Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Another in our series of revolutionary postwar innovations – – let's go to the tape

With the advent of magnetic tape, audio recording changed more in a few years than it had in the previous few decades. For record producers and sound engineers, performances went from being something holistic that could only be presented as captured to being a collection of elements, each of which could be edited, tweaked, and recombined in infinite ways. Though digital technology has greatly increased the power and convenience of the sound engineer's toolbox, the basic paradigm is about 70 years old.

Though the effects took a bit longer videotape, the impact was arguably even greater. Though film remained the standard for situations where high picture quality had to be maintained, the ability to play back a recording immediately ("and now let's go to the instant replay") and the ability to reuse tape radically altered the business of video production and television news.

Here's a notable example of the new audio paradigm from CBS Radio Workshop.
The premiere broadcast was a two-part adaptation of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, introduced and narrated by Huxley. It took a unique approach to sound effects, as described in a Time (February 6, 1956) review that week:

It took three radio sound men, a control-room engineer and five hours of hard work to create the sound that was heard for less than 30 seconds on the air. The sound consisted of a ticking metronome, tom-tom beats, bubbling water, air hose, cow moo, boing! (two types), oscillator, dripping water (two types) and three kinds of wine glasses clicking against each other. Judiciously blended and recorded on tape, the effect was still not quite right. Then the tape was played backward with a little echo added. That did it. The sound depicted the manufacturing of babies in the radio version of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

A few years earlier, Gunsmoke (a serious contender for best show ever in two different media) was noted for its detailed sound montages, including different effects for the pouring of beer and whiskey.

Interesting bit of trivia about the show. CBS chose to run the show unsponsored for the first few seasons. They wanted a genuinely adult Western and the producers were afraid advertisers would pressure them to lighten the program. If you listen to this episode, you'll understand why.

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