Disc recorders for home use.

A new page, begun September 2017. Still under construction, April 2018.
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. True, there were musical boxes, but they tended to be too expensive, and could not talk or sing! In fact, the easiest way was to play it yourself on the parlour piano (if you could afford one), or else 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. So the advent of recorded sound meant that ‘music in the home’ could be provided by mechanical means – yet again, for those who could afford it.

Cylinder phonographs for home use began to appear in the later 1890s, but were very expensive to begin with. The gramophone and its discs appeared in the U.K. in 1898, and as it happened, came in at the ‘low end’ of the market (some were even marketed as toys) & so were relatively cheap. However, within a few years, phonographs became less costly, while at the same time, disc machines, with increasingly distinguished artistes, became more expensive. At some point, they  crossed over, so phonographs & their cylinder records became predominant until around 1910, after which they gradually succumbed to the disc gramophone for various reasons, and finally just faded away.

However, mid- and higher-price phonographs had always possessed one very 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 more 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 always denigrate the gramophone because of this ‘defect’. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? 8^)

It was perhaps inevitable that this problem would be addressed, and some sort of add-on device would be out on the market to enable home disc recording. The following list is not exhaustive – merely those of which we are aware. It should also be pointed out, that the path to really good amateur home disc recording was long, tortuous, and in the end (yet again) was to become very expensive indeed.

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^)  It has been played back on modern equipment, but has not been processed or enhanced in any way.

Speakeasie.

Circa 1930. Mechanical System. Lateral embossing on aluminium disc; a larger disc propelled the recording box via an outrigger.

S G Brown Ltd.

The proprietor of this famous company demonstrated a home recording device at the Institution of Electrical Engineers, probably in late 1930. The machine was then written up in the Wireless World magazine in their issue of 21st January, 1931. We have been so bold as to copy the entire article here, and have added a few comments in red italics.

In the days of the phonograph with its cylindrical wax records, it was fairly commonplace to make one’s own records. Unlike the modern gramophone the old phonograph was fitted with a lead screw for keeping the sound box, or, as it was then more commonly called, the reproducer, tracking correctly in the spiral groove of the soft cylinder. All that was necessary for recording was the substitution of a sharply pointed needle in place of the ball-ended reproducing needle, so that the diaphragm when thrown into vibration made a varying depth of cut. Cylindrical wax records reproduce sound by change in the depth of the groove, thus differing from the modern method of recording, in which the groove is in the form of a wavy line of uniform depth. Attempts at home record-making were discontinued with the coming of the flat disc and its transverse recording, and with the development of valve amplifiers and electrical reproducers, the production of equipments for home recording is again receiving attention. This time, however, home recording will establish itself. While almost every radio set can now be used for the electrical reproduction of records, the next adjunct likely to become standard is the provision of a recording cutter. This, developing side by side with the home cinematograph, is leading in the direction of the radio set with its valve amplifier becoming a complete home entertainer having many functions.

Several home record-making equipments have recently appeared on the market. While there is undoubtedly a need for this class of apparatus primarily for making records for broadcast transmissions, the development is likely to receive a setback unless the initial results are reasonably satisfactory. Tests reveal that home recording is now possible, resulting in a satisfactory degree of perfection.

Powerful Motor Drive Required.

The following is a description of the home recorder developed by Messrs. S. G. Brown. Ltd., and which was originally demonstrated by Mr. Sidney Brown at the Institution of Electrical Engineers, as this serves to illustrate the main problems of design and the results obtained. Those who have experimented with recording quickly appreciate that the first difficulty is that of obtaining sufficient power to rotate the record under the recording cutter. As the recorder is much heavier than a soundbox a powerful motor drive is required and in addition the load on the motor is made greater by the sharp cutting point of the stylus, and the fact that its hold on the record is greatly increased as it vibrates. In the Brown equipment we find a very large type of double spring motor, normally capable of playing through a number of records. By the substitution of new pinions the rate of rotating the turn-table is unaltered, but the motor is discharged in the course of making a single one-side recording. In this way considerable power is rendered available. As resistance to rotation increases with the diameter of the record, its size has been reduced to 6in. across, giving normally about one to one and a half minutes’ playing.

A particularly robust form of construction is employed for the arm which carries the recorder. A heavy casting mounted in centres provides for the traverse across the record. This is guided by a spring-loaded point travelling in a buttress spiral thread cut in the under-face of the turn-table. A hinged joint suspended from its centres allows the recorder to be lifted from the surface of theturntable, and in so doing the guide pin is released from the thread on the underside. A trigger action lowers the recorder on to the record, at the same time engaging the pin on the underside as well as closing a contact which, brought out to terminals, provides for lighting an indicating lamp showing that the recorder is in action. A meter is also thrown into circuit.

The Recorder Tested.

In action the recorder operates the reverse way to a gramophone pick-up. Where, in the latter case, the vibrating armature generates a current, we have now a varying current actuating an armature. In design, therefore, the mechanism of a recorder resembles a loud speaker movement arranged to vibrate a pivoted cutter instead of a diaphragm. In this instance the design closely resembles the Brown “V” action loud speaker unit, arranged to impart movement to a sharply pointed diamond standing almost perpendicular to the face of the record. This point is adjustable and can be readily replaced, although owing to its hardness it shows no sign of wear.

Many materials may be used for recording upon, and that most generally adopted is aluminium. Soft materials like celluloid and bakelite are fairly suitable, but metal discs probably give better results. A mild steel disc, in fact, serves quite well, giving results superior to those obtained with bakelite. Examination of the spiral under the microscope reveals that the groove is made by turning up a burr on the metal as apart from actually paring the surface away. Bakelite, being brittle, is actually cut, the surface being removed as powder, and is less satisfactory. When reproducing from the surface of the aluminium record, however, a pointed steel needle sinks into the bottom of the groove, deepening the cut in the soft metal surface. It is better, therefore, to use either a needle with a rounded point or, preferably, a fibre needle. The Brown equipment examined was fitted with a recording microphone, which, being of a heavy-duty type, gave ample output. It should be noted, therefore, that with this equipment record making is effected without the aid of a valve amplifier. To operate the microphone circuit an 8-volt battery is required, and when speaking or singing close to the mouth-piece of the microphone a record is produced which plays with almost the average loudness of the ordinary gramophone record.

The quality of reproduction, while not being quite up to the standard of the ordinary record, is, nevertheless, pleasing, and particularly so when applied to the recording of broadcast transmissions. The range of frequencies covered is the same as that customarily handled by pick-up or loud speaker and its associated amplifier.

It is thought that the ultimate application of the home recorder will be that of making records from broadcast items. In this way records are obtained quite cheaply which, when played, give results comparable with the purchased record. The future, no doubt, will witness considerable development in the application of the home recorder to the broadcast receiver.

Kingston Home Recorders.

The Wireless World magazine of 28th January 1931 carried a review of the Kingston Home Recorder. This was only a couple of issues after their review of the S G Brown device above. Again, we have taken the liberty of lifting the article in its entirety.

A new development is now taking place in the form of home recording, so that the radio-gramophone not only serves as a source of entertainment from broadcast or record, but provides a means  for making records of items from the broadcast programme. The process of recording being well known, one might think that the making of a home record making outfit would be a simple matter. This is not the case, however, as there are many practical problems to solve. The first popular home record making equipment has now made its appearance on the market and, known as the “Kingston Home Recorder” is being supplied by The Kingstophone Co., Ltd., 91, Tottenham Court Road, London, W. 1. In spite of the fact that it is a first model there is much evidence that the design has been carefully developed before setting about production.

The entire assembly is made up from castings, pressings and small turned parts, is generously designed, and exceedingly well finished. It is obvious from the design that it is the intention of the manufacturers to go ahead with the production of a large number of home recorders. Primarily, the outfit in its simplest form is intended for making records from speech delivered into a mouthpiece arranged as a horn. The sound is conveyed on to a light aluminium diaphragm, suitably stiffened and adjusted by several annular corrugations. At the centre of the diaphragm a lever is attached which, mounted between adjustable centres, carries a cutting needle at its opposite end. Thus, the sound waves actuate the diaphragm, giving a movement to the lever, which, in turn, vibrates the cutting stylus. The recorder is carried on a pivoted arm free to swing across the record and arranged for lifting clear of the surface. There is a heavy adjustable counterweight which allows of critical adjustment of the pressure of the cutting point on the record. In addition, a second needle point is provided, this being used as a guide in order that the recorder may traverse the record.

In this respect a very simple and effective method is adopted for giving both a traverse to the recorder and a drive for the record with avoidance of slip. The arrangement consists of a l0 in. record carrying a plain spiral, in which the guide point travels. Locked on to the centre of the record by the simple process of engaging on to three studs is the blank aluminium disc upon which the record is to be made. A positive drive is thus obtained under the cutting load of the stylus, while the spiral imparts a cross-movement to the recorder. The spiral on the record plate gives a cross-traverse in respect of some 200 revolutions of the turntable, so that at normal running speed the playing duration is just over two minutes.

Used with a Clockwork Motor.

It is well known that the process of record making normally demands a gramophone motor of generous power in order to avoid a severe slowing up of the turntable when cutting the groove. With the Kingston recorder the aim has been to produce an outfit suitablefor use with the ordinary gramophone fitted, possibly, with but a meagre type of gramophone motor. That this has been achieved is revealed by the public demonstrations which are being given at 245, Tottenham Court Road, London, W. 1, where the recording is carried out on a small portable gramophone. In order to accomplish home recording on a gramophone fitted with a small clockwork motor critical adjustment of the balance weight fitted to the arm is necessary, and the various tests made with the recorder were carried out using an electrically driven turntable.

The process of recording had no appreciable retarding effect, and, in fact, when one came to the recording of broadcast transmissions with an electrical recorder an additional weight was attached to increase the pressure on the record, in spite of the fact that the electrical recorder, with its permanent magnet, is much heavier than the direct sound recorder with its trumpet. Much of the weight is, however, taken by the guide point resting in the spiral, and an increase of pressure is not entirely added to the recorder.

A very interesting evening can be spent making records by speaking or singing into the small trumpet. One must not expect to obtain results comparable with the ordinary record, but nevertheless, speech and music are clear and sufficientlv loud, and from a novelty standpoint the result is quite entertaining. Special needles are provided both for tracking and cutting, whilst a fibre needle must be used for playing, and it is important to keep a good point on the fibre needle in order that it may follow the groove. Detailed instructions are given for recording and playing dealing with the little difficulties which one encounters when starting off.

It is thought, however, that the principal application of home recording is that of using the electrical recorder connected to the output terminals of the wireless set for making recordings of broadcast transmissions. Really good results can be obtained by following the instructions, carefully regulating the pressure on the cutting point at the time of recording. Some experience is necessary in order to get just the right depth of cut in relation to the strength of signal applied to the recorder. Too loud a signal will prevent the playing back of the record, as the needle cannot follow the spiral and successive grooves will overlap. Insufficient pressure will make too light a groove for the fibre needle to follow. It is surprising what good results can be obtained from broadcast transmissions when playing back with a sharp fibre needle. Blank records are supplied suitably etched at the centre for making various entries of the item recorded. The outfit is reasonable in price and costs 45s. for the acoustic model or £3 16s. 6d. for the electrical recording equipment. The electrical recorder may be used as a pick-up.

Among the practical hints that might be offered to one starting off to use the Kingston Home Recorder in conjunction with the broadcast receiver is that of bringing down the signal strength to a lower value than is customarily applied to the loud speaker. The recording needle must be sharp, and should it have become accidentally damaged the substitution of a new and sharply pointed needle is essential. Additional weight on the pick-up is also probably an advantage. Should the guide groove become accidentally damaged the guide plate should be discarded, as every record made will bear evidence of the broken spiral. The gramophone on which the records are replayed must be level excepting, perhaps, when the tone arm is incorrectly mounted, when a slight tilt will assist the point of the needle in following the groove. Of the packet of twelve blank records supplied with the outfit the last six used represent quite good recordings of broadcast items, each giving results when replayed like normal gramophone records, though not quite so loud, while care is necessary in playing them.

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.

Faytone.

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


General view of Faytone apparatus in position.


Showing arm transport system: helical groove & toothed rod.


A 6″ (15.25cm) aluminium Faytone disc after use.

It looks dark because the shiny aluminium reflects the light in the scanner. The  bottom of the centre boss has the same Faytone logos in relief; these engage in the punched-out logos on the disc. BEWARE. When attempting to play a Faytone disc, COVER UP THE CENTRE PUNCHED LOGOS! If your stylus runs across the disc into the punched holes, it will be instantly destroyed! 

 

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, this being more accessible (and cheaper) than the M.S.S. lacquer discs (see M.S.S. below). Thick wax blanks, as used by major companies, would not have worked with the heavy, unsupported heads employed on this class 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. (MUCH more here…)

Permarec.

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

Simplat.

Also Simplex in other countries. Mid 1930s.

Parmeko.

Available by 1937. (Insert text from ‘Wireless World’.)

B.S.R.

Birmingham Sound Reproducers was founded in 1932, principally to make & supply public address systems. In the mid-1940s they diversified into record players and began to make their own record decks. The company flourished mightily, as any on-line search will show. Based in Old Hill, near Stourbridge and with satellite factories in Northern Ireland and later Scotland, by the later 1960s they were exporting world-wide; one single consignment to Japan consisted of 38,000 record decks! The record cutting machine must have been developed and introduced around 1947. It was designed by Desmond O’Connor Roe of BSR, and was available in a number of outfits, including a dual-turntable model. There was also a recording studio open to the public at 88 High Street, Stourbridge with impressive facilities – including a Bluthner full grand piano! Lacquer discs were made in sizes from 5″ to 12″. The studio’s own label was called Claremont – BSR had initially been  located in Claremont Street, Old Hill. Alas, it is curious that very few examples of Claremont discs are known; most likely the advent of the tape recorder from about 1950, reduced the demand for one-off recordings, and the studio was closed down after only a very few years.

Brown- E.R.D.

Advertised in 1949. S.G. Brown was a very important company in the telegraphic & radio market in he U.K. from the early 1900s. However, this machine was probably originated by the E.R.D. concern, of which we know little as yet, though one is tempted to write Electrical and Radio Developments – but that is sure to be wrong! 8^)   It was quite common for a smaller company to be associated with a larger one, which had more available capital and works resources. More reseach needed.

 

British disc records of the 'Acoustic' Era.