Culture

Raiders of the Lost Sound Libraries

Turning on the TV and flipping through the dial, or rifling through any well-stocked DVD collection, it’s obvious that different eras have different looks we associate with them. We think of the 1930s and ‘40s as being in black and white, the lush Technicolor of ‘50s widescreen epics, the split-screen effects of late 1960s movies, today’s digital CGI effects, and so on. But certain eras have unique sounds as well. And tracking these down can be rather elusive.

Back in 2007, Jersey City’s WFMU radio station, on its popular “Beware of the Blog” er, blog, had a great podcast and accompanying blog post on “The Music Everybody Loves! Everybody Wants! Nobody Has!” It’s a sort Raiders of the Lost Music Cues from the 1960s, beginning with the cheesy but beloved 1967 Spider-Man cartoon series. Everybody knows the theme song (“Is he strong? Listen bud, He’s got radioactive blood!”), but it’s the music within the episodes themselves that we’ve all heard, but because of copyright issues have become somewhat lost over time:

When I first posted this article in early 2007, the reason did not start and stop with a simple celebration of this music. I actually wanted to track it down. After the initial post, I heard loud and clear from all facets of nerds, many of them angry (you’d be mad too if you went decades without getting laid). The music from the second and third season came almost exclusively from a music library in England. It might all be a blur for the average reader or fan – what music came from what season? I’ve taken the liberty of putting together an hour podcast that pitts, side by side, the original muddy sounding soundtrack from the show, to the pristine original master tapes of the corresponding song, beautifully preserved, from the KPM library. Listen to it here.

The KPM music library is the oldest and largest music library in Britain – maybe even the world. They still exist today, and for a fee, you too could use the original Spider-man music in a film or TV show. This link is essential and gives you everything you need to know about KPM. Also, a special thanks to this enormous group of nerds who have added insight, information, links and corrections – their message board is well worth checking out. Many people have searched for this music throughout the years, and although they remain anonymous (but super nerdy), their work and persistance paid off. Just finding KPM alone is not enough. The KPM library consists of thousands and thousands of reels, tapes, and LPs and as mentioned before, none of these are labeled “the music from Spider-man.”  They had to be scoured individually before the correct beds were unearthed. The majority of the songs in the second and third seasons were composed by these British songsmiths: Syd Dale, Alan Hawkshaw, Johnny Hawksworth, David Lindup, Bill Martin and Phil Coulter.

In the late 1960s, these music cues were everywhere. At NFL Films, in-between the scores they commissioned from composer Sam Spence, John Facenda’s Voice of God was frequently accompanied by cues from KPM in in numerous late-‘60s highlight reels. (Listen to the cues at 2:00 minutes and 53:00 into the above-linked podcast. If you’ve watched old NFL Super Bowl highlight reels on ESPN or the NFL channel, you know you’ve heard these. And they even made it to England — these cues appeared in several Monty Python episodes. I’m pretty sure that the thermonuclear musical sting that accompanies the Spanish Inquisition — unexpectedly! — whenever they burst into the room was taken from the tail-end of one of these recordings. (listen at about 43:45 in the KMFU podcast.) And speaking of Python’s religious parodies…It’s The Bishop!

Roger L. Simon recently did a post on “The Death of the Cool,” but as far as jazz itself, listening to WMFU’s podcast on KPM, you can really hear the very end of postwar cool. Take a listen to the cue at 38:00 minutes into their podcast, and it’s last round-up for the sorts of swank arrangements Gil Evans was writing for Miles in the 1950s.

Cinesound: The Holy Grail of Post-War UK Sound Effects

Beyond the KPM music library, there are also certain sound effects that define 1960s British cinema and TV. There’s a certain gunshot sound effect that growing up and hearing it over and over in the James Bond films and Gerry Anderson TV series such as Captain Scarlet and UFO become the definitive “British” gun sound to my ears. When I was searching Google for sound effects for my Silicon Graffiti videos a couple of years ago, I somehow put in the right combination of search words to discover the legendary Cinesound Sound Effects Library.

In the 1970s, sound effects technicians such as Walter Murch (who has worked on many of Francis Ford Coppola’s movies) and Ben Burtt (who gave Star Wars its unique sonic signature) revolutionized movie sound effects by taking them as seriously as a film’s music score. They would go into the field with their own high-end reel-to-reel recorders and mics and capture sounds to give each film a unique sonic signature. Their hand-crafted sound effects would then be mixed into Coppola and Lucas’s movies as if they were mixing a multi-track music recording.

This was also the period when Dolby Surround Sound began to take off as well, demanding an increasing level of high-fidelity throughout the movie recording process. But prior to that, when all but the biggest film productions were released with monophonic sound, if you were a beleaguered sound effects editor juggling multiple projects, you simply raided stock sound effects libraries if you were dubbing a movie. (And everything in a movie, with the exception of the actors’ dialogue is added later; from footsteps to nuclear blasts.) For the British film industry (which also included American films being shot and edited in British studios), in the 1960s, the Cinesound Effects Library Ltd. was the source of sound effects. If you were dubbing the sound effects for a James Bond movie, or an action-oriented British TV series, you simply rifled though the Cinesound archives, and cut the appropriate cue into your sound effects track. Which is why you’ve heard an explosion such as this over and over, or the classic aaaaaooooga air raid siren, the British equivalents of the Wilhelm Scream, Castle Thunder or the Universal Telephone Ring. (Or the laughtrack whinny for that matter.) I’m pretty sure plenty of these sound effects also made it into the classic 1973 Thames Television World at War documentary series, which invariably had the same tank tracks sound effect for every tank in the Allies and Axis arsenals. (Very little WWII documentary footage was shot with sound, with the exception of speeches by the major world leaders.)

The Cinesound library has changed hands a few times over the years, and to the best of my knowledge, is no longer commercially available. But a reader of Gerry Anderson’s “Fanderson” forum has uploaded a moonbase full of these effects, in various degrees of quality. What they lack in pristine audio, they more than make up for in atmosphere and memories.

You can hear a number of these sounds isolated if you type in “Cinesound” into YouTube’s search engine, or you can download them en masse via the link at Fanderson if you’re comfortable with file sharing applications. (You’re on your own as to the legality of both downloading them and using them in your own productions.)

Oh, and if you want another popular sound effects library from the States, that’s much easier to find. Set phasers on download, Mr. Sulu!