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A sound investment.

The arrival of sound filled some exhibitors with dread knowing a small fortune would have to be spent on it. Some cinemas closed rather that spend money on something that may not take off. But if exhibitors wanted to stay in business there was no choice. Also filled with dread were the musicians that made a living from playing to the silent movie.

Sound burst on to screens for a short period after Dr Lee De Forest invented the Phonofilm system in 1923. This was sound on film but wasn’t taken seriously and later disc systems came along. The Phonofilm system was demonstrated to the Royal Society of Arts in late 1924. The demonstration consisted of a comedy scene with a telephone A violin solo played by Max Rosen, a speech delivered from the garden of the white house by president Coolidge, a solo by singer Madame Di Pasquali and a speech on the system itself.

In 1925 Warner Bros looked into the possibility of sound on disc to accompany the moving image. The system had been developed by Western Electric and the Bell Telephone Laboratories. A number of companies had been offered the system and all had turned it down. Harry Warner was one person that could see the possibility. In 1926 the system given the name Vitaphone was given its first public demonstration. A year later Fox- case Movietone was announced. This system was developed with inventor T W Case. Both the Vitaphone and Movietone systems belonged to the Electrical Research Products Company, which was a subsidiary of Western Electric.

The General Electric Company devised a sound on film system called the Pallophotophone, which became RCA Photophone. This was a variable area system. Movietone had the density system.

Musicians became redundant as sound took off and ironically projectionists suffered the same fate with the arrival of single manning, due to long running equipment, such as towers and the non rewind (cakestand) system. Later, digital cinema brought about the end for the majority of projectionists, management, in most cases, taking over the role of programming the equipment.

Though some cinemas have retained their film projectors, most have been thrown in the skip. The projectors that are still running will eventually need spares, so it is important to retain equipment even if not used, so that redundant equipment can be used for spares, as spare parts will be hard to obtain in the future. Who knows, they may make a comeback like the good old record player. Not holding my breath though.

David A Ellis©


The Western Electric sound system was a favourite with many exhibitors in the cinema world. It was based at Bush House in London, which became home of the BBC world service. Western Electric was part of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and was founded in 1869 and served as the primary supplier and purchasing agent to the Bell system.

It was a very large organisation, and apart from reproduction equipment for cinemas, played a big part in the recording side, it’s name often displayed on film credits. In 1928 they only had 400 cinema installations, leased through Electrical Research Products Inc. Prices at that time ranged from £1000 to £3000 for a fifteen year rental. They stated at the time that Western Electric will not promise results if their film is used on rival projectors, or if rival film is used on their machines. Regarding advertising their products, it was said: Checking upon its advertising schedule during 1929, Western Electric announce that it took more advertising space in the film trade papers of both America and Great Britain than any other manufacturer of talking picture equipment.

Servicing was was done on a regular basis until 1931. The service engineer carried out an equipment inspection each fortnight, and every six months the technical and acoustical inspector carried out more exhaustive checks. It was stated that exhibitors attached great importance to the six month service, which were thorough, and guaranteed uninterrupted running.

By January 1931 the company had decided to switch from fortnightly visits to monthly. It was stated that the suggestion that Western Electric intends to service its theatres but once a month as an experiment is rather a violent change to spring on the exhibitor, and to give a definite opinion as to whether it will work satisfactorily in the majority of cases, is hard to foretell. It certainly adds a feather to the cap of the projectionist when the gap in between servicing can be widened by fifty per cent. It is getting near the day when we shall require service no more and only a trouble call department will ever be required. Then if the exhibitor will pass over to the projectionist half of what he saves in service charges, what a happy New year 1931 will be for all of us.

1931 Was also the year that the company brought out noiseless reproduction at no extra cost to the cinema owner. Advertising stated that they were investing thousands in the system. In March 1931 a new type A was announced costing £785. Managing director ES Gregg said, “The new equipment is an attachment system for use in connection with Simplex projector heads and pedestals, and designed to operate from an AC 50 cycle power supply.

Western Electric said, “The service charge for the new equipment will be £3.10 per week. The new equipment will be known as the 3 A type, and only a limited number of dates for May installations are available. The first opening dates available are for May 4th.” Later, equipment was available to fit other machines.

There was an announcement in April 1931 that Gaumont British were installing the system in its key theatres. By January 1931 a total of 1200 British cinemas were equipped with the unit, including the Phoenix London, Savoy, Folkestone and the Palladium, Paisley. The 1500th British theatre to be fitted was the Ritz Edgeware. The occasion was celebrated by a special luncheon given by the directors of WE at the Savoy hotel.

Western Electric was a highly successful company dealing in cinema sound systems including the highly praised Mirrophonic system. Many cinemas decided state what sound system they were using in their publicity. Chester’s ABC Regal used the system. Other leading manufacturers included RCA, installed at the Classic Chester and British Acoustic in use at the Gaumont, Chester. Western Electric ceased on 7th February 1996.

David A Ellis(c)



RCA sign from the Tatler/Classic, given to Roger Shone by Jack Lightfoot, the final chief projectionist.

RCA sign from the Tatler/Classic, given to Roger Shone by Jack Lightfoot, the final chief projectionist.

Sound systems included Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Western Electric, British Acoustic and British Talking Picture. Sound was optical, variable area and density being mono only. On an area track you could see the intensity of sound by the lines on the track. To get an optical track in sync the loop below the intermittent sprocket had to be the right size. If it was, a diamond, which is printed on the leader, would be in line with the optical system in the sound head. If the loop was too big, sync would be affected slightly. A lamp called an exciter lamp would be employed to focus on the track. This would shine on the track and would pass through a photoelectric cell, turning the light into electrical current that went to a pre amplifier before being fed to the main amplifier. Sound heads were usually designed to carry two exciter lamps, allowing a quick change if there was failure.




When cinemascope arrived in 1953 Fox released films carrying four magnetic sound tracks. The film also carried a half optical track. Theatres not equipped for four track would be sent an optical only print.  The sprocket holes were smaller on these prints and were known as Fox Hole. Strangely enough, films carrying these tracks were advertised as being in stereophonic sound when stereo is only two tracks and four would be quadraphonic. The sound head was above the projector head and with these prints you had to make sure you didn’t erase the track. Also shedding of the oxide could be a problem.

Stereo sound wasn’t new in cinemas, back in 1953. In 1940 Disney’s Fantasia was screened using four optical tracks on a separate reel. In the 1980s we had Dolby stereo. This was optical sound that carried four tracks and was split and fed to four amplifiers. The last optical tracks to be used were cyan tracks using what was known as a red reader instead of the original exciter lamp. DTS was used. This is a CD disc that runs in sync with the film, an advanced version of sound on disc. Even if the film were cut, sync would still be kept, because time code is used. There was also Dolby Digital. There was a digital sound head fitted above the projector head. Information was between the sprocket holes on the optical soundtrack side. Theatres that weren’t equipped for Dolby Digital could use the stereo optical tracks.



Ray Dolby was a pioneering sound engineer who removed the hiss from audiotapes and whose innovations brought surround-sound into movie theaters and altered the recording industry.


Ray Dolby

Dolby made many key developments in audio design, and his name appears in movie theaters around the world and on countless other products, from video games to DVD players to hand-held devices, that use technology designed by his company.
He first found renown in the mid-1960s, when he invented a “noise reduction” system that virtually eliminated the annoying hiss that was the underlying sound on audiotapes. It allowed musicians to produce recordings of almost pristine audio quality and was first used on a recording of Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Mozart piano concertos.

Among other applications, the technology simplified the practice of multitrack recordings. Although Mr. Dolby was an amateur clarinetist and an aficionado of classical music, his technology quickly developed a following among rock musicians. The Grateful Dead reportedly purchased an early version of his multitrack recording device with a suitcase filled with cash.

In 1977, the movie-going public began to experience Ray Dolby’s innovations when two popular films, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Star Wars,” were released. The soundtracks were recorded in multichannel formats that could create an enveloping sensory experience that came to be known as “surround sound.” Thousands of theaters around the world were rebuilt with sound systems designed by Dolby’s company.

Ray Dolby and his company won multiple Oscars, Emmys and Grammys for technical aspects of sound production. At the 2012 Academy Awards, when the auditorium in which the awards are presented was named for Mr. Dolby, ­Oscar-winning sound editor Walter Murch said his influence was incalculable: “You could divide film sound in half: There is BD, Before Dolby, and there is AD, After Dolby.”

In the 1980s, when digital technology began to alter the recording and movie industries, Ray Dolby found himself behind the technological curve. While he concentrated on refining older analog forms of sound production, other companies stepped into the void. Since the 1990s, however, Dolby Digital regained a large share of the theater market and became the leading maker of sound technology used in home electronics.

Dolby had more than 50 patents, but he charged little for his technology. As a result, producers of sound equipment found it cheaper to use his technology than to try to copy it. “If it was cheaper for manufacturers to license from us than clone us, why not stick with the Dolby technique?” he said in 1992.

Ray Milton Dolby was born 18th January 1933, in Portland, Ore., and grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. His father was a real estate broker who liked to tinker in his home shop and invited his son to join him. He was also interested in music from an early age and played the piano and clarinet. “Mainly, though,” he said, “I was fascinated by the technology of music: how organs worked, how reeds vibrated, why things sounded the way they did.”

In his teens, he began working for the Ampex tape-recording company, and he had a major role in developing the first videotape recorder before he turned 21.
He served in the Army in the 1950s and graduated from Stanford University in 1957. He then worked as an engineer in England, where he received a doctorate in physics from the University of Cambridge in 1961.

While working for UNESCO in India, where he was recording local music from 1963 to 1965, Ray Dolby conceived of a way to boost the sound levels of soft musical passages to eliminate the tape hiss. He then adjusted the sound levels for the final version of the recording, resulting in a virtually hiss-free musical experience.

He founded his company in London in 1965 and used generic names for his technology until he overheard a conversation on an elevator. “I heard an engineer say, ‘We have to take the Dolbys from Studio A to Studio B,’ ” he once recalled. “My hair stood on end. I’d never heard my name used that way.” From then on, his name was synonymous with sound equipment. In 1976, he moved his company to San Francisco, where he served on the boards of the city symphony and opera and contributed millions of dollars to education and medical research.

Ray Milton Dolby.

Ray Dolby resented being called a “tinkerer” and considered himself an inventor in the classic mold of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. “A tinkerer is someone who hopes to discover or invent something on an unprepared basis,” he said in 1988. “An inventor knows what he wants to do.”

Ray Dolby died of leukemia on September 12, 2013, at his home in San Francisco at the age of 80.

Source~ Matt Schudel, The Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2013


Paying the price of progress.

By 1930 sound was making a big noise in the world of film and there were several manufacturers making equipment for the age of movie sound. This of course came at a heavy price, which no doubt left many independent exhibitors worrying about the cost. The same concern was evident when Cinemascope with four track arrived and other cinematic advances, the latest being the high cost of digital.

When sound arrived the writing was on the wall for many of the smaller exhibitors, who couldn’t afford the high cost, and so closed their doors. A.W.H (British Photophone) appeared to one of the cheapest units around, offering set A and set B equipment. Set A was designed for halls with a seating capacity of 1250 and would set the proprietor back £850, with the B unit, designed for bigger halls costing another £50.

The unit was described as having special moving coil loudspeakers, accumulator exciters. The amplifier and rectifier were in duplicate in case of failure. This equipment was chosen by the British Board of Film Censors.

British Acoustic sound was marketed at a higher price, coming in at £1150. A description states that amplifier and rectifier equipment is in duplicate and rectifying and power valves are placed away from the operating box. It was stated that the unit had several unique features, one of which was the use of a large aperture instead of a slit. This, it was stated can be adapted to all makes of projectors.

British Talking Pictures would  have set you back £1220 for disc and film, but in duplicate the bill would be £1545. It was reported in the Bioscope that, the disc attachment consists of substantial casting of aluminium with an extension, on which the arm for the pick up is mounted. There is a flexible shaft connection between the turntable and the projector. It was serviced free for one year.

British Thomson Houston offered sound on film and on disc for £1250 for halls up to 2000. Accumulators were avoided. Instead a BTH generator supplied the current for the loud speaker fields. There was a 12 volt supply for the exciter lamps and an AC supply of around 750 volts. It was stated that amplification was not in duplicate but was run in parallel and that a break down did not mean the cessation of the show, but the volume was reduced by a half, which could be modified by the faded control, which had a substantial margin.

One of the cheaper units was Corophone. Their sound on disc and film systems were £675 for cinemas seating up to 1200 and £775 for larger ones. The reduction gear for the turntables ran in an oil bath with direct flexible drives to the projector. This is one where sound could be adjusted from the hall. The sound on film heads could be fitted to all projectors. The amplifier had three stages with twin output rated at 24 watts with an entirely separate set of valves in reserve for breakdown. The standard set-up included four loud speakers with baffles and a monitor horn in the box.

Other units included Edibell, Filmophone Butcher’s Electrocord and Klangfilm. Klangfilm supplied five main types of equipment. A 7 watt system supplied the audio for small halls of around 400 seats, 10 watt units for 900 seats, 50 watt for 1200, 100 watt for a large hall of 1700 seats and 200 watt for seating over this. Prices back in 1930 ranged from £1400 to a staggering £3200 with a service charge of £2 10 shillings to £5 10 shillings weekly. This was another unit where sound could be controlled from the auditorium.

Popular units which stood the test of time were RCA Photophone, Western Electric, BTP and British Acoustic. Fortunately the equipment could be bought on easy terms and in some cases exhibitors only rented the equipment. New innovations have always cost the exhibitor dearly. Apart from the arrival of sound, Cinemascope and other changes have created a huge dent in finances. The latest being digital.

David A Ellis(c)