Fantasound was an early stereophonic sound process developed by William E. Garity for the Walt Disney studio in 1940 for the motion picture Fantasia, making Fantasia the first commercial film with multichannel sound. It led to the development of what is today known as surround sound.
The idea for Fantasound came from Walt Disney himself, who was displeased with the quality of conventional optical motion picture sound recording and playback systems. Walt had been present on the sound stage as Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra had been recording the music score for Walt's ambitious 1940 animated film Fantasia, and he had fallen in love with the rich sound he'd heard on the stage. He asked his sound engineering team, led by William E. Garity, to come up with a better solution than the standard sound-on-film processes then available, all of which Walt felt sounded too tinny and un-dynamic for the experience he wanted Fantasia to be. The reason for optical film's limited dynamic range was its high surface noise, which necessitated the use of audio level compression, boosting quiet sounds so they could be heard over the noise.
Garity and his team worked painstakingly for many months before finally completing the process that they dubbed Fantasound. In the Fantasound process, different microphones are used to record different parts of a soundscape (in this case, a performing orchestra) to separate tracks. These tracks were then mixed into a final four-track stereophonic sound strip that was married to a three-strip Technicolor release print. The resulting film was run in a theatre that was equipped with (depending upon available resources) anywhere between 30 and 80 individual speakers, set up around the perimeter of the theatre's ceiling. Fantasound also featured a wider dynamic range than conventional sound film, allowing for a fuller, stronger sound. This was achieved by recording a control track alongside the audio tracks. The control track consisted of varying tones which corresponded to different volume levels, and the amplifiers used to reproduce the sound automatically adjusted their volume accordingly. Adjusting the volume at the reproducing end also adjusted the noise level so that quiet passages were no longer drowned out and loud passages could be boosted without distortion.
The Walt Disney studio purchased eight Model 200B oscillators (at $71.50 each) from Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard for use in testing Fantasound, thus becoming one of the first customers of the Hewlett-Packard Corporation.
Walt had also wanted other groups of engineers at the studio to rig up a widescreen film process (which would have had an aspect ratio of about 2.20:1, the same aspect ratio as Walt's later widescreen film, Sleeping Beauty (1959)), and also a perfuming system that would spray different scents into the theatre at the appropriate times--during the Nutcracker Suite segment, for example. These plans were never completely carried out.
The Walt Disney Studio's distributor at the time, RKO Radio Pictures, balked at the extra expense of rigging each venue Fantasia would play in with extra audio equipment, and backed out of distributing the film. Walt Disney was therefore forced to become, for the first time, his own distributor, and he and the studio planned and financed a roadshow exhibition release for Fantasia.
When Fantasia and Fantasound finally debuted in New York City on 13 November 1940, Fantasound was hailed as an technical marvel. However, the US Army was placing increasing demands on all available metals and electronic equipment during this period, as it prepared for possible entry into World War II. Therefore, the the Walt Disney studio found it very hard to get the necessary materials to rig a proper Fantasound presentation of the film at each venue. In January 1941, Disney allowed RKO to assume distribution of Fantasia; the first thing RKO did was to have the film remixed into monophonic sound.
Stereophonic sound was not restored to Fantasia until its 1956 release, when it was also blithely chopped to fit the dimensions of a widescreen SuperScope frame. The two most modern re-releases of Fantasia (1990 in movie theatres, 2000 on DVD) also faithfully restored the original intent of the Fantasound system. The original optical sound masters were believed to have been destroyed, so the restorers used copies that had been made on magnetic sound film for the 1956 reissue.
The transfer had taken place over special high-quality telephone lines, because the optical Fantasound equipment and the magnetic recording equipment were in separate buildings and could not be brought together. This resulted in some loss of treble response, but the copies retained the original dynamic range.
Fantasia (main article)