Disc recorders for home use.

A new page, begun September 2017. Still under construction.
It is also the only page on this site which carries on into the era of electrical recording (roughly 1925 onwards) and indeed, up to the 1950s. This is because (a) some of the devices marketed after 1925 still operated purely by mechanical means, and (b) home recording devices are rather a ‘Cinderella’ topic, so it’s useful to have a little info. about them…

To hear speech, music and song ‘when nobody was there’, was at first a great wonder to the public. Remember: at this time, around 1900, there was no radio broadcasting, let alone television. Moving pictures were still very primitive and, of course, silent. In fact, just as it had always been, if you wanted to hear some music, you had to play it yourself, or go to a theatre, a music hall or a band concert, usually played by a brass band on the village green, or in local park if you were town-dwellers. But finally, ‘music in the home’ could be provided by mechanical means – for those who could afford it.

Cylinder phonographs for home use began to appear in the 1890s, but were very expensive to begin with. The disc appeared in the U.K. in 1898, and had the advantage that by chance, it came in at the ‘low end’ of the market & so was relatively inexpensive. However, within a few years, phonographs became cheaper. At the same time, disc gramophones expanded up-market, getting bigger & better, with increasingly distinguished artistes, and – naturally – got more expensive. At some point, their low-end costs  crossed over, and phonographs & their cylinder records began to gain mass popularity.

Moreover, mid- and higher-price phonographs had a great advantage over the disc. You could quite easily make your own recordings at home on a phonograph. Take out the replay device, replace it with a recording device, put on a blank cylinder of relatively soft wax, and speak or sing into the horn. Bingo! You had your own recording, which with any luck and due care, would play back quite a number of times. And if or when you got tired of that recording, you could usually shave off the surface of the wax cylinder, and record on it again – perhaps six, eight or even ten times.

The disc gramophone could not do that. Indeed, during the rivalry of cylinder and disc, which continued until nearly 1914, the sellers of cylinder machines would denigrate the gramophone because of this ‘defect’. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? 8^)

It was perhaps inevitable that disc record companies would eventually address this problem, and produce some sort of add-on device that would enable home disc recording. The following list is not exhaustive – merely those of which we are aware.

Neophone.

The Neophone discs were vertical cut. Their life was short – 1905-1907 – but during that time, they were the first concern, as far as we know, to market a disc recording device, at the cost of 30/- (thirty shillings, or £1.50) – around a week’s wages for a skilled factory worker at the time. They are very rare today, as indeed are Neophone records, though they were well promoted & advertised – below is a full-page ad. from the Talking Machine World, a U.S. publication, in April 1906.

Following the démise of the company in 1907, the remaining stocks of the attachment were bought up by ‘Edison Bell’, and marketed as their ‘Eureka’ home recorder – see below for a better image.

Edison Bell ‘Eureka’.

As remarked above, this was the attachment devised  by Neophone. The Eureka too is very scarce, but happily, we have an Edison Bell record packet which advertises it, providing much information.

In the upper part, Edison Bell proclaim their New Bell Disc records, which appeared in late 1908. This was their first venture into disc records; hitherto they had produced cylinders. Ironically, these discs were lateral cut, while the Neophone/Eureka was a vertical cut recorder; but to be fair, EB also produced a couple of vertical cut labels around the same time. These were Little Champion and Phona-disc, though those only had a short life as opposed to Bell Disc, which was very successful.

Immediate replay, and a permanent record! Things very much to be desired. Nevertheless, few people can have availed themselves of the Eureka, considering how scarce they are. At this point, we do not know how much it cost.

But we are very grateful that EB put a photograph of it on the packet. First, we learn that the records need not be permanent; they could be erased with a solvent, and used again, one hundred times each. Today of course, that would have to be ‘up to one hundred times each’. 8^)  There are a very few Eurekas in the hands of collectors, but we do not know whether any discs survive. They were most likely a wax composition, and the solvent would temporarily soften the wax so that the indented groove would merge back into a smooth surface. The mechanism is quite straightforward: a vertical shaft is driven from the centre spindle of the turntable, and the rotation is used to drive a horizontal feed screw, the far end of which rests on a support, most likely screwed into the wooden case of the gramophone, or Discaphone to be more precise. A carriage ran along the feed screw, bearing a horn which terminated in  horizontal diaphragm, equipped with a cutting (or embossing) point in its centre. After recording, the disc was played back using the same feed-screw mechanism, this time with the ‘reproducing sound box’ in place of the ‘special recording diaphragm’.

What did the results sound like? It’s impossible to say, but probably not very good! Still, we have to bear in mind that in 1908, practically nobody had ever heard their own voice before. So the novelty would be tremendous, far outweighing the shortcomings of the system…

The ‘Retor’.

This device appeared in Germany and is thought to date from about 1925, but this is not yet established. It may have been imported & sold in the U.K., but is included anyway out of general interest. More to the point, we acquired one some months ago and have been working on it, trying to bring it back to life, with a modest amount of success.

This image was trawled from the ‘net, and seems to be from an original catalogue or advert. for the device. It is actually the front of an EP by a German rock band of the 1990s!

It made vertical cut recording on wax discs. The means by which the assembly was transported across the disc is not apparent.

Above, you see the device mounted on an HMV model 60 prior to trials. We will not go into it any more at the moment, as we are writing an article about it for possible publication in ‘For the Record’ – the journal of the CLPGS, the national society in the U.K. for phonographs, gramophones and the media played upon them. Visit www.clpgs.org.uk – for that matter, why not join this excellent society? We will, however, provide a test recording recently made, merely adding that there are not many examples of mechanical vertically-cut disc recordings after about 1927. 8^)

Kingston’s Home Recorders.

Mid or late 1920s. Mechanical system. Lateral embossing on aluminium disc; a larger disc propelled the recording box via an outrigger.

Speakeasie.

Later 1920s. Mechanical System. Lateral embossing on aluminium disc; a larger disc propelled the recording box via an outrigger.

Cairns & Morrison.

They had a studio in London, certainly in 1930, using embossing on aluminium; their discs were called ‘Silvatone Souvenir’. They probably sold their device also.

Fayotone.

Early 1930s – both mechanical and electrical versions were available.

Ekco ‘Radiocorder’.

Early 1930s. Electrical only.

Majestic.

General view of the Majestic recording device from the early 1930s. The maker’s transfer is on the gearbox (upper centre), but it is so abraded as to be illegible. It is solidly constructed, and weighs in at 760g (= 1lb 7oz). The gearbox was screwed to the motor board of the gramophone (they were always wood in those days), as was the feed screw and support arms pivot. The gearbox was driven by a spring belt, of the sort used on ciné projectors, which passed from a pulley fitted onto the centre spindle of the turntable. This pulley also served to clamp the blank disc to the turntable, to avoid slipping. (The original pulley has currently gone missing; the one shown is a smaller substitute.) The belt drove a vertical shaft in the gearbox, and the rotation was transmitted to the feed screw by bevel gears. A half-nut on the back of the arm engaged in the feed screw, and transported the arm across the disc. The length of the main arm is adjustable over quite a wide range, to suit 10″ and 12″ turntables, and with a length of 5″ (12.7cm) the feed screw was more than capable of recording across a 12″ (30cm) blank disc.

Whether a specialised cutting head was available is not yet known; but the termination of the arm provided for the fixing of either a radial, or a tangentially-mounted head. At this period, dedicated cutting heads hardly existed – if at all – outside established record companies, so a replay head had to double up as a record head, as in the Ekco ‘Radiocorder’ above.

The device was patented in 1931 (thanks to Joe Moore for sending the patent specification), and doubtless offered for sale to the public. It was almost certainly used by the proprietors of Majestic Records, in Blackpool, Lancashire.

Regional, or ‘Territory’ record labels were virtually unknown in this country hitherto. If a regional band somehow got to make records, it had to travel to London to do so. However, the arrival of relatively inexpensive devices such as this, heralded the beginning of local recording studios, and even a few local record labels. Needless to say, Majestic discs are very scarce. They seem to have been mastered by embossing on aluminium blanks, the lacquer disc not yet having arrived (see M.S.S. below). Thick wax blanks, as used by major companies, would not have worked with the heavy recorders employed on this type of apparatus.

It is a characteristic of embossing (as opposed to engraving), that a furrow is produced, flanked by ridges – exactly like ploughing a field. Thus, an aluminium disc can be hard to track, as the replay needle may leave the furrow, and ride on two adjacent ridges – which are of course carry almost no signal. It is perfectly possible to electrotype matrix, mother and stamper from an aluminium master; but the finished pressing will possess that same propensity for mis-tracking. This is the case with the disc above. Still, such is the interest of the Majestic Concern, and its preservation of bands such as Jack McCormick’s (they made very few other records) that we give the side above as a sound file. Coincidentally when we began to play the disc, the stylus immediately went onto two ridges. We have left this in place, as an example of the phenomenon.

 

M.S.S. – Marguerite Sound Studios.

Developed from the late 1920s by Cecil Watts. Semi-professional & professional use. Rapidly taken up by the BBC ca. 1934.

Permarec.

Mid to late 1930s. Made in Germany(?) by Musikon. Aluminium disc with coating base on Gelatine. This required baking to cure it. They made basic add-on devices, but also very much more elaborate equipments…

Simplat.

Also Simplex in other countries. Mid 1930s.

Add others from WW 1937 – e.g. the Parmeko &c. Include B.S.R. from late 1940s.

British disc records of the 'Acoustic' Era.