By Ron DiCesare
I have been working in audio post production for nearly 25 years and I would consider myself a very knowledgeable audio professional. But I was surprised to find out how little I actually knew about the history of audio post production. Over the past 25 years or so, I have experienced many changes and developments in audio post production first hand, most notably the digital revolution. Even so, I never gave much thought to how and why audio post is the way it is today.
The people, the products and the significant achievements of the past have paved the way for us today and are something all audio professionals should know about. That is why I am pleased to have the opportunity to give my overview on some of the highlights of audio post production’s history.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
At its core, audio post production is the process of adding or changing sound to picture. Typically that means adding sound effects, music, voiceover or dialog, and mixing to a moving image. In 1927, the landmark film, The Jazz Singer marked the end of the silent film-era and opened the door to the audio post industry. With early technology such as the Vitagraph System (a sound on disc system) and then optical sound (recording audio to the film stock), filmmakers could go beyond the limits of what was recorded on the set. That is if any sound was recorded at all. Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willy not only introduced Mickey Mouse to the world in1929, but it also was the first film to use post sound entirely. Cartoons and animation, even today, still rely 100% on post production sound for the dialog, music and sound effects.
Adding sound effects to a film is sometimes synonymous with the word Foley. Foley is not a device or a technology, but it was a real person named Jack Foley. He used his acting skills to perform sound effects to match the action on screen. Showboat in 1929 is regarded as the first Foley session where Jack Foley added the sound effects during the recording of the music for the film. Today, recording props to match the action on screen in a controlled environment called a Foley pit is the same concept as it was back in 1929.
Over the years, audio post production technology grew and created new approaches of working creatively. During WWI, German engineers developed a high-quality recording format known as analog tape in 1943. Tape became commercially available in 1948 by the Ampex company and the developments made by Jack Mullin. Starting off as 2 audio tracks, analog tape quickly grew to 3 and 4 audio tracks thanks to the innovations of Les Paul in 1948. Paul popularized multi-track recording with a modified Ampex 200 machine, and continued with the addition of 8 tracks in 1954.
The birth of the television industry gave way to new opportunities for audio post production. Early television shows were broadcast live, which did not allow for any postproduction sound. That was until landmark shows like Amos and Andy and I Love Lucy were recorded onto high quality 35mm film around 1950 and 51. This gave the opportunity to add sound afterwards such as “canned” laughter.
In 1958, Will Studer presented the first commercially available mixing console, the portable Studer 69. No doubt innovators like Les Paul and others like him had home-brew consoles, but Studer addressed the growing need to control the levels of a multi-track recording.
Over the next two decades, audio technology gave way to more audio tracks, more channels, and improvements in tape quality. Things like large format analog consoles that eventually grew up to 192 inputs and beyond, using up to 48 tracks of analog tape, and portable recording rigs were used throughout the film and television industry. As a result, film and television sound became more sophisticated than ever before. Epic films such as Apocalypse Now and Star Wars were marvels of sound creativity and technical capabilities in the late 70s.
In 1976, digital tape technology became widely available with Soundstream’s reel-to-reel digital tape. The benefits of digital tape were quickly recognized in both the music industry and in post production. More audio tracks, channels, and improvements in tape quality meant that audio quality for film and television was on the rise again.
One of the most significant developments in audio post was the Digital Audio Workstation, called the DAW for short. Surprisingly, the origin can be traced to 1977 with the Soundstream’s modified Honeywell 5600e Instrumentation Tape Drives (the HTD), which led to the first digital editing system to use a computer. Audio post production quickly adopted the early computer systems, eventually adapting to the personal computer revolution of the 1980s. Specialized audio recording and editing software expanded and redefined what post production could do. Once again, film and television sound became even more sophisticated as a result of the computer’s powerful capabilities.
The introduction of surround sound made for not only more possibilities in audio post, but for enhanced audio playback in the theaters and eventually in people’s homes. Surround sound’s roots can be traced back to Walt Disney, which is fitting because it was Mickey Mouse who was first completely reliant on audio postproduction sound. Disney’s pioneering postproduction sound techniques and technology were used on the first multi-channel film soundtrack called Fantasia Sound for the 1940 film, Fantasia. Over the years, surround sound for film would become more advanced and more widely used, but its origins can be traced here.
Surround sound and 5.1 are often used interchangeably. However, surround sound is a very broad term that covers many different audio configurations while 5.1 is only one type of format. The number of channels and the placement of the speakers vary with each format. While 5.1 is the most common, there are other types that include more channels such as 6.1 and 7.1. Some configurations can even reproduce the experience of height such as IMAX and Tomlison Holman’s bold 10.2 surround sound experience. The more common 5.1 surround sound configuration is made up of traditional left and right speaker found in stereo, but has the additional center channel, rear surround channels, and the LFE channel. Dialog is most commonly placed in the center speaker, music in the left and right speakers, and ambiences and effects are sometimes placed in the surround speakers behind the listener. And finally, the LFE channel, which stands for Low Frequency Effects, is used to enhance any low-end effects such as explosions or space ship rumbles. Other formats like 7.1 have the addition of 2 side channels, so quite simply more audio channels means more possibilities for creativity and story telling.
No overview of post could be complete without mentioning Pro Tools and Digidesign, the company behind what is arguable the most significant development in audio post production’s history. Digidesign, founded in 1984 by Peter Gotcher and Evan Brooks (acquired by Avid in 1995) single handily brought powerful audio post production technology into people’s homes, basements and bedrooms with powerful capabilities that early analog studios could only dream of. Their landmark program Pro Tools is now industry standard, but Digidesign has their roots dating back to the mid-80s starting out offering FM synthesis waveform editing (as evidenced here in the Sept 1987 issue of Electronic Musician). From there, the duo reshaped the entire audio recording industry forever.
On a personal note, I have been a drummer and technology enthusiast all my life. I would say that I owe my career to Gotcher and Brooks’ initial need to change the drum sounds on the Drumulator (made by E-mu Systems). Few, if any (maybe not even Gotcher and Brooks), could have imagined this idea would lead to the development of one of the most important and powerful tools for audio post production as we know it.
Ron DiCesare is a NewYork City-based freelance audio engineer working on commercial and more. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.