From Academic Kids

Vitaphone was a sound film process used on several features and shorts produced by Warner Brothers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Many early talkies, such as The Jazz Singer, used the Vitaphone process. Vitaphone was the last of the so-called sound-on-disc processes, and its technical imperfections led to its retirement early in the sound era.

A Vitaphone-equipped theater used special projectors, an amplifier, and speakers. The projectors operated as normal silent projectors would, but also provided a mechanical interlock with an attached phonograph turntable. When the projector was threaded, the projectionist would align a start mark on the film with the picture gate, and would at the same time place a phonograph record on the turntable, being careful to align the phonograph needle with a arrow scribed on the record's label.

When the projector rolled, the phonograph turned at a fixed rate, and (theoretically) played sound in sync with the film passing the picture gate simultaneously.

The Vitaphone process made several improvements over previous systems:

  • Amplification - The Vitaphone system was one of the first to use electronic amplification, using Lee De Forest's audion tube. This allowed the sound of the phonograph to be played to a large audience at a comfortable volume.
  • Fidelity - Vitaphone records had shorter playing times than regular phonograph records of the time, and in the early days, Vitaphone had superior fidelity to sound-on-film processes, particularly at low frequencies. Phonographs also had superior dynamic range, on the first few playings.

These innovations notwithstanding, the Vitaphone process lost the early format war with sound-on-film processes for many reasons:

  • Distribution Issues - Vitaphone records had to be distributed along with film prints, and shipping records required a whole infrastructure apart from the already-existing film distribution system. Additionally, records would wear out after several screenings, and had to be replaced. This consumed even more distribution overhead.
  • Synchronization - Vitaphone had severe and notorious synchronization problems. If a record skipped, it would fall out of sync with the picture, and the projectionist would have to manually restore sync. Additionally, if the film print became damaged and was not precisely repaired, the length relationship between the record and the print could be lost, also causing a loss of sync. The Vitaphone projectors had special levers and linkages to advance and retard sync, but it required the continual attention of the operator, and this was impractical. The system for aligning start marks on film and start marks on records was far from exact.
  • Editing - A phonograph record cannot be edited directly, and this significantly limited the creative potential of Vitaphone films. Warner Brothers went to great expense to develop a highly complex phonograph-based dubbing system, using synchronization phonographs and Strowger switch-triggered playback phonographs (working very much like a modern sampler.)
  • Fidelity versus Sound-on-Film - The fidelity of sound-on-film processes had improved considerably since its introduction by the Fox Film Corporation, and particularly after the adoption of RCA's variable-area recording technique.

The last Vitaphone shorts were produced in 1933. To make new film titles backward-compatible with Vitaphone theaters, films produced with the sound-on-film process were released simultaneously in Vitaphone and sound-on-film processes.

Though operating on principles so different as to make it unrecognizable to a Vitaphone engineer, Digital Theater Sound is a sound-on-disc system, the first to gain wide adoption since the abandonment of Vitaphone.


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