Category Archives: Blog Post

Film Sound Today (Circa 1984)

Machine Room 2
Machine Room for Stage A at Warner Hollywood, housing 24 – 35mm playback dubbers.

Recently a colleague showed me an old publication he found while reorganizing his office.  It was a book, not much more then a magazine really, called Film Sound Today, written by Larry Blake in 1984.  It’s a collection of articles he had written for various publications about the sound processes behind the biggest Hollywood films of the time.  Some of the films covered in depth are Return of the Jedi, Disney’s Fantasia re-release and Francis Ford Coppola’s One For The Heart.  There is also an amazing article that covers the entire history of stereo film sound, from the first patents and blackboard concepts in the 1920s, up to what was taking the industry by storm in the last quarter of the century  – Dolby Stereo.

Film Sound Today's Cover
Film Sound Today’s Cover

I was familiar with Larry Blake because I had been reading his columns for years.  When I was breaking into the the audio post industry in the ’90s my main source for shop talk in the the mass media was Mix Magazine.  Although the magazine (then as now) covered music recording and live sound, it also had a regular column on film sound by Larry Blake. That column was the first thing I read when the magazine got delivered every month. I had no idea he had been writing about film sound for so long though.

Reading through Film Sound Today I am having blast exploring this cool archive of audio knowledge.  Some of the concepts and equipment discussed seem so antiquated compared to what we have access to now.  One passage discusses how Lucas Film is contemplating a new cutting-edge technology:

“The recently introduced Compact Disc is being considered to store Lucas Film’s extensive sound effects library. Instead of reels of 1/4 inch tape occupying a whole wall, the library could fit on one shelf crammed with about 100 compact discs. Thus sound editors at the facility will have the entire sound library at their finger tips.”

Another passage discusses how for Return of the Jedi they would be using a digital system called ASP (Audio Signal Processor) which was in the prototype stage. It is described as a “large special purpose computing device for digitized audio.”  The hard drives for the ASP are 300 megabytes each and “the same size as a 24-track recorder.”  Yikes!

An early prototype of the A.S.P. digital audio computer
Andy Moorer with an early prototype of the A.S.P. digital audio computer

Although some of the described equipment is distinctly from another time, many of the people interviewed are still vital to the industry to this day. There is a long section with Ben Burtt, discussing his process for creating all the different alien languages found in Return of the Jedi. He was in charge of dreaming up dialects for Jabba the Hut, the Ewoks and some of the six million other languages C3PO interprets fluently.  Burtt’s basic premise was that the design of the fictional language had to be found in the source material, not in the processing and mixing stage.

“The general process is one of a very few number of tracks, with maximum effort in selecting the individual sounds and recording them in the first place.  It is not a difficult mixing process, it is a difficult editing process.”

Ben Burtt at the console while working on Return of the Jedi
Ben Burtt behind the console at Sprocket Systems Dubbing Stage while working on Return of the Jedi

Other still-current industry heavyweights pop up as well. Randy Thom and Gary Summers were the re-recording mixers on Jedi, while the author of the important book Sound for Film and Television, Tom Holman, was the Lucas Film chief engineer.  Walter Murch, Dale Strumpell and the late Alan Splet are also mentioned.  The author himself went on to a storied film career as well; Blake was the re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor on almost twenty of Steven Soderbergh’s films, as well as many other movies.

Return of the Jedi Flow Chart

On multiple occasions Blake refers to other impressive film sound tracks from the era, including the first two Star Wars films, The Black Stallion and Apocalypse Now.  These are all considered classic films and important cinema sound touchstones to this day.  One thing that surprised me is that the soundtrack to the film DragonSlayer is continually mentioned as being on par with these other classics.  To be honest, I am completely in the dark about this film, and I don’t think I’m alone. This movie seems to have disappeared from our lexicon of noteworthy film sound achievements.  Certainly the trailer makes it look like a somewhat forgettable film.  I am going to try to track it down to hear for myself if its soundtrack still holds up against the iconic films it was once ranked alongside.

Larry Blake has always been a captivating writer. In Film Sound Today his writing style is less personal and opinionated than his later columns, but this book is still an interesting read. I would love to have him as a guest on the podcast one day.  If anyone reading this has a way of contacting him please let us know.

I like to imagine someone stumbling onto the Tonebenders’ Dave Whitehead episode thirty years from now. I wonder how strange his words would seem to listeners that far in the future. Hopefully the state of the art will be so far advanced that they would be chuckling about the way we all do things now, and perhaps be inspired to uncover some brilliant soundtracks from the good old days.

Machine Room 1
The Machine Room at Zoetrope housing 7 dubbers, two 6 track recorders and two 24 track recorders.
Early D.A.W.
One of the first DAWs (as we now call them) was at Neiman-Tillar in Los Angeles. It was called ACCESS, an acronym for Automated Computer Controlled Editing Sound System.
Mixing Desk
Zeotrope Studios re-recording stage built for the mix of “Apocalypse Now”

Tonebenders Changes

Hello, welcome to the new Tonebenders website.

Embers record

We have been working away to make a bunch of improvements to the way the podcast gets to you. The two main changes are our new web address (formerly, now here at, and a new RSS feed.

Our new feed has many positives but the one down side is that if you are getting the podcast already through iTunes, or any other podcatcher, you will have to re-subscribe to our new feed. Currently there are two Tonebenders feeds available through the iTunes podcast directory. One is named “Tonebenders Podcast”, which is our new feed and the one you should be subscribed to going forward. It will be updated immediately when new shows arrive and has our entire back catalog available for download, from episode 001 up to our newest content. Our old feed in the podcast directory, simply called “Tonebenders”, is also still active for now. You will find that new episodes will appear more slowly on this feed, and it also only has the 10 most recent episodes available. Eventually this feed will stop being updated, so please switch over to the new feed ASAP so you never miss an episode. We are sorry we have to ask you to do this but we think the improvements will be worth the effort.

If you do not use iTunes to get podcasts, we have a few new options for you as well. All episodes are up on our Soundcloud page for both streaming and downloads. If you have the Stitcher Radio App, on your phone or in your car, we are now on that network too. If you use any other podcatcher you can find our new feed’s address by clicking here, or on the RSS icon in the left column.

The other big change is our new website, which has some cool new features. You can now search for podcast episodes by category. So if you want to hear all our foley related episodes, or ones where we talk about field recording, you can find them all grouped together easily. Also the site features Soundcloud embeds for each episode. This lets listeners comment or ask questions right on the time line of each show. When something peaks your interest or sparks a question, or we got something dead wrong – you can leave us a message right in that spot.

We also have a new “Support the podcast” page where you can leave a buck or two in our tip jar (via paypal). An even better way way to help is to use our affiliate link when you shop at amazon or B&H. Doing this costs you absolutely nothing, we simply get a small percentage of your purchase for sending you to them. This kind of support covers costs of things like server fees, Soundcloud pro accounts and long distance calls. We want to keep this podcast ad free, and we are hoping with a little help from the community we can.

So the deal is this – we promise to keep making Tonebenders episodes and working hard to make it the best podcast on Sound Design out there. In return we just ask that you update your RSS feed to “Tonebenders Podcast” through iTunes and pop our new web address in your favourites. If you really want to be helpful replace your Amazon and B&H bookmarks with our links so you can also help us out if you are already shopping there.

Finally we want to thank everyone who listens to the podcast, without you giving us feedback, ideas and encouragement I am not sure we would have made it this far. So keep up with the likes on Facebook, the retweets on Twitter, reviews on iTunes/Stitcher and blog posts that mention us. We appreciate all the support. The pro audio community is one of the best out there, we are all lucky to be a part of it.