The Early Talkies: Inherent Challenges of Sound-on-Disk Technology

The earliest synchronization of sound with film images dates back to 1878, first performed by Professor Francis Blake of Brown University (as reported by the Sound-Picture Recording and Projection Manual of 1931, at least). Hence by the time that Warner Bros formed Vitaphone Corporation in 1926, such a concept was hardly unfamiliar. What made this particular system novel, explains David Bordwell, was essentially its timing: Warner Bros. and Fox, both the smaller studios, “saw the technology as a method of product differentiation and a means of appealing to smaller exhibitors unable to afford a live stage program of the sort offered in the first-run theaters” and embarked upon research and patent programs, essentially forcing the larger studios to seriously compete (298). Shortly after, while Fox ventured towards sound-on-film with Movietone, Warner developed Vitaphone.

As with all early sound technologies, adaptions were required on and off the set. Cast and crew had to adjust their acting and filming styles, learning how to properly cater to the microphones or how to mask apparatus noise. New equipment, such as primitive boom mics, play-back horns, amplifiers and patching panels, necessitated professional training and specific considerations on set. In short, these particular technological transitions forced the film industry into a new domain, one in which studios required more elaborate equipment, and editing required more precision and intricate knowledge; one where the role of professional committees (increased by the need for standardization and problem-solving) was crucial (Bordwell 298-299).

The Vitaphone, or more generally sound-on-disk, however, presented its own unique set of problems through restrictive physical qualities, as well as editing and playback complications. These negative factors, inherent to this specific technology, are ultimately what led the industry to abandon it and move completely towards sound on film.

The Vitaphone: Physical Quality Qualms

Vitaphone disks were commonly referred to as waxes (MacIlvain 18), but its sources were actually engineered out of a metallic soap, about 2 inches thick and 16 inches in diameter. Upon its production, the top surface of the disk was finely shaved to a refined smoothness, as “any irregularities in this surface are transmitted to the final record and add to the ground noise heard during the reproduction” (MacIlvain 18). The shaving process demanded a uniform temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit, while the utmost attention to handling had to be practiced in order to prevent smudging (and thus, additional ground noise). Due to the surface’s extreme sensitivity to dust, smudges and scratches, all filming involving live sound had to be completed within a clean and controlled atmosphere, essentially limiting sound scenes to the studio space. This made any juxtaposition of outdoor scenes in Vitaphone films observably awkward, where actors would be accompanied by music but never by dialogue.

The advantage of sound-on-disk was the ability to review recordings immediately after the scene had been filmed. If a take was deemed unsuitable, the disk was simply shaved down and reused for recording. However, as the Sound-Picture Recording and Projection manual points out, one of the inherent disadvantages of sound-on-disk was (the obvious fact that) upon multiple shavings, the disk became thinner and more fragile with each use, and therefore posed a possible threat of “breaking during the process of shaving and injuring the shaving-machine operator” (18).

The Vitaphone’s fragile nature was not remedied after its pressing, and thus transferred into the thinner copies of the distribution disks. Robert Gitt highlights this problematic nature in an interview about his Vitaphone work at UCLA: “the records were shipped to theaters in large wooden boxes lined with cardboard. These were quite heavy, and of course the records were fragile and breakage was always a potential problem” (268). This given, several disks had to be sent to exhibitors, “not only as insurance against breakage, but also because the records wore out so quickly…Projectionists were instructed to play each record only twenty times before discarding it” (269). Exhibitors were not expected to ship the disks back for reuse (Cook 527).

Editing Sound-on-Disk

By far, the most detrimental quality of the Vitaphone was its difficulty in sound editing and re-recording. In the year of its origin, Vitaphone films–specifically shorts– were recorded directly to the disk, with no editing attempts. Rather, sound was “mixed” on the set, requiring elaborate staging in terms of orchestral location, dialogue and sound effects, as well as an astute sound mixer to survey both amplification levels and microphone placement—and often, when required to re-shoot scenes, became more costly (in both time and money) for the studio (Belton 232).

Due to the necessity to synchronize frame with sound, the film could not be edited without scrapping the scene entirely. For this reason, many Vitaphone pictures contained longer scenes (also justified by less cuts due to dialogue), but implemented close-ups to distribute the pacing of the film. In order for this to occur, two cameras—as well as two wax machines (one for playback)—were required on set, in order to ensure synchronicity, which effectually made shooting the scene more difficult and expensive.

A year later (1927), Warner began experimenting with sound dubbing, but wax editing versus sound -on-film editing offered considerably less flexibility. In a December 1935 Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, E.D. Cook observes the hardships in this practice: “One can not cut out sections, piece them together in any desired order, and run the result continuously up on a single machine without an additional step of re-recording. This lack of flexibility is a serious handicap.” This re-recording that Cook mentions refers to the the practice of combining multiple disks’ recordings onto one single record, which yielded, as one might assume, an inferior sound quality than the original, given that the “final sound track was several generations removed” (Belton 231). Within another year, re-recording was commonplace for Vitaphone productions, and sound quality suffered greatly when as many as eight disks were involved in the remix. Gitt points out that often times these later recordings (1929-1931) contained much worse sound quality than those of the earlier years due to the decision to re-record: “Everything—both music and voice—sounds as if it’s coming through layers of cardboard” (267).

Summed up concisely by E.D. Cook, “for these [editing] reasons, it was felt that upon re-examining the art to provide adequate tools for re-recording, we should be justified in discarding the wax record for the original recording [upon film]” (528).

Problems in Playback

Production was not the only element effected by Vitaphone’s inherent difficulties. Exhibitors (as well as audiences) experienced equal frustration in playback synchronization. Bernard Brown, author of 1931′s Talking Pictures, discusses this as sound-on-disk’s irrecoverable flaw. Highlighted in his chapter “In the Operating Box,” Brown outlines the various (and common) ways that synchronicity may be disrupted: 1) pickup arm or needle is touched by the operator, 2) jerkiness experienced in the machine motor, 3) the film breaks above the sprocket wheel, 4) a needle is loose, and 5) recorded bass throws the needle. Synchronicity is irrecoverable for numbers 1, 3, and 4, and “even for the remaining two it is usually stated to be impossible” to fix synchronization (187). Suggestions on how to continue the show once these actions have occurred are limited to: continuing to show the film as a silent, starting the reel/disk over, or cutting the reel out completely—obvious nuisances in the viewer experience. “Though it may be a laughing matter to the audience,” he writes, “it is nerve-racking to the man in the box.”

Completing change-overs with silent films was arguably an easy task, but, as with projectors, the sound-on-disk also required a change-over, thus complicating the role of the projectionist. “With sound pictures,” writes Brown, “we have to work far more carefully…If we change over machines casually we may clip off the sound at a vital sentence and mar continuity. If we do not change the light at the right time we shall be showing picture from one reel and sound from the other. Finally, if we change motors at the wrong time we shall get either no sound, miss some, or worst of all, get the horrible noise like a gramophone starting up which can be compared with nothing on this earth” (183). Even if the projectionist was able to cue both sound and film correspondingly, the studio-provided cue sheets (indicating where one should start the sound motor) constantly contained errors, and failed to account for the array of motor types, some of which took much longer to come up to speed…thus requiring that in the ideal situation, each projectionist would have to create his own cue sheet (Brown 185) in order to maintain synchronicity. Most original cue sheets appear to have overlooked the duty of cross-fading sound from one disk to the other, as a mounted fade control was yet another tool the projections had to handle simultaneously.

As mentioned previously, the fragility of the wax record was a complication for exhibitors in playback, but another concern of Vitaphone exhibitors came with the technology’ inferior sound quality of provided disks (as compared with the original recording). Opting for extended use rather than quality, these records were noisier due to sensitivity to surface noise, as well as to the generational increase from the original. Diminished sound quality within the theater was also affected by needles and speakers. Proper care required that needles be changed for every ten-minute record to account for poor sound (interestingly, this is why Vitaphone records played from the center outwards—velocity increased as the needle moved outwards, counteracting bluntness) (Gitt 269). Western Electric speakers, introduced specifically for the Vitaphone, were incompatible with RCA recordings, and vice versa, later becoming an issue so dire that it required SMPE intervention in 1934 (Verscheure 266-267).


As mentioned previously, one beneficial aspect to the Vitaphone was that sound footage could be reviewed immediately. For this reason, Vitaphone was commonly used on set for sound-on-film productions as an added technical advantage: “film was preferred for editing and final release, but only disc could be played back immediately for the director to see if the sound take was satisfactory” (Hochheiser 283). This, however, seemed to stand as the only positive attribute of the Vitaphone when compared with sound-on-film.

Predicting the future during the age of early talkies, Brown writes: “The great thing about film recording is that it has no imposed limitations at the start like the disc. When the rest of the equipment improves, as it certainly will with time, then the sound track will come to its own, and in all probability eclipse the disc unless the latter takes fresh life from some entirely new development” (217-218). By 1930, sound-on-film had made considerable advancements with light sensitivity and quieter recording, and by 1931, Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone haulted development, specifically due to the technology’s inability to compete in editing and theater playback– henceforth existing only as a primitive and experimental representation of sound’s eventual maturation.

Works Cited

Belton, J. “Institutions, Industries, Technologies. Awkward Transitions: Hitchcock’s Blackmail and the Dynamics of Early Film Sound.” The Musical Quarterly 83.2 (1999): 227-46. Print.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. “The Introduction of Sound.” The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. 298-308. Print.

Brown, Bernard. Talking Pictures. 1st ed. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1931. Print.

Cook, E.D. “A Consideration of Some Special Methods for Re-Recording.” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 25 (1935): 523-40. Print.

Gitt, Robert, and John Belton. “Bringing Vitaphone Back to Life.” Film History 5.3 (1993): 262-74. Print.

Hochheiser, Sheldon. “What Makes the Picture Talk: AT&T and the Development of Sound Motion Picture Technology.” IEEE Transactions on Education 35.4 (1992): 278-85. Print.

MacIlvain, K. M. Sound-picture Recording and Projection,. Scranton, PA: International Textbook, 1931. Print.

Verscheure, Jean-Pierre, Philip Carli, and Alice Carli. “The Challenge of Sound Restoration from 1927 to Digital.” Film History 7.3 (1995): 264-76. Print.