The Warner Bros. Sound

by John Pellegrini

Warner-Bros-LogoEver notice how certain things can grab your attention by sound alone? Even when visuals are attached, it’s the sound that sets them apart from identical subjects? Ever notice that this is a subject I write about a bit frequently? Not just sounds alone, but the very nature of the sound quality itself can make a difference. Did you know that back when Norman Lear was producing All In The Family he instructed the sound engineers on the show to mix the audio track with the highest rate of compression possible. This made All In The Family the loudest show on television at that time. He wanted to capture the excitement of the performances. Sound quality makes a difference everywhere.

This is most evident with the old Warner Brothers Cartoons, the famous Looney Tunes & Merry Melodies. Fans, writers, historians, scholars, and geeks have written for decades about the glories of the Warner “attitude,” “character,” “style,” and so forth. But what they’re really talking about is the sound of the cartoons. Let’s face it, Warner’s animations were no better or worse from a visual standpoint than anything Disney or MGM, or Harvey ‘Toons created. Sure, they had their moments of artistic brilliance, and the stories also set Warner’s apart, but that’s belaboring the obvious. MGM had some pretty wild cartoons with Tom and Jerry, yet Warner’s cartoons always seemed in a class all their own. It wasn’t just from the story lines. Those old cartoons SOUNDED different. They sounded BIGGER. It was the sound of the cartoons that set them apart.

Back when I was in Grand Rapids, my PD at the time and I decided that we should look to animation drops as a nifty addition to imaging. Of course, this was before the days of the copyright mess of articles, and we wound up not using much at all. Naturally, however, when we were looking for stuff, we settled on Warner Brothers. Our afternoon DJ had purchased a Laser Disc collection of just about every single Warner Brothers cartoon ever produced. Remember Laser Discs? I borrowed his collection, rented a Laser Disc player from a video store, and watched the entire collection in one weekend. Watching that much Warner output allowed me a chance to discover unique things about the beloved cartoons, primarily that there IS such a thing as too much Warner Brothers. Also, they repeated a lot of stuff over the years (far more than I had ever imagined, in fact), and that the sound quality was really different from other cartoons. Warner’s had a really “Big” sound to the audio tracks, almost like an echo chamber processing. Also, the characters in Warner Cartoons had much more vocal depth and far more energy. They screamed and shouted much more. Why were they able to do that so much more at Warner’s than at other studios?

Of course, there were no such things as echo chambers back in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Not, at least, in the sense that we know them today. Yet, Warner Brothers Cartoons had a sound that no one else had. I wondered, obviously, how they did it? So I investigated. I read everything I could get my hands on regarding Warner Brothers Cartoons. Guess what? It turns out that the reason why Warner Brothers Cartoons sounded so much different than other studios is because Warner’s was cheaper than the others were, cheaper in the sense that the studio bosses refused to spend any more money than necessary to make the cartoons. They spent far less money on production than any of the other studios, so much so that the directors were forced to cut corners that made the sound of the cartoons different.

All this information was gleaned by reading interviews with some of the old Warner Brothers directors such as Chuck Jones and the late Bob Clampett, and from some of the voice actors such as June Foray, Daws Butler, and Stan Freberg. Essentially, the reason for the differences came down to three elements: Studio, Voice, and Music. I’ll spend some time on each subject.

Studio: Warner Brothers didn’t have one, at least not the kind of recording studio we’re used to dealing with in this business for voice-over sessions. All they had were large sound stages (“Barns” as they were nicknamed), two specially reserved for orchestras and singers, and the rest for movie production. When the animation team wanted to record voice tracks, they were forced to go to a hot set. That’s an active movie set, for those of you not hip to the showbiz patter. They would wait around for the movie crew to stop filming and go on lunch break. Then, they would run in and record the actors reading the cartoon scripts.

Stan Freberg recalled in his book It Only Hurts When I Laugh that there were many times he’d find himself and Mel Blanc standing in a living room scene or an office or nightclub scene of what would become one of Warner’s famous movies, doing goofy gopher voices (Hubie & Boitie), or the 3 bears, or Pete Puma and Bugs. They’d be working the characters while trying not to trip over a bed, or a lamp, or a desk. Sounds like a pretty surreal experience, doesn’t it?

The microphones available on these sets were primarily the boom mikes that were used for the actors in the movie. This means that the mikes were far enough away that Mel and all the actors had to talk much louder than they would have in a typical recording studio in order to be heard. But why didn’t the recording crew move the microphones, you ask? Because the set had been fixed for the movie, as far as the production crew was concerned, and the hell if these cartoon people think that anything should be moved for their benefit. This is what lead to the echo chamber ambiance that is so typical of the Warner attitude. Soundproofing being a virtually unknown commodity in those days meant you got a reverberation from the walls no matter what you did. This is also why the characters always seemed so much more energetic than other cartoons. The actors literally had to shout their lines just to achieve normal sounding dialogue.

Disney and most of the other cartoon studios had their actors record their voices in recording studio set-ups that resembled the old style radio studios with the microphone placement, as you would expect, and a certain degree of soundproofing (whatever that was back then). This meant less shouting, because the old RCA ribbon microphones couldn’t handle large close-up modulations without distortion. So, the actors kept their voices down. However, because the microphones were so far away at Warner’s, the sound quality of the voices took on the unique and highly energetic characteristics we all know so well.

Voices: Multiple voice actors enabled the wild pacing of the dialogue. Because Mel Blanc was the only actor to receive an on-screen credit, there is a mistaken tendency to attribute all the voices of the characters to him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mel, talented as he was, only voiced about a third to a half of all the characters people think he was responsible for creating. Elmer Fudd was not his. Elmer belonged to a man named Arthur Q. Bryan who was the physical inspiration for Elmer as well. Mel did take on Elmer in the 1950s after Bryan died, although he related that it took him months before he could get Elmer’s voice just right. He also stated that he really didn’t want to do Elmer at all, and had to be coaxed into it after a whole group of actors tried, including Daws Butler—who actually did play Elmer in at least one or two cartoons. Also, Porky Pig was originally voiced by an actor named Joe Dougherty, but Mel took over Porky because Dougherty couldn’t control his stuttering. Nor did Mel do the voices of Granny, Witch Hazel, Pete Puma, and many others too numerous to mention. In later years, Mel even had to give up some characters, like Yosemite Sam, because he just physically couldn’t muster the strength any more.

June Foray (Rocket J. Squirrel and Natasha Fatale), who played some of the female characters including Granny and Witch Hazel, relates that Warner paid the voice actors incredibly bad wages, so puny in fact that Mel demanded to at least get a screen credit or he’d walk out. He received one, but he was the only one out of 40 or 50 actors who contributed voices over the years to get any recognition on screen. For more details on those who did voices, see the Warner Brothers Cartoon Companion on the web. Today, when the cartoons are shown on TV, some of the other actors are finally getting the credit they deserve. The most often heard actor who supplied female voices was Bea Bernadette, best known as Kate on the ‘60s show Petticoat Junction. She was also Blanch Morton, Gracie Allen’s best friend, and the voice of Betty Rubble. Other Warner voice suppliers were Jim Backus, Stan Freberg, Daws Butler, Andy Devine, Sara Berner, Julie Bennett, Shirley Reed, Kent Rogers, Tedd Pierce (who was also one of the writers), and the list goes on. Yes, many of these folks also worked in Disney, Hanna Barbera, MGM, and Jay Ward cartoons. Most had small character parts, if any, while Mel handled the most famous voices. Also, some famous actors supplied their own voices instead of imitations, and some famous opera singers of the day were responsible for some of the singing parts, usually the female singing parts.

When I was younger, I used to marvel at how quickly Mel could change voices in the cartoons. But as I got older and more involved in radio, I began to suspect that Mel couldn’t have done them all on his own. Why? Because there are numerous situations when the characters are talking over each other, or singing duets with each other, or even more voices in one scene. They didn’t have multi-tracking capability back then. In fact, Warner didn’t even use audiotape for their recordings at all; they used film tracks. That meant no overdubbing, which meant Mel couldn’t have been the only one doing all the voices. It’s funny what you can learn while getting a edyakayshun.

Music: Warner Brothers Cartoons had a unique style of music. Disney’s music was lush and beautiful, much like the cartoons themselves. Disney had Leopold Stokowski and other famous musicians working with them. Disney cartoons introduced hit songs. Warner Brothers Cartoons made use of hit songs that were already known and a lot of other music from other sources. Carl Stalling was the Music Director that Warner Brothers assigned to the animation department. Stalling, who was both a composer and arranger, was the first Music Director to really think about the music going into the cartoons. Before him, most cartoons (including the older Warner output) just used whatever music was available. Many other cartoon houses considered the music to be nothing more than filler between dialogue. Many of the Music Directors of the old animation houses were also movie Music Directors and considered animation to be “beneath their dignity” and did only what was necessary.

Carl Stalling was different in that he thoughtfully tried to match the mood of the story through music. He believed that the music should match the insanity of the story line. This lead to some fascinating musical associations such as a jazzed-out version of Mendelssohn’s Hebredian Overture for the Myna bird in the “Inki” cartoons, and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries for “Kill the Wabbit.” It was Carl’s idea to use the Hawaiian guitar slide as the opener to the music because he thought it had a great “looney” sound. Stallings had access to everything Warner Brothers had in their music library, and he made liberal combinations of Jazz, Swing, Classical, and Folk music part of the cartoon style. He was also a big fan of composer/electrician Raymond Scott, and used many of Scott’s wild compositions in the cartoons. The result was a crazy musical ride that perfectly matched the wacky stories depicted. But, when Stalling retired in the mid 1950s, the music quality of the cartoons diminished because no one else at Warner shared Stalling’s beliefs that the cartoon music tracks deserved to be given as much serious attention as the movies the studio produced. You can immediately tell the difference between cartoons from the Stalling period and those that came before or after.

So there you have it. Three factors, primarily owing to cheapness and a determination for quality above and beyond average by certain individuals that lead to the Warner Brothers attitude. Some would argue that sound effects should be added to the list, but Warner’s sound effects department was as good as any of the studios, and they really didn’t break any new ground with their sounds, compared with the other studios of the day.

Now, let’s turn this around and examine our own work. Are we hindered by cheapness on our jobs? Do we believe that our production would sound so much better if we had those “dream” studios with all the bells and whistles? If we do, then we’re fooling ourselves. Despite Warner Brothers’ lack of providing financial support, the animation department turned out some of the greatest work that has ever been seen in the history of cartoons. Or, perhaps I should say it was because of Warner’s lack of financial help that they did all the extra effort. If Warner had allowed the animation directors to have access to everything the Disney animation directors had, they might have only produced duplicates of Disney animation. The continuing struggles the animators had toward the studio chiefs made them turn out incredible stuff in an effort to gain recognition for their work. If they’d been given carte blanche on everything from the start, the results may not have been that memorable.

Sometimes all the bells and whistles aren’t necessary to create incredible things. Sometimes the outright lack of bells and whistles forces you to be more inventive, which in turn forces a greater effort. Although I enjoy the expensive studio equipment I get to use at my job, the truth is, I haven’t done anything with it that I couldn’t produce with a single CD player, a couple of cart machines, and two open reel 2-track decks. Not that I’d want to anymore, but if I wound up with nothing else to use, I know I could work with just about anything. Creativity is a mental thing, not a technical thing. You won’t win a Clio award by just buying a fifty thousand dollar DAW.

Conversely, this is also not to say that the old methods of recording had a better sound quality. I’ll back up a bit for an explanation. The reason I began this article was the result of an interview I’d read with John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy. In the interview, he and the reporter got on a riff about how great the old Warner cartoons sounded, and Kricfalusi claimed it was due to the differences between analog and digital recording studios. Sorry, John, but that’s a load of coyote poop. The recording equipment had nothing to do with it. You give me one of those old Warner Brothers barns and the same boom microphone placements and movie set props, and the right voice actors, and I’ll re-create that same sound for you on any DAW you care to bring into the project. It’s all in the ambiance of the set and the performance of the actors and musicians, not the tape deck or hard drive that records the work.

Sound quality is a matter of performance and placement. Where you place the microphones in physical proximity to the actors makes huge amounts of difference in the overall sound quality, far more than what kind of recording device you use. Ask any Classical music producer; microphone placement creates far more variances than virtually all other aspects of a recording project. Even the extremely directional microphones we use in the typical radio production rooms can alter the over-all sound just by where the performer stands in proximity to it. You should constantly experiment with this because not everything you record should have a “swallow-the-microphone-balls-to-the-walls” sound. No variety leads to boredom, Bunky! The other big difference is how enthusiastic your performers are (voice and music) for the read. Energy levels in both the voice and the music beds chosen can make or break the audience’s interest.

Remember that the audience couldn’t care less how much money you spent on the recording studio equipment. They want you to entertain them with a great performance. People can be just as happy with a scratchy old 78-rpm recording of a song as they can with a modern one, depending solely on the strength of the performance and nothing else. Pablo Picasso was not a famous artist because he used a better paintbrush than all the other artists used. Nor will you be a better creative because you’ve got an 80-gig hard drive with 356 megs of RAM and MEGA-DAW Version 100.5.5.5.-5.5.5.5.5. You’re a better creative based only on your CREATIVE ability and nothing else. Computers are tools that make the job easier, but the story, the performance is what makes the difference between something memorable and something boring. That’s all in the brains. Pay the most attention to the story and the performance, and everything else will fall into place.

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