Making the Unreal Real: Radio Sound Effects in the 1930s.

Act II: The Evolution of Sound Effects

Writing for stage, vaudeville, and film did not translate directly to radio. A dramatic pause on radio was nothing but dead air; listeners might even presume they had lost reception. Script writers knew this but were not sure at first how to handle the problem. Early references to sound in radio scripts called for the actors to allude to a sound with dialogue such as, "'I wonder why that car is stopping in front of our house?' To which audiences throughout America would ask each other, 'What car? I didn't hear a car. Did you hear a car?'" (Mott 7). In the beginning, a sound effect on radio might be as simple as a door closing or a telephone ringing.

In the late twenties, radio turned to theater for its early, primitive effects, some of which worked well. A thunder sheet, which was a large, thin sheet of copper suspended from a frame by wires, sounded genuinely like thunder when moved. Other effects, such as stagehands wiggling beneath a piece of floor-cloth to simulate water, would simply not work on radio. Effects suitable for sensitive microphones were totally different from the broad sound effects used for stage (and, as demonstrated by this last example, visuals were unavailable to assist the audience in identifying the reference).

Throughout the twenties, sound effects personnel freelanced for vaudeville and movie houses. About 1931 (when audiences began to decrease), CBS hired sound-effects artists Arthur and Ora Nichols (according to many sources, the only female in America, and possibly the world, doing sound effects). The couple then hired and trained Henry Gauthiere and George O' Donnell, creating the first network staff sound effects department in the country. The Nichols are often credited with being the people most responsible for bringing sound effects to radio (Mott 17).

These pioneers and those who followed invented the craft, daily developing new effects that would fit the needs of the script and of demanding directors. The early moniker of "sound engineer" truly represented the labor involved in inventing some effects. Later "sound effects artist" became the more common term. At first a sound engineer both built a device and controlled it during a show. Eventually a hierarchy developed of four levels:

Initially, however, everyone interested in the field was scrambling around looking for work and trying to figure out how to do it if they got it. Teams had to work closely together, and timing had to be impeccable (although often it wasn't, especially in the first few years of the thirties). The pacing was hectic and the pay was lousy. Sound effects artists typically worked on multiple shows and, if freelancers, ran between studios to be on time for different programs.

One of the biggest problems that sound effects artists faced was that radio was live. Miss a cue, have a prop break down, and the show was ruined (and so might the job be). Nevertheless, practical jokes abounded. For instance, when Orval White, the first black sound effects man on live radio, had his debut as a "button pusher," all he had to do was light a match near the microphone at a precise moment. His co-workers hid the matches, only revealing them at the last second. (This wasn't a sign of prejudice, but of acceptance: they played jokes on each other frequently—and Orval got them back later.)

That radio was live was a critical factor in establishing its credibility; the boundaries between "real" time and "dramatic" time blurred because the shows were heard as they occurred, whether they were factual or fictional. Performing live made the job difficult for sound effects artists, as anything that went wrong was also heard (or not heard, as the case may be) instantly.

To guard against accidental mistakes, equipment failures, and practical jokes, sound effects artists checked their materials obsessively. First they checked the script and set the effects up in order of usage. Then they checked the script again. They checked the records, to make certain they were all there and in the right order. They checked that the labels matched the records (as co-workers liked to switch them, trading for example, a cow's mooing for a car's crashing). They inspected the manual effects, making sure that walking shoes had good soles, for example, and that a gun was loaded with blanks (this didn't always mean the blanks would fire, however). Lastly, they played and replayed all the electrical cues, before rehearsal and before air time, just to make sure they worked and were what they were labelled (another favorite trick was switching buzzers; each house had its distinctive doorbell). All this care helped prevent errors, but it did not stop them.

Complaints by directors, such as the one that argued, "My recorded rain didn't sound wet enough" (Mott 94), led the artists to invent new solutions constantly. This particular problem was solved by running water while simultaneously playing a record of rain falling. Other directors or writers asked for sounds such as that of snowflakes falling on snow, a nude woman sitting on a marble bench, or the sound of sunlight (Mott 263). Some directors wanted "real" sounds, believing them to be more authentic, such as the one who insisted that $100,000 worth of jewels be used for the ones the female lead was supposed to wear in the show. The sound effects artist held the jewels close to the microphone and moved them from hand to hand while two Pinkerton guards stood guard over him (96). A sound effects artist who could not create these illusions or integrate "authentic" sounds with fabricated ones was likely to lose his job.

Sounds that current audiences take for granted, such as footsteps, might require several different surfaces to walk over, in addition to specific techniques for recreating sounds for certain conditions. Director Orson Welles of the Mercury Theater once insisted on filling the studio floor with sand to replicate authentically the sound of footsteps in the desert. It didn't work. Footsteps were so important because they gave the story "movement and perspective. This was especially true if a scene had little dialogue. In such cases, it was vital that each step be heard distinctively because it helped the listener at home visualize exactly the comings and goings of the various characters" (Mott 37). Steps on stairs sounded different than steps on a sidewalk; heels sounded different than boots.

Shows such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (heard on CBS, 1931) and Flash Gordon (heard on Mutual Broadcasting System, 1935) required futuristic sounds such as "rocket belts," "sparkle static," and "reducer rays" (Mott 109).

By the mid-thirties, most studios were mixing recorded and manual effects and might have several record players, along with hundreds of records and effects, to make the program sound vivid and real, as if it were happening while they listened. At the same time, the artists continued to develop convincing ways to produce live noises. A blowtorch replicated the roar of a forest fire; a giant fan put actors in the midst of a hurricane; dried peas rolling down a paper tube became the sound of rain on the roof. Drums or a modified thunder sheet could be used to recreate a storm at sea. The same effect might be made with a tub of water. Or a tub of water, with the help of a straw, might be used to make the sound of water or "blood" boiling. Vocalists imitated everything from a mosquito's whine to a horse's whinny. Of especial use were those vocalists who could create distinctive animal sounds—a happy dog's bark, a wounded dog's bark, an angry dog's bark. (And of course the animal's whine, growl, snuffle, and so forth.)

Sound effects quickly moved into comedy shows, women's soap operas (which relied more heavily on music to cue emotions), and even news shows, such as The March of Time.

Whether the job was done with coconut shells (horses' hooves) or with seltzer water and a tin bucket (milking a cow), sound effects created an atmosphere of authenticity for any broadcast, fictional or factual. By the mid-1930s, announcers, producers, directors, and writers were regularly employing this ability to establish veracity through sound effects. Making what was fake seem real was harmless. Passing off the fake as real was anything but.

So don't touch that dial! Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter: Act III: The Loss of Audience Faith.

Listen to sound effects and try to imagine how radio would sound without them: