I'm fascinated by "vintage" film making - the look, sound, acting, stories - from the early days of film. I'm especially in love with the sound of dialog and foley during the 40s and 50s.

I recently started watching Mad Men, the AMC series, and really enjoy the way they present the show - accurate set design, sound, even the cuts and fades are dead on with the style of the time period they are portraying.

Question is a two parter:

  1. What made films from that time period sound they way they do? Is it lo-fi recording? Heavy compression? The mics they used? Were foley and ADR techniques vastly different?
  2. What is the best way to recreate that type of sound? Using vintage gear? Batteries of compression and EQing?

Here is a good, brief example of what I mean by this type of sound.



5 Answers 5


The LA3A is an optical compressor...meaning it has a light sensor/attenuator inside of it which controls the gain reduction circuit. They usually sound vintage because they have a gentle release time. I'm sure opto compressors were used on older film dialog mixes.

Optical film sound is much different from optical compression. It is a strip printed on a film that is hit with a lamp on one side and a photodetector on the other. The photodector translates the light into sound. These photodetectors weren't all that well designed and often led to a warbled lofi sound.

Check out the Optigan, which is an organ made by Mattel in the 1970s that plays optical sound disks...a wonderful sound:


In the 1950s optical soundtracks on film were replaced by magnetic soundtracks.

On the film Up, the Skywalker crew took the newsreel narration, music etc. and recorded it to an optical track, then recorded back to digital. It sounded great and spot on. I would think you could fake the sound or come pretty close using Audio Ease's Speakerphone or Izotope Vinyl.

A big part of the sound from that time I would think, is analog gear, old ribbon and tube microphones, the warble/wow/flutter of optical and mag sound, less dense fx cutting, and of course, mono.


Back in the day, it was an all analogue path - recording on Nagra 1/4" tape, transferring to 35mm sep mag and then sound editing via cutting that mag (I know a semi-retired local who was infamous for doing fades either by scratching off the mag, or using sweeps with a head demagnetizer to erase some of the signal!) All those rolls of sep mag feeding an analogue desk, using lots of very high quality analogue outboard... all with no automation! But apart from technology it was also a very different creative process, decision making could not be put off until the mix - priorities had to be established early on....

btw for some excellent recreation of vintage film sound techniques, check out this film: Berberian Sound Studio - it is so great!!!





Before buying different mics which is still a great idea I'd say +1 for Audioease Speakerphone I bought it in 2008 and use it daily at work and it's just amazing! as is Altiverb also from Audioease, this is the best reverb suite there is! try their stuff - send Aram an email ask if you can give these a go and if you have an iLOK he'll likely give you a 30 day demo (full working demo) try it in your projects and you might even want to buy it, I did but atleast you get to use it for 30 days. He has another indespensible piece of software called Snapper this is a 100 day demo - which you can get right now it won't give you a Mad Men sound but will help out your workflow. Who gives a 100 day demo?......someone selling something they know you will absolutely want to own, Audioease are amazing!


There was also an issue with generation loss. Sometimes by the end of the re-recording session you could be on anything up to the 7th generation of the sound, I've also heard of higher figures. That means that there were multiple chances for the sound to be altered by the medium it was stored on, such as saturation, print through or even physical damage. This effect was cumulative and gives films that used analogue sound a "colouration" that is not present with modern digital sound.


I would say that it's not anything specifically, but all the limitations combined. Thus I think that the best way to approach understanding the situation and techniques back in the days is to limit yourself to tools and possibilities that were available back then. Limited track counts, lower fidelity recording equipment and medium that degrades and varies during playback/handling/storage, expensive equipment (which means that perhaps you couldn't afford buying 20 mics for different purposes or individual sound sources, but one or two mics), slow/cumbersome editing and playback procedures and no undo (which meant that you wanted to screw up or play around less and focus more on making recordings, edits and everything "just right" on first tries or that you focused more on good practices than what the gear does or doesn't do for you).

Technologically I think that tape (and tape recorders) is a major contributor to the sound quality. Possibly vintage mics also and only after that other gear (think for example not having parametric EQs that have 10 freely sweepable bands or not having "unlimited instances" of those EQs).

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