1931 __ Synthetic Speech Demonstrated in London: Engineer Creates Voice which Never Existed
‣ Comment : On February 16, 1931, the New York Times ran a story on a curious development that had just taken place in England: “Synthetic Speech Demonstrated in London: Engineer Creates Voice which Never Existed” read the headline.The day before, so the article began, “a robot voice spoke for the first time in a darkened room in London . . . uttering words which had never passed human lips.” According to the accounts of this event in numerous European papers, a young British physicist named E.A. Humphries [Humphriss] was working as a sound engineer for the British International Film Co. when the studio ran into a serious problem. A synchronized sound film (then still quite a novelty) starring Constance Bennett had just been completed in which the name of a rather unsavory criminal character happened to be the same as that of a certain aristocratic British family. This noble clan was either unable or unwilling to countenance the irreducible. — even if seemingly paradoxical. — polysemy of the proper name (so powerful, perhaps, was the new experience of hearing it actually uttered in the cinema) and threatened a libel suit if “their” name was not excised. As the film had already been shot, however, eliminating it would have involved huge reshooting costs and equally expensive production delays. Consequently, the producers supposedly decided to explore an innovative alternative: unable to get their star back into the studio to simply rerecord and postsynchronize an alternative moniker. — the journalistic accounts are uniformly vague as to why. — a print of the film was given instead to Humphries [Humphriss], who used his extensive experience as an acoustic engineer to make the necessary changes to the soundtrack by hand,substituting in each case an alternative name in Bennett’s “own” voice. This curious artisanal intervention had become possible because the first widely adopted synchronized sound-on-film system. — developed and marketed by the Tri-Ergon and the Tobis-Klangfilm concerns. — was an optical recording process. Unlike the earlier Vitaphone system that employed a separate, synchronized soundtrack on phonograph discs, the new optical recording technology translated sound waves via the microphone and a photosensitive selenium cell into patterns of light that were captured photochemically as tiny graphic traces on a small strip that ran parallel to the celluloid film images. “In order to create a synthetic voice,” so Humphries [Humphriss] explains, “I had to analyze the sounds I was required to reproduce one by one from the sound tracks of real voices”; having established which wave patterns belonged to which sounds. — that is, the graphic sound signatures of all the required phonetic components. — Humphries [Humphriss] proceeded to combine them into the desired new sequence and then, using a magnifying glass, painstakingly draw them onto a long cardboard strip. After one hundred hours of work this sequence of graphic sound curves was photographed such that it could function as part of the optical film soundtrack and indeed, when played back on a “talkie” projector, according to the journalist who witnessed the demonstration, “slowly and distinctly, with an impeccable English accent, it spoke: ‘All-of-a-tremble,’ it said. That was all.” But these words. — wonderful in their overdetermined thematization of the shiver that their status as unheimlich synthetic speech would provoke. — were in a sense more than enough: the idea of a synthetic sound,of a sonic event whose origin was no longer a sounding instrument or human voice, but a graphic trace, had been conclusively transformed from an elusive theoretical fantasy dating back at least as far as Wolfgang von Kempelen’s Sprachmaschineof 1791, into what was now a technical reality. (Thomas Y. Levin) — British physicist E.A. Humphries [Humphriss] creates the first artificial speech synthesis when he is called upon to "correct" the optical soundtrack master to one of the first synchronized-sound films. The problem was that the villian in the film happened to share the same name as that of an aristocratic family, who threatened a lawsuit unless it was removed. Since the lead actress could not be recalled to the studio to re-record the spoken parts, Humphries was forced to paint each instance of the character's new name into the soundtrack by hand!. (Derek Holzer) — On the evening of February 15th 1931, four journalists were invited at the London offices of the Producers Distributing Company, an American film distributor. They were introduced to a young engineer by the name of Eric Allan Humphriss, who had just recently joined the company. Previously, Humphriss had been working for RCA on their Photophone sound-on-film technology. The Photophone system produces a variable-width sound track, in which sound waves are represented by a black and white trace of varying width. The other approach to optical soundtracks, variable-density, has ripple-like patterns of varying opacity on the sound track. In both approaches, light from the projector shines through a slit before passing through the sound track. Depending on how much of the sound track is obscured, the amount of light that reaches a photoreceptor will fluctuate, producing an audio signal. One of the significant features of the variable-width approach is that it leaves a trace that is somewhat more legible to the human eye than variable-density ripples; different sounds leave distinctly different marks. While the optical patterns of the sound track originate from someone speaking into a microphone, wouldn’t it be possible to make ink markings directly on film, or to photograph visual motifs to make sound? It appears that the notion of manually drawing a sound track was an obvious idea that was waiting to be found. Indeed, it occurred to several people at more or less the same time. In the Soviet Union, the composer Arseny Avraamov, the inventor Evgeny Sholpo, along with the animator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky, working on the first Soviet sound film, The Plan for Great Works (The Five Year Plan) – dir. Abram Room, were struck by the ornamental nature of the variable-width sound track. It seemed obvious to them to attempt to draw a sound track by hand. Tsekhanovsky wondered if hidden music could be heard by photographing ancient ornaments onto the soundtrack. Precisely the same idea occurred to the German animator Oscar Fischinger, whose experiments in “sound ornaments” were preceded by fellow German Rudolph Pfenninger’s hand-drawn music. In all cases, it was the musical potential of drawn sound that appealed to the inventors above. Eric Allan Humphriss, however, was interested in the spoken voice. It is almost certainly during his time at RCA that Humphriss had the idea of improving, or correcting, the sound track manually. After what must have been long hours of studying the “peaks and valleys” of optical sound tracks, Humphriss claimed he became able to readily recognize the shape of the various sounds of the English language, to the point where he was able to read a sound track just like one would read a book. Whether this claim was exaggerated or not, it did lead him to attempt to not only read, but also write, in ink, spoken text. The four journalists who were led to Humphriss’ office were there to witness the result of his experiments. Humphriss had chosen the phrase “All of a tremble.” On a strip of cardboard, forty feet long, he painted in ink the wave form that would speak those words, which he then photographed onto the sound track of a blank film. He claimed that the whole task took him about 100 hours, but that having done it once, he could now repeat the experiment much more rapidly. The journalists were apparently impressed by the demonstration. They praised the natural English accent of the “robot voice,” and the articles they wrote were widely published. The Associated Press and the Central Press syndicated the story throughout North America, while the report that appeared in the New York Times is the most often quoted. The London Daily Express, however, ran the lengthiest article, on its front page, no less. It may be difficult for us to imagine just how shocking Humphriss’ synthetic voice was to people of the 1930s. Cecil Thompson, of the Daily Express wrote: “A deep bass voice it was, clear as a bell, sufficient to please the ears of any Oxford don. “All... of... a... tremble...” it said. There was silence. The “robot” voice had spoken. It was terrifying for the moment, almost horrible. I felt a tingle down my spine. I had heard a voice that was not a voice, words that had never been spoken. Humphriss told the reporters that on the next day he would start work on creating a female synthetic voice. In fact, it may not be unreasonable to assume that this was the true reason of his joining the Producers Distributing Company. In the following years, a few newspaper stories reported a curious application of Humphriss’ skills. The story went as follows: a new “talkie” starring Constance Bennett (the leading female star in Hollywood at the time) was scheduled to be shown in London. However, because the name of one of the characters happened to coincide with that of a real British peer, the film failed to pass censorship. Since there was no time to have the actors re-record the offending lines, Humphriss was called in to paint in, by hand, a different name, in Constance Bennett’s “own” voice. [...] (Jean-Marc Pelletier, International Computer Music Conference 2009, IAMAS Open House 2009)
‣ Source : Levin, Thomas Y. (2002), ““Tones from out of Nowhere”: Rudolph Pfenninger and the Archaeology of Synthetic Sound”, Grey Room 12, Summer 2003, Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp. 32–79.; “’Töne aus dem Nichts’. Rudolf Pfenninger und die Archäologie des synthetischen Tons”, In Friedrich Kittler, Thomas Macho and Sigrid Weigel, Eds., “Zwischen Rauschen und Offenbarung: Zur Kultur- und Medien-geschichte der Stimme”, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2002, pp. 313-355.
‣ Source : Thompson, Cecil (1931), “Artificial Voices Made in a Film Studio – Unspoken Words Heard from a Screen – Celluloid Marvel – An Englishman’s Eerie Invention”, The Daily Express London, February 16 1931, pp. 1-2.
‣ Source : (1931), “Synthetic Speech Demonstrated in London; Engineer Creates Voice Which Never Existed”, The New York Times, February 16 1931, p. 2.
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