Do your ears deceive you? —Yes, and radio's sound effects men are quietly going crazy trying to make the deceptions good
THOSE SOUND EFFECTS
SOUND EFFECTS men are all crazy... Ask anyone... Ask a sound effects man. He’ll lower at you under bunched eyebrows and probably make a curious squishy squawk in the back of his throat. That’ll be his answer and you can draw your own meaning. Then he’ll walk away—but he’ll be back in a second.
“Did that sound like a chicken having its neck wrung?”
If you say yes, he’ll promptly look gloomy. “Darn it,” he’ll say, “that likely means the mike won’t pick it up that way.”
There you have the secret of what drives a sound effects man nuts. His whole life is devoted to producing sounds on the radio, the vital background noises that lend the feeling of real life to radio plays. And he is continually frustrated and foiled by that diabolical instrument, the microphone, which often refuses to pick up the most obvious sounds in their trqe values.
The other day a sound effects man was in a 15-cent store, gazing thoughtfully at an array of framed pictures of movie stars.
“I’ll take that one”—he pointed to a lush portrait of Betty Grable. The girl behind the counter took it down . . .
“No—don’t wrap it,” he said. “Here’s your money —just give it to me.”
Vacant-eyed he looked at Miss Grable’s famous means of support and then turned the picture over and pried out the cardboard backing. Next the sales girl saw him crumple Grable and toss her on the floor. Then he pulled a bunch of keys from his pocket, held them three feet above the glass and let go. They
went through the glass with a stirring sound effect— just that of a man falling through a skylight, our subject hoped. Presently, however, he was aware of an additional effect he had not counted on ... It was the sales girl, screaming her head off behind the counter.
“Gimme three more pictures the same size,” he told her. She served him in frozen horror—and then collapsed, babbling about crazy men. Probably she doesn’t know yet that she merely met a sound effects man in the course of his daily search for new noises to fit dramatic situations.
Of course it takes more than plain unadorned craziness to make a good sound effects man. He must also have ingenuity crossed with fantastic imagination. He and his fellows have imitated almost every sound audible to human ears, and, in addition, they have devised weird effects of their own never before heard on land, sea or air.
TAKE the case of the spinning wheel. How would you produce its characteristic whir on the air? Ah, you say, get a spinning wheel! But a spinning wheel doesn’t sound like a spinning wheel through your loud-speaker. This is where the sound effects man has to display inventive genius. He goes into a huddle and devises this gem of ingenuity. What is the handiest thing that whirs? An electric fan! Fine! But how are you going to get that peculiar sound of friction made by a spinning wheel? Well, suppose we unscrew the fan and let it whir around on its shaft. Eureka ! It works!
Six months later another play calls for a spinning wheel and with a thrill of justifiable pride the sound effects man gets out his trusty fan. Alas, even electric fans are temperamental. This time it doesn’t work.
“ Un Homme et Son Péché,” A Man and His Sin, is one of the most popular French programs on the Quebec network. It is one of those melodramatic serials in which the main character is a miser, by name of Séraphin. The daily serial deals with this old man and his avid greed for money.
Here is how one of the most dramatic scenes was played without one spoken word. The scene is laid in the rural part of Quebec. Séraphin drives his horse and buggy to his home. Slowly he descends from the buggy. You can imagine yourself watching him as you hear the buggy creak, the harness rattle and the horse snort. Séraphin crosses a gravel walk, mounts the stairs and crosses the veranda. He puts the key in the lock and opens the door. He strikes a match and lights a candle. Then he makes a wood fire in the stove, rattling the covers. Slowly he mounts the creaking wooden stairs to his room. Inside he unties the sacks of wheat in which he hides his money. Y ou can feel his bony fingers searching through the wheat. A sigh of satisfaction tells you that he has found the money. He places the coins on the table and fondles them. Not even a moving
Continued on page 24
Do your ears deceive you? —Yes, and radio's sound effects men are quietly going crazy trying to make the deceptions good
Continued from page 10
picture could give you a more vivid or realistic picture of the old man huddled greedily over his money.
Having taken full enjoyment from his abnormal lust, he replaces the money in the sacks, locks the door, descends the stairs, opens the door, walks back along the gravel walk to the well. He pumps up some water and washes his hands. Then he mounts his buggy and drives off into the wind. The whole scene is highly dramatic and compelling in its accuracy of character portrayal, yet not a word is spoken.
Let’s take a peek behind the scenes. The sound of the buggy wheels was made with a standard prop—a wheel mounted on a shaft. The horse’s hooves were made with coconut shells. The rattling of harness was produced by shaking the sound effects man’s “door” or wooden arrangement of bells, latches and doors. The horse’s snort was snorted by the sound effects man personally.
Walking on the gravel, however, was a “problem.” This was solved with
another standard prop, a box of cornflakes. Spread the cornflakes over the floor and walk on them and you have it perfectly. Originally real gravel in a wooden box was used, but you could “feel” the wood and this method was discarded in favor of the cornflakes, which were perfect as far as everyone but the janitor was concerned.
Making the fire in the stove necessitated a new prop. The sound effects man bought an old broken-down stove, removed the top and nailed it on four wooden legs about three feet high, thus making a portable stove whose doors and lids rattled satisfactorily. The wood was merely dropped on the floor.
Pumping, Radio Version
The water pump, however, was a feat of engineering skill. To achieve the effect of the handle moving up and down the sound effects man removed the suction cup from an ordinary bicycle pump. To achieve the effect of the water spilling out of the pump he built a wooden rectangular tub. On two sides he nailed two upright arms and on them mounted a shaft with a handle. On the top of one side of the
tub he nailed a tin spillway. While one sound effects man pumped, the other turned the crank and spilled a pitcherful of water onto the spillway, and thus was achieved the sound effect of water being pumped from a well.
Footsteps, a sound effects man will tell you, are a science in themselves. Walking on gravel, as already explained, is achieved by walking on cornflakes. Walking on grass is achieved by placing the cornflakes on a piece of felt. Walking on snow is achieved by filling a linen bag with cornstarch and then squeezing the bag with the fingers to the tempo of a man walking. By bringing the hands closer to the microphone or backing theiA away you get the effect of a man approaching or receding.
One of the most peculiar “problems” of all time, however, was putting out a fire with snowballs, to depict an event in Montreal many years ago during a broadcast of the history of the Montreal fire department over CKAC. The firemen found that the water mains had frozen and a wooden house was about to be consumed before their eyes. It was in midwinter and snow was plentiful, so one member of the crowd thought up the idea of putting out the fire with snowballs, and it worked.
When the sound effects man was confronted with this situation he was ready to hand in his resignation and apply for some easy job like driving a truck. Art triumphed and here’s the way he achieved the snowball effect. The fire was easy— that was on records. But the snowballs were slowly turning the sound effects man’s hair grey. Finally he got a huge tub, filled it with flour and added water. Then several men rolled up their sleeves, dug their hands in the tub, gathered up huge wads of the paste and plopped them back in the tub. And that’s how snowballs put out a fire.
Sound effects fall into two classes— physical and recorded. Hundreds of noises, from whistles, bells, animals and birds to automobiles, thunder, storms and avalanches, are available on records and the sound effects man uses them all, either alone or in various combinations, for any desired effect. Records, however, soon develop surface noises and are often difficult to cue in
effectively with the action of the script. Very often the natural sound does not record well, so sound effects men must concoct gadgets of their own in their search for realism.
Whereas you or I have troubles and we call them so, a sound effects man never has troubles—he has “problems.” For instance, here is a “problem.” The script calls for a swimming race with 10 people participating. The producer wants the start, the race and the finish.
It’s impossible realistically to record a swimming race, so here’s how the “problem” was solved. It took two and a half hours. You take two sound recordings, one “wading” and one “fording a stream.” Every phonograph or playback machine you’ve seen has only one arm—ah, but not the sound effects man’s. His has two pickup arms for each turntable. He puts one record on one turntable, the second on the adjacent one and he puts two pickup arms on each record, separated by about one inch.
For the plunge he uses the “wading” record. For the actual race'he uses the “fording a streám” record. To achieve speed he increases the speed of the records. By fading the records at the appropriate time you get the effect of 10 people in a swimming race.
“Dubbing” is another important factor in producing sound effects. Dubbing is merely taking any desired part from any number of records and combining them on one record. Here is an example:
The script calls for a train careening along the track. The action then switches inside the train where people are talking. As the train rushes along, blowing its whistle, a plane dives down, machine-guns the train and zooms off. A second plane comes in and drops a bomb in the distance, ahead of the train. There is an explosion. The engineer brings the train to a halt and it remains standing under pressure.
Ordinarily this involves about 10 different sounds and 10 different records. Because even a sound effects man has only two hands, all he can handle is two turntables at once, and as the whole action takes place very
quickly even two men would he insufficient.
So the sound effects man has another “problem” on his hands and here’s how he solves it. First he times the scene— one minute and 10 seconds. Then he builds a skeleton of the action. On one record he dubs the sounds of the train with whistle, then the sound of the people and finally the train stopping and remaining with steam up. On this skeleton he dubs the sound of the airplane diving and machine-gunning. On record number two he dubs the sound of the plane diving, dropping the bomb, and the explosion.
Then with these master records, which have all the necessary sound effects, the scene is played, with the voices in cue with the sound instead of sound to voice, which is normal procedure.
No story on sound effects is complete without music. Any accomplished musician would be horrified to know what is done with his beloved music— but it’s done anyway.
“Reading” the Record
A good sound effects man can “read” a record as a musician reads a score. By holding the record up to the light he can read the shadings in the grooves and tell where the crescendos and peaks are and which parts of a musical selection will produce the effect he desires. By the use of the ubiquitous two pickup arms he can actually rewrite a piece of music. By reversing the motor he can play the record backward. In fact a King Kong effect, the battle cry of the male gorilla, was effected basically by playing a record backward of a cow mooing—if you don’t believe this try it yourself sometime.
Sound effects men, too, have a
language of their own. First there’s the “fade-in.” This is where the action starts at a distance and gradually approaches. The “fade-out,” of course, is the opposite. Then there’s the “cross-fade,” which is used to heighten the action with a quick change of sound scene from one record to another. There’s the “master-fade,” in which any number of sounds are faded simultaneously to mark the end of the scene.
The turntable is a “pot” and the name is derived from the “potentiometer” or volume control mechanism. A “master-pot” is a master switch which fades all four turntables at once in a “master-fade.” “Opening the pot” is increasing the volume and “closing the pot” is fading it out.
They also have a sign language of their own which is used for communication between themselves and the producer, who sits outside the studio and directs the broadcast. Incidentally only the sound effects man who wears earphones hears the whole play in the studio. The actors do not hear any recorded sound effect and they receive their cues by a bright light which is flashed on for their direction by the producer.
A “fade-in” is depicted with a wave of the arm inward. A “fade-out” by moving the arm outward, and a “crossfade” by crossing the arms. To slow the speed down the producer makes several short downward motions with his hand. To speed the action he raises his hands in short jerky movements, wiggling his fingers.
When the timing of a scene is perfect the producer puts his finger on his nose to signify “You’ve hit it right on the nose.” To cut a scene the producer makes a scissorslike motion with his first two fingers. A “drastic cut” is made by the producer passing his forefinger across his throat.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.