Ham O'Hara, CBS sound effects man. We met Mr. O'hara in his studio in
the basement of his Connecticut home where he demonstrated all manner
of recorded and "live" sound effects.
Sound effects in radio broadcasting did not leap full-grown into this new medium in the 1920s. In its infancy, radio then was evolving from what was primarily a military communication tool into a vast system of popular entertainment, culture and news.
The few sound effects used in the early days were simple, unsophisticated, and often not very convincing. Anyone near a microphone who was available could supply a make-shift sound effect. The lid of a piano might be dropped to imitate a door closing. A wooden match stick could be snapped near the mike to simulate a baseball hitting a bat. Gun shots could be either a dowel hitting a leather couch or a drumstick striking the edge of a drum.
Realism was neither expected nor obtained through these efforts. In the early days, radio stations filled their air time with orchestra music, poetry readers, singers, and preachers, nearly all of whom were unpaid. Only when the drama shows began pushing out the "free talent" was it necessary to create better sound effects.
The first sound men, of course, had no training. Some had backstage theater experience where they had shaken a metal sheet to replicate thunder or slapped one board against another to create gunshots. A few others played percussive instruments in a band and they were used to producing a variety of unusual sounds on cue.
But most of them had neither experience nor training; they were designated to be the sound man because they were the junior man on the radio staff. Some were not even paid; Ted Robertson began at WXYZ in Detroit (home of The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, etc.) as an unpaid sound man and worked for several months with no salary. It would be three decades before the highly trained and specialized sound man was an integral part of network broadcasting.
By the 1930s, there were plenty of drama shows (kids' serials, detectives, mysteries, and soaps) most of which required realistic sound effects. The sounds basically fell into two broad categories: a) those that advanced the action or helped move the story line, and b) background or mood setting sounds. And all of these were produced with a combination of manual and recorded sounds.
Among the purists in OTR nostalgia, there exists a misconception that there was a time in which only manual sounds were used, and only much later did the recorded devices encroach. But recorded sound, in many forms, predated the Golden Age of Radio and the versatile transcriptions were used from the beginning.
In addition to a large stock of recorded music (usually classical and therefore free of copyright restriction) to fit every scene, there were sound effects records to replace the "real thing". That would usually be sounds of objects too large or too expensive for a radio studio, i.e. car engine, airplane, cannon, large crowds, explosions, and an ocean liner.
Also necessary would be records of sounds of creatures who couldn't read a cue: crickets, frogs, cows, elephants, etc. However, many good soundmen could, and did, imitate with their own voices the sounds of dogs, cats, horses, parrots, and others. Horses galloping could even be imitated by using cocoanut halves and an old board. (see illustration, above.)
A few OTR buffs are still convinced that the manual sounds were more authentic and that their gradual replacement by recorded sounds was capricious, unnecessary, and perhaps even motivated by the American love of electronics. But in historical fact, the sounds on disk superseded the manual ones for three reasons, in addition to economy:
1. as radio fidelity improved, the simulated sounds were revealed as inadequate imitations.
2. A record library of hundreds of sounds took up less space than one large manual effect (most of the early wind machines were larger than a stuffed chair)
3. the flexibility and versatility of the turntable with multiple arms would permit one sound man to do the work of three using only manual effects.
The manual sound effects, despite their limitations, continued to be an important part of the sound man's repertoire. Some sounds, which had to be done a variety of ways, were better done manually, including footsteps and knocks on doors. A knock on a door can be timid, authoritative, fast, slow, or in a panic so it was much easier to do this one manually.
Likewise any sound that could be created simply, would be favored over cuing up a record. So in addition to door knocks, footsteps, and telephone sounds, other sound effects were created manually including: twisting cellophane (crackling fire), squeezing a box of corn starch (footsteps in snow), blow through a straw into water (boiling water), rubbing dueling foils together (skating on ice), pull wet cork from any bottle and then prick balloon (opening champagne), squeeze folded sandpaper (breaking eggs) and rattle used flash bulbs in a can of water (cocktail shaker.)
With the exception of the syndicated shows, which were always transcribed, most programs were aired live through the late 1940s, when tape machines came into use. So mistakes resulting from inappropriate sound effects went out on the air live. Many of these were caused by the blank pistols that occasionally mis-fired. On one crime show, probably Gangbusters, an actor playing a hoodlum gave the line, "This is the end; take this lead, you rat." Two shots were to follow immediately but the gun jammed and the sound effects man looked frantic. The actor quickly changed his next line to: " Nah, shooting is too good for you; I'm going to stab you with this knife." At that point a shot rang out from the now-functioning pistol.
On another show, Nick Carter, Master Detective, the hero and his side-kick, Patsy, were entering a building. Three shots were to ring out then but the sound effects gun only fired once before jamming. The actress playing Patsy was supposed to say, "Nick, that sounded like shots!" but she quickly changed it to: "Nick, that sounded like a shot!" A few seconds later, they find a body, and the actor playing Nick reads the original line; "Here he is, poor devil, two shots in the chest and one in the head."