What makes an old movie sound like an old movie?
October 9, 2008 5:49 AM   Subscribe

What makes an old movie sound like an old movie? I recently watched Young Frankenstein, and the sonic atmosphere of it was a (to me) convincing imitation of movies from the 30s. The tones of voices, timing of dialogue, even the silences, somehow. I can hear it but I can't explain what I'm hearing or how they might have accomplished this. Can you?
posted by moonmilk to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't seen Young Frankenstein for ages, but i would suggest that a Transatlantic Accent would be a part of it.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:10 AM on October 9, 2008

I suppose some of it might be misattribution on your part because it's shot like an old movie (black and white, painted sets, etc.) But there's a level of staginess -- a mannered kind of film acting that has mostly disappeared -- in old movies, and also the pacing of dialogue.

I'm also going to speculate that now we're used to hearing very, very low-level sound effects in the background that weren't available in old movies, and that excluding that almost imperceptible sound editing contributes mightily to the "old timey" feeling of Young Frankenstein.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:20 AM on October 9, 2008

Probably using (or faking) the sound techniques of said old movies. Using old microphones, for example.

Read here for some of the stuff that could be done.


Also, more ethereally, just imitating the acting and speaking styles of older films.
posted by gjc at 6:21 AM on October 9, 2008

I would tend to think, from an article I read in a recent issue of Tape Op, that it's less about vintage microphones being used, and more about the actual recording hardware/media. Vintage mics tend to have a perfectly acceptable spectrumfor modern uses, but tape of the time and such things had a larger effect.

It's possible to fake very early moviesound for instance simply with some EQ. You want to add noise in as well, as the machinery back then didn't have great volume to noise ratios, but pulling lots of bass and mid out of a sound, focusing in on the high frequencies of the voice, like old telephones say, should start to get to some of the things that I am hearing in my head as old sounding sound.

As others have said though, a lot of it will be imitating the speech of the time too.
posted by opsin at 6:27 AM on October 9, 2008

Placement and selection of microphones would do a lot. Also, mono recording, no fancy stereo fancypantsorama stuff. Probably you could do a few tests to compare old equipment to new equipment and then make a filter that mimics the old equipment.
posted by pracowity at 6:41 AM on October 9, 2008

The film was nominated for an Acadamy Award for Sound for Richard Portman and Gene S. Cantamessa. I found a couple of interviews but nothing were they talk about Young Frankenstein specifically

What I can remember if the film I think they probably added some crackle to the sound and it was definitely less 'spacey' than film sound is nowadays, so I imagine it was definitely mixed that way.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:18 AM on October 9, 2008

Thanks, this is all really interesting! I'd love to hear observations about differences between early and modern movie sound design in general, not just Young Frankenstein. (Bl├╝cher!)

I have the impression that modern movies are more likely to fill every second of the soundscape with dialog, background music, or atmospheric sound effects where an older movie might leave silence (or real room sounds rather than crafted sounds). Does that seem accurate? I guess that's what chesty_a_arthur was getting at.
posted by moonmilk at 7:41 AM on October 9, 2008

It's been a while since I've seen Young Frankenstein, but I think a lot of the 'sound' comes from Gene Wilder's delivery. I wouldn't be surprised if the sound guys used compression and lowered the high frequencies a bit to give the movie a bit of lo-fi sound.
posted by zippy at 9:09 AM on October 9, 2008

This is a bit general, but I think part of it has to do with analog sound recording and the distortion that comes with it, along with a limited bandwidth compared to the super-mega-THX sound we tend to hear in current films.

I think you could probably approximate this by: trimming off the highest and lowest frequencies of the sound (use a multi-band EQ device and start from the extreme range and work your way in); introducing a bit of "warm" distortion (but avoid the crackling of digital distortion); if there aren't great changes in volume, a bit of compression will help.
posted by LMGM at 10:39 AM on October 9, 2008

They used old microphones and recording equipment. Woody Allen did the same thing with Zelig.
posted by Zambrano at 10:44 AM on October 9, 2008

You might also consider that the farther back you go in film history, the more films overdubbed their dialogue after shooting. This will produce a couple of effects:

(1) the sound of the dialogue, such as the reverb, will often differ from the way you'd expect it to sound in the environment depicted onscreen.

(2) there will sometimes be perceptibly out-of-sync words and lips.

If you haven't seen any, you may want to check out Guy Maddin's films, which are all obsessed with recreating the feel of silents and early talkies (e.g. Brand Upon The Brain!, The Saddest Music in the World, etc.).
posted by Beardman at 2:21 PM on October 9, 2008

The old tape machines had a high noise floor, so recording engineers ran the microphone preamps hot, to get a clear signal on the tape. Sometimes the voltage was too high, and it caused a type of distortion called tape saturation, which is generally pleasing to human ears.

In editing, they took all the different audio tapes used for the movie and mixed them down onto another noisy tape machine. Then they had to transfer the tape onto the master film negative, with some optical printing technology that was probably not too great. Then the optical soundtrack was degraded even more when they made duplicate prints.

Compare that to modern-day movies, where the audio is recorded digitally, edited on computers with no signal loss, and frequently played back from a digital source.

As for the silence, a lot of the time it's just the sound of an empty room and tape noise. Not so many subtle sound effects and music like we have now.
posted by scose at 5:57 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks to everyone who answered!
posted by moonmilk at 10:30 AM on October 12, 2008

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