"Endlessly Fascinating"    [ 05 ]   
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Mar 2010


As a regular part of my job, I routinely surf the web for certain graphics and sound effects required for the production of multiple projects. I recently unearthed something I had never thought much about . . that being The Single Most Used Audio Recording Sound Effect – ever!  It is called the "Wilhelm scream", so named after a character in a movie I've never heard of . . . a 1953 western called "The Charge at Feather River". Apparently one of the characters, a 'Private Wilhelm', got shot by an arrow and had to cut loose with a scream, so this is the one the editors slapped onto the soundtrack to convey his distress. The scream itself was recorded a couple years prior to this, for a scene in an entirely different movie in which a bunch of guys get attacked by alligators in a swamp. This just keeps getting better and better! AND rumor has it that the guy who originated the scream in the first place was none other than Sheb Wooley, the genius behind the novelty song "Purple People Eater". (Now there's a Flashtoon waiting to happen!) Since all of this falls squarely under the so-ridiculous-I-pretty-much-don't-care-but-still-it's-bizarrely-intriguing category in life, I will quote from an article in Wikipedia about it:

The sound effect originates from a series of sound effects recorded for the 1951 film "Distant Drums". In a scene from the film, soldiers are wading through a swamp in the Everglades and one of them is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. The scream for that scene was recorded later in a single take along with five other short pained screams, which were slated as "man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams." The fifth scream was used for the soldier in the alligator scene—but the 4th, 5th, and 6th screams recorded in the session were also used earlier in the film—when three Indians are shot during a raid on a fort. Although takes 4 through 6 are the most recognizable, all of the screams are referred to as "Wilhelm" by those in the sound community.

It's been used in some 170 movies and TV shows, including Star Wars (episode IV) as uttered by a storm trooper falling to his doom in the bowels of the Death Star after Luke dispatches him with a blaster! (some Jedi - using a blaster — and for the record, Han did shoot first . . . I was there in `77 and I saw it happen! . . . but I digress)  Here is what it sounds like:

Think hard — you may recall hearing this in one of your favorite movies . . . or three.  The 'Wilhelm' gets around . ..

With such an audacious claim, however, I wondered just how far back these self-appointed authorities had researched through the entire history of all audio recordings everywhere. Quite suddenly, it dawned upon me that somewhere, at some point in time, *somebody* had created the Very First Audio Recording ever! ~ What a heady thing that must have been! ~ Imagine it: sometime in the mid-1800's tinkering with such barely understood sciences, being The Guy to create the first-ever recording of any sound! I was familiar with the first surviving photograph ever made: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) and his 1826 "Point de vue de la fenetre" (translation: "Point of view on an un-etched tin plate") — [roll over the image below to see an earlier so-called 'photograph' which is an image of an engraving depicting a man leading a horse... but that was not generated using standard photo-processing techniques, so it kind of doesn't count. It is still über-cool, though]


The very first Photograph(s)
 First Photo Ever


I thought the first-ever audio recording must have surely been made by "the wizard of Menlo Park" himself: Thomas Edison (1847-1931). I even found his voice as captured by one of his phonographs from 1877! The thing worked by creating vibration-induced impressions onto a sheet of tin foil wrapped around a rotating cylinder, and thus could only be played back a few times before degrading. Check this out - the man himself as recorded on a device of his own fabrication, or a "Talking Machine" as they soon came to be called:

How astonishing to hear the Actual Voice of this historical figure as a living, breathing, human being a full century and a half removed from today ~ like hearing someone through a sonic time machine, or something . . .

And just when I thought I'd found the first sound recordings ever, I learned of another Frenchman (like Joseph above) named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817-1879). While Mr. Edison can rightfully lay claim to creating the first practical recording/playback mechanism, it was Édouard who invented the first known sound recording device, patented in 1857. What an amazing technological pioneer! However, his 'phonautograph' was never designed to create playable recordings. It simply etched sound wave patterns onto paper wrapped around a rotating drum. The result was a graphical demonstration of sound . . visual patterns intended for investigative purposes only.

Of course, you can't play paper with squiggles on it, especially when the resulting patterns suffered from irregularities caused by the recording process itself. In fact, until the year 2008 these recordings remained mute and completely unplayable. But a certain Dr. Patrick Feaster devised a computerized method to account for the irregularities, and was able to reproduce an audio track as close to the original sound as is likely possible. This then, is the sound of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville singing the beginning line of the second verse from "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit". It is the earliest audibly recognizable record of a human voice ever recovered:



Listening to this just gives me chills... To consider that this is the voice of a man from the year 1860! ~ A full year before the start of the American Civil War, when France was still being ruled by Napoleon's nephew! Of course, you can't learn much about a guy singing 20 seconds of "Clair de Lune" but still, I find this kind of time-tripping connection endlessly fascinating! And on *our* end of the story, there's no way he could have imagined the kind of Science Fiction era in which we're living, when the recorded sounds from his 'unplayable' paper are not only played back, but also piped through a globe-spanning network so anyone anywhere can hear it at any time! Crazy Stuff!!

All of this is documented (with even more materials to consider) at First Sounds on der Inter·web . . And for all you gearheads out there who REALLY dig this recording history type stuff ◄ click on that link to visit the best web page I've found on the subject to date.


1900's - 1920's Thomas Edison 'Gold Moulded' phonograph cylinders (Duration: about 2 minutes)
 vinyl album
1920's - 1980's 78 rpm (3 to 4 minutes) and 33 1/3 rpm LP's (usually 45 to 52 minutes)
1930's - present Reel-to-reel tapes are still used in professional recording studios to this day
1950's - 1970's The 45 rpm 7" single = a hit song on the 'A' side + a bonus song on the 'B' side
1960's - 1970's 8-track cartridges - mainly found in muscle cars and overpriced home stereos
1970's - 1980's Cassettes ruled the common man's listening experience during these years
1980's - present A Compact Disc can store up to 80 minutes of music . . . and still going strong!
 Zen Player
2000's - present MP3 players can store thousands of songs and weigh less than 1 ounce!


It seems only fitting to conclude this weird time-bouncing post with something recorded by 'They Might Be Giants' at the Edison National Historic Site (New Jersey). "I Can Hear You" was performed without electricity, captured on an 1898 Edison wax recording phonograph. And as usual with TMBG songs, the lyrics themselves seem magically timeless ~


   They Might Be Giants

I can hear you, just barely hear you . . . I can just barely hear you

This is a warning!  Step away from the car!  This car is protected by 'Viper'!

Guess where I am?  I'm calling from the plane . . . I'll call you when I get there

You won't hear a buzz, but I'm buzzing you in . . . I'm buzzing you in

What's your order?  I can super-size that!  Please bring your car around

I can hear you, just barely hear you . . . I can just barely hear you . . .


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