How to Tell If Your Film Reel Has Sound


In 2015, Super 8mm celebrated its 50th birthday. While it was created by Kodak primarily for home movies, Super 8 film offered better image quality than standard 8mm and was less expensive than 16mm film. In fact, some independent filmmakers used this format because it was a compact and cost-effective option. 

If you’re a baby boomer or older, perhaps you have fond memories of watching family members act out skits, twirl in circles, or visit attractions – looking like mimes in silent home movies. It’s true that most family movies shot on standard 8mm or 16mm are silent because sound had to be added after it was developed. And while Super 8 film revolutionized home movies, audio required special magnetic film and more expensive cameras than silent film. Of course, if you own short cartoons or commercial features that were popular in the 1940s to early-1960s, some of these may have sound. 

From Silent to Sound

The idea of combining motion pictures with sound is as old as the invention of cinema itself. When sound was introduced, it was typically recorded on a gold or copper-colored magnetic strip running down the entire edge of a film strip. Depending on the format, this could be on either side of the sprockets. The magnetic strip coupled with a projector with built-in heads for audio output enabled sound to be heard while the film was running. This ensured that the film and audio were in sync at all times. Another common method for achieving sound was to play a separate soundtrack on a reel-to-reel tape or record as the film started, although this presented the obvious challenge of keeping both in sync.

Silent vs. Sound: Determining the Difference

In order to determine if your film has sound or not, it helps to know what kind of film you own. Chances are your old family movies are 8mm, which is half the width of 16mm. But you still need to distinguish between standard 8mm and Super 8mm reels.

Standard 8mm film has sprocket holes that are larger and almost square compared to the elongated and rectangular ones on Super 8mm film. Another telltale sign is the center hole of the film reel on standard 8mm measures about 8mm versus the larger 13 mm hole on Super 8 reels.

16mm: If the reel has sprockets on each side, it’s silent. If the film has sprockets on one side and a yellow or rust-colored strip on the other side, it may have sound. Optical was a more common method for producing sound and resembles a band of clear film with an audio wave image running down the edge of the entire reel.

Standard 8mm: Look for a yellow or rust-colored magnetic reel on the top and/or the top and bottom of the film. The audio strip runs along the entire reel, right next to the sprocket holes.

Super 8: A reel with just sprockets is silent. If your reel has a thin yellow or rust-colored strip next to the sprockets and a thicker yellow-colored strip on the other edge of the reel, it’s a Super 8 sound film.

Digitizing Old Movies

If you’re entranced by the romanticism of a bygone age or hypnotized by the mechanics of old-time projectors, kudos for keeping this tradition alive! For everyone else who would love to watch old home movies that have been collecting dust for years, digitizing is your best option. Every day, experienced technicians at ScanCafe transform long-forgotten celluloid memories into Hollywood-like treasures people enjoy and share. This top-rated service includes rectifying loss of luminance and audio-video quality, as well as customizing recordings and eliminating undesirable sections.