Evolution of Sound Effects 

 January 9, 2021

Sound effects in conjunction with the performing arts actually goes back to Greek theatre about 700 BC. Stage plays were performed in outdoor arenas attended by large audiences. There was no curtain, or lights, and few stage properties, but they did have voice magnification, through the use of elaborate masks which increased the volume of actors’ voices.

The Greeks also had sound effects, but they were formal and simplistic…..rain was suggested by dropping pebbles into a jar of water. For thunder and/or lightning, they struck a gong in full view of the audience.

Elizabethan theatre in the 1600s and 1700s was much more attentive to sound effects, most of them executed backstage. Horse’s hooves involved stomping on floor with poles, battle scenes were amplified backstage with metal crashing against metal and screams of the wounded, along with sounds from battle trumpets.

Shakespeare was accustomed to seeing lightning created by sending firecrackers down a wire attached to the stage while thunder was imitated by rolling a cannon ball in a V-shaped seesaw trough that moved up and down. Some battle scenes involved the use of a real cannon, with powder, but no ball or shot. Because of such cannon fire on stage, the Globe Theatre caught fire in June 1613 and burned down.

A playwright, John Dennis, wrote a play in 1704 in which thunder played an important part. Unhappy with the cannon ball effect in normal usage, Dennis invented his own device for creating thunder. History has not recorded what it consisted of, but it was probably a “thunder sheet”, which involved rattling a large sheet of copper or brass.

Alas, Dennis’ play did not do well at the box office and the theatre performing it, dropped it and instead began a revival of MacBeth, but still utilizing Dennis’ new thunder method. The playwright was very upset so he attended performances during which he would stand up and announce to the patrons, “They will not let my play run, but they have stolen my thunder.”

Sound effects for stage plays had vastly improved in number and realism on the American stage in the 1800s and later in vaudeville. Backstage they had a rain machine, a splash tank, a wind machine, a surf box, and coconut shells for hoofbeats on a variety of turf. Blank pistols could be fired on stage or behind the curtain.

A married couple, Arthur and Ora Nichols, got started in vaudeville as a musical duet; she played the piano and he played violin. There they witnessed the sound effects in other acts, usually created by the percussionist. The Nichols’ weren’t doing that well in vaudeville so when the silent films arrived about 1900, they segued into that new media, first as musicians and then as sound effects personnel.

Silent movies were only “silent” when filmed; when shown on the screen, there was plenty of sound….not just the accompanying music. There were gunshots, screams, crashes, hoofbeats, rain, sword clashing, etc. And Ora and Arthur did it all. But by the late 1920s, the “talkies” had decimated silent film industry so the married duo jumped ship again, this time into radio.

They went to work for CBS radio in 1928 and Ora was put in charge of the sound effects department. She recruited percussionists and trained them in producing sound effects for network radio. Ora proved she could produce sound effects with her own devices that were as realistic as the original source.

Orson Welles, who wanted a section of sod grass to be mowed by a real lawn mower, agreed to use instead an egg beater in the hands of Ora.  She also created the sound of a Martian ship compartment door opening…by slowly revolving the lid on a metal pot for the famous War of the Worlds program.

Gunshots went through several variations over the years. In radio’s earliest times, a wooden lathe was slapped on a leather pillow. Later a wooden clapper was used. Eventually real weapons firing blanks came into usage, something studios resented because of the expense of cartridges.

Ora Nichols invented a devise entirely of wood that replicated the “ack-ack-ack” sound of a machine gun with revolving slats striking against an unyielding surface.

Recorded sound on discs proceeded dramatic radio but it took a while for companies to create sound effect records and market them to the radio industry. These records were very necessary for sound personnel in creating the “large sounds”, i.e. automobiles, ocean liners, packed stadiums, most military sounds (cannon fire, tanks, etc.) waterfalls, and airplanes.

Most radio studios had a library of sound effects records they could call upon. To play them, most studios had three adjacent turn tables with four swinging arms. With this system in place, two sounds could come from the same disk at the same time.

For example, the sound of one car could be under the needle of one arm and a few minutes later, a second arm could be placed at the same spot of the spinning disc and it would sound like two cars chasing each other.

The compact nature of these discs was a real convenience. One such record might contain up to 50 different sounds in short segments. Sound personnel soon found out that by altering the speed and pitch of the audio, several different sounds could be created from the same segment.

For example, the recorded sound of a waterfall could, at different speeds and pitch, sound like an earth quake, a jet plane, a railroad train, and in short bursts, like an automatic weapon.

Of course there were many sounds that were always executed manually. Knocking on a door could be that of a policeman, a timid salesman, a spy using a coded knock, or an angry woman, all of which would be very different.

The same with footsteps, which were always done manually. They could be a man, woman, child….they could be fast, slow, with a limp, or dozens of other variables.

Other sounds that were virtually always “manual“ were the animal sounds.

The network’s publicity department wanted listeners to think that Lassie starred in her own show. They even distributed photos of the dog with glasses on, sitting on chair by a microphone, looking at a

But Lassie, Rin-Tin-Tin, and Yukon King were all impersonated by a series of humans, Dewey Cole of WXYZ who voiced Yukon King, as well as Silver and Scout, actually got AFRA to agree that he should be paid extra as an actor when doing these roles.

Most of these animal imitators could do several of nature’s creatures. Dave Light voiced the dog and the cat on Mayor of the Town; horses, cows, chickens, and cougars on Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch; as well as Toto on Wizard of Oz.

Frank Milano imitated all the animals on Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, including two at one time, i.e. fight between a horse and a cougar.

Since an infant cannot read a script, the cooing, crying, or babble from a baby was done by women who specialized in this type of sound. Sybil Trent, who started on radio at age three, and later went on to star on Let’s Pretend, was an excellent “baby” as a mature actress on radio.

As with most endeavors, the longer it is done, the better it gets, and this is certainly true of art of sound effects. The zenith was probably reached in the late 1950s by the very talented trio of Ray Kemper, Tom Hanley, and Bill James. Two or three of them worked together on Straight Arrow, Gunsmoke, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, Fort Laramie, and Have Gun, Will Travel.

You can listen to any one of their episodes and admire their innovative handiwork. Every footstep is precise, every mount into a saddle sounds as it should; when a table conversation ends, we hear the chair legs scraping on the floor as the participants push away from the table.

We can even tell the difference in the boot-steps of Chester and Matt; the latter has jingling spurs (the sound by Ray Kemper, shaking an old set of car keys.)

And despite the skill of women in radio, they found it very difficult to break into sound effects. Ora Nichols, who had nearly created the profession, had done sound effects on Buck Rogers, Mercury Theatre of the Air, March of Time, etc.

She retired from radio in 1947, convinced that she had proven that women could be effective sound effects personnel. But alas, the few women hired in those roles during the man-shortage in WW II, were relieved of their jobs when the veterans returned.

Radio's Sound Effects Artists Are Not Foley Artists

 Radio’s sound effects personnel were not Foley Artists.  This term is derived from Jack Donovan Foley, who worked for Republic Studios and added sound to film and television, much of it electronically.

But Foley was working on these projects months after the shooting of the film or video. He could try hundreds of different sounds until he got the best one. However his counterparts on radio worked live on each program and had only one chance to get it right. So these two jobs are “distant cousins” but hardly the same.

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