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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