Retor wax disc recorder

(Provisional page, started 19th September 2018.
Links from the projected FTR article will direct to this page, and then this header will be deleted.)

Thank you for accessing these on-line notes from the article in “For the Record”.

Note 5. Loose translation of the Retor sales company announcement.

No. 36227. Distribution company for Retor talking machines for Greater Berlin and Brandenburg province, with limited liability. Seat: Berlin. The object of the company is the sale of Retor speech machines and related business ventures. Registered capital: 5100 Reichsmark. Managing Director: Engineer Theodor Kahn, Charlottenburg, and businessman [merchant?] Robert Schlesinger in Berlin-Dahlem. Company with limited liability. The articles of association are concluded on 11 February and 4 March 1925 respectively. If several (managing) directors are appointed, the representation is carried out by two (managing) directors or by one (managing) director in company with an authorized officer, however, the shareholders’ meeting can grant one of several (managing) directors exclusive power of representation. Unregistered is published [?]: Public announcements of the company are made only by the German Reichsanzeiger. [State Gazette?]

Note 6. Viktor Maksimovitch Schirmunski (1891-1971) was a Russian Jewish academic, a professor at Saratov and Leningrad. He was a member of the Russian Formalists earlier on, which is possibly why he became involved in making ethnographic transcriptions? The time-period of the events detailed must be the mid and late 1920s. 

Loose translation of reference to Retor device. Original source unknown.

Schirmunski’s Fieldwork.

The following is known of the definite circumstances and conditions of the research practice of Viktor Schirmunski and his staff. At first, the lyrics of songs were hand-written on location, and later typed up in Leningrad, allowing him to become an expert, like Hermann Bachmann, who [had already written?] down the melodies of the songs in the colonies. These paper transcriptions were soon to be superseded by sound recordings by means of phonographs (wax cylinders) or the Retor speech machine (wax discs). These recordings were largely transcribed in Leningrad. We also know the genre and order system of his Archives, the ciphers of the various signatures, dates and goals, field research trips and the not inconsiderable share of its working on building this unique archive. Footnote 16.

Footnote 16. The history and structure of the collection is detailed in ‘Traditionelle Lieder der Russlanddeutchen’ [John/Swetosarowa] (as in Note 4); there also bio-bibliographic portraits of Schirmunski’s staff.

(There are also two preceeding footnotes on the page, 14 & 15):
Foonote 14. Cf. Bachmann, H[ermann]: ‘Through the German colonies of the Beresan area’, Kharkov 1929, p. 8.
Footnote 15. Ibid., p. 22.

Note 7. Here are the many images generously sent by Rolf Rekdal of his Retor sales brochure and the Instruction Leaflet of his device. First, the advertising leaflet:




…and also the Instructions. First, the original leaflet; then a very loose translation done by myself (with much help from Google), with images. 

My translation, with images, and odd notes added. Comments in red are mine . The instructions have been translated from German into English on-line, then re-written extensively, and rather loosely. It is to be hoped that nothing important has been omitted or mis-interpreted.  

for self-recording and sound reproduction by means of ORIGINAL-
“Retor “- disc records.
(Patented in Germany and Internationally protected.)


The Retor apparatus includes:

  1. The tonearm (Fig. 1).

This consists of the arm a with the articulated pivot b, the rubber coated guide rod c, the weight at its end acting also as a handle. Furthermore, the connecting joint with counterweight e, the rotatable diaphragm carrier f, the larger replay diaphragm g, the smaller recording diaphragm h and the horn i.

  1. The central driver unit. (Fig. 2).

The base j, with spring clamping k, bearing l, the rotary gear m, (a horizontal spiral gear inside the housing), a gearwheel n, take-up roller o, and support roller p.

  1. The arm pivot block (Fig. 3 – 4)

The baseplate q, swiveling carrying sleeve r, retaining springs s, and adjusting screw t, together with fixing screws u; Fig. 4 shows the carrying sleeve in rest position.

One would have thought that the ‘rest’ position would have been as in Fig. 10, with the entire assembly hinged backwards. The term ‘rest’ must refer to the position when the arm is actually in use.

  1. The original Retor record, (Fig. 5)

Fixing the pivot block.

A template is supplied free of charge for each device, to ensure the correct attachment point for the pivot block. With this, one proceeds as follows: Put the template (according to Fig. 6) over the centre spindle. With a bradawl make the three holes on the motor-board of the gramophone. Remove the template, pre-drill with a small drill, offer up the pivot block and insert and tighten the fixing screws.

It is important to ensure that the lower part of the template contacts the surface of the motor-board. If, due to the design of your gramophone, there is a still a gap, use a packing piece or spacer of wood or stout cardboard, so that the bearing block is screwed to the turntable at the proper height.

It seems evident from the above, that the ‘stencil’ was of thin sheet metal. Also, the instructions have nothing to say in the event of your turntable being too low, rather than too high.

The diaphragm(s) must be parallel with the turntable. Side-to side adjustment is by the screws securing the pivot block. Small front-to-back differences can be adjusted by the screw t on the pivot block, which makes it possible to raise or lower the tonearm slightly. Make sure that, as in Fig. 7, the fully assembled apparatus is such that the lead rod is not only horizontal, but after passing through the driver slopes down!

The last sentence is slightly ambiguous, but the diagram makes the requirement plain.


Place a “Retor” disc over the centre spindle on the turntable. Press the central driver unit firmly onto the record, the clamping sleeve fitting over the centre spindle. Insert the tonearm into the bore of the support sleeve r of the pivot block, registering the pin b in the slot. Place the guide rod into the follower pulley, then insert the horn into the tone arm. If the recording diaphragm (the smaller one) is not facing downwards, pull on the front knob on the tonearm to disengage the dual head, and turn the knob to set the recording diaphragm downwards. Carefully re-engage the turn-over head into the arm. See next paragraph for the recommended method of doing this.

The result is as shown in Fig. 8. which illustrates the arrangement. Make sure that the stop supporting roller of the driver is engaged with the coupling rod. (See Fig. 7.) The pin on the pivot must be engaged in the slot in the support sleeve. The recording diaphragm is then solidly seated, and only capable of up-and-down movement. When changing over the sound boxes, the safest way is to take the whole apparatus with the left hand, pull the knob with your right hand to disengage the heads, then turn the knob so that the desired diaphragm is downwards. Then, carefully re-engage the head assembly in the arm.

Fig. 8 above shows the correct way of speaking into the horn. Unfortunately, the larger replay head is seen in contact with the disc, instead of the recording head. But after nearly a century, we may readily overlook this minuscule deviation from these otherwise meticulous instructions.

Be careful that sapphire diaphragms and points are not damaged by shock, impact, or are allowed to fall! Raise the head, then start the turntable. Slowly lower the recording diaphragm onto the Retor disc. After a few turns, speak calmly, loudly and informally into the horn. During the recording never hit the funnel!

The rotation of the turntable should be the usual one for gramophones (about 70 – 90 r.p.m.).

To ensure perfect recording, speak or sing &c. as close as possible to the horn. (See fig 8). If the sound is too far away from the horn you get a vague, quiet, inferior playback. (See fig. 9). When recording with musical instruments, because of their strong sound waves, a lot of swarf or chip may be produced. It is advisable to remove this during recording, by brushing or blowing it from the disc. Furthermore, it is advantageous to clean the sapphire points on the sound boxes with a soft brush between each recording.


Lift up the device, pull out the turnover head, change to the large replay diaphragm, place the guide rod into the central drive boss, and set the turntable in motion. Carefully lower the replay head just outside the first groove. 

Apart from the fact that it is advantageous, after completion of the recording, to remove the disc and to clean it by turning and tapping or brushing off all residues, no further treatment is necessary. The records are ready to play immediately and can be played many times without losing any of their sonic purity.

As you can see, the large replay diaphragm (as opposed to the laterally fixed recording diaphragm) can also be moved sideways to and fro. As well as up and down; a true floating reproducer, and a very impressive piece of design. The recording and playback sapphire cutters are durable and need not be replaced. For changing discs, the apparatus is folded back into the position shown in Fig. 10. If the apparatus is to be used on other gramophones, it can be stored in the delivery carton when not in use.

It is recommended to use our paper protection discs to catch the swarf. Wax swarf is indeed very difficult to remove from turntable felt. Normally, it is sufficient to put the discs on a paper mat. If there is any difficulty in assembly or operation, consult the seller of the apparatus or the General Sales Office of “Retor”, as in the brochure.

Note 9.

This electrically transcribed (and totally unprocessed) recording was made with a 1mm high speed steel cutter. It was played to a number of CLPGS members at Malvern in 2017. The cutter is too large, so at the end, you will hear a rustling noise, due to thick wax swarf muffling the cutting point.


Note 11.

This trial was played mechanically on the Retor, and recorded by a microphone placed about 10″ (25cm) in front of the horn. It has not been processed in any way. To be sure, it doesn’t sound very good; but anyone who has attempted to record sound in this way, will surely agree that decent results are very difficult to obtain. Transcription: ‘This recording, made on the ‘Retor’ Sprechsmaschine, is being played back mechanically, on the Retor. The sound is recorded by a microphone placed in front of the horn. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth.. &c., &c.”‘


Note 13.

Electric transcription (totally unprocessed) of a Recording made in September 2018, with 0.5mm piano wire as a point. The frequency response is improved, and the finer swarf does not (usually) clog up the point any longer. The low pitch ‘rumble’ is due to the stepper motor which drives the feed-screw. Suitable mechanical isolation would eliminate this. (Stepper motors are extremely useful, but , alas, very noisy.)


Page revised 22nd September 2018.



British disc records of the 'Acoustic' Era.