Douglas Shearer — Ruling The Sound Waves (1937) 🇺🇸

Douglas Shearer |

December 30, 2021

An exclusive interview which reveals something of Mr. Shearer and his sound technique.

by Dorothy Meredith

Sound in motion pictures — what does the term convey to the general mind? Probably not much more than just another aural reaction because in the present highly developed mechanical age marvels are taken for granted. We attend the “movies” and hear all kinds of sounds that are the accompaniment of every day life yet rarely do we stop to consider the means whereby they are brought to us.

Conspicuous contributions to sound technique have been made by Mr. Douglas Shearer who, with his Sound Department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, has twice won the Academy Award. Interpreted by him the subject is most vital and dramatic, one which crosses the shadowy borderline of our three-dimensional world and opens vistas of yet another possible contact with the higher spaces.

Since 1925 Mr. Shearer has been wrestling with the difficulties of recording and reproducing by means of varying shadows on film those particular etheric waves which register as sound on the tympanum of the ear. And because he was not primarily an engineer he attacked the arduous question from an original but quite logical angle. Instead of concentrating first on machines he concentrated on the delicate and intricate mechanism of natural aural equipment, with the thought of reproducing sounds in motion pictures so that they would strike the ear in a natural fashion no matter what the auditor’s position in relation to the screen.

Therefore he had to consider not only the production, but the reproduction of sound. He envisions the above as a continuous series and not each as separate and unrelated to the rest. “From the time the waves are set in motion by whatever agency, from the time speech leaves the mouth of an actor until it reaches the ears of his auditors, each phase of the entire process depends for its success upon the perfectness of both the preceding and succeeding phases. Final fidelity of tone is achieved only with unified development of each component part.”

Thus in a few brief phrases did Mr. Shearer outline the problems that confronted the industry, and him, when “talkies” first displaced silent pictures.

Difficulties started with the microphone. It simply could not be made to distinguish the relative dramatic values of the sound waves it intercepted. Its sensitive diaphragm has never been supplied with any gadget comparable to that agency of the human mind which, to a great degree, selects for our consciousness only what we want to hear and subordinates about 90 per cent of the ever present but to us, unimportant noises.

First an apparatus was devised that permitted the microphone to travel to all points where the principal sounds were to be picked up. But this did not make it selective, and sounds extraneous to those necessary to the story inevitably obtruded.

For example, in shooting a ball room scene it was found that the conversation of the actors was drowned out by the faithfully recorded scraping of the dancers’ feet. What to do? About two-thirds of them were supplied with felt socks to reduce the noise, the effect of the socks being analogous to the human mental agency before referred to.

Outdoors, it is more difficult to preclude unwanted noises. Should a fly walk across the diaphragm of the mike, its footsteps would thud and would impinge themselves upon, say, the dulcet tones of the tenor singing a desert love song. The rushing of the air incidental to a high wind striking the microphone directly, would render impossible the clear registering of any other sound so in one instance to obviate this contingency, a frame was made and covered with several layers of cheese cloth. The cheese cloth prevented the air from whistling through the diaphragm but did not interfere seriously with the sound waves it was intended to transmit.

To both recording and reproducing devices, Douglas Shearer has made outstanding contributions. His “push-pull” recording method is known to engineers as the most practical system of submerging surface noises. (Too technical to discuss here it is thoroughly outlined in an article in a later issue.) Through this apparatus the entire volume range of reproduction has been increased eight-fold.

Machines are his mania. His eyes glowing with enthusiasm and interest, he pointed out that machines had already been made which produced a synthetic human voice, of course as yet only as a laboratory experiment, but: “If we were to know what range, volume, true tones, overtones, etc. it takes to make a perfect voice, that voice could be made synthetically.” He illustrated this with pictures of the sound track of the voice of Nelson Eddy, and that of Jeanette MacDonald, greatly magnified reproductions of which are shown herewith by means of photographic charts. “Notice the overtones in Eddy’s voice.” he said, “as opposed to the fundamental tones in MacDonald’s!” The regularity of the shadows being the gauge in each case.

All this having to do with voice production. As for reproduction, we inquired about the already famous Shearer horn. Mr. Shearer indicated an interesting looking object which took up considerable space at one end of his office on the M-G-M lot. This device, which is about ten feet long by four high and as deep, resembles some sort of intriguing cubic figure rather than an old-fashioned “horn.” It appears that the basic principle is similar to that existing in the telephonic field but a number of new elements have been introduced by Mr. Shearer.

“In order that the speech, music or whatever should be audible in a picture can reach all parts of an auditorium with equal naturalness and resonance it is necessary that the amplifier diffract the sound waves, which has generally been done by means of several horns spread fanwise. In this,” he passed light, sensitive fingers over the panel, “the top as you see, contains a metal horn of multiple cells each leading from the sound diaphragm and so diffusing the high frequency waves to every part of the house. Through the lower section. which is all wood, the lower pitch sounds are similarly directed.”

To illustrate this, Mr. Shearer, with the delightful eagerness that characterizes his manner, continued. “It’s like this. High frequency notes go straight ahead, like water from the small vent of a hose nozzle. Low frequency notes spread out fanwise, like the water from that same nozzle adjusted to a spray vent. Therefore we have to break up the high frequency waves into smaller ‘beams’ and direct them to all parts of the theater. That’s the reason for the greater number of horns necessary for the higher notes.”

Naturally, Mr. Shearer considers that sound is a valuable complement to motion pictures from several angles besides the purely emotional one.

“It enables us to suggest the geographical location of any scene, merely by introduction of sound effects. For example, we shoot a stock shot of a man standing beside a fog-shrouded pond, with frogs croaking and water birds crying. Later we show this same man on the veranda of a house, with the pond not visible but the sounds audible. Immediately, in the minds of the auditors, that fixes the location of the house as being near the pond, whether it actually is or not. If instead of the frog and bird noises, we superimposed the rumble of an elevated and the roar of traffic, you can readily understand that that would place the location of the house as being in the city, rather than on the marge of the pool.”

The fact that Douglas Shearer is the only man in the cinematographic sphere who has continued throughout his career as head of the sound department in the same studio, is a significant one which amply credits both sides.

Beginning with a clear vision steadily focused upon the future, he engaged in developing the possibilities of sound films. He improved on early basic equipment and methods to a point where they are susceptible of satisfactory utilization in the latest type of motion picture. Through Mr. Shearer’s own ability and the excellence of his work, he reached the top and has remained there. But he is as yet far from satisfied. He has done a great deal to promote the advance of sound and we quite expect it will not be long before he perfects some other strange contrivance that will further control the mysterious waves. Primarily, we rather suspect, for the pure joy of achievement, but also for the greater renown of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the more complete edification of the “movie” public to whom his name, in connection with sound in motion pictures, has come to mean so much.

The Shearer Horn developed by him at M-G-M represents an outstanding achievement in sound reproduction. In developing it Mr. Shearer combined elements of his own invention with basic principles already existing in the telephonic field. It is rapidly being adopted by theaters everywhere as standard equipment.

Source: Motion Picture Studio Insider, January 1937