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Fantasound - Disney's 1940 attempt to bring you surround sound

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Disney's Fantasound

There's a lot of conflicting information around, and so, trying to present "stone cold facts" for this blog has been quite tricky! I've done my best...

While multiple speaker set ups weren't uncommon in theatres during the 50s and 60s, they consisted of a mono soundtrack, with the multiple speakers just adding scale to fill large auditoriums.

Genuine multi-channel movie soundtracks were originally brought to theatres around 1976, although most theatres and mono equipped projectors weren't physically capable of reproducing the discrete surround information. While Star Wars is usually quoted as the first surround sound film, its surround channels were mono, as many films were at the time. Over the next few years, theatres upgraded to the new format, and it was Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie Apocalypse Now that enjoyed a widespread release in "5.1", although a little different to the 5.1 we know today. The 70mm film had six available tracks, so used three full range channels for the LCR, two 'satellite' style channels for stereo surrounds, and the final track used as a sub channel to bolster the limited range rear channels.

Fast forward to 1992, and Tim Burton's Batman Returns introduced digital 5.1 on 35mm prints in the format we're more familiar with today - a dedicated sub channel supporting the front three and two surround channels. My first introduction to Dolby Digital was True Lies, which was quite an experience! But a long time ago, in a galaxy not very far away, Disney had already been experimenting with their own multi-channel cinema format...

in 1936, Disney were looking to produce a short film starring Disney's mascot, Mickey Mouse. Interest in Mickey Mouse was in decline, and it was thought that The Sorcerer's Apprentice would change that. The short was to be set against a piece of music by Paul Dukas, called L'Apprenti Sorcier. This was recorded in Culver Studios in California during 1938 by a 100 strong orchestra. Disney wanted it to be a multi-track recording, allowing instruments to be isolated and moved around the film's stereo soundstage. Sections of the orchestra were separated by large dividing plywood boards, with microphones set up to capture each section separately - obviously, recording independent multi-tracks didn't exist at this time. The whole thing didn't quite go to plan. Because the parts of the orchestra couldn't hear what other parts were playing as well as they normally would, the tempo of the whole piece was affected. Obviously the separating dividers used didn't control the sound enough, so there was a certain amount of sound bleeding between them.

This added to the production costs, and Disney realised that they would struggle to make their costs back with the film as a short, so it was decided that the whole production would have to be bigger, and convert the short film into a full length feature film. The Sorcerer's Apprentice became Fantasia.

Re-recording for Fantasia's music soundtrack started again in 1939 in Philadelphia at the Academy Of Music with the Philadelphia Orchestra, with 33 microphones capturing the orchestra on eight optical recording devices stored in the basement of the hall. As the hall was mostly constructed out of wood, only a certain amount of film reels were allowed into the hall at any one time due to fire risk. Once recording had finished, everything was shipped to Disney's studios in Burbank for minor adjustments.

At the time, film soundtracks were limited to a 40dB dynamic range, so to improve that range, louder segments were increased in volume, and quieter ones reduced, giving the impression of a wider dynamic range. For this, a 'tone operated gain adjusting device' was developed (Togad). This eventually became the automated downmix system found in modern recording studios.

Disney wanted to move sound around the room. With two speakers set about 20 feet apart, they found they could create the illusion of sound movement. This wasn't a simple process back then though, and couldn't be achieved with volume controls. A 'panoramic potentiometer' (pan-pot) would be the answer to their problems, but the more channels involved, the more complex this system needed to be.

The first Fantasound set up consisted of three speakers across the front, and two at the back of the room, but based on two channels - one anchored to the centre speaker, and one which would travel around the other four speakers, controlled by a four-circuit pan-pot (panoramic potentiometer). A second Fantasound design added two extra speakers mounted to the side walls, and a third in the middle of the ceiling (some 80 years before the 'Voice Of God' channel appeared in any of the current next-gen sound formats!). This ceiling speaker was supplied by a third sound channel. This needed a six-circuit pan-pot, and was too complicated to be operated by one person.

A third revision incorporated a Togad expander, and a fourth was identical to the second revision, but control was via Togad. This was installed in Disney's Hyperion studios in 1939, but moved to the Burbank studios in 1940 when Disney relocated. At this point, the system required a floorspace of about 35ft by 4ft, and involved nearly 400 vaccuum tubes (valves).

A fifth revision was installed at Burbank, but was apparently only in operation for one day. Everything worked as it should, but the multiple operators couldn't remember their sequences between rehearsals. A simpler sixth revision appeared with tone rectifier modifications, with the seventh version using a linear tone rectifier - it is this version that was finally used to start dubbing Fantasia. An eighth revision moved to a log-log tone rectifier, and was this revision that was installed in New York for the film's premier. After the film's opening, a ninth revision with two sets of rear speakers available to supplement the front left/right speakers, or be switched in in place of them. In the final version of Fantasound, the switching and level changes for the rear speakers were automatic, using a thyratron and mechanical relay system operated by notches on the edge of the film.

Fantasia opened at The Broadway Theater on November 13th 1940. Due to the complex and costly installation of equipment needed for the sound of the film, it only showed in 14 theatres. Most of these were set up in converted theatres, rather than actual movie theatres due to the amount of time a movie theatre would have had to close to install the equipment.

Fantasia failed to make a profit on its opening run. In 1941, RKO acquired the rights to distribute Fantasia, and proceeded to replace the Fantasound soundtrack with a mono soundtrack. It got a re-release in theatres in 1942 as a double feature, but the two hour plus production was cut down to 80 minutes. Only one Fantasound set up survived, as the rest were dismantled and contributed to the war effort at the time.

Fantasia was re-released many times, with the full version returning in 1946. Its mono sound was replaced with stereo sound for its 1956 release. Fantasia was re-issued again in 1982, but with a completely new stereo soundtrack using digital recording technology.

The original Fantasound soundtrack was recreated in Dolby Stereo for its 1990 theatrical release. A Disney engineer spent six months removing some 3,000 pops from the existing four-track copy from 1955, also addressing phasing, distortion, and hiss. This was dubbed "Fantasound 90". This was used to create the soundtrack for the film's DVD in 2000.

So, many decades before movies even made the switch to stereo sound, Disney was attempting to pioneer multi-channel surround sound, and to create a more engaging experience for cinema goers. Nowadays we take that for granted, with many of us unaware of its history - I wasn't even aware of Fantasound until last year! I found it so fascinating that I felt I had to share this with other like-minded movie enthusiasts. I was also fascinated that a company was trying to do this so long ago, even before World War II started. Apparently Disney were working on a more "mobile" version of Fantasound, whereby the equipment needed could travel around the US and be set up in other theatres, but WW2 was one of the reasons this didn't happen.

Material for this blog has been taken from several sources, so apologies if anything is incorrect or not 100% factual, but I have done my best to try and cross reference information and research conflicting information, and present as best I could. There's also more information out there about Fantasound, but I have tried to keep things relatively simple.


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