A History of Home Recording (Apr. 1975)

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by George A. Blacker

above: 1. First electrical home recorder; Radiola (1928). 2. Victor Model 207 (1928). 3. Cylinder machine owner's manual (ca. 1907). 4. Jacket for zinc discs meant to use playback machine (worked poorly). 5. Wilcox-Gay Recordio. (1949) Crystal Cutter & General Industries mechanism, as in many machines of late 30s and 40s. 6. Edison Bell Eureka disc recording "appliance" (ca. 1920). 7. Presto EU used aluminum, wax paper, later acetates. Magnetic cutter & overhead lathe shown off disc for playback. Similar Model K used widely in 40s. (1,2,5,7, Library of Congress; 6, Hillandale News, London)

HAVE YOU ever wondered how home recording was done in the old days before tape, if indeed it was done at all? The answer to that is that it WAS done, and by a fascinating variety of types of apparatus.

Edison patented the first sound recording and reproducing device-the tinfoil phonograph-in 1877, but it was impossible to make commercial recordings for sale and reproduction on these machines, though they could record and play back instantaneously without any elaborate treatment of the tinfoil sheet. While the recorders on some models of the tinfoil apparatus doubled as a reproducer, unfortunately the tinfoil phonograph couldn't play much longer than a minute and the fidelity was very poor. Most of the tinfoil machines produced were used briefly by traveling lecturers, and the "phonograph fad" of the 1870s and early 80s was short-lived. The inadequacy of the machine was probably a major contributing factor to its loss of favor.

Charles Sumner Tainter, aided by Chichester A. and Alexander Graham Bell, worked on improving the phonograph during the 1880s and the result of their efforts-the Bell-Tainter Graphophone-was patented in 1886. They replaced the tinfoil sheets of the Edison machine with wax coated cardboard cylinders as a recording medium and fidelity of recording and reproduction was improved, though volume of sound was reduced. Thomas A. Edison, who had dropped work on the phonograph to develop the electric light and the electric utility business, was now free to resume his own research into sound recording. Spurred by the work of the Bells and Tainter, he did so. He adopted the concept of recording on wax, but made his cylinders of solid wax and of different dimensions from those of the Graphophone. The Edison cylinder of 1888 was to become the standard in size, shape, and grooving for most of the phonograph industry until production of cylinders was finally discontinued in 1929.

Cylinder phonographs and records were not generally available to the public until the early 1890s but all phonographs sold then were equipped with a recorder and a few blanks. If the recordist was not satisfied with his effort, the blank could be shaved and re-recorded. The home-recorded cylinders now in the hands of collectors testify that their sound quality, judged by today's standards, was consistently inferior to that of even the cheapest cassette recorders.

Still, the best of them were nearly as good as the commercial cylinder records of the day. If any reader would like to try to find out for himself how home cylinder recordings sounded in those days, he can do so by locating an old Ediphone or Dictaphone cylinder-type dictating machine and some blank cylinders; these should be available in some second-hand stores at fairly low prices. The cylinders are not the same size as the standard entertainment records, and speed and grooving are also different, but it should be possible to get a pretty close approximation of what home recording was like at the turn of the century.

The cylinder phonograph, equipped to record, even played a minor part in military intelligence operations during the First World War. A shortwave radio station, established in 1913 and operated by the Atlantic Communications Company, was one of two such stations that transmitted messages to a station near Hamburg, Germany. The other station was at Tuckerton, New Jersey. In 1914, the Tuckerton station was taken over by the U.S. Navy, since it was feared the station might be used to inform U-boats of the movements of American coastal shipping. The Sayville station must have been under suspicion as well, but monitoring of its transmissions revealed nothing-at least, not at first. Then radio amateurs along the East Coast began picking up strange noises at night, beginning at 11:00 PM and continuing until 1:00 the next morning. The sound resembled a continuous buzzing noise, with no audible interruptions such as would be typical of Morse code transmissions. One of these amateurs, Charles Apgar of Westfield, N.J., had built a highly sensitive detector using a DeForest Audion tube which was able to deliver an unusually loud signal at the earphones.

above: Pathé Voicewriter reproducer (incomplete)

He had made a practice for some time to record parts of incoming transmissions on a cylinder phonograph that he had bought for the purpose. His curiosity was piqued by these odd transmissions, so beginning on June 7, 1915, Mr. Apgar recorded excerpts from these transmissions for two weeks. He still couldn't make anything of them until one time he forgot to wind the machine as he played back one of the cylinder recordings.

As the machine slowed down, the supposedly continuous buzzing noise became recognizable Morse Code.

The Apgar recordings came to the attention of Chief Radio Inspector L.R. Krumm of the Bureau of Navigation in New York, who was also puzzled by the mysterious signals, and he summoned Apgar and W.J. Flynn, chief of the Secret Service, to a meeting in New York at which the records were played for Flynn. As a result, the Sayville station was seized by the Navy and the Secret Service on July 10, 1915. It was revealed much later that the Sayville station, like its counterpart in Tuckerton, was equipped with a Telegraphone, the great-grandfather of the modern tape recorder, on which code messages were recorded prior to transmission. When the nocturnal transmissions of these recorded messages were begun, the Telegraphone was run at a much higher speed. The messages were recorded in Germany on a similar machine running at high speed, then played back at a lower speed which permitted deciphering of the code.

It may be seen from the foregoing that home recording via the cylinder phonograph was not very hard, although the acoustic recording apparatus did not lend itself very readily to espionage or bugging. The comparative insensitivity of the equipment, along with its bulk, made concealment impossible. Sensitive microphones and amplifiers were still a long way off.

For many years, the owners of disc phonographs or gramophones were unable to make records at home. Indeed, Emile Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone, conceived of his machine strictly as a playback apparatus. He did make this promise to such people as wanted to make recordings of their own: "In each city there will be at least one office having a gramophone recorder with all the necessary outfits... Persons desirous of having their voices taken will step before the funnel (horn) and, upon a given signal, sing or speak or they may perform upon an instrument. While they are waiting, the plate will be developed (i.e., the zinc master disc immersed in an acid bath to etch out and deepen the grooves), and when it is satisfactory, it is turned over to the electro-plater or to the molder in charge, who will make as many copies as desired." Unfortunately, this did not come to pass, so that private recording on discs remained a relatively difficult thing for many years. In 1910, however, the Edison Bell Co. of England placed their Eureka home recording outfit on the market, thereby making home disc recording feasible-at least for English buyers. The outfit consisted of a simple overhead lathe mechanism driven from the spindle of the phonograph to which it was attached. A vertical cutterhead, resembling a type of Columbia cylinder recorder, was guided across a wax recording blank 10 in. in diameter and about 1/2 in. thick. After the recording was made, a reproducer was substituted for the cutterhead and the recording played back. The blanks could be replayed as often as desired, or wiped clean of existing recording by the use of a liquid solvent (which must have left a rather rough surface) or sent to the factory for processing into shellac pressings. The outfit sold for two guineas (about $12.00), and while there is no reason to doubt that it made fairly decent recordings, its fidelity must have been about comparable to that of the home-recorded cylinders.

The first home disc recording equipment to be placed on sale in America probably was the Pathé Voicewriter, which seems to have appeared in 1922 or 1923. The recording blank was a disc made of thin aluminum, about 7 in. in diameter.

The recorder was nothing more than an ordinary acoustic phonograph reproducer, equipped with a sapphire stylus that creased the aluminum to create a groove. If the metal was cut or scratched instead, the reproduction became undesirably noisy. The recorder was heavily weighted to provide the pressure needed to indent the surface of the blank, and the entire assembly was mounted on a long steel arm that could be attached to a bracket in some convenient corner of the phonograph cabinet. There was no overhead lathe mechanism to guide the recorder across the blank, so Pathe used a metal "tracker" disc, the grooves of which were engaged by a second needle, mounted in a hinged chuck built into the recorder arm. This guided the arm and recorder across the disc so as to make a proper spiral groove. I have not seen all of one of these outfits; I found a recorder in its arm several years ago, but the mounting bracket, tracker disc and recording stylus were missing. Also, I have only seen an empty envelope for one of the aluminum blanks, from which I was able to deduce the approximate diameter of the disc, and to confirm (from the printed instructions) the workings of the system. From the fact that the recording stylus and guide needle are separated by exactly 1 1/2 in. I deduce that the diameter of the tracker disc must have been about 4 in., and that the usable recording area of the aluminum blank must have been only about 1 1/4 in. (perhaps less if the disc was much less than 7 in. in diameter). At the recommended recording speed of 80 rpm, recording time could not have exceeded a minute and a half.

Also during the twenties, several concerns sold pre-grooved zinc discs on which one was supposed, in theory at least, to make recordings using any disc phonograph. (These were acoustical, remember.) You put a fresh steel needle into the phonograph reproducer, and, using a megaphone to concentrate the sound, spoke or sang as loudly as you could into the horn of the machine. The needle was supposed to engrave the metal at the bottoms of the grooves in the blank, making a recording, but I have yet to find one of those zinc discs (and I've seen at least a dozen) that had an audible signal in it. The discs, all 6 in. in diameter, were sold under such names as Echo-Disc, Rekordo, Rekord, Marvel, and Repeat-a-Voice. They still turn up occasionally with old phonographs.

Home recording couldn't begin to come into its own until adequate microphones and amplifiers became available as adjuncts to the disc recording process. The acoustical system was distinctly low-fi, and technicians in the studios had a variety of expedients to help it along that were beyond the capability of the average person: sound reflecting panels, platforms upon which some musicians had to sit in order for their instruments to be picked up by the recording horn, and specially modified instruments including the Stroh violin, which had a sort of megaphone built onto it to focus its sound at the horn.

Fairchild Camera disc recorder

The next home disc recording equipment to be offered for sale appeared in 1930, when the Presto Company offered a recorder that used aluminum discs, similar to those used in the Path Voice-writer. The Presto recorder, however, used a feed-screw mechanism to guide the recorder head across the blank, and a microphone and amplifier to drive the recorder. As with the older Pathe system, the Presto recorder creased the surface of the aluminum disc without tearing or scratching the metal. Application of a lubricant to the surface of the blank was helpful in minimizing the danger of this. The aluminum disc recordings had a sound quality that was generally quite satisfactory, although the surface noise level was rather high.

In 1931, RCA Victor offered their home recording system, which was built into the Model R-57 radio phonograph combination. Harking back to the concept of the Echo-Disc, they used a pre-grooved recording blank made of soft plastic. The magnetic pick-up head of the phonograph doubled as a recorder, using appropriate switching circuits. A special blunt-tipped steel stylus was used both for recording and playback of the plastic discs. The tip of the stylus was of such a size and shape that it rode along the tops of the groove walls, deforming the plastic in the recording process. This use of a special type of stylus for recording and reproduction meant that the records could not be satisfactorily played back with a standard phonograph stylus. The 2.7 mil, 78 rpm styli of today are unable to ride the tops of the groove walls, where the sound modulation is concentrated, but track the lower portions, where there may be no sound at all, or so little that the signal is very faint and of poor quality. It is possible to get improved results from these records with a special stylus, but the signal-to-noise ratio is still unfavorable. It is safe to say that pre-grooved recording blanks never worked very well.

When vinyl acetate and similar plastic instantaneous recording blanks became available around 1933, the owners of the earlier aluminum disc recorders were able to modify their equipment to use them, with improved results, and home disc recording began at last to come into its own. Most home recorders were either part of a radio-phonograph combination, or were designed to accept signal inputs from other sources than a microphone, so that many people made a hobby of recording radio broadcasts off the air.

There are some LPs available today in which certain cuts by some of the famous bands of the late 30s and early 40s are taken from such home recorded airshots.

The acetate disc recorder remained popular through the 30s and well into the 40s, when magnetic tape recorders had become sufficiently perfected and low in price to displace them. Magnetic recording had been around since the late 1890s, when Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish electrical engineer, invented the Telegraphone, a device that recorded magnetically on flat steel disc or steel ribbon. Poulsen had devised it originally as a means of making more efficient use of telephone circuitry; messages were to be recorded on the Telegraphone, transmitted at high speed on the telephone line to their recipients, who would record them at high speed and then reproduce them at normal speed. We have already seen how this multi-speed recording and playback capability was used in radio transmissions during World War I. The Telegraphone's main disadvantage was that its signal level was not very high, and since biasing of the recording medium had not yet been thought of, the distortion must have been high enough to make its use for anything other than voice recording impractical. The a.c. biasing technique was conceived by two American researchers, W.L. Carlson and G.W. Carpenter, who were investigating magnetic recording for the U.S. Navy.

The oft-told story of the capture of Radio Luxembourg in 1944 by the Allied forces, and the discovery there of a German-installed Magnetophon, tends to obscure the fact that research and development in magnetic recording had also progressed well in America. The best-known American made magnetic recorder was the Brush "Soundmirror," models of which were placed on the market as early as 1939. The tape sold for use with this instrument was paper-backed, but Brush wrote a letter of inquiry to the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (now known as 3M and famous as the makers of Scotch tape), asking whether the company could produce a plastic-backed magnetic recording tape. They could, and did, and shortly after the war, magnetic recording entered its years of growth which have continued to this day.


A-Weight-Limiting Lug.

B-Weight-Limiting Loop.

C-Rim of Recorder Weight.

C J-Recorder Weight.

D-Recorder Arm.

E-Sapphire Point.

F-Foot of Recorder Arm.

G-Glass Diaphragm.

H-Rubber Gasket.

I-Paraffine Wax.

J-Rim of Recorder Weight.

K-Hinge Screw.


M-Ball Joint.


O-Tube Pin.

W-Notch in Rim of Weight.

X-Slot in Rim of Recorder.

Cross section of Edison cutterhead.

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It might be interesting to note that the first use of tape to record classical music took place in 1936, when the officials of BASF, the first producer of magnetic tape, used some on a borrowed Magnetophon to record a concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. The concert was given at the factory by special invitation of the BASF executives. This historic tape recording survived the war, and has been recently reissued, some 37 years after the original concert.

The first use of tape in broadcasting in this country was made in 1947 by the producers of Bing Crosby's radio show. The program was transcribed on 16-in, acetate discs, but because the show was assembled by a montage method, combining segments previously recorded, costs were undesirably high and sound quality poor, due to loss of quality in dubbing. Faced with the unpleasant alternatives of accepting as inevitable the poor sound or being compelled to do the show live, Crosby and his producers decided to try tape. The results of a demonstration pleased them so much that they began to tape the show for broadcast, starting in October of that year. It was not too long before the networks adopted tape for their own use. Now the average radio station would be almost completely silenced without tape, and few stations, if any, still have their old acetate disc recording equipment.

The various forms of cartridges and cassettes were developed to eliminate the bother of changing reels and threading tape, which most people (the writer excepted) seem to consider a nuisance. Improvements in oxide formulations and the tape itself have brought us improved durability and better response at lower speeds.

Cartridge and cassettes have also made it possible to have music almost everywhere-in cars, boats, aircraft, and even on farm tractors. Collectors of historic recordings can benefit, too, in that historic records can be easily copied with little loss of sound quality, and the copies thus made duplicated as extensively as necessary, where it would not be economically feasible to reissue the record in disc form. Undoubtedly the end of development in tape recording has not yet come.

If you've ever heard any older home recordings made on equipment similar to what I've described here and chuckled indulgently at their shortcomings, I suggest you keep this in mind: it was only the enthusiasm of the earlier hobbyists that provided the incentive for improvement of product whose fruits we enjoy today, with our cassettes, tape recorders and, if you can afford it, videotape gear. So enjoy your equipment, but don't bet that something won't come along after a while that will make it as obsolete as the cylinder phonograph is today!

(Source: Audio magazine, Apr. 1975)

Also see:

Acoustics Circa 1657--Explorations Into Our Acoustic Heritage (Feb. 1981)

Making Tape (Apr. 1975)

"I See What You Mean!" How the Westrex 45/45 System Was Adopted by the Record Makers (Mar. 1975)

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