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Typesubsidiary of Warner Bros.
United States
Products Motion pictures
Parent Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Engineer E. B. Craft is holding a soundtrack disc. The turntable, on a massive tripod base, is at lower center. VitaphoneDemo.jpg
A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Engineer E. B. Craft is holding a soundtrack disc. The turntable, on a massive tripod base, is at lower center.
Premiere of Don Juan in New York City First-nighters posing for the camera outside the Warners' Theater before the premiere of "Don Juan" with John Barrymore, - NARA - 535750.jpg
Premiere of Don Juan in New York City

Vitaphone was a sound film system used for feature films and nearly 1,000 short subjects made by Warner Bros. and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1931. Vitaphone was the last major analog sound-on-disc system and the only one that was widely used and commercially successful. The soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but issued separately on phonograph records. The discs, recorded at 33+13  rpm (a speed first used for this system) and typically 16 inches (41 cm) in diameter, would be played on a turntable physically coupled to the projector motor while the film was being projected. It had a frequency response of 4300 Hz. [1] Many early talkies, such as The Jazz Singer (1927), used the Vitaphone system. The name "Vitaphone" derived from the Latin and Greek words, respectively, for "living" and "sound".


The "Vitaphone" trademark was later associated with cartoons and other short subjects that had optical soundtracks and did not use discs.

Early history

In the early 1920s, Western Electric was developing both sound-on-film and sound-on-disc systems, aided by the purchase of Lee De Forest's Audion amplifier tube in 1913, consequent advances in public address systems, and the first practical condenser microphone, which Western Electric engineer E.C. Wente had created in 1916 and greatly improved in 1922. De Forest debuted his own Phonofilm sound-on-film system in New York City on April 15, 1923, but due to the relatively poor sound quality of Phonofilm and the impressive state-of-the-art sound heard in Western Electric's private demonstrations, the Warner Brothers decided to go forward with the industrial giant and the more familiar disc technology.

The business was established at Western Electric's Bell Laboratories in New York City and acquired by Warner Bros. in April 1925. [2] Warner Bros. introduced Vitaphone on August 5, 1926 with the premiere of their silent feature Don Juan , [3] which had been retrofitted with a symphonic musical score and sound effects. There was no spoken dialog. The feature was preceded by a program of short subjects with live-recorded sound, nearly all featuring classical instrumentalists and opera stars. The only "pop music" artist was guitarist Roy Smeck and the only actual "talkie" was the short film that opened the program: four minutes of introductory remarks by motion picture industry spokesman Will Hays.

Don Juan was able to draw huge sums of money at the box office, [2] but was not able to match the expensive budget Warner Bros. put into the film's production. [4] After its financial failure, Paramount head Adolph Zukor offered Sam Warner a deal as an executive producer for Paramount if he brought Vitaphone with him. [5] Sam, not wanting to take any more of Harry Warner's refusal to move forward with using sound in future Warner films, agreed to accept Zukor's offer, [5] but the deal died after Paramount lost money in the wake of Rudolph Valentino's death. [5] Harry eventually agreed to accept Sam's demands. [6] Sam then pushed ahead with a new Vitaphone feature starring Al Jolson, the Broadway dynamo who had already scored a big hit with early Vitaphone audiences in A Plantation Act , a musical short released on October 7, 1926. On October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer premiered at the Warner Theater in New York City, broke box-office records, established Warner Bros. as a major player in Hollywood, and is traditionally credited with single-handedly launching the talkie revolution.

At first, the production of Vitaphone shorts and the recording of orchestral scores were strictly a New York phenomenon, taking advantage of the bountiful supply of stage and concert hall talent there, but the Warners soon migrated some of this activity to their more spacious facilities on the West Coast. Dance band leader Henry Halstead is given credit for starring in the first Vitaphone short subject filmed in Hollywood instead of New York. Carnival Night in Paris (1927) featured the Henry Halstead Orchestra and a cast of hundreds of costumed dancers in a Carnival atmosphere.


From the perspective of the cast and crew on the sound stage, there was little difference between filming with Vitaphone and a sound-on-film system. In the early years of sound, the noisy cameras and their operators were enclosed in soundproofed booths with small windows made of thick glass. Cables suspended the microphones in fixed positions just above camera range, and sometimes they were hidden behind objects in the scene. The recording machines were usually located in a separate building to completely isolate them from sound stage floor vibrations and other undesirable influences. The audio signal was sent from an on-stage monitoring and control booth to the recording room over a heavy shielded cable. Synchronization was maintained by driving all the cameras and recorders with synchronous electric motors powered from a common source. When music and sound effects were being recorded to accompany existing film footage, the film was projected so that the conductor could synchronize the music with the visual cues and it was the projector, rather than a camera, that was electrically interlocked with the recording machine.

Except for the unusual disc size and speed, the physical record-making process was the same one employed by contemporary record companies to make smaller discs for home use. The recording lathe cut an audio-signal-modulated spiral groove into the polished surface of a thick round slab of wax-like material rotating on a turntable. The wax was much too soft to be played in the usual way, but a specially supported and guided pickup could be used to play it back immediately in order to detect any sound problems that might have gone unnoticed during the filming. If problems were found, the scene could then be re-shot while everything was still in place, minimizing additional expense. Even the lightest playback caused some damage to the wax master, so it was customary to employ two recorders and simultaneously record two waxes, one to play and the other to be sent for processing if that "take" of the scene was approved. At the processing plant, the surface of the wax was rendered electrically conductive and electroplated to produce a metal mold or "stamper" with a ridge instead of a groove, and this was used to press hard shellac discs from molten "biscuits" of the raw material. [7]

Because of the universal desirability of an immediate playback capability, even studios using sound-on-film systems employed a wax disc "playback machine" in tandem with their film recorders, as it was impossible to play an optical recording until it had made the round trip to the film processing laboratory. [7]

A Vitaphone-equipped theater had normal projectors which had been furnished with special phonograph turntables and pickups; a fader; an amplifier; and a loudspeaker system. The projectors operated just as motorized silent projectors did, but at a fixed speed of 24 frames per second and mechanically interlocked with the attached turntables. When each projector was threaded, the projectionist would align a start mark on the film with the film gate, then cue up the corresponding soundtrack disc on the turntable, being careful to place the phonograph needle at a point indicated by an arrow scribed on the record's surface. When the projector was started, it rotated the linked turntable and (in theory) automatically kept the record "in sync" (correctly synchronized) with the projected image. [7]

The Vitaphone process made several improvements over previous systems:

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

After the improvement of the competing sound-on-film systems, Vitaphone's disadvantages led to its retirement early in the sound era. Warner Bros. and First National stopped recording directly to disc and switched to RCA Photophone sound-on-film recording. Warner Bros. had to publicly concede that Vitaphone was being retired, but put a positive spin on it by announcing that Warner films would now be available in both sound-on-film and sound-on-disc versions. Thus, instead of making a grudging admission that its technology had become obsolete, Warner Bros. purported to be doing the entire movie industry a favor.

Despite the fact that Warner Bros. still used Vitaphone as a brand name, the soundtrack-disc era was largely over by 1931. [10] Many theater owners, who had invested heavily in Vitaphone equipment only a short time before, were financially unable or unwilling to replace their sound-on-disc-only equipment. Their continuing need for discs compelled most Hollywood studios to prepare sets of soundtrack discs for their new films, made by dubbing from the optical soundtracks, and supply them as required. This practice continued, although on an ever-dwindling scale, through 1937.

Vitaphone soundtrack discs

In 1924–1925, when Western Electric established the format of the system which would eventually be named Vitaphone, they settled on a 16-inch (41 cm) diameter disc rotating at 33+13  rpm as a good practical compromise of disc size and speed. The slow speed permitted the 11-minute playing time needed to match the maximum running time of a then-standard 1000 foot (300 meter) reel of film projected at 24  fps, yet the increased diameter preserved the average effective groove velocity, and therefore the sound quality, of a smaller, shorter-playing record rotating at the then-standard speed of about 78 rpm. [11]

Like ordinary pre-vinyl records, Vitaphone discs were made of a shellac compound rendered lightly abrasive by its major constituent, finely pulverized rock. Such records were played with a very inexpensive, imprecisely mass-produced steel needle with a point that quickly wore to fit the contour of the groove, but then went on to wear out in the course of playing one disc side, after which it was meant to be discarded and replaced. Unlike ordinary records, Vitaphone discs were recorded inside out, so that the groove started near the synchronization arrow scribed in the blank area around the label and proceeded outward. During playback, the needle would therefore be fresh where the groove's undulations were most closely packed and needed the most accurate tracing, and suffering from wear only as the much more widely spaced and easily traced undulations toward the edge of the disc were encountered.

Initially, Vitaphone discs had a recording on one side only, each reel of film having its own disc. As the sound-on-disc method was slowly relegated to second-class status, cost-cutting changes were instituted, first by making use of both sides of each disc for non-consecutive reels of film, then by reducing the discs to 14 or 12 inches (36 or 30 cm) in diameter. The use of RCA Victor's new "Vitrolac", a lightweight, flexible and less abrasive vinyl-based compound, made it possible to downsize the discs while actually improving their sound quality. [12]

There were exceptions to the 16-inch (41 cm) standard size of 1920s Vitaphone discs. In the case of very short films, such as trailers and some of the earliest musical shorts, the recording, still cut at 33+13  rpm and working outward from a minimum diameter of about 7+12 inches (19 cm), was pressed on a 12-or-10-inch (30 or 25 cm) disc when the smaller size sufficed.

Vitaphone shorts

Warners bought the Vitagraph studio in 1925 and used its Brooklyn, New York facility to produce its new, experimental talking pictures. Although Warners' sound feature films were made in Hollywood, most of the short subjects were made in New York, and Vitaphone shorts became a fixture in movie-theater programs through 1940. Many major names in show business filmed their acts for posterity, and many stars of the future made their screen debuts for Vitaphone. Among those performers who made early film appearances in Vitaphone shorts filmed at the Flatbush studios: Al Jolson, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Adelaide Hall, Spencer Tracy, Jack Benny, Sammy Davis Jr., Sylvia Sidney, Pat O'Brien, Ruth Etting, Mischa Elman, Frances Langford, Betty Hutton, Burns and Allen, Giovanni Martinelli, Xavier Cugat, Bill Robinson, Lillian Roth, Joan Blondell, Judith Anderson, Ethel Merman, Abbe Lane, Eleanor Powell, Helen Morgan, The Nicholas Brothers, Milton Berle, Leo Carrillo, Harriet Nelson, Brian Donlevy, Jane Froman, Jack Haley, Phil Silvers, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Judy Canova, Nina Mae McKinney, Marjorie Main, Rose Marie, Joe Penner, Ethel Waters, June Allyson, Shemp Howard, Lanny Ross, Lionel Stander, Edgar Bergen, and Cyd Charisse.

The Vitaphone Project

In 1991, The Vitaphone Project was started by a group of five vintage record collectors and movie enthusiasts. [13] Since the soundtrack discs and film prints of Vitaphone productions often became separated, The Vitaphone Project searches for original 16-inch soundtrack discs and mute film elements that go with surviving soundtrack discs. The Vitaphone Project borrows or purchases soundtrack discs from private collectors and often works with the restoration labs at the University of California at Los Angeles to create new 35mm preservation prints that combine the original picture and sound elements. The Vitaphone Project also often partners with the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute. [14]

As of December 2016, The Vitaphone Project had located about 6,500 soundtrack discs in private collections and helped preserve 125 films, 12 of which were feature-length films. They have also raised $400,000 in donations, with Hugh Hefner being a notable donor. [14]

The Vitaphone Project has been able to help restore films featuring stars such as Rose Marie and Al Jolson. They also worked with Warner Brothers to restore 1929's Why Be Good? , the final silent film made by Colleen Moore. [14] Funding raised by The Vitaphone Project was used to restore 1928's The Beau Brummels , starring vaudeville duo Al Shaw and Sam Lee, which was added to the National Film Registry in 2016. [15] [16]


Warners' short-subject division The Vitaphone Corporation (officially dissolved at the end of 1959) is best remembered for releasing the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. In the 1950s, the Warner Bros. record label boasted "Vitaphonic" high-fidelity recording. In the 1960s, the end titles of Merrie Melodies cartoons (beginning with From Hare to Heir (1960)) carried the legend "A Vitaphone Release". Looney Tunes of the same period (beginning with that same year's Hopalong Casualty ) were credited as "A Vitagraph Release", making further use of the name of Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, which the Warners had bought in 1925, used as a facility for working out practical sound film production techniques and filming some early musical shorts, and from which a name for the previously nameless Western Electric sound-on-disc system had been derived. By late 1968, the Vitaphone/Vitagraph titles had become swapped inbetween the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series titles.

Vitaphone was among the first 25 inductees into the TECnology Hall of Fame at its establishment in 2004, an honor given to "products and innovations that have had an enduring impact on the development of audio technology." The award notes that Vitaphone, though short-lived, helped in popularizing theater sound and was critical in stimulating the development of the modern sound reinforcement system. [17]

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

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Warner Bros.</span> American entertainment company

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. is an American film and entertainment studio headquartered at the Warner Bros. Studios complex in Burbank, California, and a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Discovery. Founded in 1923 by four brothers, Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner, the company established itself as a leader in the American film industry before diversifying into animation, television, and video games and is one of the "Big Five" major American film studios, as well as a member of the Motion Picture Association (MPA).

Sound film A motion picture with synchronized sound

A sound film is a motion picture with synchronized sound, or sound technologically coupled to image, as opposed to a silent film. The first known public exhibition of projected sound films took place in Paris in 1900, but decades passed before sound motion pictures became commercially practical. Reliable synchronization was difficult to achieve with the early sound-on-disc systems, and amplification and recording quality were also inadequate. Innovations in sound-on-film led to the first commercial screening of short motion pictures using the technology, which took place in 1923.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vitagraph Studios</span> American film studio

Vitagraph Studios, also known as the Vitagraph Company of America, was a United States motion picture studio. It was founded by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, as the American Vitagraph Company. By 1907, it was the most prolific American film production company, producing many famous silent films. It was bought by Warner Bros. in 1925.

Sound-on-disc is a class of sound film processes using a phonograph or other disc to record or play back sound in sync with a motion picture. Early sound-on-disc systems used a mechanical interlock with the movie projector, while more recent systems use timecode.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sam Warner</span> American film studio executive

Samuel Louis Warner was an American film producer who was the co-founder and chief executive officer of Warner Bros. He established the studio along with his brothers Harry, Albert, and Jack L. Warner. Sam Warner is credited with procuring the technology that enabled Warner Bros. to produce the film industry's first feature-length talking picture, The Jazz Singer. He died in 1927, on the day before the film's enormously successful premiere.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sound-on-film</span> Class of sound film processes

Sound-on-film is a class of sound film processes where the sound accompanying a picture is recorded on photographic film, usually, but not always, the same strip of film carrying the picture. Sound-on-film processes can either record an analog sound track or digital sound track, and may record the signal either optically or magnetically. Earlier technologies were sound-on-disc, meaning the film's soundtrack would be on a separate phonograph record.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stereophonic sound</span> Method of sound reproduction using two audio channels

Stereophonic sound or more commonly stereo, is a method of sound reproduction that recreates a multi-directional, 3-dimensional audible perspective. This is usually achieved by using two independent audio channels through a configuration of two loudspeakers in such a way as to create the impression of sound heard from various directions, as in natural hearing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Albert Warner</span> American film executive

Abraham "Albert" Warner was an American film executive who was one of the founders of Warner Bros. He established the production studio with his brothers Harry, Sam, and Jack L. Warner. He served as the studio's treasurer, until he sold his stock in 1956.

Movietone sound system Sound system for film

The Movietone sound system is an optical sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures that guarantees synchronization between sound and picture. It achieves this by recording the sound as a variable-density optical track on the same strip of film that records the pictures. The initial version was capable of a frequency response of 8500 Hz. Although sound films today use variable-area tracks, any modern motion picture theater can play a Movietone film without modification to the projector. Movietone was one of four motion picture sound systems under development in the U.S. during the 1920s, the others being DeForest Phonofilm, Warner Brothers' Vitaphone, and RCA Photophone, though Phonofilm was primarily an early version of Movietone.

<i>Don Juan</i> (1926 film) 1926 film by Alan Crosland

Don Juan is a 1926 American romantic adventure film directed by Alan Crosland. It is the first feature-length film to utilize the Vitaphone sound-on-disc sound system with a synchronized musical score and sound effects, though it has no spoken dialogue. The film is inspired by Lord Byron's 1821 epic poem of the same name. The screenplay was written by Bess Meredyth with intertitles by Maude Fulton and Walter Anthony.

The history of sound recording - which has progressed in waves, driven by the invention and commercial introduction of new technologies — can be roughly divided into four main periods:

RCA Photophone Early film audio synchronization system

RCA Photophone was the trade name given to one of four major competing technologies that emerged in the American film industry in the late 1920s for synchronizing electrically recorded audio to a motion picture image. RCA Photophone was an optical sound, "variable-area" film exposure system, in which the modulated area (width) corresponded to the waveform of the audio signal. The three other major technologies were the Warner Bros. Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, as well as two "variable-density" sound-on-film systems, Lee De Forest's Phonofilm, and Fox-Case's Movietone.

Phonofilm is an optical sound-on-film system developed by inventors Lee de Forest and Theodore Case in the early 1920s.

Perspecta was a directional motion picture sound system, invented by the laboratories at Fine Sound Inc. in 1954. The company was founded by Mercury Records engineer C. Robert (Bob) Fine, husband of producer Wilma Cozart Fine. As opposed to magnetic stereophonic soundtracks available at the time, Perspecta's benefits were that it did not require a new sound head for the projector and thus was a cheaper alternative.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Optical sound</span>

Optical sound is a means of storing sound recordings on transparent film. Originally developed for military purposes, the technology first saw widespread use in the 1920s as a sound-on-film format for motion pictures. Optical sound eventually superseded all other sound film technologies until the advent of digital sound became the standard in cinema projection booths. Optical sound has also been used for multitrack recording and for creating effects in some musical synthesizers.

Finding His Voice (1929) is a short film, created as an instructional film on how the Western Electric sound-on-film recording system worked. Recording stars Billy Murray and Walter Scanlan, uncredited, provide the speaking and singing voices. Murray also provided the voice for the Fleischer Studios character Bimbo.

<i>My Man</i> (1928 film) 1928 film

My Man is a 1928 black and white part-talkie American comedy-drama musical film directed by Archie Mayo starring Fanny Brice and featuring Guinn "Big Boy" Williams. It was Brice's feature film debut at the age of 37. She was a star in the Ziegfeld Follies before she started acting in motion pictures. At the time Warner Bros. made this film there were still some silent movies in production and being released. My Man used intertitles but included talking sequences, synchronized music, and sound effects using a Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. It was not until 1929 that talking movies would completely take over, but Warner Bros. had completely stopped making silent movies and switched to sound pictures by the end of that year, either part talking or full talking. Warner Bros. also started making movies in color as well as sound movies.

Bubbles is a 1930 American Vitaphone Varieties short film released by Warner Bros. in Technicolor. It was filmed in December 1929 at the First National Pictures studio with Western Electric apparatus, an early sound-on-film system, Rel. No. 3898. Bubbles is one of the earliest surviving recordings of Judy Garland on film, at 8 years old.

Vitaphone Varieties is a series title used for all of Warner Bros.', earliest short film "talkies" of the 1920s, initially made using the Vitaphone sound on disc process before a switch to the sound-on-film format early in the 1930s. These were the first major film studio-backed sound films, initially showcased with the 1926 synchronized scored features Don Juan and The Better 'Ole. Although independent producers like Lee de Forest's Phonofilm were successfully making sound film shorts as early as 1922, they were very limited in their distribution and their audio was generally not as loud and clear in theaters as Vitaphone's. The success of the early Vitaphone shorts, initially filmed only in New York, helped launch the sound revolution in Hollywood.



  1. "AES Historical Committee". Retrieved 31 March 2018.
  2. 1 2 Sperling, Millner, and Warner (1998), p. 111.
  3. Vitaphone at the American Film Institute Catalog
  4. Sperling, Millner, and Warner (1998), p. 113.
  5. 1 2 3 Sperling, Millner, and Warner (1998), p. 114.
  6. Sperling, Millner, and Warner (1998), p. 116.
  7. 1 2 3 Gitt, Robert; Belton, John (1993). "Bringing Vitaphone Back to Life". Film History. 5 (3): 262–274. JSTOR   3815141.
  8. Douglas Self. "The Auxetophone" . Retrieved 31 March 2018.
  9. The initial garbling of image and sound simulated in the Singin' in the Rain scene are a far better depiction of a major foul-up in sound-on-film projection than of a sound-on-disc glitch, but the following comical mismatches are a fair depiction of the sort of memorable problem that could disrupt a Vitaphone presentation on a bad day.
  10. Monaghan, Peter (December 17, 2016). "A Resounding 25 Years of Reviving Early Film". Moving Image Archive News. Retrieved April 22, 2021.
  11. Grayson, Eric. "Grayson on Film: Sounds and Silences", Classic Images . September 2022
  12. Barton, F.C. (1932 [1931]). Victrolac Motion Picture Records. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, April 1932 18(4):452–460 (accessed at on 5 August 2011)
  13. "The Vitaphone Project Turns 20". Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy. 2011-08-02. Retrieved 2021-02-10.
  14. 1 2 3 Monaghan, Peter (17 December 2016). "A Resounding 25 Years of Reviving Early Film". Moving Image Archive News. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  15. "Shaw & Lee 1928 Vitaphone Short Chosen for 2016 National Film Registry by Library of Congress". The Vitaphone Project. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  16. "2016 additions to the National Film Registry". CBS News. CBS News. Retrieved 11 December 2017.
  17. Mix Foundation. TECnology Hall of Fame, 2004

Further reading