On Saturday night the University Theatre became momentarily more like a laboratory than a movie-house when it gave its first demonstration of the Western Electric Company's newest improvements in sound reproduction. Since then, there has been so much vague talk about "Wide Range" going around that you may have imagined the stage re-modelled for target-practice. To clear your mind of clay-pigeons, the Playgoer will have to resort to technicalities.
First of all, will you think of all the different noises that come to your ears, from, the boom of the bass-viol to the peep of the piccolo, as if they were all nicely sorted out according to pitch in a broad band or spectrum like the colors of the rainbow. In this imaginary scheme, a pure note such as the sound of a tuning-fork will fall neatly into one line on the band; while complex sounds, like the voice, will shatter apart into their several components like sunlight in a prism. With this picture in mind, and knowing that in the field of optics the most evanescent tints can be reduced to the familiar primary colors, the recording engineers are in a sense no more awed before the mixed web of orchestral tone than before the simple sound of a bell. They merely work to make their instruments impartially sensitive to the whole audible spectrum, knowing that what they call a "straight-line frequency response" will necessarily make for faithful reproduction.
The range of the old-time phonograph was neither wide nor even. With in its narrow effective band, it was stridently partial to certain tones, while notes below middle C were inaudible except for their high overtones, the ear being surprisingly obliging in imagining the absent fundamentals. The newer phonographs and present-day talking pictures have a broad and even response spread, yet there are still inaudible bands at the bass and treble extremes. Wide-Range recording has considerably reduced these inaudible bands. Naturally, improvement is noticeable only in the sounds that lie within these newly retrieved areas of the spectrum. For example, the violins are little affected; but percussion instruments are considerably more realistic. The restoration of high overtones results in improved differentiation of instruments as the fabric of tone takes on a more three-dimensional quality. The speaking voice is slightly more natural. From this you will gather that Wide Range has not brought about any very startling improvement in the ordinary dialogue film, but that it has considerably increased the effectiveness of music.
Naturally, the improved reproduction takes place only with films that have been recorded by the new method of which there are only a handful as yet. Happily, "Cavalcade" is one of them. At the Boston showing, it was reproduced on the old amplifiers. When it comes to the University, it really should be something to listen to as well as to see.