Meep Meep! The Surprising History of Classic Cartoon Sound Effects

Meep Meep! The Surprising History of Classic Cartoon Sound Effects

caveman sounds like, and a cartoon Roadrunner sticking out his tongue. But these classic cartoon sounds don’t exist in real life! So where do they come from? And how did somebody settle on a sound that’s so different from anything in the real world? From the late 1890s to the 1920s, silent films were often accompanied by live pit orchestras. So for silent animation, sound effects were actually written into these orchestras’ music, with many of the slapstick-y sounds performed on instruments like wood blocks, jew’s harps, and… slap sticks. In the late 20s, engineers figured out how to efficiently record sounds on set and synchronize them. Talkies were born. But animations had no set to record from, and recording equipment was way too big to lug outside of the studio and record real world sounds. How were cartoons going to adapt to the world of talking pictures? Two studios solved this problem in two very different ways – that set the industry standard to this day. At Warner Brothers, sound editor Treg Brown dove into the studio’s archive, where he clipped and manipulated sounds from their already existing live-action movies. He repurposed car skids, gunshots, and even the sounds of biplanes from old war movies. Later, as the recording equipment became more portable, he started recording himself messing around with ordinary objects. Roadrunner’s classic tongue blip — that’s Treg Brown’s thumb in a coke bottle. Disney, however, was an animation-only studio without a library of live-action films to clip from. So they hired the drummer and inventor, Jimmy McDonald, to build in-house sound effect contraptions. Both Warner Brothers and Disney each combined their unique approach with studio recordings of orchestra musicians. Then, in the 50s and 60s, studios like Hanna-Barbera combined real world sounds, contraptions, and musical instruments. And since then, not much has changed. You’d think that the advent of digital technology would mean entirely new sounds and methods, but its biggest impact was actually giving everybody in the world easy access to those original old sound effects that audiences had grown to expect. No longer are Hanna-Barbera sounds confined to Hanna-Barbera tunes. Now, they’re everywhere.
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So that’s where the sounds come from. But what about the ideas for the sounds? Cartoon sound editing is a complex art, but the fundamentals are simple: you want your sound to help tell the story. And there are three key elements to follow. Number One: Emotion. If something good happens, you want a pleasing, harmonic sound. If something bad happens, you want a more acoustically complex or dissonant sound. Number Two: Physical Characteristics. Just like in real life, big things should make lower-pitched sounds and little things should make higher-pitched sounds. If a character descends, so should the pitch of the sound that’s accompanying them. Most important, Number Three: Rhythm and Structure. You want to accent the moments that count, building and releasing tension according to the demands of the story. So that’s why – and how – cartoons sound the way they do, even when those sounds seem totally alien. That’s it for us!

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  1. Old cartoons have the best soundtrack! I love fliesher cartoons superman music! Its so nostalgic, saddly i cant find each track 's cmplete version.

  2. The video overlooks one aspect of sound production: sounds furnished by the voice actors. Mel Blanc was particularly noted for this with vocalizations such as a sputtering engine.

  3. I wish this vid had shown more of HOW sound effects are made. You even asked at the beginning how the Flintstones scrambling sounds is made, but you never told us!

  4. Thanks for giving me your history of the sounds. Someday I'll find objects in my house that I will use to make similar sounds to the classic ones.

    In full honour of Treg, Jimmy, Siracusa, and Watson, the four geniuses who made everything we heard on the screen.

  5. Great video but was difficult to hear the sounds being made because the narrator was talking over everything.

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