With the time and energy that goes into film scores and sound design in cinema these days, it can be hard to imagine that films used to be silent. Technical innovation over many decades has transformed sound in the cinema from a mere accompaniment to an art form of its very own.
From 1900, there were many attempts to record sound with film. Eugene Augustin Lauste applied for a patent to record sound on film but was a little ahead of his time. In 1923, Lee de Forest also applied for a patent and made a number of short experimental films using sound. In 1926, William Fox began releasing sound newsreels with sound and film and that same year, Don Juan became the first film to be released with music and sound effects recorded on discs – although it didn’t have dialogue just yet.
The very next year, in 1927, The Jazz Singer was released and the first “talkie” was born. Although it wasn’t the first film to use sound, it was a big hit with audiences and finally convinced the film studios that sound in film wasn’t just a novelty.
The Jazz Singer used a process called Vitaphone that basically synchronized the film to a phonograph record – known as sound-on-disc. Although the quality was impressive, using a separate disk made syncing the sound to the film unreliable and imprecise so Vitaphone was quickly replaced by technologies that could record the soundtrack straight onto the film strip – which became known as sound-on-film. This has been the dominant technology since the 30s and is still in use, although there have been plenty of technical improvements to the way sound is recorded, mixed and played. The most notable advance in recent years was Dolby’s High Quality Stereo Sound.
In 1976, Star Wars introduced Dolby Stereo to the world. Audiences had previously been listening to films through a single large speaker (mono) at the front of the cinema but Dolby Stereo allowed recording of four different tracks that could be played at the front and back and left and right of the cinema, giving audiences a much more immersive experience. With all the action and the amazing score, Star Wars was the perfect film to show off the new surround sound technology.
Technology in film and sound recording has come along in leaps and bounds since 1976. Now, to truly "wow" audiences, filmmakers and sound designers have to constantly innovate and perfect their craft. Since the Academy Awards began recognizing sound design in film in 1930, the atmosphere and immersion that sound can bring to film has become high art.
There is no doubt that, as technology advances, sound will continue to revolutionise the cinematic experience and audiences will be listening out for the next big thing.
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