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RCA Photophone

rca photo phone, rca photo phone m*a*s*h
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

When Joseph P Kennedy and other investors merged Film Booking Offices of America FBO with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain and Radio Corporation of America, the resulting movie studio RKO Radio Pictures used RCA Photophone as their primary sound system In May 1929, RKO released Syncopation, the first film made in RCA Photophone


  • 1 History and licensing
  • 2 List of licensees
  • 3 Comparison of mono variable-area and variable-density
  • 4 Stereo variable-area
  • 5 RCA Photophone system abandoned – Westrex stereo variable-area system renamed Photophone
  • 6 Photophone brand abandoned
  • 7 See also
  • 8 References
  • 9 External links

History and licensingedit

In the early years following World War I, Charles A Hoxie working at General Electric GE developed a photographic film recorder, initially to record transoceanic wireless telegraphy signals However, this recorder was later adapted for recording speech and was used in 1921 to record speeches by President Coolidge and others which were broadcast over Station WGY Schenectady This recorder was called the Pallophotophone

In 1925 GE started a program to develop commercial sound-on-film equipment based on Hoxie's work Unlike the Phonofilm and Movietone systems in which the audio modulated the intensity of a recording lamp which exposed the soundtrack, thus creating a variable-density track, the GE system employed a fast-acting mirror galvanometer to create a variable-area soundtrack A number of demonstrations of this system, now known as Photophone, were given in 1926 and 1927 The first public screenings with this system were of a sound version music plus sound effects only of the silent film Wings which was exhibited as a road-show in around a dozen specially equipped theatres during 19271

In 1928 RCA Photophone Inc was created as a subsidiary of RCA itself then a GE subsidiary to commercially exploit the Photophone system The RCA system continued to use the galvanometer until the 1970s, when it became technically obsolete The Western Electric system continued to use the light valve, and, under successor ownership, is still used to this day

For nearly half a century, motion picture sound systems were licensed, with two major licensors in North America, RCA and Western Electric Northern Electric, in Canada, which licensed their principal sound element original track negative recording systems on a non-exclusive basis In general, motion picture producers elected to license one or the other In a few cases, where mergers had occurred, a producer might be licensed for both For many years, it was customary to "brand" a film with its sound system, variously as "RCA Sound Recording", "Western Electric Recording", or similar brands, often including the corporate logo of the licensor Meatball for RCA; The Voice of Action for Western Electric; Li Westrex for the post-1956 divestiture of Western Electric under Litton Industries' ownership Such branding ceased in about 1976, particularly after nearly all optical sound recording for release prints had been converted to Westrex's stereo variable-area system from RCA's and Westrex's mono systems, although there were a few examples of such branding thereafter mainly Westrex

Many years later, the Photophone trademark would be reused by the Western Electric/Westrex stereo variable-area system, after both the Western Electric and Westrex trademarks became unavailable due to corporate asset sales by the disintegrating Bell System, but the Western Electric/Westrex stereo variable-area system continued to be marketed by a successor, and it is still serviced and supported to this day, although it is no longer branded as Photophone

List of licenseesedit

Primary major producer RCA Photophone licensees include:

  • Walt Disney Productions Cinephone until 1932, RCA thereafter
  • RKO Radio Pictures
  • Republic Pictures
  • Warner Bros – First National
  • Pathé

Secondary minor producer or subsidiary RCA licensees include:

  • Mack Sennett
  • Four Star Television
  • Jam Handy Organization
  • The March of Time film was processed by DeLuxe New York, sound was recorded by RCA Victor
  • Mark VII Productions Jack Webb
  • Official Films
  • Revue Productions
  • Screen Gems
  • TCF-TV
  • Hanna-Barbera Productions
  • Terrytoons Paul Terry cartoonist Very early 1930's cartoons used Western Electric; switched to RCA by about 1933
  • Walter Lantz after 1950
  • Famous Studios
  • Soundies Soundies Distributing Corporation of America short films for 16mm jukeboxes

Primary major producer Western Electric Westrex licensees include:

  • Columbia Pictures
  • Fox Film merged with Twentieth Century Pictures to form Twentieth Century-Fox
  • Samuel Goldwyn
  • London Film Productions
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists
  • Paramount Pictures
  • Rank Organisation
  • Selznick International
  • Twentieth Century-Fox
  • Universal Pictures

Secondary minor producer or subsidiary Western Electric licensees include:

  • Hal Roach Studios also used Victor Records disc recording system on early talkies
  • Educational Pictures
  • Fleischer Studios-Famous Studios
  • Glen Glenn Sound Recording service company, supplied sound service to Desilu and other independent producers
  • Producers Releasing Corporation
  • Guild Films
  • Robert L Lippert
  • Monogram Pictures
  • National Film Board of Canada
  • Fox Movietone News
  • Ryder Sound Services
  • Technicolor
  • Todd-AO
  • Warner Bros Vitaphone
  • Ziv Television Programs
  • Snader Telescriptions short films for TV
  • CBS Television 1957–1964

Comparison of mono variable-area and variable-densityedit

Although variable-density sound system recording is usually associated with Western Electric and variable-area sound system recording is usually associated with RCA, these relationships are not cast into stone

Both variable-area systems and variable-density systems were marketed by both RCA and Western Electric, the Western Electric light valve being capable of producing either variable-density or variable-area depending on which ribbon axis was parallel to the film motion, and the RCA galvanometer was capable of producing either variable-area or variable-density depending upon the particulars of the optical system2

Roughly equal measured and perceived quality was available from both systems and from both manufacturers Neither recording system nor manufacturer was clearly superior to the other, except where specific customer end-to-end processes made one system/manufacturer more consistently superior to the other system/manufacturer

Variable-density was preferred for Technicolor sound prints as this process utilized a silver gray-scale "key" record, thereby creating a CMYK color image, and the sound track was also a silver gray-scale record, which greatly facilitated variable-density and made variable-area rather difficult The "key" record was deleted from most Technicolor prints after 1944, thereby creating a CMY color image, but Technicolor's strong preference for variable-density continued long thereafter

Variable-density was finally abandoned as customer preferences for "dual-bilateral" variable-area sound tracks emerged in the late 1950s This required changes to some laboratory processing and quality controls, but the real reason for variable-density's demise was yet to come

Stereo variable-areaedit

In the early-1970s there was renewed interest in improving the quality of optical film soundtracks

As a consequence by the early 1970s several individuals and organizations were considering improvements to the dated technical standards used for optical sound on 35mm film In particular both Dolby Labs3 and Kodak4 were investigating the use of Dolby noise reduction on optical soundtracks

In the mid-1970s Westrex Corp a wholly owned subsidiary of Litton Industries since 1956, and the successor to Western Electric's cinema sound business unit re-introduced the ca 1938 "four ribbon" light valve, and the ca 1947 RA-1231 sound recorder5

When originally introduced in 1947 the RA-1231 could be configured as a mono 35mm variable-density or variable-area recorder, or a mono 16mm variable-density or variable-area recorder, at the customer's option However its basic electro-optical arrangement could also be used to create a time-aligned, two-channel variable-area version,6 and this then became the industry standard device for recording stereo variable-area optical soundtracks

Variable-density's fate was then sealed as these stereo optical sound prints as contrasted with stereo magnetic sound prints or mono optical sound prints became a marketing imperative

When encoded utilizing Dolby Laboratories's technology itself originally being in part licensed from Sansui, the discrete L and R channels of Westrex's stereo variable-area system were renamed "Left Total" and "Right Total", and when decoded utilizing Dolby's Cinema Processor these produced the L, C, R and S sound image first popularized by Fox's CinemaScope magnetic stereo system in 1953

Stereo optical sound prints are compatible with films with any aspect ratio and with normal print film stocks with KS-type film perforations, whereas stereo magnetic sound prints require film stocks with the narrower CS-type film perforations Film with CS-type perforations can only be run on a projector fitted with special narrow-toothed sprockets or permanent damage will be done to the film An alternative is LaVezzi's VKF "Very Kind to Film" sprockets, which perform optimally on KS- as well as CS-perforated prints Stereo variable-area, therefore, provided for the first time stereo film prints of any aspect ratio 137:1/Academy through 235:1/CinemaScope, inclusive which could be run without damage on any normal 35mm cinema projector

Nearly all original track negatives OTNs are now produced as stereo variable-area, and the former Western Electric Westrex system has been renamed Photophone and has become the de facto standard for analogue optical soundtracks, world-wide

The fully implemented case of stereo variable-area ie, 4-2-4 encoding/decoding produces a stereo 31 track

The partially degenerate case of stereo variable-area ie, no 4-2-4 encoding/decoding, but discrete left total/left and right total/right produces a stereo 20 track

The fully degenerate case of stereo variable-area ie, no 4-2-4 encoding/decoding, and left total/left equal to right total/right produces a conventional "dual-bilateral" mono 10 track

RCA Photophone system abandoned – Westrex stereo variable-area system renamed Photophoneedit

Once the ability to record stereo tracks became a commercial imperative for sound-transfer facilities the RCA system was abandoned as it was incapable of producing time-aligned stereo sound negatives, whereas the Western Electric/Westrex recorders with the ca 1938 4-ribbon light valve RA-1231, eg, but not RA-1231A were inherently capable of producing time-aligned sound negatives

The Westrex system was renamed Photophone after the Western Electric and Westrex registered trademarks were sold by AT&T and Litton Industries, respectively, to others, for uses other than cinema sound systems

Renaming the Westrex system to Photophone was facilitated by the demise of RCA's cinema sound business unit, by the hand of General Electric, RCA's acquirer, and by its failure to protect the Photophone trademark

The Westrex system, briefly renamed Photophone, is still in use, with more than 100 systems currently in active service, world-wide Some users, including Disney and Warner Bros, have multiple systems The RCA system is essentially defunct

The Westrex system also has the capability of producing a DTS time-code track along with its native stereo variable-area tracks, or DTS time-code alone for use with 70mm and "special venue" prints

Photophone brand abandonededit

The re-use of the Photophone brand was relatively short-lived After the closure of the immediate successor to Litton, the RA-1231 recorder and its supporting electronics were taken over by yet another successor

See alsoedit

  • Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner
  • List of film formats
  • Movietone
  • Pallophotophone
  • Phonofilm
  • Photokinema
  • Sound film
  • Sound-on-disc
  • Vitaphone



  1. ^ History of Sound Motion Pictures, EW Kellog, Journal of the SMPTE Vol 64 June 1955
  2. ^ Indeed, the RCA-licensed Maurer recorder could produce either variable-area or variable-density by simply shifting a portion of the optical system at the recordist's discretion
  3. ^ The Production of Wide-Range, Low-Distortion Optical Soundtracks Utilizing the Dolby Noise Reduction System Ioan Allen JSMPTE Vol84 Sept 1975
  4. ^ Stereophonic Photographic Soundtracks Ronald E Uhlig JSMPTE Vol82 April 1973
  5. ^ J Frayne and H Wolfe, Sound Recording New York: Wiley & Sons, 1949 Discusses, in the abstract, the components of that which later became today's Photophone né Western Electric/Westrex stereo variable-area system, but the component descriptions are spread throughout this essential and definitive text
  6. ^ Two, three or four time-aligned tracks were theoretically possible, and one implementation did, indeed, offer four time-aligned discrete tracks The four-track experiment was not repeated All subsequent implementations were two discrete, time-aligned tracks


  • Barrios, Richard A Song in the Dark London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 ISBN 0-19-508811-5
  • Coe, Brian The History of Movie Photography Westfield, NJ: Eastview Editions, 1981 ISBN 0-89860-067-7
  • Enticknap, Leo Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital London: Wallflower Press 2005 ISBN 1-904764-06-1
  • Eyman, Scott The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926–1930 New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997 ISBN 978-0-684-81162-8
  • Gomery, Douglas The Coming of Sound London & New York: Routledge, 2005 ISBN 0-415-96901-8

External linksedit

  • List of Early Sound Films 1894–1929 at Silent Era website
  • Alfred Hitchcock and Anny Ondra in Sound Test for Blackmail 1929 filmed in RCA Photophone
  • JR Sky, as the successor to Nuoptix, which, in turn, was the successor to Litton Industries' Westrex subsidiary

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RCA Photophone Information about

RCA Photophone

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