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The Recording of Musical Numbers for Musical Films

by John Cunningham 1997

The classic and usual technique was to pre-record all the songs before actual production of the film. This was done for several reasons, the main one being that during a musical number people are typically moving around a great deal, and if it were recorded with a boom (overhead) microphone during shooting, the distance between the singer -- usually doing some sort of dance moves -- and the microphone would constantly vary, creating a vocal track that "comes and goes."

Also, most classic musical numbers (e.g.. those directed by Minnelli--The Master of the movie musical, in my opinion) used many moving camera shots. Sometimes the camera would be on a crane and follow the singing actors all over the place (for example: the song in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) in which Judy Garland goes around the house turning out all the lights). Cranes, camera dollies and their crews (sometimes four or five crew members to operate a crane) always make a certain amount of noise. With the singer pre-recording the musical numbers and lip-syncing to their playback during shooting, the crew could make virtually all the noise they wanted because the song playback was blaring out of the speakers.

Another reason was that a pre-recorded song eliminated any unwanted background noise from the location -- it gave a "clean" recording. Example: a scene with a waterfall in the background -- if the song were recorded "live" (on location during photography) the waterfall would compete with the voice. Pre-recording a "clean" musical track and lip-syncing to it on location meant that there was no waterfall sound competing with the song. Then, during mixing, the sound of a waterfall would be added -- with the benefit that the filmmakers now have total control over the waterfall because it is added later as a sound effect.

In the days before magnetic sound recording, the songs were pre-recorded both to optical soundtrack and to disc (phonograph records). On the stage they were played back via phonograph (see the "restored" version of Garland's A STAR IS BORN (1954) for a some scenes that show this technique).

In film production "dubbing" generally refers to audio material recorded after the shooting of the scene (either because a line was poorly recorded originally due to extraneous noise on location, or because it's being dubbed into another language). In classic musicals, the numbers were pre-recorded (i.e. recorded beforehand). Then, during shooting the actors/singers would lip-sync to them. (See the "Lose that Long Face" number in the restored Garland A STAR IS BORN -- it demonstrates this technique.)

Another reason that the numbers were pre-recorded as opposed to sung "live" during photography (and there are lots of reasons) is repeatability. Since a given musical number is photographed in a number of "shots" the actor/singer must be able to repeat exactly from take to take and shot to shot the same movements, etc., and also the same pacing and expression in a song.

If they tried (and they did--a time or two) to record the number live, not only would they have a heck of a time trying to follow the actor around the stage with a mic, and have to have an orchestra present, but the pacing of the song would invariably vary ever so slightly from take to take. Then, if this happens, the film editor has a heck of a time assembling the final edited song, because for an editor everything must match and that includes the pacing of a musical number. By lip-syncing to a pre-recorded track, the pacing of the musical number stays exactly the same from take to take and shot to shot, so that in the editing room everything can fall properly into sync.

The alternative to this is to have very static musical numbers and just have the mic up above. This was done in the very early days of talking pictures. If you look at some of these films now the musical numbers are very stagy and confined. The actors couldn't move around much at all because if they did their sound would be off-mic.

You may say, "Gee, I can't believe that all those musical actors lip-synced their way through all those songs!". Well, the fact is that they were professionals. They were very well trained and the big studios had lots of money for re-takes should they slip up and make a mistake. And, occasionally, you can see a tiny little error here or there in the lip-syncing. I noticed a slight slip up by Barbra Streisand during a number or two of HELLO DOLLY (1969).

(Of course no one is making musicals these days, but lip-syncing still comes in handy. I was working on a religious TV show about 10 years or so ago in which Norma Zimmer (of Lawrence Welk fame) sang a song. Due to the poor acoustics in the church building from which the broadcast was coming, and because she didn't fully trust the sound crew whom she didn't know (and I don't blame her!!), she lip-synced all her songs in front of a full live audience and they never knew the difference. She is a pro. )

The fact that musical numbers were pre-recorded means that today we have some very interesting audio material from films which were never made--or never made with those who pre-recorded the songs. Example: Judy Garland recorded all the songs (or at least many of them) for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950). Of course, as everyone knows, she was replaced by Betty Hutton, but now those songs survive as an interesting look (or listen!) at what might have been. (I have the album-- it is, or at least was, available). These songs have been synced up to recently found outtakes of Garland's (thanks to that repeatability factor!) and included in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! III (1994).

If you want to read a GREAT, GREAT, GREAT book about the making of the classic Hollywood musicals you must read Hugh Fordin's book The World of Entertainment. It was published in 1976, and is currently out of print, but should be available in many public libraries. It chronicles (in a very readable fashion) the history of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM as they made such films as THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), etc. (virtually all of Garland and Minnelli's MGM films -- Gene Kelly's too -- SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952), SHOWBOAT, THE PIRATE (1948), AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951), also SHOWBOAT (1951), EASTER PARADE (1948), the list goes on and on.) I cannot recommend this book too highly. It is a treasure trove for the musical film lover--just like spending a day at the MGM archive! (If your public library doesn't have it, they should be able to obtain it for you on what is called an "inter-library loan" -- ask 'em!)

© 1997 John Cunningham

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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