The past ninety years of sound recording for motion picture production has seen a steady evolution in regards to the technologies used both on set and in studios for post production. Formats used for recording sound have changed markedly over the years (with the major transitions being the move away from optical soundtracks to analog magnetic recording, and from analog magnetic to digital magnetic formats, and finally, to file- based recording). Along with these changes, there has been a steady progression in the mixing equipment used both on set for production sound, as well as re-recording. Beginning with fairly crude two input mixers in the late 1920's, up to current digital consoles boasting ninety-six or more inputs, mixing consoles have seen vast changes in both their capabilities and technology used within. In the article, we will take a look at the evolution of mixing equipment, and how it has impacted recording styles. IN THE BEGINNING If you were a production mixer in the early 1930's, you didn't have a lot of choices when it came to sound mixing equipment. For starters, there were only two manufacturers, Western Electric and RCA. Studios did not own the equipment. Instead, it was leased from the manufacturers, and the studio paid a licensing fee for the use of the equipment (readily evidenced by the inclusion of either "Western Electric Sound Recording" or "Recorded by RCA Photophone Sound System" in the end credits). Both the equipment, as well as the related operating manuals, were tightly controlled by the manufacturers. For example, Western Electric manuals had serial numbers assigned to them, corresponding to the equipment on lease by the studio. These were large multi- volume manuals, consisting of hundreds of pages of detailed operating instructions, schematics, and related drawings. If you didn't work at a major studio, there is no way you would even be able to obtain the manuals (much less comprehend their contents). Early on, both Western Electric and RCA established operations that were specifically dedicated to sound recording for film, with sales and support operations located in Hollywood and New York. Manufacturing for RCA was done at its Camden, NJ, facilities. Western Electric opted to do its initial manufacturing at both the huge Hawthorne Works facility on the south side of Chicago, as well as its Kearny, New Jersey, plant. These facilities employed thousands of people already engaged in the manufacturing of telephone and early sound reinforcement equipment, as well as related manufacturing of vacuum tubes and other components used in sound equipment. The engineering design for early sound equipment was done by engineers who came out of sound reinforcement and telephony design and manufacturing, as these areas of endeavor already had shared technologies related to speech transmission equipment. (Optical sound recording was still in its infancy at this stage though, and required a completely different set of engineering skills.) The Way We Were: Mixers Past & Present (Part 1) With the rapid adoption of sound by the major studios beginning in April 1928 (post The Jazz Singer), there was no time for manufacturers to develop equipment from the ground up. If they were to establish and maintain a foothold in the motion picture business, they had to move as quickly as possible. Due to the high cost and complexities of manufacturing, engineers were encouraged by management to adapt existing design approaches used for broadcast and speech reinforcement equipment, as well as disc recording, to the needs of the motion picture business. As such, it was not unusual to see mixing and amplifier equipment designed for broadcast and speech reinforcement show up in a modified form for film recording. Examples of these shared technologies are evident in nearly all of the equipment manufactured by both RCA and Western Electric (operating under their Electrical Research Products division). While equipment such as optical recorders and related technology had to be designed from the ground up, when it came to amplifiers, mixers' microphones and speakers, manufacturers opted to adapt what they could from their current product lineup to the needs of the motion picture sound field. This is particularly evident in the equipment manufactured by RCA, which had shared manufacturing facilities for sound mixing equipment, microphones, loudspeakers and related technology used in the broadcast and sound reinforcement fields. It was not unusual to see equipment originally designed for broadcast (and later, music recording) show up in the catalogs of equipment for film sound recording all the way through the early 1970's. DESIGN APPROACHES While the amplifier technology used in early sound mixing equipment varied somewhat between manufacturers, much of the overall operational design philosophy for film sound mixers remained the same all the way up through the mid to late 1950's, when the stranglehold that RCA and Western Electric Western Electric film sound operating manuals ca. 1930 (Credit: Authors Collection) Westrex RA-1424 stereo mixer. This mixer, introduced in 1954, was made in six different configurations, equipped with either four or six inputs, and variations on buss assignments. This was most likely developed in response to the need for true three-channel sound recording as utilized on CinemaScope roadshow pictures such as The Robe.

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