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The History of Voice-Over – Part 1: The First 100 Years

April 12, 2021

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The History of Voice-Over – Part 1: The First 100 Years

The history of voice-over is the history of sound itself.

Well, of recorded sound, that is.

Today we are looking at the history of voice-over in extreme detail. From the earliest traces of voice recording to voice-over’s role in fighting the Nazis!

Since the capability to record and store sound has emerged, people have utilised it to immortalise their voices for many reasons.

So, join us while taking a microscope to our beloved industry and construct the most comprehensive account of its beginnings in the 19th century until the swinging 1960s.

Defining voice-over

Nowadays, voice-over refers to radio advertisements, voice acting in animations or games, audio narrations, and more. But in the industry’s primordial stages, it underwent many changes to become what we now know. For the purposes of making this a concise article, we will define voice-over as follows: the voice of an unseen narrator speaking.’

This definition allows our examination of voice-over to be unrestricted by the purpose of the final medium of publication—giving us free rein to be creative with our examination of the history of voice-over.

Where do we begin?

Storytelling is deeply woven into human culture. Campfire stories, ancient shadow puppets, folklore; what are these if not forms of voice-over?

Shadow Puppets from the History of voice-over

So technically, we could start at humanity’s genesis!

But that would take a long time, and I think it is better to look at the history of voice-over as a recorded art. Recording infers to the instruments for documenting and, in some cases, broadcasting the voice-over to a larger audience. The history of communications and voice-over are closely intertwined. How sound was transmitted and stored was crucial in the development of the VO industry.

Let’s first take a look at the oldest recorded voice-over that we still can listen to in our modern world.

 

The Acoustic Era 

1860 – Au Clair de la Lune (In the Moonlight)

The consensus among many indicates that Reginald Fessenden was the first to record a voice-over. While Fessenden’s work is undoubtedly significant, we contest that it was the first.

The invention of the Phonogram in the 1850s allowed scientists to translate sound into a visual medium. Once in this form, they could study and understand the waveform pattern left behind in a phonautograph.

There were few attempts to playback the audio replications, with even fewer surviving to today. However, one recording is still accessible now – the earliest known recording of a human voice.

A phonautograph of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, singing Au Clair de la Lune, from 1860.

 

 

You may think that this does not count because it is music. But Léon Scott was a scholar, not a singer. This song is a narration of scientific discovery. It just so happens that singing was the chosen voice-over style.

It is barely legible in places, with the speech challenging to make out amidst the static, but it remains a marvellous example of an early voice-over recording. 

 

1878 – Experimental Talking Clock

Another phonautograph recording. Frank Lambert’s Experimental Talking Clock recording was long thought to be the earliest voice recording before the discovery of the Au Clair de la Lune recording.

Lambert records himself narrating the hours on the face of a clock.

Noticeably improved, this recording’s audio quality is better than Scott’s Au Clair de la Lune, thanks to advances in technology.

 

1900 – Reginald Fessenden’s Weather Broadcast

Inventor Reginald Fessenden was so impressed with Alexander Graham Bell’s “Telephone” that he set out to send audio communication wirelessly!

He succeeded in this goal by using radio signals to transmit his voice in a 1-mile radius. Fessenden chose to narrate a special broadcast describing the weather. Whilst it is undeniably an impressive feat, it still lacked quality despite further advances in technology.

The broadcast was too distorted to be commercially viable, but at least it worked! And to this day, it proves to be a quintessential example of voice-over’s first steps. 

 

1906 – Reginald Fessenden: First voice on Radio Broadcast

Reginald Fessenden continued to make progress, and by 1906, Fessenden had heavily improved his technology. The accomplishments in radio-based communication allowed for superior quality and farther-reaching broadcasts when compared to his 1900 demonstration.

Marconi and the first radio in voice-over history

Pictured: Marconi – the inventor of the radio.

During the Christmas of 1906, Fessenden transmitted a live radio message which featured festive messages and biblical readings across a radius of 11 miles. Many ships and coastal stations in the vicinity reported hearing the broadcast voice-over—a milestone in the industry’s history.

To this day, the voice-over industry is linked intrinsically to radio broadcasting.

 

1926 – The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is formed

Few institutions pushed forward quality programming as the BBC did at this time. Before becoming the Corporation we all know today, the BBC was the British Broadcasting Company, a consortium of radio manufacturers. This group did not last long, and so it was that the BBC— a non-commercial public broadcaster (that did not answer to the government) was born in its stead.

The first director-general of the BBC, Lord John Reith, was a fierce advocate for the Royal Charter: “Inform, Educate, and Entertain” and they would go on to revolutionise broadcast for the entire world.

The BBC would provide King George V’s speech over radio channels across the entire British Empire simultaneously. In addition to this, they were responsible for the first foreign language broadcast to the Arab world. 

 

1926 – My Old Kentucky Home

History tends to side-line this instance of a commercially released sound-based cartoon for understandable reasons. 

DISCLAIMER: This video is a product of its time. It includes prejudiced and racist terminology that is morally reprehensible. 

But we think it represents a significant step in recorded voice acting performance. Not mentioning it in the history of voice-over would be a misstep.

Many were vying for the opportunity to make audio-visual entertainment a reality at this time. It stands as a testament to the competitiveness of animation and voice acting in this era. 

The Fleischer brothers were responsible for this animation, which features various sound effects and a song. The song was created as a sing-along for the viewers. You can see an animated ball bouncing across the song’s lyrics in sync with the music and vocals.

This animated short used the Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone to make the recordingThe Vitaphone was an analogue audio recording device that recorded sound-on-disc. Therefore in cinemas, the sounds played separately to the film syncing with the film timecode.

 

1927 – The Jazz Singer

Another important milestone. The Jazz Singer by Warner Bros was another example of using the classic sound-on-disc technology of the Vitaphone to make vocal recordings. It features six songs performed by Al Jolson.

The Vitaphone was an analogue audio recording device that recorded sound-on-disc. Therefore in cinemas, the sounds played separately to the film syncing with the film’s timecode.

While not precisely voice-over, it is regardless worth mentioning because it brought about an end to the era of silent movies.

 

The Electrical Era 

1928Steamboat Willie

Steamboat Willie is a legendary and classic Disney animation. The first of many to put the Disney name in every child’s mind. Steamboat Willie was Disney’s first commercially released cartoon to include voice-over and sound effects and the first fully synchronised cartoon using sound in history.

Walt Disney performed the grunts and character noises by himself, one of the first people to enact animation voice-over commercially.

Walt Disney lent his voice for the role of Mickey Mouse for years, through to 1947. In many ways, Walt Disney was a pioneer of voice-over and voice acting in its earliest years. What seems clear is that voice-over started as a more literal term. That being “voice over picture”.

At face value, Steamboat Willie is no different from what came before. What makes it significant is that the film does not use Vitaphone technology for sound recording or playback.

Instead, Walt Disney employed the use of the Cinephone from the Pat Powers company. A legally dubious clone of the famous Phonofilm by Lee De Forest. The Phonofilm was an optical sound-on-film system, which is a departure from the Vitaphone’s sound-on-disc format.

Lee de Forest and his Phonofilm invention

The Phonofilm recordings translated analogue sounds from the voice-over actors into electrical waveforms through a microphone. Then printing the electrical waveforms directly on to the film—the sound waves are played simultaneously with the pictures.

The progenitor of modern sound systems and voice-over, quickly becoming the industry standard in film and animation productions. It was cheaper, easier to distribute, and allowed editing – all advantages over the classic Vitaphone.

This system of sound-on-film made the process of what-would-become Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR) simpler. The audio played on film means there is no requirement to synch audio separately later, which eased the burden of already tedious looping sessions.

1932 – Tarzan’s signature

Tarzan’s call, yell, howl—whatever you name it— is iconic. Everyone has heard the classic sound of the King of the Jungle as he swings through the vines. How exactly they created the iconic cry is in dispute—achieved by editing the original sound, made by Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller during post-production. There is even speculation that Opera singer Llyod Thomas Leech may have had his voice integrated into the recording.

Regardless of the truth, Tarzan’s signature call is possibly the earliest example of applying effects to a voice. It shows where audio editing and voice-over were, at this period. Contemporary audio recording techniques facilitated by rapid audio engineering development. The arrival of multitrack audio.

Multitrack audio is a substantial development in the history of voice-over. It represents the ability to record a voice-over on one track, while music and other sound effects are on a separate track.
This process minimises overlapping sounds and means you could mix voice-over for animations and ADR for films more accurately, which allows for audio levels to be adjusted for different tracks independently.

1936 – Mel Blanc

Cartoons began to take off in the 30s, with Disney and Looney Tunes gaining notoriety with their short films. And so began the Golden Age of Animation.

The proliferation of animated film also gave way to the rise of voice-over use. While the need for professional voice actors grew, the respect and acclaim due to them did not. The public did not consider voice actors proper actors. Most films at this time did not even credit the voice talent!

Thankfully, Mel Blanc ignited a shift in this attitude.

Walt Disney may have given Micky Mouse his first voice, but he was no performer. Mel Blanc joined Leon Schlesinger Productions in 1936 to voice a host of Looney Tunes characters, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tasmanian Devil, and more. The Man of a Thousand Voices; was a genuinely versatile voice actor.

Blanc started his voice-over career in radio before moving to animations, making him a trailblazer in voice-over as entertainment. Credited for his work in Looney Tunes, which helped open the floodgates to voice actors getting the respect they deserve.

 

1938 – Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds

While the British radio industry was strictly under the BBC’s control, the United States had an opposing philosophy of competition, creating an environment where multiple prominent studios would vie for audiences’ attention. This approach helped promote the entertainment opportunities radio broadcast represented and let the market decide the winners and losers.

Radio Dramas were becoming a household concept increasingly at this time. The seminal War of the Worlds production, perhaps the most infamous radio drama ever, was voiced and narrated by Orson Welles himself and various voice actors.

For those unaware, The War of the Worlds is a novel by H.G. Wells, wherein Aliens from Mars attack the Earth in great machines. The Martians desolated humanity’s defences until their defeat by Earth’s smallest of lifeforms. Germs. Their lack of immunity to Earth’s pathogens swiftly killed the alien invaders and put an end to their evil plans.

What made the broadcast infamous was many of the American audience believing it to be happening! The mass hysteria and sheer panic that erupted was an iconic moment in the history of voice-over.

The War of the Worlds has received various accolades since its broadcast and is even hosted as part of the National Recording Registry – immortalising it for all time.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells became the most infamous radio drama in the history of voice-over.

The 1940s – Voice-over vs the Nazis

Voice-over was instrumental to keeping morale high during the Second World War. While Britain was under siege during the Blitz, radio hosts and radio drama broadcasts were critical forms of news and entertainment. With programmes like “It’s that man again” managing to reach 40% of citizens, it provided entertainment the British population could eagerly anticipate.

Thanks to a decentralised radio broadcast system, the BBC’s radio efforts were impossible for Axis powers to disable. Essentially a news voice-over service, it allowed for continuing transmission to detail the impact of each night of the Blitz.

Of course, radio capabilities were not limited to Allied forces. The Axis nations utilised this same concept to indoctrinate their population via radio propaganda. The Nazi regime in Germany had tight control over the country’s radio broadcasts, only airing approved Nazi programming. A cornerstone of the Nazi propaganda machine, this chokehold on legitimate news was also Nazi Germany’s biggest weakness – which Sefton Delmer exploited.

Delmer, fluent in German, was a British radio personality and journalist who masqueraded as a fervent Hitler fanatic and undermined the Nazi image by sounding foolish. His efforts had a significant impact on German citizens, continually eluding the regime’s ability to censor.

He even earned his place in Hiter’s Black Book – a directory of all people to be arrested should the Nazis ever occupy Britain.

Undoubtedly one of the most significant accolades that any voice-over artist has ever achieved.

 

The 1950s – Voice-over on the small screen

During the 1950s, the United States took the plunge into commercial television. Many countries used the public service model. But, the U.S. used its affection for the free market to proliferate TV advertising.

Advertisements on TV fondly referred to as TVCs (Television Commercials) in the voice-over industry, would frequently feature voice-over. 

Many TV advertisements feature a short story or scene and ‘tag’ a voice-over at the end with the offer. Recording tags was a milestone in the history of voice-over. It’s now commonplace in the industry to record tags for internet ads, social media promos, and cinema commercials.

The 1950s also represents a time where Disney’s growing dominance in the Animation industry continued at pace, setting the stage for today’s modern goliath. We should never forget voice acting’s role in cementing Disney’s position.

 

The 1960s – Don LaFontaine

We were once “In a world…” where the signature movie trailer voice-over didn’t exist!

This chapter in the history of voice-over was contributed to by the legendary voice-over artist – Don LaFontaine.

LaFontaine deftly bridged the gap between the commercial and the cinematic worlds. Lending his voice to thousands of movie trailers, LaFontaine was one of the busiest voice-over artists in history.

At this time, mass-market films were becoming the norm, and LaFontaine’s epic voice a boon to cinema-goers. His distinct style drumming up anticipation for new releases and helped make voice-over the respected profession we all know and love.
Along with other masters of voice-over like Hal Douglas and Don Morrow, his work achieved cliche status.

Next time

While that concludes the first half of our exploration of voice-over history, we’re not done yet!
This industry has a vibrant early history that helped shape the media we take for granted today. Next week, in part two, we will look at the history of voice-over right up until the modern-day. We may even take a stab at predicting the future.


Further Reading:

Article contributors:

  • Writer: Michael Sum
  • Editor: Al Black

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