Early Sound Effects at the NBC Merchandise Mart Studios

Sound effects title

Curator's note: Sound effects were very often (but not always) a key element in the production of radio drama. The NBC sound effects men who worked in the Merchandise Mart were masters of their craft which involved both mechanical ingenuity and brute force. Here you see them at work in studio D and on the roof of the Merchandise Mart.

The curator has adapted the photos and text below (as well as the headline above) from a one-page article that appeared in the March, 1931 issue of Popular Science Monthly. (Visit the "Empire Builders" page for more on early sound effects.) And click here to hear these sound effects as they were actually broadcast early in 1931.

Right: A howling wind or the rush of a great gale goes out from the studio at the manipulation of this wheel, which is operated by motor. Changing the speed at which it rotates will change the sound of the wind. Sound effects #1
Sound effects #2 Left: This piece of apparatus may not look much like an airplane but when it is heard over the radio it sounds exactly like one. Two pieces of cord are attached to the disk and as it revolves they hit the drumhead, giving an effective imitation of a plane.
Right: Producing sound illusions for the radio is an art itself and elaborate study is necessary to get the desired effects. Here a toy locomotive is being used in a special sound chamber and the noise it makes will go out over the air as the rumble and roar of a big engine tearing along over a well ballasted track. Sound effects #3
Sound effects #4 Left: The wild crashing together of two cars is vividly produced for the air by means of a piece of stovepipe with which the glass in the old car is smashed. Thus is obtained the sound of rasping metal and the realistic crash of flying glass.
Right: The apparatus used in the reproduction of a steam locomotive's whistle and bell. To the radio listener the sound is exactly what he would expect to hear if a real locomotive were making the noise outside his window. It has been found that the real thing is not so real over the air as an imitation, and as a result the Chicago experts of the National Broadcasting Company have perfected the devices shown on this page to give with absolute accuracy the desired illusion to the audience listening in by radio. Sound effects #5

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