The development of sound for moving image

‘At no period in the history of films has it been customary to show them publicly without some sort of sound accompaniment. In other words, the silent film never existed’ Alberto Cavalcanti

(This post is based on my academic work)

The purpose of my research was to explore the subject of sound in relation to visual arts and media. As the mentioned subject is wide and complex enough to create a separate branch of academic studies, this report is merely a fraction of all the issues concerning integration of sound and image.

First part of thispost touches upon the issues of technological changes which influenced the production process and development of sound in film and media.  It is delivered in a form of a timeline, describing the key events and inventions. Although the main focus is the historical context, the timeline has been broken and divided into several chapters to reflect the social aspects of the occurring changes. The second part will be posted next week and touch upon the issue of music in film.

The history of sound in film; Timeline

1. Early Developments

2. Sound Film and Multi-track recording

3. Dolby and the Surround Sound

4. Film Sound Formats

 5. Development of Television, Video Games and Internet Broadcast

 6. Time Code

The history of sound in film; Timeline

1. Early developments:

1896 For the first time a symphonic orchestra accompanied the motion picture.

1900 Trials of combining the moving pictures with recorded sound started as early as the development of film itself. In1895 took place a public presentation of Edison’s Kinetophone. –  combination of phonograph and Kinetoscope- where the moving images were shown, inside a cabinet, with a musical accompaniment played from a phonograph record. The music was newer fully synchronized, even though a belt connection existed between the Kinetoscope and Phonograph. Edison’s company developed the device under the supervision of W. K. L. Dickson. The film known today as ‘Dickson Experimental Sound Film‘ has been released to promote the sales of Kinetophone- it shows a man playing violin, onto a phonograph horn, and a pair of dancing men (image right)  

In1901 a French inventor Leon Gaumont developed a device named Chronophone which was one of the first attempts to synchronize sound with the moving picture. Chronophone used two phonographs and a single projector, connected to each other by a system of cables. The speed of sound was controlled electronically.

In1902 the Chronophone was presented before French Photographic Society but the real commercial premiere came in 1907, when American Motion Pictures Patents Company licensed the device for use in The United States. The system failed to success as the installation was relatively expensive considering the poor quality of sound reproduced by the device. According to Douglas Gomery (Gomery, 1985, page 6-7), there were more then a dozen other inventions developed between 1909 and 1913 but all of the early sound devices shared common problems, the main one being sound amplification.

In 1906 Lee De Forest, an American inventor improved Fleming’s Valve (a modified Edison’s valve) by adding a grid to control and amplify signals. He called his device the Audion. Audion was in principle a vacuum tube amplifier which later contributed to the invention of Television and Radio.

In1907 Eugene A. Lauste was granted a patent for ‘improving means and methods for simultaneously recording and reproducing movements and sound’1. His experiments resulted in an early version of sound-on-film technology. Lauste used 35mm motion picture film, a mechanical grate and a light gate made from silicon wire vibrating between two magnets (‘Motion picture sound’, part 1). The sound was being converted into light waves and then photographically imprinted on a celluloid film.

                                    ‘It was a double system, that is, the sound was on a different piece of film from the picture…. In essence, the sound was captured by a microphone and translated into light waves via a light valve, a thin ribbon of sensitive metal over a tiny slit. The sound reaching this ribbon would be converted into light by the shivering of the diaphragm, focusing the resulting light waves through the slit, where it would be photographed on the side of the film, on a strip about a tenth of an inch wide’2

Lauste produced a number of early sound films but like many other entrepreneurs of the time, he only succeeded to install his device in several theatres. The main cause for slow reaction from the theatre owners was the expensive installation of the new systems, poor synchronization that could not be maintained for longer periods of time, and amplification issues. Most of the theatres were far too big for the early systems and no theatre owner was willing to reduce the audiences’ number.

The development of sound for motion picture could be divided into two main categories: sound-on-film and sound-on-disc. Although sound-on-film became, in later years, a standard in the industry, it was sound-on-disc that provided better sound reproduction quality in the early systems of sound for moving picture.

In 1913 Edison improved his Kinetaphone. The new device used specially designed cylinder machine with oversized long-playing cylinders connected to the film projector by a system of belt and pulleys. The speed was controlled on the phonograph. Braking device, attached to the projector, was also designed. That allowed to slow down the image in order to keep the sound synchronized.

                                    ‘Edison’s demonstration on January 4, 1913, impressed all present. The press noted the system was more advanced than all its predecessors. Its sensitive microphone obviated traditional lip-synch difficulties for actors. An oversized phonograph supplied the maximum mechanical amplification. Finally and intricate system of belts and pulleys erected between the projection booth and the stage could precisely coordinate the speed of the phonograph with the motion picture projection’3

Edison’s invention was installed in several Vaudeville theatres in New York, but it soon proved to have a major technical problems. Sound often lost synchronization and audience booted pictures off the screen. In 1914 Edison’s West Orange factory was damaged by fire.  After the incident the production of Kinetaphone was never reactivated, even though the factory itself was quickly restored. Edison’s failure ended the era of inventions based on mechanical synchronization of film projector and phonograph.

Between the years of 1913 and 1922 Bell Labs, in cooperation with Western Electric’s Research Division (Western Electric was bought by Bell Labs in 1881), undertook a program to improve the long distance sound transmission for their telephone lines. This led to the development of electrical recording technology, condenser microphone, vacuum tube amplifier and the loudspeaker. In 1913, after a presentation of Lee De Forest’s invention- vacuum tube amplifier- Harold D. Arnold initialized his own research into sound amplification at AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph Company that later assumed all assets of Bell Labs becoming the AT&T Bell Labs Company). Arnold presented his first amplifying vacuum tube in October, 1913. The sound amplification technique was used to produce the first electrical recording device: a disc-cutting phonograph.

In 1916 E.C. Wente (Western Electric) developed the condenser microphone and in 1918 Henry Egerton, of Bell Labs, patented his first balanced-armature loudspeaker driver. Those three devices were combined in 1921, creating the first Public Address Sound System. In the early 1922 Western Electric presented their first experimental animated film showcasing the advantages of the new technology.

                                 ‘(…) Bell Telephone Laboratories, lead by Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry C. Harrison had developed an electrical recording system using a carbon microphone connected to vacuum tube (valve) circuits for signal amplification, and feeding the amplified signal to an electromagnetic moving magnet (also called “moving armature”) disc cutting head which Bell Laboratories had also developed.’4

‘The Audion’ (Schoenherr S. E., 1999, part 1) was the first electronically recorded Talking Picture (the title comes from the name of Lee De Forest’s vacuum tube invention).

In1925 Warner Brothers Pictures obtained Vitagraph Studios (equipped in WE sound-on-disc device) through a series of merges and acquisitions.

     ‘(…)Warners bought the pioneer Vitagraph Company which had a nation-wide distribution system, and as a bonus got an experimental synchronized-sound process called ‘Vitaphone’5

In the mean time research into sound-on-film technology were conducted by independent inventors.

In 1917, in cooperation with De Forest, Theodore W. Case developed the Thalofide Photocell (oxidized thallium sulphide) and later, in 1922 the AEO-light as a source of modulated light.

‘During projection, light was focused through this soundtrack on to a photoelectric cell to produce variations in electrical current that the loudspeakers converted into sound’6

In the 1920‘s Lee De Forest successfully exhibited ‘Phonofilms’ produced using those ideas, and even produced a two-reel sound comedy ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’. Film studios resented his invention and refused to pay the expense of converting their silent theatres onto the new sound system.

Theodore W. Case and E. I. Sponable developed, in1924, sound recording mechanism for Bell and Howell’s film camera, using the AEO-light tube. In 1925 Case began to work on a film projector sound head and ended the cooperation with De Forest (unconfirmed rumours, about De Forest trying to take credit for Case’s invention aroused, along with claims, that it was Case, who stole the patents from De Forest). One year later the system called Movietone (Case and Sponable’s invention based on ‘Phonofilm’) was licensed by William Fox of Fox Film Corporation.

1926 was a year in which the first commercial picture, with synchronized musical background, was shown to the public. ‘Don Juan’, made by Western Electric, in cooperation with Warner Bros., proved a success in New York and established the Bell/WE system as the definite conqueror of ‘the silents’ (silent films in opposition to ‘the talkies’- sound films).

The early development of sound for moving picture was determined by the desire to control patents and profits as well as plain economy. In ‘The Coming of Sound: Technological Change in the American Film Industry’  Douglas Gomery argues that, despite De Forest Phonofilm’s technological advantage and sophisticated design, Western Electric’s sound-on-disc system achieved a commercial success simply by monopoly practises. It was not the ‘(…) Laboratory          success (…) which distinguished Western Electric’s efforts from those of De    Forest and other inventors. Most importantly Western Electric had almost        unlimited financial muscle. (…)If absolute economic power formed the     greatest advantage, patent monopoly certainly added another’7

Further on, in his work, Gomery describes the ‘New Era’ of Wall Street investors and customer-controlled economy of the 1920‘s, as the major factor in the final breakthrough- the Warner’s investment in sound-on-disc technology. Although William Fox successfully imitated Warner’s strategy of innovation, with the sound-on-film device, by the time installation in Fox’s largest theatres was completed, the Warner brothers had already signed exclusive contracts with almost all major entertainers (Gomery, p17), becoming a monopolist. Only the strongest competition could threat Western Electric’s position in the early sound film industry.

Established by Edison in 1890, General Electric, became a powerful corporation able to match AT&T Bell Lab’s financial investments in new technology. GE initially created RCA Corporation (Radio Corporation of America) in the attempt to control radio patents. The RCA’s research into the radio technology triggered the invention of Photophone, originally designed in 1921 and named Pallo-Photophone. The company resigned from commercial exploitation of the device and only after the success of Vitaphone, GE decided to reactivate its division. With Photophone virtually ready for commercial usage, GE looked to gain control over the profitable sound film industry. The two electrical giant corporations (WE and GE) rivalled for several years, trying to gain contracts with the largest film corporations of the time. The GE’s success in sound-on-film technique forced the Western Electric to improve their sound-on-film system, instead of continuing the sales of Vitaphones (Encyclopaedia II,).By the 1930‘s both Corporations improved their devices to eliminate competition. This struggle of ‘Giant Concerns’ benefited the ‘Film Giants’, able to negotiate more favourable contracts.

(…)The coming of sound produced one of the most lucrative eras in the U.S. movie history. (…)The major film corporations-Paramount, and Loew’s MGM- were joined by Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO in a surge of profits, instituting a grip of the marketplace which continues to the present day.’8

The RCA’s Photophone used a Variable-Area format for representation of optical sound track. This format is still a universal standard for analogue optical sound track on film. The previous inventions, including Movietone, used a Variable-Density format, which is no longer in use.

Incidentally, the visual representation of sound waves on the film strip inspired rather controversial ideas, like creating sounds by drawing them by hand or listening to music hidden in existing, visual patterns. The experiments resulted in a demonstration of the first, entirely synthetic voice. In the 1930’s Eric Allan Humphriss painted a 40 feet long sound wave which he then photographed on an empty film strip and reproduced using film projector, during a public presentation. Cecil Thompson, describing the experience, wrote for the ‘Daily Express’:

‘A deep bass voice it was, clear as a bell, sufficient to please the ears of any Oxford don. “All . . . of . . . a . . . tremble . . .” it said.

            There was silence. The “robot” voice had spoken. It was terrifying for the moment, almost horrible. I felt a tingle down my spine. I had heard a voice that was not a voice, words that had never been spoken.’9

2. Sound Film and Multi-track recording:

1930‘s initialized the standardization of a motion picture sound track. The invention of electrical recording in earlier years allowed the single optical sound track to be recorded on the edge of a 35mm film strip. The optical sound technology used a projector with the optical pick up head that converted the changes of width (variable area) or density (variable density) of sound representation imprinted on the edge of the celluloid film strip. Light from the projector passed through the film strip onto a selenium photoelectrical cell where the changes were converted into electrical signal, then amplified and sent to a large horn speaker placed at the front of Film Theatres.

In 1935 MGM Corporation developed a two-way speaker system and installed it in New York’s Capitol Theatre (one of the largest venues on Broadway at the time). The manufacturer of the components (high frequency horns and low frequency 15-inch woofers) was Lansing Manufacturing Co. that later become Altec Lansing co. to finally become JBL in 1955– the undisputed industry leader in motion picture loudspeakers at the time (considering commercial success and Academy Award for technical excellence).

Since 1932 RCA and Bell Labs had been developing a ‘Multi Channel Recording’ process, by recording single optical sound tracks onto separate 35mm film strips. All tracks were edited into a single channel and imprinted on the edge of the released film.’ One Hundred Men and a Girl’ was one of the first films to be recorded using this technique. It was released by Universal in 1937 and featured songs of Deanna Durbin and the sound of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra. The same recording process was used to produce soundtrack for Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ in 1939/1940, where Stokowski’s orchestra was recorded onto 8 separate optical sound tracks. The 8 channels were then mixed onto 3 optical tracks (plus a 4th control track) and reproduced on multiple loudspeaker installation, created by RCA. The ‘Fantasound’ system was impressive, but costly, and its manufacture was stopped by the American Government, due to the priority of financing the country’s defence, during the Second World War.

The post-war era brought the magnetic sound recording technology to the Cinema.  The premiere of ‘This is Cinerama’, in 1952, inaugurated the magnetic sound track era. The new technology involved narrow stripes of iron oxide material (similar to the magnetic tape) applied to the release film strip. The Cinerama system used a 3-way projector (three strip process) and designed by Hazard E. Reeves and Walter Hicks 7-track magnetic soundtrack. The Cinerama system was never commercially successful as it required specially designed Cinerama Theatres.

In 1953 a cellulose tri-acetate film strip was used, for the first time, by Twentieth Century Fox, allowing 4-tracks of sound to be registered on a single 35mm strip of film. The Cinemascope system used a curved screen to project an image and three speakers, placed behind it, for sound reproduction. First film to be released in Cinemascope was ‘The Robe’.

Year later, in 1954, a rivalling system- the Paramount’s VistaVision with Perspecta sound format- was introduced. Although Perspecta used monophonic sound track it allowed for separate gain changes of the left, the centre and the right sound channels, giving the audience more directional sound effect. The sound could be panned between three channels by the use of encoded control signals embedded on the soundtrack. The 30, 35 and 40 Hz tones were decoded by the projector’s sound head, changing the gain between channels, accordingly to the events shown on the screen.

The year 1955 brought the invention of Todd-AO magnetic soundtrack system designed by Westrex and Ampex. Todd-AO films ware shot on a 65mm negative and reprinted onto 70mm film strip wide enough to contain 6-track magnetic soundtrack.

’70mm film, plus the TODD-AO special camera, plus the TODD-AO newly developed 6 channel high fidelity magnetic sound, plus the TODD-AO “all purpose” 70mm projector and the great arched TODD-AO screen equal the most revolutionary of all screen inventions, with clarity of perspective, detail and colour reproduction never before achieved10.

The speed of 24fps (frames per second) and 30 fps speed formats were simultaneously used to release films in two Todd-AO formats (‘Internet Encyclopaedia of Cinematographers’). 35mm film strip had also been used for a while but discontinued, after 1958, and replaced with the 70mm format. The films released in Todd-AO include: ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and ‘Oklahoma’.

Also in the year 1955 the first, entirely electronic score was created, and year later released, for the science fiction film ‘Forbidden Planet‘. In order to produce the score a special synthesizer had to be designed and build. It composed of many different circuits, each able to produce only particular sounds and perform a limited amount of functions (Audio Engineering Society, Moog synthesizers).

1967- The ‘Graduate’ became one of the first films to use an existing, popular song as part of the soundtrack. These techniques become a standard practise during the 1970’s.

1971– The release of ‘A Clockwork Orange’- the first film mastered with Dolby A-type Noise Reduction and decoded by Dolby Model364 cinema unit.

1974– Universal Pictures released ‘Earthquake’ in Sensurround Sound. Sensurround was design to imitate the vibrations of a real earthquake, by using low frequency sound waves. The audience could feel the theatre shake while watching a horrific destruction on the screen.

”Earthquake’  was released in the three standard theatre film formats; 6 track magnetic sound on 70mm film, 4 track magnetic sound on 35mm film, and the old standard single track optical sound on 35mm film. A system was devised to interface the Sensurround 1 effects to all of these formats. In reality the term “Standard” theatre sound equipment hardly has any meaning today. Some theatres have old sub par systems, while others have been updated partially and are hybrids; still others have new systems. This fact made it difficult to design a system that can be quickly and simply installed anywhere and work’.11

For the film industry and a movie-goer alike, this new, extraordinary experience, announced a beginning of a new era: the era of Surround Sound.

3. Dolby and the Surround Sound

In November 1974 Dolby Labs introduced the Dolby Stereo technology. The Dolby Stereo format consists of two optical sound tracks, each of them carrying one channel of the stereo sound. A special, central track for dialog is also encoded onto the two tracks, along with a separate channel for sound effects and ambient sounds, called surround track. Dolby Stereo contained four channels of audio encoded onto a narrow strip on the film edge. A strip of exactly the same width could accommodate only one magnetic sound channel. This technique provided an increased fidelity of sound reproduction in cinemas, and lowered the costs of production and maintenance of films (in comparison to expensive process of production and fragility of a magnetic sound track).

In 1986 a new recording process was developed, called Dolby SR (Spectral Recording), which provided professional noise reduction, increased amplitude and widened the frequency range of sound in cinemas. Currently all analogue optical soundtracks are Dolby SR (‘History of Dolby’, Dolby official website).

In 1996 Dolby Digital was introduced. Along with the analogue Dolby SR soundtrack a 6 channels of digital optical soundtrack are provided, on one strip of film.  5.1 Surround Sound format provides independent Left, Center, Right, Left Surround, and Right Surround channels, plus a subwoofer channel for low frequency effects, which gives 5 full range sound channels plus one sub bass channel, hence the name.

In 1999 Dolby adds rear surround channel to Dolby Digital, creating more realistic sound perception in Cinemas. The new Dolby Surround EX (or Dolby Surround 6.1), like all the other Dolby formats, is compatible with its ancestors.

Encoding and Decoding Surround sound is a complicated process providing outstanding possibilities. The role of Dolby encoder/decoder device, AC-3, is to encode the 6 surround channels onto stereo soundtrack in a way, that enables ‘converting them back’ to surround channels, during play back. In other words; the encoder combines the additional channels on both the right and the left outputs of film sound track. The resulting track is ready for stereo playback, can be converted into mono or decoded back onto 5.1 surround sound format, using AC-3 converter.

‘Dolby Digital (AC-3) is a perceptual audio coding system developed in 1992 to allow 35 mm theatrical film prints to carry multichannel digital audio in addition to the standard analogue optical soundtrack. The system has since been adopted for use with laser disc, ATSC high definition (HDTV) and DVB/ATSC standard definition (SDTV) digital television, digital cable television, digital satellite broadcast, DVD Video, DVD-Audio, DVD-ROM, and Internet audio distribution’.12

The principle of AC-3 coding is based on TDAC- Time Domain Alias Cancelation. In simplicity, the sound spectrum of multiple channels is divided into narrow frequency bands using a compilation of specially designed filters. The signals are analysed in terms of masking (one of the properties of human ear, which cannot detect low level sounds when there are higher level sounds at nearby frequencies). In the process of encoding, the masked frequencies are dismissed as inaudible, therefore lowering the amount of space needed to store the audio data. Similar rule is used in Layer-1, MP3 encoding systems (Dolby Surround User’s Manual)

4. Film Sound Formats:

CinemaSystem YearsUsed FilmWidth SoundFormat Channels
Fantasound 1940 35mm 3-TrackAnalogue


Left, Center, Right
Cinerama 1952-




Left,Mid Left,Mid Right, Right, Left Suround, Right Surround
Cinemascope 1953

35mm 4-TrackAnalogue


Left,Mid Left,

Mid Right,


Todd-AO 1955

70mm 6-TrackAnalogue


Left,Mid Left,Mid Right, Right,Mono Surround FX
Dolby Stereo 1976

35mm 2-TrackMatrixed



Left, Right, Centre, Mono Surround FX
Ultra Stereo 35mm 2-TrackMatrixed



Left, Right, Centre, Mono Surround FX



70mm 6-TrackAnalogue


Left, Mid Left, Centre, Mid Right, Right, Mono Surround FX
Dolby”Baby Boom”




70mm 6-TrackAnalogue


Left, Right, Centre, Mono Surround FX,Low Frequency FX
Dolby”Split Surround”



70mm 6-TrackAnalogue


Left, Right, Centre, Mono Surround FX,Left Surround, Right Surround

Low Frequency FX

Dolby Stereo SR 1986-


35mm 2-TrackMatrixed



Left, Right, Centre, Mono Surround FX
Kodak CDS 1990-




5.1 ChannelDigital


Left, Right, Centre,Left Surround, Right Surround

Low Frequency FX

Dolby Digital 1992-


35mm 5.1 ChannelDigital


Left, Right, Centre,Left Surround, Right Surround

Low Frequency FX

DTS 1993-




5.1 ChannelDigital


Left, Right, Centre,Left Surround, Right Surround

Low Frequency FX

SDDS 1993-


35mm 7.1 ChannelDigital


Left, Mid Left, Centre, Mid Right, Right,Left Surround, Right Surround

Low Frequency FX


Digital video formats:

IMAX, introduced in1988 by Sonic Associates;

Dolby SR-D, introduced in 1991 by Dolby Laboratories;

DTS, introduced in 1993 by Digital Theatre Systems;

Sony SDDS introduced in 1993, Sony Electronics;

MPEG-4- internet delivery standard; developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group in 1998,

Flash Video- internet video format introduced by Adobe

AVI (Audio Video Interleave), Microsoft format for Windows operated PCs

QuickTime- video format for Apple.

Level 3 Advances Internet Video Delivery- live streaming format, being currently under development by Level 3 Communications, Inc. It has been used for live streaming internet television in HD quality.

Most of the video formats for streaming video on the web use MP3 compression for audio delivery.

5. Development of Television, Video Games and Internet Broadcast:

1926 The invention of mechanical television called ‘Televisor’, by John Logie Baird. The image was black and pink and the screen the size of a postcard.

  1927 First transmission of ‘electric television’ picture.

  1928 Milton Berlie becomes the first person to be seen on the television screen during experimental broadcast in the U.S. In the same year Baird transmits his mechanical television signal through Atlantic, from the UK to America.

1933 First electronic television transmitter is built by Harry Lubke. It uses 300 scan lines at 20 frames per second and broadcasts for an hour, six days a week.

1941 NTSC (National Television Standards Committee) standard is adopted for television broadcast. It uses 525 interlaced horizontal scan lines and frame rate of 30 frames per second.

1948 First cable TV carries broadcast signal through a cable to remote areas.

1950 For the first time a pre-recorded ‘laugh track’ appears in sitcom series ‘Hank McCune Hall’, broadcasted by the NBC network.

1951 Colour TV program is shown by the CBS. The system was not compatible with black and white receivers.

1956 The video tape (VHS) is demonstrated by Ampex Co. Costumer video recorders follow.

1969 The beginning of ARPANET- a connection between 4 computers in four different Universities. This link was the predecessor of the Internet.

1972 First computer game is designed by Atari. It is named ‘Pong’. It generated one sound in the kinds of a sonar ‘blip’.

  1975 Midway Games releases ‘Gunfight’- the first computer game to use a microprocessor. It has a one channel amplifier to provide the sounds of gunshots.

1977 Atari Video Computer System becomes available for costumers. It provides primitive sound effects that are a foundation for the sound in video games of the early 1980’s.

1979 First talking video game appears. It has a computer generated voice giving commands.

1980 ‘Pac-Man’ hits the market. It is possibly a game with the most recognizable sound design. The sounds from ‘Pac-Man’ became a part of pop-culture and still appear in films, songs or cartoons, where they are instantly recognizable even by those, who never themselves played the game.

1981 PC- Personal Computer is released. In the same year Atari creates a POKEY chip for sound generation. It allows four sound channels with separate control over pitch, volume and distortion for each channel.

1983 First game is released on laser disc. It provides a stereo sound track with real human voices.

1987 ‘Square releases ‘Final Fantasy’ (…). A franchise is born and it will generate what is considered by fans and historians to be the best video game music ever made. Composer Nobuo Uematsu breaks entirely new ground with his sweeping and cinematic musical scores and continues to work his magic in sequels to this day’ 14

  1984 First stereo sound broadcast on television.

1991 MPEG-1 becomes an international standard for distributing audio via the Internet.

1998 MPEG-4 is introduced, giving better quality for the internet delivered videos.

December 2005 The U.S. Congress announces the need of change from standard NTSC analogue to digital transmissions of all television and Radio broadcast.

7. Time Code

Along with the film technology the need for better sound quality aroused. Sound-on-film technology, which used the camera as a sound recording device, was no longer sufficient as audiences expected the sound quality to mach the quality of the image. To record better sounds and clearer dialogs the techniques of dubbing and foley were introduced, which meant that the sound and the image were recorded separately to be synchronized in post-production. As portable magnetic recorders were introduced the use of external recorders on the set created a problem of device synchronization. The first linking of a camera with an external recorder was created via ‘synch-lead’. The camera was the master device. As the speed of both, the camera and the recorder become more stable, the connection was replaced by crystal lock systems. In both techniques the clapper-board was used as a marking point for the synchronization.

The most popular of those systems was Nagra Neo-pilot and BBC Half Track. Both devices used a pilot track recorded onto the magnetic tape from the camera.

The need for more accurate synchronization, allowing finding the exact frame for edit, required a different system- a Timecode.

Timecode is a digital signal recorded on alongside the audio and the video tracks, which provides exact timing information. Each frame is electronically synchronized to the timecode and each can be found by it’s own ‘address’, containing exact hour, minute, second and frame number. In the USA a drop-frame timecode system was also developed, because of inconsistency in the frame rates between colour television (29.97 fps) and black and white television (30 fps) programmes.

The most common timecodes, in use today, are the American SMPTE standard, introduced by Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and European AES-EBU, where EBU stands for European Broadcast Union. Both of them are similar in principle, and SMPTE was soon adopted by EBU. The information for each frame, contained in SMPTE timecode has four parts:

The time in hours, minutes, seconds and frames

The userbits

The controlbits

The synchronisation word

Timecoding enables the post-production synchronization and identification of single takes and scenes of the video and on the sound track.

(As this post is based on my academic work it contains this list of quotes which, in time, I’ll be chenging into functioning links within the text to make the reading a bit easier)

List of quotations:

*Alberto Cavalcanti, “Sound in Films,” in Film (London), November 1939, retrieved from http//www. /

1. Schoenherr S. E., 1999, ‘Motion Picture Sound History’, part 1, retrieved from             http//

2. Eyman (1997), pp. 30–31. (a quotation found in wikipedia)

3. Weiss E, Belton J., 1985,’Film Sound theory and practice’, Columbia University           Press, page 7

4.  Western Electric official webpage

5.  Encyclopaedia II, ‘Warner Brothers History’, retrieved from

6. ‘You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet’, Published: 12:00AM BST 06 Jul 2000, retrieved from          heard-nuthin-yet.html

7.  Weiss E., Belton J., 1985,’Film Sound theory and practice’, Columbia University         Press, page 9

8. Weiss E., Belton J., 1985,’Film Sound theory and practice’, Columbia University          Press, page 9

9. Pelletier Jan-Marc, 2009, ‘The Birth of the Synthetic Voice‘, retrieved from

10.  ‘The Todd-AO Corporation press release’, 1953, retrieved from

11. ‘About the sensurround sound’, from a Sensurround Manual,   

12. Dolby for Professionals ‘5.1 Channel Production Guidelines’, , Technical        Library,   

13. ‘Film Sound Formats’, by SMPTE,

14. Glenn McDonald, ‘A brief Timeline of Video Game Music’, 2001, Game Spot,             retrieved from

15. Donnelly K. J., ‘The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television’, 2005,   British   Film Institute Publishing, London, page 10

16. Kassabian, A., ‘Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary           Hollywood Film Music’, 2001, page 8, Routledge, UK.

17.  ‘Film Music. A History’, A. Wierzbicki, Taylor&Francis, 2009, UK, page 129

18. Film Sound theory and practice’, E Weiss, J. Belton, 1985 Columbia University          Press, page 106.

19. Kassabian, A., ‘Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary           Hollywood Film Music’, 2001, Routledge, UK, page 8,

20. Forlenza J., Stone T., ‘Sound for Picture’- MixPro Audio Series, 1993,           MixBooks, foreword.

21. Donnelly, K. J., ‘The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television’, 2005, British Film Institute Publishing, London, pages 5 and 6

22. ‘The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television’, K. J. Donnelly, British Film Institute Publishing, London, 2005, page 10

23. Sonnenschein D., ‘Sound Design. The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and          Sound Effects in Cinema’, 2001, Michael Wiese Productions, U.S. A., page         108

10. References:, 2009, ‘The History of Motion Picture’, ‘Thomas Alva Edison’,             ‘Dickinson’s Experimental Sound Film’, ‘Lee De Forest’ and other related

articles retrieved from

Audio Engineering Society, ‘Audio Timeline’, retrieved from

Davis M. F., ‘The AC-3 Multichannel Coder’, Dolby Laboratories Inc., reproduced            by permission of the Audio Engineering Society, Inc., presented at the 95th             Convention, 1993 October 7-10, retrieved from Dolby official website,   

Dolby for professionals,’ Technical Library’, ‘Motion Picture Technologies’,          ‘Broadcast and Pro Audio Technologies’, retrieved from

Dolby, ‘Dolby Surround Tools- Users Guide’, (provided by the School of             Sound Engineering, Cracow, 2001,).

Mc. Donald. G., 2001, ‘A Brief Timeline of Video Game Music’, Game Spot,        retrieved from

Encyclopaedia II, ‘History of Warner Bros’, ‘Sound Film History’, ‘General Electric’           and other related articles retrieved from

Film Formats, retrieved from

‘Film Site’,

‘Film Sound’, retrieved from

Vet. LTD, ‘Film and Broadcast production- Glossary’, retrieved from        http//

Pelletier Jan-Marc, ‘The Birth of the Synthetic Voice‘, retrieved from

‘Internet Encyclopaedia of Cinematographers’; retrieved from

The Media Management Group, January 2009, ‘Time Line of Music and Media     Technology’, retrieved from   

The Media Management Group, 2009, ‘Timeline of Sound and Broadcast             Technology’, retrieved from   

The development of sound for moving image

5 thoughts on “The development of sound for moving image

  1. jorgepolvorinos says:

    Impressive! But be careful: don’t post your whole researches in your blog before you present them on the University. Some heartless people will copy like mad from you.
    Instead, what you could do is try to publish a paper in PDF format and License it under Creative Commons if you wish so 🙂

    Just giving some ideas. Keep up the great job!

  2. Rob Barstow says:

    Absolutely brilliant read! It is so easy to take for granted how we got to where we are today. This is a great history of the development which is consice enough to read in one sitting. The question remains, where will the technology be in 20, 30, 50 years time?

    A thoroughly enjoyable read.

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