Music News

The Soundies of Yesteryear

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Afterward, the New Yorker carped that the sound quality of the extravaganza lacked "the snap, or edge, of real acoustics," but the majority of other commentators were extraordinarily effusive, with the New York Evening Journal calling Vitaphone "the greatest sensation of the decade next to radio" and the New York Times editorializing that the Warners' doohickey had ensured that "the eloquent dead will hereafter still speak." Several other short subjects, including The Better Ole, starring Syd Chaplin (Charlie's brother), kept the ball rolling, and The Jazz Singer knocked it out of the park, prompting such a nationwide sensation that even the most reluctant movie-theater owners began ponying up the dough necessary to convert their facilities to sound.

In the meantime, William Fox, the man behind Twentieth Century-Fox, was racing ahead with Movietone, a sound-on-film approach akin to De Forest's Phonofilm that was much simpler than Vitaphone because it didn't use discs. As sound film became the norm rather than the exception, this advantage became obvious to all. "Projectionists didn't think they should be responsible for sound in the first place, and Vitaphone made their jobs even harder," says Bill Cook. "If one frame of the film broke, it would be out of sync with the disc from then on. And the discs were fragile. If you dropped them, they broke."

That wasn't the half of it. Author Barrios notes that the discs had to be replaced frequently because of scratches and surface noise--and the bulky equipment needed to record on them in the first place required camera operators and actors to move as little as possible. As a result, Vitaphone-style productions, hilariously satirized in 1952's Singin' in the Rain, were so stagey and static that in 1930, Warner Bros. officially ditched the method for a sound-on-film application devised by Western Electric. The Vitaphone logo remained on Warner Bros. flicks for years thereafter, but that was just for show. By the mid-Thirties, disc players had been stripped from virtually every movie theater from coast to coast, and disc manufacturers would have gone bust, too, had it not been for the realization of executives at labels such as Columbia that Vitaphone could be adapted for radio. After all, the discs sounded great compared to notoriously low-fi 78s, and they could hold up to fifteen minutes of programming per side, thereby saving stations moolah that would otherwise have been spent hiring announcers (the precursors to disc jockeys). In other words, transcriptions were the equivalent of today's syndicated programming, and broadcasters adored them.

Soon, most major music firms had transcription branches, and plenty of independent transcription outfits popped up, including Standard, M.M. Cole, Langworth, World and Thesaurus. These companies didn't just repackage other recordings, however. Instead, acts came into transcription studios and cut new versions of their songs, including current hits. Because the recordings were never marketed to the public, listeners who wanted copies of transcription tunes they'd heard on the radio were out of luck; different renditions were available, but not the precise performances that had caught their attention in the first place. Transcriptions, then, represent pristine, studio-quality alternate takes of tracks by memorable and forgettable artists alike.

In the end, the same characteristics that killed Vitaphone--chiefly the discs' size and brittleness--doomed transcriptions. The twelve-inch LP, which was introduced in 1948, held just as much music as its sixteen-inch cousin but was far more user-friendly, and the emergence of more sensitive cartridges and styluses made it work for both radio pros and consumers. Suddenly, wrestling with transcriptions was unnecessary, and as stations phased them out, the companies that made them disappeared. Armed Forces Radio was using them as late as 1962, but the commercial manufacturers were gone by the late Fifties--and no one bothered to purchase the rights to most of their libraries before they folded. Hence, countless hours of great American music are technically owned by absolutely no one.

If Soundies' Kevin Parks wanted to, he could probably put out any transcription produced by an unaffiliated service without giving a piece of the action to another soul and get away with it. But in addition to being a lawyer, he's also a music lover, and in his mind, the latter takes precedence over the former. "Mechanical royalties are supposed to go to publishers and songwriters, and while a lot of this material has lapsed into the public domain, some of it hasn't," he says. "But that doesn't mean that everyone who should get paid does get paid. A lot of labels that operate on the fringes cut costs by not doing it. But that's not what we're about. We go through all of these recordings on a track-by-track basis and try to be fair to everyone."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts