Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio-Craft,
published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Sound effects in television and movies are in the modern era generated
electronically at the push of a button or the clicking of a mouse.
sound effects are available for download to enhance amateur
videos. Whether you need the clopping of horse hooves, birds chirping,
a street racer squealing his wheels coming off the starting line,
or a baby crying in the background, it's all at your disposal -
and usually at no cost. Prior to around 1960, with the exception
of the incredibly phony sounding 'canned'
laugh tracks and audience clapping used on 'live' situational
comedies and variety shows, all those aforementioned sound effects
had to be created real-time in the recording studio. Even if you
are too old to have actually listened to
radio shows like
The Lone Ranger and
The Shadow, surely you have watched an old movie where
a gun shot was heard or footsteps on a wooden floor. Almost certainly
those sounds were made by somebody using one of the methods shown
in this 1939 article from Radio-Craft magazine. Here is a
video on YouTube showing an actual old time sound effects recording
studio. Those folks were pretty ingenious.
Unique Sound Effects
R. D. Washburne
Some of the sound effects used at the National Broadcasting
Company studios today are shown in the above scene at Radio
City studios. (I) An automobile door, (2) turntable for
playing recorded sound effects, (3) "wireless" (radio) code
oscillator, (4) jail door. (5) echo chamber. (6) electric
thunder sheet for high explosives and thunder, (7) thunder
drum for small explosives, distant cannon, thunder, (8)
splash box for water effects, (9) concrete walk for footsteps
on pavement, (10) straw for sounds in underbrush, (11) gravel
pit for walking in gravel.
The professional Sound Effects Man came into existence about
10 years ago. Modern programs, as for instance the Wells-Welles
"War of the Worlds" broadcast of a couple months ago, attest to
the dramatic value of his trade today.
Neanderthal man may have been the first to employ sound effects
- 50,000 to 100,000 years ago - when, in order to distract the attention
of game he was stalking, he threw a pebble to create the illusion
of action at a remote point.
It was not until 10 years ago, however, that the Sound Effects
Man really achieved professional status; in 1929 the National Broadcasting
Company created a Sound Effects Department and put in charge the
man who still heads this department as its Chief Technician - N.
Until then sound effects had been produced, when provided at
all, by a snare drummer, the traditional sound effects man of the
Despite the considerable degree of candor with which sound effects
men discuss their art, still, it reeks of "trade secrets"; and employs
all the wizardry expert technicians are able to muster in order
that such "scenery" will supply broadcast programs with the proper
One of the most "exclusive" occupations in the world, less than
100 men are professionally employed in the trade, one network estimates.
Since the general activities of these men have been described
at considerable length in newspapers and magazines, including Radio-Craft,
it is for this reason that only the more unusual and newest sound
effects they have developed are here described. Columbia Broadcasting
System, National Broadcasting Co., and the British Broadcasting
Corp. have cooperated in making available to Radio-Craft readers
the following descriptions of unique sound effects.
A horse and wagon lumbers along a rough mountain road
- in the C.B.S. studios! A small wagon wheel is turned by
Henry Gauthier, &.·Walter Pierson works 2 cocoanut shells
in sand, for the horse.
In a laboratory on the 13th floor of the C.B.S, building, C.B.S.
sound effects engineers have developed a big improvement on the
old-fashioned hand telephone. Formerly, when a script called for
telephone sound effects, the sound effects engineer had to ring
a bell, then pick up a dummy phone set. Or if the actor in the script
was to' dial, the sound effects man had to dial on a phone set and
make the sound of the ringing current or busy signal with separate
Today, all this can be done on one piece of equipment - a specially-built
phone set attached to a neat little black box about 8 x 8 x 4 ins.
Inside the box is a battery which controls the bell, the ringing
current, and a "busy" signal. The C.B.S. Sound Effects Department
has 20 such highly-condensed phones.
Also there are 5 specially-built switchboards. They were made
from the parts of an actual switchboard, bought from the telephone
company. There are 3 plugs to each switchboard, and flipping a little
key gives you a triple choice of bass, baritone, or tenor buzz.
There's an anchor machine, too. It consists of 2 horizontal bars
with a chain slung over them, turned by a hand crank. It will give
you, on the air, the sound of a gang plank being lowered, or the
lowering of an anchor. Walter Pierson, Sound Effects head, and his
assistant Max Uhlig, shopped for one whole day in a chain factory,
selecting the right chain to use on this machine. They went around
the factory with hammers, tapping at all the chains to discover
the one with the right resonance.
Even the old-fashioned thunder drum has been replaced by an electric
one - a big square of stretched screen wire to which an ordinary
phonograph pick-up has been soldered. When the screen is struck
with a padded drumstick, the vibrations are picked up and fed through
a speaker to the microphone. You can't even hear this thunder without
Such exotic sound as the whir of meteors. rushing through space
are taken care of quite scientifically, too. In the Columbia Workshop
production of "The Wedding of the Meteors" (a good script for experimental
work in college radio guilds and such groups), for instance, they
used a wind machine, pitched very high in frequency, along with
music, and, as the meteors approached the earth, they "faded-in"
a dynamo hum on records.
Styx Gibling (left), drummer of the B.B.C. Variety Orchestra,
discusses with John Watt Director. of Variety, his efforts
for the recent broadcast version of Snow White and the 7
Dwarfs. As Gibimg , seldom had time to watch the conductor,
he listened to his cues through head phones.
Another pretty imaginative effect was that of the voice of "Alice
in Wonderland," another Columbia Workshop production, as she grew
bigger and bigger after drinking from the bottle the White Rabbit
had left on the table outside the Garden.
They put Alice in a gobo, a sound effects screen with one "live"
and one dead side. Alice stood on the alive side and talked in a
very little voice. Then, as she grew, her voice was fed through
an echo chamber, which is a long, acoustical labyrinth adding reverberation
to the voice.
A simple, yet somewhat effective echo effect can be produced
by placing a dynamic microphone, face down, in the hole of a grand
piano sounding board. With the top of the piano half-open and the
dampening pedal held down so as to leave the strings free, voice
or sound effects are directed into the open piano. The strings of
the piano start to vibrate and give a microphone pick-up that simulates
an echo. This has been effectively used on such a program as "Renfrew
of the Mounted."
The Sound Effects department is never free from the possibility
of emergencies. One night, during a "Gangbusters" broadcast, sound
effects engineer Ray Kramer suddenly discovered that the hose through
which he meant to blow bubbles in a tank of water to represent a
drowning man, was missing. The cue was coming up. There was nothing
for Kramer to do but start to drown himself. He ducked his face
half into the tank and blew his own bubbles the way nature would
have done if she'd been consulted. (The tank is a metal one, with
a canvas lining to prevent picking up the sound of water slapping
against the sides. Kramer removed the device, which when turned,
gave the effect of lapping water.)
One of the most amusing sound effects - it got a good chuckle
out of Pierson himself - was the one Max Uhlig used to milk a cow
over the air. He used 2 ear syringe bulbs filled with water and
a big bucket. It was perfect.
Leaving this network, let's see what's new in sound effects on
a competitive net.
This is C.B.S's new electric thunder screen of copper
gauze, with phono pickup on top crossbar. Top-right, studio
loudspeaker lead; top-left, gain control.
N.B.C.'s "body of man falling to street" sound is accomplished
with a squash (of squash, not man).
For a drowning act, C.B.S.'s Ray Kramer removed the "innerds,"
dunked his head, and bubbled.
For a "telephone voice," N.B.C. actor John MacBryde,
pressed nose & talked through cupped hand.
The increasingly high fidelity output of broadcast receivers
and proportionately table outside the improved frequency response
of the receivers themselves have made it not only possible but necessary
that sound effects be altered to suit the trend.
Thus we find that shots are no longer produced by whacking a
stick across a carton or the padded seat of a chair. Instead, real
.22 or .38 pistols are used at the National Broadcasting Co.
Before the department was established, the sound of a closing
door was made by dropping the lid of a studio piano, but now there
are 25 real doors, in portable frames, that supply the door-closing
wants of broadcasting in Radio City. Door-closing and bell-ringing
are the commonest sound effects used.
For several years salt poured over crisp lettuce leaves was the
standard sound effect for rain. The rain machine in use today at
N.B.C. headquarters, however, is a complex machine that now produces
the sounds of 5 different degrees of rainfall. The secret to the
faithful sound is the controlled sprinkling of birdseed upon gauze
impregnated with cellophane and stretched taut in a frame, and upon
4 other surfaces each of which produces a sound of slightly higher
Cellophane, incidentally, is a versatile mimic itself. Crumpled
properly in the skilled hands of the N .B.C. sound technicians,
it sends through the microphone the sounds of frying eggs, burning
wood, the snapping of dry twigs as they are trampled upon.
The sound of swishing water made in the Show Boat broadcast and
others requiring such "scenery" is nothing more than a miniature
reproduction of a steamboat stern-wheel turned by a crank in a tub
of water. A rocking tub of water makes a noise like waves, and common
household brushes make a perfect imitation of the wash of surf.
The chief technician was asked one day to make a noise like 2
men crashing through underbrush. He picked up a whisk-broom experimentally
and crushed it in his hands. It did the trick.
Scores of new streamlined sound effects have been installed in
Hollywood Radio City (California) as part of the expansion which
followed the opening of the new National Broadcasting studios.
Most impressive of the many gadgets added to the N .B.C. sound
effects department's inventory is a gigantic thunder drum, whose
notes will soon be heard in dramatic programs from Hollywood. More
than 6 feet square in its finished form, the thunder drum was manufactured
from a steer hide that measured 7 feet square. The unique sound
effects drum was manufactured in New York to specifications drawn
by Harry Saz, chief of N.B.C.'s sound effects department in Hollywood.
More thunder will come from a new type thunder sheet, made of
phosphor bronze. The sheet of bronze, 4 feet long and 6 inches wide,
gives the same effect as an old-type thunder sheet of galvanized
tin 14 feet long.
The lonesomest studios in Radio City (New York) are 3 small chambers
opening off a narrow corridor on the 9th floor. The only persons
who ever visit them are occasional engineers who test the microphones
and the nearby amplifier to make certain that everything is in order.
Even to enter them, the engineer has to open 2 heavy soundproofed
doors, the one immediately behind the other.
It is extremely doubtful if an artist ever set foot in one of
these rooms, yet voices and music frequently fill the barren spaces.
Recently, when millions of N.B.C. listeners gave ears to Snow White's
wishing song on the Rudy Vallee and Johnny Presents program, they
became aware of fine resonant echoes. They visualized the wistful
princess as singing into the wishing well. That was when the singer's
voice rang through an N.B.C. echo chamber.
A radio echo is easy enough to supply, but the fellow who wants
one in his program positively has to notify the engineering department.
in advance. The artist may supply the sound, but the engineer has
to furnish its echo - long, short, loud or soft - any kind the artist
wants. The technical lads, however, must have a little time to get
their echo factory connected with the program.
The N.B.C. engineers have, during the 6 years they have used
echo chambers, evolved some neat little tricks. They can, for instance,
tack an echo onto one sound and broadcast another sound, from the
same studio, "straight." This comes in handy in broadcasting, say,
a scene from an antechamber off a great hall where the music of
an organ reverberates in vast spaces. It was also used in the 2
broadcasts of Snow White's wishing song, except that here the studio
engineer had to do some fancy switching, on and off, of the echo
chamber. The artist actually sang the echoed phrases twice; but
only the repetition was routed through the echo chamber.
Once the echo chamber has been linked to a program, the key man
is the studio control engineer. He controls the amount of echo with
a special "fader." Let us say that a pair of actors is supposed
to be mounting stairs to a large barren hall. The actors in the
studio actually stand still and read their lines into the microphone.
All the "walking" is done by sound effects men at a separate mike.
The door also opens with the assistance of the sound effects man.
Then the control engineer switches on the echo chamber. The next
words have a fine large echo, "footsteps ring out as in a vast,
What has happened? The electrical energy representing footsteps
and voice has been split. One part was diverted to the echo chamber
where it was strengthened and then reconverted into sound in 3 loudspeakers.
Each of these loudspeakers is connected to long, cement-lined tubes.
One of the tubes is 40 feet long, another 60 and the third 80. All
terminate in conventional horns opening into the echo chamber proper.
Sound travels slower than electricity, which has the speed of
light. It is apparent also that a sound will be staggered in the
3 tubes. It will come out of the shorter tube first, followed by
the same sound at the briefest of intervals from the second and
third tubes. That, in itself, is a fairly good start on an echo;
but N.B.C.'s engineers like to add a few hundred more faint footsteps
and voices to echo the original sound.
So they release it into an echo chamber. This is a room, about
8 feet high, 8 feet wide and 16 feet long. The floor is of cement,
covered with a fine-grained linoleum. Walls and ceiling are of smooth,
hard plaster, covered with a glossy paint. Altogether, the footfalls
and voices have every encouragement to bounce around and multiply
before they are picked up at the other end of the room by another
microphone. Then these synthetic echoes rejoin the main transmission
line where they follow the original sound.
All of this, of course, happens in seconds. There is a slight
echo in the main studios at Radio City, but this is considerably
less than half the echo in an ordinary living room. (The studio
echo measures about 75/100 of a second, while an ordinary living
room has a reverberation period of about 1 1/2 seconds, and the
echo chamber, bare, resonant and hard, has a period in the order
of 3 seconds.)
Until 4 years ago, every sound required had to be produced in
the sound effects workshop, frequently requiring intricate operation
in the studio. The craft of providing sound effects had grown to
such proportions by then, however, that the first of 7 companies
now providing phonographic recordings of sound effects began to
offer N.B.C. any and every sound that could be captured and canned.
Echoes While You Wait!
Echoes as you want them - long or short, loud or soft
- are now available upon request. The "echo chamber" does
the trick. Sound projected into a short medium or long room
- cement-and-linoleum lined - bounces around and around,
until it finally reaches a microphone at the far end as
d short, medium or long echo, respectively, at N.B.C.
With all the multitudinous sound effects still produced in the
broadcasting studio, the N.B.C. library of sound effect recordings
consists of about 1,000 discs capable of furnishing the astonishing
total of 4,000 different sounds.
One record has the sounds of screams, snoring and typewriting
all on one face; and another offers 20 seconds of a Model T Ford
running continuously, 40 seconds of the same vehicle starting, running
and stopping, and 20 seconds of a Collie dog barking. The library
provides numerous common sounds such as railroad trains, airplane
motors, shouting and applauding crowds and animal sounds. At that,
it is not infrequent that a perfectly live actor will be called
in to a studio to roar like a lion or crow like a rooster because
the necessary sound produced that way .can be cued into the continuity
with less chance of delay.
It is the sound effects department's policy to use phonographic
records only for such sounds as cannot be produced practically within
the studio in some other manner, but since railroad trains, airplanes
and many other cumbersome affairs cannot very well be hauled into
the studios the turntables are whirling their phonograph records
much of the time.
In Hollywood Radio City, new record cabinets, containing 884
bins, hold hundreds of sound effects records, which contain a total
of more than 7,500 different sounds, ranging from bird songs to
Historical in its significance is a record of the actual sound
of Hitler's entrance into Austria. Marching troops, bursting bombs
and rolling artillery wheels can all be reproduced from N.B.C. records.
When New York was in the grip of hurricane winds, sound engineers
caught the howling of the gale high up in Radio City. The sound
of the hurricane will be heard by N.B.C. listeners through a record
added to the Hollywood library.
Church bells, the roar of the China Clipper, the rhythm of the
goose-step and the screech of a skidding automobile in the Vanderbilt
Gold Cup race are a few of the contrasting effects available on
records. There is even a record of the actual swarming of bees!
3 Men on a Sound Set-up
At N.B.C. it's every man for himself, when it comes to operating
the 9 sound-effects turntables shown above. The record library includes
over 4,000 different sound effects; how many could you think of,
When the British Broadcasting Co.'s turn came to do a sound effects
job on a broadcast version of "Snow White, etc.," the subject was
handled quite differently from the N.B.C. treatment mentioned above.
A pair of scissors and a bowl of pea soup are hardly orthodox
"instruments" for use in an orchestra, but Styx Gibling, the drummer,
used them as 2 of the many effects he invented for the recent broadcast
version of "Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs": he clicked the scissors
in front of the microphone to represent the squeaking of mice, and
blew down a tube into the pea soup to make the "witch's cauldron"
An issue of the Times of India some time ago disclosed another
unique sound effects arrangement used by B.B.C. to air Robert Louis
Stevenson's thriller-novel, "Markheim."
In the story, Markheim murders a dealer in antiques, urged on
by the inner voice of his mind and afterwards he is visited by an
hallucination in the shape. of Mephisto. It can be readily understood
that such a plot, which makes great demands on sound and comparatively
little on the visual powers, is ideal for radio. But the producers
were up against difficulties in "casting" 2 voices, both disembodied.
The mind of Markheim and Mephisto. However, aided by the engineers,
they employed a very effective method.
Two separate actors were used and a touch of reality was given
to their promptings by the way in which the sound control department
manipulated their voices. The "inner voice" of Markheim's mind,
as played by one actor, had its harmonics filtered out, and was
small, but clear yet unreal. Mephisto, once again with the aid of
the engineers who had to control separate microphones, had a similar
voice but was allowed to have full harmonics added.
Film on Old Time Radio Sound Effects: "Back of the Mike" (1938)