The History of Animation Sound — Boom Box Post (2023)

The History of Animation Sound — Boom Box Post (1)

by Kate Finan


Sound on Picture

In 1928, The Jazz Singer, was the first “talking picture.” Animation studios were quick to embrace the possibilities that synchronized sound on picture held. That same year, Walt Disney Studios produced Steamboat Williewhich introduced the world to animation with a synchronized soundtrack. It was so widely viewed that the term “mickey mousing” quickly came to be synonymous with closely choreographed on-screen action and sound.

Two Takes on Sound Effects: The Warner Bros. & Disney Approaches

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, recording equipment was extremely large and heavy, rendering it impossible to take outside of the studio. Unable to record sound effects in the real world, the studios were forced to invent new approaches to creating sound for their animated content. Thus, two different approaches to sound effects were quickly developed.

In one approach, sound effects were simulated by a musician during a music recording session. These were largely played with percussion instruments such as timpani, cymbals, or wood blocks. The second approach involved creating complex sound effect machines that could replicate the sounds of the outside world within the studio walls.

Prior to “talking pictures,” pit drummer had been employed by movie theaters to accompany films with auxiliary percussion sound effects. When animated films began to include synchronized sound, the studios hired these same musicians to record their talents inside the studio. The pit drummers would bring an assortment of items commonly used in the trade with them: slide whistles, jew's harps, bulb horns, and brake drums among other thing.

Warner Bros. Animation: Carl Stalling & Tregoweth Brown

In 1930, Warner Bros. Studios hired composer Carl Stalling and sound editor (credited simply as “editor”) Tregoweth Brown to collaborate on the Looney Tunes animated series. In 1933,they continued their work together on the Merrie Melodies series.

Carl Stalling made a name for the Warner Bros. as the pioneer of zany orchestral sound effects by scoring things such as pizzicato violins for tiptoeing characters or a trumpet glissandos for an elephant vocalization.

Meanwhile, Tregoweth Brown began to experiment with using Warner Bros.’s extensive library of live action movie set recordings within an animated content. He would often use sounds such as a car skid for an animated character coming to an abrupt stop or the sound of a biplane flying by to cover a character zooming off screen. This out-of-context use of real world sounds soon because the hallmark sonic characteristic of Warner Bros. Animation.

Additionally, as recording equipment became more compact, Brown began taking a tape recorder out of the studio and into the field to record the sounds in the real world. He then transferred these sounds to film and saved them in his growing sound effects library, allowing for a system in which he could edit his own custom-recorded sounds into future projects again and again. This editorial methodology was entirely new to animation, but quickly became a key part of the process.

Walt Disney Studios: Jimmy MacDonald

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Sound effects wizard Jimmy MacDonald is featured in this episode of Disney Family Album. Click play to watch.

As animation itself evolved and films became more life-like, Walt Disney hired Jimmy MacDonald (in 1935) to begin creating custom sound effect machines that he could record inside the studio. MacDonald largely pioneered the creation of sound effect contraptions such as wind and rain machines, glass jug motors, and bowed frog ribbits which replicated the natural sounds of the world in unexpected ways. In his tenure at Disney, MacDonald is said to have created over 28,000 sound effects for 139 features films and 335 shorts.

In 1941, Walt Disney Studios became the first to implement vocal processing with its film Dumbo. This was accomplished using the Sonivox, a contraption with two cylinders, similar in appearance to tin cans, which were held to either side of the performer’s throat. The recorded sound had a metallic tonal quality, but also preserved the actor’s performance. The modern day equivalent of this device is the vocoder.

Hanna-Barbera: Greg Watson & Pat Foley

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Sound Ideas compiled a Top 10 list of the best Hanna-Barbera cartoon sound effects. Click play to watch.

In the late 1950’s, television animation blossomed largely due to a more economical style of animation which was dialogue- rather than action-based. Thus, television animation moved away from the previously popular Charlie Chaplin-inspired slapstick comedy style, and more toward that of popular studio comedy series of the time. At the forefront of this movement was Hanna-Barbera. In the 1960’s, the Hanna-Barbera television series The Flintstones began using a laugh track, which further recreated the feeling of a live studio audience, a popular aspect of studio comedy television series of that era.

Throughout the 1960’s, Hanna-Barbera’s Greg Watson created a cartoon sound library that paralleled Tregoweth Brown’s Warner Bros. library. Watson created iconic sound after sound on The Jetsons, The Yogi Bear Show, and The Flintstones. Pat Foley continued this work for Hanna-Barbera through the 1980’s. Because of their shared legacy, the Hanna-Barbera library remains the epitome of classic cartoon sound effects to this day.

New Technology, Better Sound

As technology continued to progress, both sound and animation became increasingly realistic. In the 1950’s, optical recording gave way to magnetic recording, resulting in less noise per audio track. With optical, no more than eight tracks (the term for audio layers) could be added to a film before noise became excessive. With magnetic recording, that number grew to 200 tracks. With the advent of the digital audio workstation in the early 1990’s, the number of simultaneous sound tracks became unlimited.

This technological shift paved the way for animation sound to change from the work of a single man who recorded and edited sound to film to a task assigned to a team of sound professionals, all with different responsibilities.

The Modern Sound Team

Modern day animation sound teams are made up of several key positions: a supervising sound editor whose job it is to oversee the entire creative process; sound effects editors or designers who create and sync sound effects to picture; dialogue editors who adjust the synchronization and quality of the recorded dialogue; foley artists who perform footsteps and record props; and re-recording mixers who combine all of these sonic elements together with the addition of music.

Contemporary Sound Design: A Mix of Methods

Although modern sound teams are now comprised of a number of individuals, the sound designer’s role has not diminished in its creative importance. Ben Burtt is a key example of this fact. In 2009, his work on the animated feature film Wall-E garnered him and his team an Academy Award for Best Sound Editing. His approach to sound design largely draws on his expansive knowledge of Tregoweth Brown and Jimmy MacDonald’s past endeavors. As fitting with the modern concept of sound design, Burtt employed a combination of traditional recording techniques, custom-built contraptions, and digitally manufactured and manipulated elements to create the sounds for Wall-E.

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Animation Sound Design: Ben Burtt Creates the Sounds for Wall-E (Part 1)© Walt Disney Pictures.

Click play to watch.

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Animation Sound Design: Ben Burtt Creates the Sounds for Wall-E (Part 2)© Walt Disney Pictures.

Click play to watch.

A Great Contribution to the Art of Animation

Through the years, the role of a sound editor or designer for animation has changed greatly. From percussionist, to mechanical engineer, to digital expert, the focus has always been the same: to create something that are new and interesting that furthers the audience’s connection to the work. Whether it is the tentative nature of a pizzicato tiptoe or the hauntingly forlorn robot vocals of Wall-E, sound designers have been contributing greatly to the art of animation throughout the years.



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