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The Art and Craft of Optical Recording Made Easy

Optical audio tracks still offer advantages over digital By Bob Heiber

Optical SoundOptical sound recording and reproduction techniques have been around for close to a century and its time-honored craft has now been honed to a fine art.  While newer digital processes and its associated media formats holds the promise of even higher audio dynamics, wider reproduction versatility with less distortion artifacts,  the venerable film format, which has captured and preserved each filmmakers visual and aural legacy on celluloid, has withstood the test of time throughout this evolution.  Now however, celluloids longevity, faces a crisis brought on by age, wear and mishandling. Moreover, digital technology threatens to make the art and craft of the optical sound engineer obsolete.  This paper discusses how both mediums can co-exist and how the modern day re-recording engineer can move fluidly between optical and the newer digital formats to make sure that all re-recordings are pristine and are the mirror image of the original, preserving all the nuances that the filmmakers initially intended.

A Short Chronology of Optical Film Recording & Reproduction
In 1895, the visionary Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, showcased their first show of living pictures on the Boulevard des Capucines and forever changed the face of cinematography.  This precursor to the present day cinematic experience ignited the imaginations of early pioneers who contemplated a world where picture and sound would one day be united.  That dream became a reality fifteen years later when Eugene A. Lauste was granted a patent for a ?new and improved method of and means for simultaneously recording and reproducing movements and sounds, which first used a mechanical grate, then mirrors, and by late 1910, developed a light gate of a vibrating silicon wire between two magnets to reproduce sound from an optical track. 

By late 1926, the invention of electrical recording technology made sound pictures possible.  This new breakthrough technology was incorporated into the recording and playback of film and in 1930, the motion picture soundtrack was standardized as a single-track (monaural) sound-on-film (optical) track on the edge of a 35mm film strip, thus creating the foundation and catalyst for continuous improvement of optical film playback well into the next millennium.

Another milestone was reached in 1937 when the film One Hundred Men and a Girl starring Deanna Durbin was released by Universal in standard monophonic sound.  This was the first film soundtrack originally recorded by RCA in the "Multiple Channel Recording" process that had been developed by Bell Labs and RCA since 1932 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.  During the recording process, the songs of Durbin and the orchestra of Leopold Stokowski were recorded on 9 separate channels; each channel printed optically on a separate 35mm motion picture film. The 9 channels were then edited and mixed down into one channel for the optical soundtrack on the edge of the release prints.  

It was not until November 13, 1940, with the premiere of Walt Disney's Fantasia in New York's Broadway Theater that a multi-channel soundtrack produced by Leopold Stokowski was recorded on an optical track for each section of the orchestra, resulting in 9 separate soundtracks. This groundbreaking cinematic event, which received countless accolades from the media and theater patrons alike, featured 4 master optical tracks played in synchronization on special equipment made by RCA for a multiple-loudspeaker theater installation called ?Fantasound. 

Ever since this early adaptation of optical sound recording technology brought the cinematic experience to life, the film industry, forecasting record sales at the box office, has been working hard to give the audience a more realistic film experience.  As the decades passed, the evolution of sound recording on optical film evolved, starting from a narrow monaural bandwidth track to a wide range of two channel stereo analog track formats.  With the advent of digital formats first introduced in the late 1980s to 1990s, filmmakers for the first time were able to lay down a 5.1 digital optical sound track along side the standard analog track.

Ironically, despite the advances made in optical processing technologies for the past quarter century, optical soundtracks are still dependent on the technology of its original inception.  This is especially poignant if we consider that even with the ever growing technology benefits that digital optical formats like CDS (Cinema Digital Sound), SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound), SR-D (Dolby Stereo Digital) and DTS (Digital Theater Systems) offer, the film playback system defaults to the original analog soundtrack if there is any problem in retrieving the digital information embedded in the optical track.

Truth be told, the only entertainment medium that has withstood the test of time and has been consistently heralded as the industrys ultimate preservation medium is the venerable film format, which has reigned supreme in image quality, interoperability, versatility and longevity?and now, the steadfast safeguard and backup for the optical soundtrack.
Despite films inherent advantages, its supremacy may one day be overtaken by the progress made in digital recording, reproduction and distribution technologies as the industry moves cautiously toward the age of HDTV and digital cinema.  No matter the outcome, the continuing evolvement in recording formats and its never ending proliferation of mandatory equipment purchases has galvanized the entertainment industry on safeguarding its most valued asset, the preservation of film and its irreplaceable visual and aural legacy. 

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Related Keywords:Optical sound recording, reproduction techniques, time-honored craft, digital technology, optical sound engineer, Bob Heiber, President, Chace Audio, re-recording engineer, digital formats, filmmakers

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