September 2020

Part 2: Hollywood experiments with stereo


Part 1-1/2 of this series told of Alan Dower Blumlein’s experiments with stereo in the early 1930’s. Those experiments, and those of the Bell Labs, used discs containing a single groove. There were intentional stereo recordings made in 1932, one of those being Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Philharmonics Orchestra playing Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus: Poem of Fire. It is unclear what type of disc that was: one source says it was a single groove disc while another said it was a two-groove disc utilizing two tonearms. This video purports to be that recording, but the fidelity and the lack of surface noise makes that questionable although I do hear some noise at after the four-minute mark. I do hear groove rumble but there are no significant surface noises that I would expect from a recording from that time. It is possible that it is the original recording but with modern signal processing. In any event, the name Stokowski would come up repeatedly in the development of music and recording methods.

While the Stokowski experiments with stereo were conducted, Blumlein’s work continued. His inspiration to explore stereo came from a night at the cinema with his wife in 1931. There was only a single channel soundtrack and the theater only had a single set of speakers. Blumlein was somewhat put off when an actor was on one side of the screen, but his voice was coming from the other. The scientist wanted the sound to follow the actor.

Early experiments with film included Trains at Hayes Station in 1935. The clip I included in part 1-1/2 was not dated. The source I read about that clip seemed to indicate that it was from circa 1933, but the following clip, Trains at Hayes Station, is described as the first stereo movie. This is a clip from that five-and-a-half-minute film.

Other experiments in stereo included a live performance in Philadelphia that was carried by high-grade phone lines to Washington DC. Again, Leopold Stokowski was involved in the event but that was to control the sound mix in Washington. Bell labs also demonstrated a stereo broadcast in Chicago using two radio stations. Both of those experiments were in 1933.

Leopold Stokowski

Stokowski became involved with the motion picture industry. In 1937 he made 8-track recordings at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia for the Universal film 100 Men and a Girl. The process used synchronized optical recorders. The results were then taken to Hollywood where the movie’s star, Deanna Durbin, recorded her vocals. This process allowed the various tracks to be mixed down as desired rather than on -the-fly while being recorded. The final product, however, was monaural.

Late in 1937, Stokowski was having dinner in Los Angeles at Chasen’s Restaurant when Walt Disney saw him. Disney grabbed a chair and pulled it up to Stokowski’s table. The young animator began telling the conductor of a new film short in the Silly Symphony series. The plan was to accompany a cartoon with a piece of classical music, specifically French composer Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The exuberant Disney won Stokowski over the conductor agreed to work on the project.

Chasen’s Restaurant Photo: Gary Wayne

At that time, the music for cartoons was played to a pre-recorded “click track,” essentially a recorded metronome, so that both the musicians and the animators had a common framework in which to work. Stokowski first tried to work with the click track but was not happy with the results.  He was then allowed to record without the click track, but this required the animators to adjust their work to the sound track rather than working from a common framework. This made the project too expensive for just a short film, so the concept of Fantasia was born – but that work did not come until later.

By 1938, MGM was using multi-channel recording using optical tracks. This allowed dialog on one track, the music spread over two tracks, and sound effects on the fourth track. As with 100 Men and a Girl, this facilitated the final mix-down of the monaural soundtrack. One song from the film Love Finds Andy Hardy is said to be the first stereo recording of Judy Garland – although if this is stereo, I can’t say that I hear it.

The Wizard of Oz was recorded with a stereo soundtrack in 1939 but, due to the limitations in most theaters of the time audiences were not able to hear anything but a monaural soundtrack.

That brings us to 1940 and the film that is said to be the first movie released with a stereo soundtrack – the one briefly mentioned earlier, Disney’s Fantasia.

Fantasia was developed, in a sense, to make the expense of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice cost effective. As music was the main focus of the film Disney wanted to make the music sound as good as possible.

One problem with that was that Hollywood used what was called the Academy Curve, developed in 1938 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science – the Academy Awards people. The reason for the curve was tube amplifiers of the time had high frequency noise as did optical soundtracks. Details are available in the link so I won’t go into them here, but suffice it to say that the curve did not lend itself to satisfactory reproduction of classical music.

Disney worked with his engineers to develop a new system for movie soundtracks. This system used a number of optical sound cameras and microphones. It also used what today would be called surround sound. This system was called Fantasound.

To overcome the noise problem of optical soundtracks. the soundtrack was played from a synchronized separate film. In addition to the audio tracks, a separate control track was used. That track allowed soft passages to be recorded at a higher level to overcome noise but automatically reduced on playback to their appropriate levels. This gave the film a much wider dynamic range than a standard soundtrack could provide.

The Fantasound system was expensive. The full system was used in only two theaters, the Broadway Theater in New York and the Cathay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. The film did go on a road show but, in many cases, was shown in legitimate theaters as opposed to movie theaters as movie houses would have to close for a period of time while equipment was installed. The road tour system did not include the surround sound. The full system cost $85,00 and the simpler system cost $45,000 – in 1941 dollars.

Due to the expense and because the  United States was gearing up for the expected entry into World War II, not much became of the system although Disney, along with engineers William E. Garity and J.N.A. Hawkins were given Oscars for their contributions to the art of motion pictures for their work on Fantasound. When RKO films took over distribution of Fantasia, they cut down its running time and only included the traditional monaural soundtrack.

By this time many Hollywood studios were using optical multi-track systems for recording soundtracks but, as far as I can tell, they were not intended for stereo release although some have since been release in modern media. As with 100 men and a Girl, the multi-track recordings were used to facilitate the mixing of the final monaural soundtrack.

Next: Music in the night

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If I find information to correct or add to an earlier post, I will bring it to your attention. In this case, rather than add it to the original post where it might get overlooked I decided to make a stand-alone post so the information can get the attention it deserves..

On December 27, 1931, Alan Dower Blumlein was awarded a patent for “Improvements in and relating to sound-transmission, sound-recording and sound-reproducing systems”. Just as the motion picture industry in the United States moved to Hollywood from New Jersey to try and get away from patents held by Thomas Edison, Blumlein’s experiments were done for Columbia Gramophone to try and find a way to work around patents held by Western Electric. Columbia Gramophone later merged with The Gramophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries, more commonly known as known as EMI.

Unlike the “accidental recordings” done at the RCA studios in New York, these were intentional stereo recordings done on a single disc as was done later in experiments in the Bell Telephone Labs as described in Part 1 of this series. Like the Bell Lab experiments, Blumlein’s recordings used both lateral and vertical modulation of the groove although he seemed to have obtained better separation than did Bell Labs.

Here is a video giving an overview of Blumlein’s work, conducted at London’s now-famous Abbey Road Studio’s Studio 1, used by the Beatles thirty years later.:

Experiments of the new recording system were made in 1933 as shown in this video.

In January, 1934, recordings were made of three pianos arranged in an arc and of of the Ray Noble Orchestra, a popular dance band of the time. Here are some of those recordings.

As a side note, Ray Noble travelled to the United States in 1934. Union regulations prevented Noble from bringing his musicians with him so he hired Glen Miller both as an arranger and to put an orchestra together.

In total, Blumein obtained 128 patents during his lifetime. The last project he worked on was the development of an airborne radar system. It was during the testing of this system that Blumein was killed in a plane crash on June 7, 1942. Imagine what other things this great mind may have invented had his life not been cut short at the young age of 38.

Coming up in Stereo Part 2: Part 2: Hollywood experiments with stereo


Stereo part 1: Accidental and early disc experiments

On February 9, 1932, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were in a studio in New York to make some records. For some reason lost to history, two separate recording setups were used beginning with the microphone continuing through to the disc-cutting lathe. No one thought about it until the 1980’s.

According to a 1985 article in the Chicago Times, Steve Lasker had a test pressing he had just received from a collector in Belgium. Lasker’s friend, Brad Kay, noticed that the master number on that disc was different than the number on the released performance owned by Kay. They thought perhaps that the test disc may have been an alternate take.

The two met again at a later date and listened to both the test disc and Kay’s disc of the released performance. As they listened closely, they noticed that the performances sounded the same. The same phrasing, the same mistakes, and so on. Knowing that no two jazz performances were the same they realized that the two discs were recordings of the same performance. They did notice, though, that there were acoustical differences between the two. They synchronized the two recordings on the two channels of a stereo tape recorder and discovered that they had a stereo recording, albeit an accidental one.

This led to further research on the part of Brad Kay and he discovered other “accidental stereo” recordings going back to as early as 1929 such as this recording of Igor Stravinsky’s Right of Spring as conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

It took until 1934 before progress was made on a disc that carried both channels on a single disc. Experiments by the Bell Telephone labs used vertical modulation of the grove for one channel and lateral modulation for the other. I find the lateral modulation seemed to give better separation than did the vertical. One channel almost seems mono whereas the other was only on one side.

Inasmuch as “accidental” stereo would not even be noticed for almost fifty years and the depression probably was not the time for anyone to pursue such a novel concept as stereo discs, stereo was to go nowhere for several years until until the industry that made the silver screen flicker thought they would give it a try..


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Let’s raise a toast

Charles and Betty were on their honeymoon in 1932 in Phoenix, Arizona. In their hotel lobby, from a back room they heard a piano player play a song that the couple had never heard before. They immediately fell in love with it. The piano player said it was something he had written and the newlyweds asked him to write down the lyrics. The piano player obliged but did not write his name on the paper.

Twenty or so years later, Dave, a student at Stanford, and his friend Bob were driving down highway 99 from Stanford to Los Angeles. Dave thought he would stop by and see his girlfriend Katie in Fresno. Katie was not home at the moment, so her mother, Betty, thought she would entertain the two young men by playing the song she first heard on her honeymoon over twenty years before. The two men loved it.

A couple of years later, Dave, Dave Guard, and Bob, Bob Shane, got together with their friend Nick Reynolds and formed the Kingston Trio. Their first album, The Kingston Trio, was released in 1958. One of the songs on that album was Scotch and Soda — the song first heard by Charles and Betty in 1932. Bob Shane’s voice lent itself to the song so he had the honor of singing it. Since the piano player did not write his name on the paper with the lyrics, Dave Guard took credit as the composer although the group tried for years to find the original composer. It was released as a single in 1962 but the single did not sell that well — after all, it had been on an album for four years at that point. The song proved to be one of the Trio’s most loved songs.

I don’t know what happened to Katie. Betty lived until 1986. Charles lived until 2004.

Among other siblings, Katie had a younger brother, Tom. Tom liked to play baseball. He played it rather well, as Charles and Betty — Seaver’s — youngest child helped the New York Mets win the World Series in 1969. Tom passed away this week at age 75.

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