Sound studio

Solid foundations | The University of Chicago Magazine

the The CBS Radio sound effects team on The march of timecirca 1931. (Culver Pictures Inc./Wikimedia Commons)

Two researchers in sound studies discuss the golden age of acoustic towers by radio playwright Arch Oboler (EX’36).

Arch Oboler, EX’36, has written dramas, comedies and polemics, but it’s his “strange fiction” – speculative storytelling blending fantasy, sci-fi and horror – that made him famous at age gold from the radio. Best known for his work on the supernatural radio anthology CurfewOboler was a technical innovator, experimenting with new audio effects (see “If you scare easily…”).

Two researchers in sound studies describe Oboler’s acoustic tricks and explain how, as legendary horror actor Boris Karloff once said, “All the purest horror is in the sound.”

Initially, sound effects innovators tried to match their tools of the trade to real sound, says Amy Skjerseth, PhD student in sound studies. For example, the studio spaces had areas with wooden flooring for the interior steps and gravel trays for the exterior.

Eventually, instead of using ribs to break bones, sound artists could use celery: “It sounds a lot more real than the real thing.” This visceral reaction is how sound artists, especially in horror, “get under people’s skin,” she says. Oboler followed suit, slicing the sprouts in half with a cleaver and crushing the wet noodles with a bathroom plunger. (Use your imagination to figure out what images these edible audios were meant to conjure up.)

Skjerseth’s previous research into the sounds of horror has also focused on voice work, particularly male and female voices. Neil Verma, AM’04, PhD’08 – one of Skjerseth’s mentors – notes that in the early days of radio, producers avoided having actresses work together; they feared that the public would not be able to tell them apart. (Oboler frequently wrote plays with multiple female leads, such as “Murder in the Script Department.”)

In modern horror, a common trope is the female scream, but Oboler often incorporated high-pitched male screams, which Skjerseth finds fascinating. There’s an artistry to screaming that has so much effect in horror, she says. “Screams were just different in radio drama than they are today,” in part because of limitations in equipment and the nature of live broadcasts. Episodes could include pre-recorded sound effects or music, but voice performances were usually live.

In the radio studio, there was a danger that screams — or any loud voices — could leak into another actor’s microphone and the sound would be distorted, Skjerseth says. Microphones required calibration for shouting, and mixer operators had to be aware of gain, so that loud sounds didn’t overpower softer ones. Only one thing ever struck terror into Frankenstein’s monster’s heart, Boris Karloff said – “the microphone of a broadcasting station”.