Sound Effects

by Jack French 1997

Sound effects in radio broadcasting did not leap full-grown into this new medium in the 1920s. In its infancy, radio then was evolving from what was primarily a military communication tool into a vast system of popular entertainment, culture and news.

The few sound effects used in the early days were simple, unsophisticated, and often not very convincing. Anyone near a microphone who was available could supply a make-shift sound effect. The lid of a piano might be dropped to imitate a door closing. A wooden match stick could be snapped near the mike to simulate a baseball hitting a bat. Gun shots could be either a dowel hitting a leather couch or a drumstick striking the edge of a drum.

Realism was neither expected nor obtained through these efforts. In the early days, radio stations filled their air time with orchestra music, poetry readers, singers, and preachers, nearly all of whom were unpaid. Only when the drama shows began pushing out the "free talent" was it necessary to create better sound effects.

The first sound men, of course, had no training. Some had backstage theater experience where they had shaken a metal sheet to replicate thunder or slapped one board against another to create gunshots. A few others played percussive instruments in a band and they were used to producing a variety of unusual sounds on cue.

But most of them had neither experience nor training; they were designated to be the sound man because they were the junior man on the radio staff. Some were not even paid; Ted Robertson began at WXYZ in Detroit (home of The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, etc.) as an unpaid sound man and worked for several months with no salary. It would be three decades before the highly trained and specialized sound man was an integral part of network broadcasting.

By the 1930s, there were plenty of drama shows (kids' serials, detectives, mysteries, and soaps) most of which required realistic sound effects. The sounds basically fell into two broad categories: a) those that advanced the action or helped move the story line, and b) background or mood setting sounds. And all of these were produced with a combination of manual and recorded sounds.

Among the purists in OTR nostalgia, there exists a misconception that there was a time in which only manual sounds were used, and only much later did the recorded devices encroach. But recorded sound, in many forms, predated the Golden Age of Radio and the versatile transcriptions were used from the beginning.

In addition to a large stock of recorded music (usually classical and therefore free of copyright restriction) to fit every scene, there were sound effects records to replace the "real thing". That would usually be sounds of objects too large or too expensive for a radio studio, i.e. car engine, airplane, cannon, large crowds, explosions, and an ocean liner.

Also necessary would be records of sounds of creatures who couldn't read a cue: crickets, frogs, cows, elephants, etc. However, many good soundmen could, and did, imitate with their own voices the sounds of dogs, cats, horses, parrots, and others. Horses galloping could even be imitated by using cocoanut halves and an old board.

In addition to the size limitations of a radio studio (the earliest contraption to make the sound of rain was a series of 4 ft. by 4 ft. panels stacked six ft. high), economy was a compelling reason for using records. They were relatively cheap and could be used over and over, to the delight of the tight-fisted producers of both network and syndicated radio shows.

A few OTR buffs are still convinced that the manual sounds were more authentic and that their gradual replacement by recorded sounds was capricious, unnecessary, and perhaps even motivated by the American love of electronics. But in historical fact, the sounds on disk superseded the manual ones for three reasons, in addition to economy:

  1. as radio fidelity improved, the simulated sounds were revealed as inadequate imitations.
  2. A record library of hundreds of sounds took up less space than one large manual effect (most of the early wind machines were larger than a stuffed chair)
  3. the flexibility and versatility of the turntable with multiple arms would permit one sound man to do the work of three using only manual effects.

    For example, one sound man with three turntables and four to six pickup arms could easily create the below sounds that were almost impossible manually:

The use of the term "sound man" throughout this article is neither an oversight nor a slight to the ladies in radio. It's just a fact; there were virtually no women ever employed by the broadcasting industry to do sound effects. Robert Mott, who was a sound man for over three decades at many different stations, recalls less than a half dozen ladies who ever held that job.

That does not mean that many women were not included in publicity pictures of sound effects personnel in action. These photos, are often found in both radio magazines of those days as well as current books on radio history. These pictures were "staged" by posing attractive secretaries and production assistants with assorted sound equipment, together with the actual sound men.

But these were not the only "staged" photographs of sound effects personnel that one finds in these old magazines or new books on broadcasting history. There are many other faked photographs including a 1940s WGN one showing Bob Cline, in bathing suit, splashing about in a small tub of water to create a needed sound on the Tom Mix radio show.

In reality, any large (or small) water noise was created with a bucket, a plunger and a tub of water. Moreover, no dripping-wet sound man could execute his next cue.

Another favorite trick in these pictures was to augment the real crew (never more than three sound men) with many others and pose them all with manual sound effects. There is an NBC photo of the "WGY Players" which shows a lone actor at the mike, surrounded by ten sound effects personnel, three of whom are women. Obviously, the publicity people at the studio knew that an actor speaking into a mike had less visual appeal than several sound men (and pretty women) holding pistols, swords, thunder sheets, coconut halves, etc.

That preference continues to present day. When Barney Beck and Ray Erlenborn handle the sound effects at the re-creations of OTR shows at recent conventions in Newark, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles, they know their audience would be bored with great sounds coming from the turntable but fascinated with all the manual sound effects.

Barney and Ray make a point to load their area with lots of weapons, telephones, buzzers, doors, chains, breakable boxes, etc. By the same token, Tom Beckett, the actor who plays the sound man, Mr. Foley, on AMC's cable TV show, Remember WENN, is almost never seen at his turntable, but instead he creates a variety of sounds using manual devices.

Good sound men were trusted by the directors to create the proper sound or background noise. Many common background scenes needed a combination of ordinary sounds, with perhaps just one change to vary the location or time period. For instance, the interior of a restaurant usually involved the sounds of dishes, glassware, and indistinct conversation.

If we add the sound of a string quartet, we have a posh restaurant. However, should we substitute the sound of a juke box for the quartet and throw in an occasional fog horn, we now have a waterfront dive. Or instead, to our original mixture, we add a piano playing "Oh Susanna" and footsteps on wood, the result is an Old West saloon.

A good rule in radio shows was to identify any unusual sound through prior dialogue to prevent listeners' misconceptions. Take the roar of a waterfall; it sounds not unlike the sound of a dynamo or an internal combustion engine at a constant speed. Pity the poor radio audience who have visualized a young couple chatting in the cab of a speeding truck, only to be jolted into the realization that the couple are actually on foot, overlooking Niagra Falls.

Of course, regardless of the background, the volume would stay up just long enough to "set the scene" and then the engineer would decrease the volume so the actors' voices could be clearly heard over it.

One of the most common methods of establishing mood was simply music. An orchestra (or more likely, a transcription of one) could be employed, but usually for economy and convenience, many OTR shows relied on the services of one talented organist. Rosa Rio was on more soaps than she can remember. Other busy organists were John Gart, Richard Leibert, and John Winters.

While most of us associate the sound of the organ with the soap opera (with good reason) the kids' adventure shows and adult mystery programs frequently called upon an organist to punctuate, bridge, underscore, and create scenery changes. Bobby Benson, Ellery Queen, Straight Arrow, and Charlie Chan are but a few of the heroes whose shows used the organ effectively.

One of my favorite organists is Harold Turner; you can hear his handiwork on virtually any Tom Mix broadcast. And bear in mind that most of these organists were playing with no sheet music or score, merely a script with instructions such as: "danger", or "sting" or "ominous" and the organist was to create the chords to convey that mood.

The manual sound effects, despite their limitations, continued to be an important part of the sound man's repertoire. Some sounds, which had to be done a variety of ways, were better done manually, including footsteps and knocks on doors. A knock on a door can be timid, authoritative, fast, slow, or in a panic so it was much easier to do this one manually.

Likewise any sound that could be created simply, would be favored over cuing up a record. So in addition to door knocks, footsteps, and telephone sounds, other sound effects were created manually including: twisting cellophane (crackling fire), squeezing a box of corn starch (footsteps in snow), blow through a straw into water (boiling water), rubbing dueling foils together (skating on ice), pull wet cork from any bottle and then prick balloon (opening champagne), squeeze folded sandpaper (breaking eggs) and rattle used flash bulbs in a can of water (cocktail shaker.)

Other manual sounds common in radio were: run finger nail along edge of pocket comb (crickets), shake 2 ft. length of inner tube, cut in inch-wide strips (wet dog shaking himself), pull large can or bucket from tub of water (body falling into water), snap open an umbrella (sudden ignition of fire), twist knob of combination padlock (Geiger counter or dial of safe), and drop handful of tiny pieces of sheet metal on board (breaking glass.)

Still other manual sound effects were: squeezing seltzer bottles into pail (milking a cow), shake stapled Dixie cup containing 6 to 8 BB's (rattlesnake) twist new wallet near mike (getting in or out of saddle), plunge knife into cabbage or melon (body being stabbed), shake small chain attached to piece of leather (ox or horse harness), drop metal washers (sound of coins), and scratch rough paper with unbent paper clip (writing with pen).

With the exception of the syndicated shows, which were always transcribed, most programs were aired live through the late 1940s, when tape machines came into use. So mistakes resulting from inappropriate sound effects went out on the air live. Many of these were caused by the blank pistols that occasionally mis-fired. On one crime show, probably Gangbusters, an actor playing a hoodlum gave the line, "This is the end; take this lead, you rat." Two shots were to follow immediately but the gun jammed and the sound effects man looked frantic. The actor quickly changed his next line to: " Nah, shooting is too good for you; I'm going to stab you with this knife." At that point a shot rang out from the now-functioning pistol.

On another show, Nick Carter, Master Detective, the hero and his side-kick, Patsy, were entering a building. Three shots were to ring out then but the sound effects gun only fired once before jamming. The actress playing Patsy was supposed to say, "Nick, that sounded like shots!" but she quickly changed it to: "Nick, that sounded like a shot!" A few seconds later, they find a body, and the actor playing Nick reads the original line; "Here he is, poor devil, two shots in the chest and one in the head."

By the late 1940s and early 50s, there were many well-trained and experienced sound men working for all of the network shows. By that time, each station would even have a senior sound man who would schedule the others. At WOR-Mutual, which had no prestige shows in the evening, the senior sound man would do the last kids' show, scheduled for 5:45 pm so he could get home early for dinner. However at CBS and NBC affiliates in Manhattan, the senior sound man would handle the well-paying and distinctive programs at night and give the afternoon kids' serials to the junior men.

There were many superior sound men in radio broadcasting and several have been mentioned in this article. Three of the top ones, who frequently worked as a trio, were Ray Kemper, Bill James and Tom Hanley. They worked mainly on the West Coast and teamed up on Mutual's Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. Ray and Bill did the sound effects on Straight Arrow, which may be the best of any kids' series. This trio reached their zenith on Gunsmoke and Fort Laramie, both for CBS, as an examination of any episodes from these series will attest.

In summary, the successful combination of recorded and manual sound effects, suggested by the script writer, modified by the director, and created and produced by the sound effects personnel was, in many cases, the difference between a good program and a great one.


Text and images: Jack French

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