Vintage Audio History

Video Archiving - Restoration - Remastering - Duplication - Transfer - Vintage - Antique


This is not a comprehensive - all encompassing in-depth history of every known audio format since mankind had emerged from the swamps, but for the most part, is comprised of the formats we currently support. One day as time allows, we will be adding to this. Thus it'll always be perhaps, a work in progress !

We offer Transfer Services for  most of these formats

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Phonograph (1877)

On December 4, 1877 Thomas Edison became the first person to ever record and play back the human voice.First Edison recorder/player

The technology that led to the phonograph came from developments that Edison made in the telegraph and telephone. Edison at the time was experimenting with how a moving diaphragm linked to a coil, could produce a voice modulated signal. Meanwhile, he was also experimenting with a telegraph repeater which was simply a device that used a needle to indent paper with the dots and dashes of the Morse code.

Out of these two ideas, came the concept of attaching the stylus from a telegraph repeater to the diaphragm in the mouthpiece of a telephone. The first test in July of 1877, involved a sheet of paper pulled under the needle mechanically coupled to a diaphragm, as he shouted into the mouthpiece.....   Sadly, It didn't work..... though it did produce an unrecognizable sound which was luckily, just enough to prove the concept and spark intense interest in developing a solution to the problem of recording the human voice.  (Had he only imagined at the time what it would all lead to !)

For the next year Edison and his staff worked on the solution. Tin foil replaced paper, and thus  tin foil became the first viable recording media. A band of tin foil was mounted on a cylinder, and the cylinder was turned via a hand crank during the recording and the playback.  Edison turned the crank and spoke the first recorded words. "Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go."   Of course, the rest is history !

However, it's not unusual for history to get things "twisted".......  Jean-Paul Agnard suggested the following scenario....   A possibility exists that Edison himself in fact, might not have been the very first person to have recorded and played back the human voice.  This was most likely made by his 2 key assistants:  Charles Batchelor his chief assistant and John Kruesi his head machinist, to whom he directed to have the tinfoil phonograph fabricated from his original drawings.  From what can be deduced from their notebooks and punched time work cards, it is most likely they made a test recording first to see if it worked before presenting the completed device to "The Boss".  Thus In all probability, it was either Charles Batchelor or John Kruesi who actually recorded the first human voice. But it was much more romantic for history to have recorded that Thomas Alva Edison voiced "Mary had a Little Lamb" to be the very first audio recording. Thus who actually voiced the very first recorded words be it Charles Batchelor,  John Kruesi or Edison himself, remains unclear.  If it was in fact either Batchelor or Kruesi, is perhaps a historical academic point....  for without Edison's plans, neither Batchelor or Kruesi  would have been able to "pull it off" !

After inventing the very first successful audio recording device, Edison got side tracked and didn't get back to developing the phonograph for about another 10 years. By that time, his patents had expired and by that time, others took interest in the invention. One of those, was a fellow by the name of Tainter who worked for Alexander Graham Bell. He made a major improvement, by using a wax cylinder as the new "state of the art" recording media, as well as making improvements to the reproducer itself, and applied for patents in 1885.

Thomas Edison regained renewed interest in the phonograph in 1887  (probably driven more so to keep competitors at bay than anything else) and in 1887, he formed the Edison Phonograph Corporation to market and sell his creation.

Edison was a much better inventor than business man, but eventually the market became so huge that even HE couldn't help but making piles of money, selling both phonographs and recordings to a "hungry" market.

There is wealth of additional information on Vintage 78's.  Read More.....

Ediphone - Dictaphone (1878) - (1916)

Dictaphone Model 12


The Ediphone and subsequent wax cylinders used in Edison's other product lines continued to be sold up until 1929 when the Edison Company Folded.

The name "Dictaphone"  trademark was originally registered by the Columbia Gramophone Company in 1907. Dictaphone was spun off into a separate company in 1923 and continued manufacturing wax cylinder dictating equipment up until 1947 when it introduced the Dictabelt,  which subsequently replaced the old wax cylinder technology.

The Dictaphone and Ediphone were for practical purposes, almost identical products. So similar were the machines, that the cylinders could actually be interchanged between the two. Columbia (one of Edison's fierce competitors) called their machine the Dictaphone (a trade name still familiar today).

Edison initially sold his phonographs intended for business dictating use under the phonograph name. This led to product line confusion and Edison finally renamed his phonograph line intended for business dictation to the Ediphone in 1916. 

The technology was similar to the original phonograph, with the main improvement being the paraffin coated cylinders used for recording. The main advantage to the paraffin cylinder, was it's capability of being erased and re-used - the first technology that allowed repeated erasures (up to a point anyways). This was a major selling point over Gramophone based equipment (for this application anyways...)

Erasure was accomplished via of an optional "Shaver". As it's name implies, it literally shaved off a thin layer of wax, effectively erasing the pre-recorded content, yielding a smooth surface upon which to record new material.  Cylinders could be re-used til there was no longer any paraffin left on the cardboard tube.

Early Cylinders could only record up to about 2 minutes of dictation. Larger cylinders combined with a smaller track pitch, increased recording times 4 fold to about 8 to 9 minutes per cylinder.

As the cylinders age, they lose some of their resiliency and become somewhat brittle. Thus they are prone to being chipped  - especially at the ends.

The organic nature of paraffin combined with high humidity often caused mold to grow in the paraffin, yielding them unplayable. For cylinders properly stored in low humidity temperature controlled environments, these cylinders often contain the only early audio recordings of family members or corporate history.

Pictured to the right is our pristine Model 12 which we discovered in virtually brand new condition !

As  a side note:  Dictaphone had it's early beginnings beginning since 1878 when it was known as the Columbia Graphophone Company. In 1907, it saw the potential of wax cylinders as being used for office dictation, and adopted the name "Dictaphone"....   Despite all the technical advances in the digital age and stiff competition from the Pacific Rim, Dictaphone survived until 2007, when it was purchased and became part of Nuance Communications...

Any company tied to the technology of the day that survived over 100 years, is one of those rare jewels that is unlikely ever to be equaled.....



The Gramophone (1888)

Meanwhile, while the phonograph was being developed, a German immigrant by the name of Emile Berliner, settled in the city of Washington, D.C. and also took an interest in recording technology.  In 1888 he filed and patented a talking machine which also recorded and played back sound.

The technology was very similar... But instead of using a cylinder, Berliner used a flat recording disc and a stylus which cut a spiral groove while the stylus in the cylinder moved up and down in vertical cut recording format (known also as the "hill-and-dale" vertical cut) to record the actual audio.

Berliner called his talking machine the Gramophone.

One of the main advantages of a flat medium disc, was that thousands of records could be inexpensively pressed from one master. The Gramophone soon became the worldwide standard.

It's somewhat ironic that the original Phonograph was a cylinder based device, whereas the Gramophone was always a flat record based machine. Today, the phonograph term is commonly mis-associated with being a turntable for playing records, when in fact it never did. When you see a record player, you should be thinking "Gramophone", and NOT "Phonograph" ! .......... Marketing and subsequent public name recognition sometimes gets things twisted around backwards !   -  Much of the proper name confusion came about when Edison was forced to "eat crow" and throw in the towel on his phonograph cylinders and finally begin to sell Gramophone compatible equipment to take advantage of the exploding market for recorded music.

Pictured to the right is our fully restored "His Master's Voice" Gramophone Model 103 manufactured in Hayes, Middlesex, England - Circa 1925. Small, lightweight & "portable" with a hand crank spring motor,  it was the "iPod ®"  of the period.

There is wealth of more information on Vintage 78's.  Read More.....

Read a bit more on Emile Berliner and "Nipper" - The RCA Dog and how it all came together...    Click here.....

(The cat in the picture is Jenny-Jenny who was adopted from the local shelter and assists with audio transfers.)


Tube Testers

For lack of a better place to put this, it shall end up here, since most early electric audio devices up until the introduction of the transistor,  were vacuum tube devices

Up until even the late 1960's or so, most electronic stores (Radio Shack's & even the local corner drugstore) had tube testers on their premises - most of which you could use yourself.

Yes: your local corner drug store probably had a tube tester and sold vacuum tubes !  - about as popular as the local drug store that sells batteries today !

Today, with the advent of the silicon transistor and integrated circuits, those testers are all but gone . But even if vacuum tubes were still popular today, chances are that there would be none remaining one could use themselves...   The reason you ask ?

B+ anode voltages used for testing could be as high as 1.5 kv for some power tubes.  That made those voltages potentially lethal. In our litigious society, even a simple static "nip" today could potentially elicit a multi-million dollar law suit. 

So just how do you identify a bad tube without a tube tester ?  Sadly, other than obvious physical damage, you don't.....

That means you'll have to "shotgun" (read: replace them all at once)...   Highly inefficient and wasteful, but there's no other choice (short of finding someone local with a tube tester anyways).

Shown here is our Hickok 539C in virtually new pristine condition...  Probably one of the best tube testers ever made !  (personal opinion anyways....)

Wire Recorders (1930)

Before there was magnetic tape, there was wire !

Yes.... there actually was such a device ! ....... and they became quite popular from about  1947 to 1952 before open reel magnetic tape finally replaced them.

Much early family history resides on those early wire recordings and they are holding up quite well to the test of time quite well....  much better than newer magnetic tape is !

We have an entire page dedicated solely to the Wire Recorder..... it's history, pictures, how to make splices and tips on how to acquire one.


 Click here to go to the Wire Recorder page...



Tefifon (1936)

The first demonstration of the Tefifon technology was in 1936 at the "Radioexposition" in Berlin, Germany, the brainchild of  Karl Daniel.   The Tefifon was a belt recorder, somewhat similar to the Sonaband Recordall that came out much later in 1957. 

It was much more popular in Europe than it ever was in the United States.

It was somewhat ahead of it's time in that it used an endless  vinyl belt housed in a cassette that recorded the tracks in a serpentine fashion..

The small cassettes could record up to an hour of material, while the large cassette as shown here, could record over 2 hours.  Such a long recording capacity was unheard of back in 1936 on any other medium other than a wire recorder. Instead of cutting grooves, it used an "embossing" technique using a stylus to imprint the information, similar to a Dictabelt as described later..

It was actually the very first successful audio cassette recorder/player !

The original dream because of it's long recording capacity was to replace the phonograph record as the distribution medium of choice...   But dreams often don't translate well in to reality.  Flat record discs could simply be pressed almost instantly in high volumes for "dirt cheap", while Tefifon belts had to be duplicated in real time.  It wasn't even a contest.

Yet the ability to record over 2 hours of content onto a audio cassette made it very popular...



Minifon P55 (1951)

Minifon P55 Portable Wire RecorderSomewhat out of the time sequence,  but will be listed here to keep all wire recorders grouped together...

The Minifon was released in 1951. It's main attribute was it's small portable size and claimed to fit in one's shirt pocket (assuming I suppose. one has a Gi-normous shirt pocket !.... ) Nevertheless, compared to the Websters and Silvertone home machines etc, it was indeed truly portable. The P55 (the most popular) measured approx 7x4x1.6". It was powered by 3 batteries: a single 1.5 v filament battery (AA size),  a single 30 V anode battery (plate voltage supply) and a single 12V battery for the reel/capstan motor drive. An optional AC adapter was available that only supplied 9-12v for the motor drive, which was the battery with the shortest life and also (naturally) the most expensive.

The filament battery had a life expectancy of  20 to 30 hrs, the anode battery: 150 to 200 hrs, and the motor battery: 10 to 12 hrs.

The included microphone served as both a microphone as well as a speaker - -  though an optional telephone pickup, headphone, as well as a dedicated "full" sized speaker was available at additional cost.  The P55 initially sold for $289 here in the US back in the early 1950's (quite a hefty sum back then), but it was truly portable and considered state of the art "microminiaturization" for it's day.  The P55 employed vacuum tube technology with 3 "micro" (and considered highly power efficient) vacuum tubes. Since it was battery powered, a rectifier tube and thus power supply was not required, as all operating voltages were supplied from the 3 on board batteries (that alone saved a lot of weight and significantly reduced the number of required components)  Not surprisingly, it was quickly adopted by many governments as being the ultimate "spy" recorder of it's day.  Minifon even designed a wristwatch microphone, that looked like a watch, but was actually a microphone ! Today, that wristwatch microphone is somewhat of a collector's item.

Fidelity was on par with the full size Websters, despite the wire size being nearly half the thickness of the much larger Webster reels (which was already hair thin).  Due to the extremely thin wire used, wire breaks are far more of a problem. Minifon also opted for non-standard spool sizes and recording speed, insuring that only their equipment could be used for playback. Standard Webster style reels recorded at an industry agreed on 24 ips, while Minifon used a proprietary 30 cm/sec or about 11.8 ips.


Audograph (1945)

Introduced in 1945 by the Gray Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, the Audograph used technology similar to the Soundscriber and Dictabelt, in that the modulated grooves were embossed onto soft vinyl.

What is unique about the Audograph, is that instead of a constant rpm, the recording was made at a constant linear velocity.  Audodiscs were "cut" starting at the hub and working outward towards the edge, unlike standard gramophone recordings that started at the edge and continue towards the hub.   In any event, if played at a constant rpm, it will start of very slow and dramatically speed up approaching the edge.  The reason for this is simple but also unique as to the design of the drive system...   In all other disc systems, the center spindle is fixed in position and the stylus in or out from the hub to emboss or track the groove.. In the Audograph, the stylus is fixed in it's position, and it is the disc that is moved outward and away from the stylus..   In other words instead of the stylus moving, it's the spindle and thus record that moves outward and away from the stylus as  the disc is recorded or played...  Thus the Audograph starts playing at the hub and proceeds to the edge..  

To provide a constant linear velocity, the Audograph uses a set of rubber tires that press up against the vinyl disc and drive it's rotation...   When the disc starts with the spindle all the way to the right, the drive rubber wheels are also at the hub.  The result of this is that when starting out, the rpm of the actual disc is quite high, since the effective circumference at that point is small.  As the center spindle moves to the left, the drive tires are then positioned closer to the outside edge where the apparent circumference is much greater.  Since the rubber drive tires are held at a constant rpm, the actual rpm of the disc slows greatly towards the outside edge...

Constant Linear Velocity was actually a rather clever concept...  The reason is that if  the record were to rotate at a constant rpm, then at the hub, a lot of information has to be "crammed" in to a short amount of groove space (the circumference of the concentric grooves being much smaller towards the hub)..  Towards the outer edge, the groove circumference is much greater...   The downside to this is that fidelity is not constant, but much poorer towards the inside hub and the best towards the outside edge...   Constant Linear Velocity drive, solved all that...  Despite being technically superior, the design concept of employing constant linear velocity for other disc based media, never caught on...   (at least until the development of the video laser disc). Today CLV (constant linear velocity) is widely used for CD's and DVD's, so it would appear that the Gray Audograph was way ahead of it's time in terms of CLV recording...


Soundscriber (1945)

Soundscriber was another competitor in the growing dictation marketplace.

Flexible vinyl records were "cut" using a stylus cutting head, and playback  was made on a dedicated player as the model shown here.  Though we used the term "cut" to convey the concept, in reality, the groove was instead "pressed" or imprinted into the soft vinyl by the stylus. Interesting to note, is that this was one of the early uses of vinyl as a recording medium. The pressing or imprinting technique has one major benefit over literally cutting grooves on harder mediums such as acetate - namely, the imprinting technique using a soft vinyl which acted almost like a lubricant for the stylus, results in much lower surface noise.

Corporations loved them, as like soon to follow Dictabelts, the media could not be accidentally erased and were easy and inexpensive to mail.

Soundscriber media came in two sizes:

15 minute "Mail Chute" discs on 6 inch media...   and

8 minute "Memo Discs" on 4 inch media

Soundscriber discs are easy to identify, owing to their unique square spindle hole cutout and translucent green color.

Audio fidelity was greatly improved over the earlier wax cylinder technology and similar in quality to that of Dictabelt equipment.  The soft media did not lend itself to repeated playing (usually 10 -15 plays before wear would become evident) but was more than sufficient for dictation purposes.  Soundscriber used their own recording speed and requires a special stylus to play them. Use of a standard 78 stylus will damage the grooves.

Being stylus based, vibration of the unit could result in skipping - especially where so many offices of the day were in wooden mills, prone to the floors shaking as heavy materials were being moved about or a heavy footed co-worker walking close by.   To solve that problem, (or at least greatly reduce it) Soundscriber sold a shock absorbing cradle from which the recorder/player was suspended.

The Soundscriber was "done in" by the soon to follow Dictabelt, which soon captured most of the dictation market.  Though it made reasonable market penetration, it should have been much more successful than what it was, as the mechanism was far simpler and less expensive to build, being no where's near the mechanical complexity of a Dictabelt machine. It actually worked quite well !   But alas, effective marketing & consumer perceptions are often fickle things....

Like all the early media, Soundscriber discs often contain the only recordings of family members, as executives would sometimes bring one home on the weekend to make family recordings !

Dictabelt (1947)

Dictabelt A1 Recorder

Manufactured by the Dictaphone Corp. ®, the "Dictaphone"  trademark was originally registered by the Columbia Gramophone Company in 1907. Dictaphone was spun off into a separate company in 1923 that specialized in the sale and marketing of dictation equipment that continues a fine tradition to this day !

Up until 1947, Dictaphone sold and marketed it's line of wax cylinder dictation equipment to compete with Edison (of the "Thomas Alva" fame). But by 1947, Dictaphone saw the "writing on the wall" for the original wax cylinder technology, and developed what they trademarked to be the Dictabelt. The Dictabelt promised to be a quantum leap forward in dictation equipment technology...         and & it was a promise well kept !

As the name implies, Dictabelts are flexible belts of vinyl  .005" thick by 3 1/2 inches wide with a circumference of 12 inches, which allowed up to approximately 15 minutes of recording time per belt. It's basically nothing more than a record in the form of a flexible belt  - not much unlike in form, to a small belt that may go on a belt sander !   However, unlike wax cylinders that could be shaved (read: erased) and reused several times, the Dictabelt was not erasable or re-useable...   In modern terms you could think of them as being audio WORM drives (Write Once -  Read Many) .... The belts were made of soft flexible vinyl that allowed the recorder to imprint a groove much like a record cutting lathe.  Unlike a record cutting lathe, the grooves are not cut, but instead like the earlier Soundscriber, the grooves are imprinted (or embossed) onto the belt.

Belts came in either red, blue or purple depending upon the year of manufacture, but other than the color, were identical in all other aspects.......  "Designer colors to match any office decor" !    -  (well..... as long as it was red, blue or purple anyways...)   Red belts were made from 1950 to 1964....  Blue from 1964 to 1975.... and purple belts from 1975 onwards. Playback was via a stylus - similar (at least in concept) to that used in a record player.  Audio quality of belts properly recorded and stored is quite good, and was a quantum leap forward from the low fidelity of wax cylinders.

Dictabelt also offered a 30 minute machine that used the same belt media. To achieve 30 minutes per belt, the belt speed was reduced to half speed.  Long play belts proved to be problematic....  Fidelity was poor due to the low writing speed.  Because of those reasons and associated maintenance expenses, the 30 minute machines never really caught on....... Mostly due to the much higher maintenance costs which normally entailed the local Dictaphone service rep having to make many a visit to keep one of those "beasts" properly working. Put another way, it was simply a bit too "finicky", whereas the 15 minute recorded belts were much more reliable - even on machines in need of servicing......  Thus 30 minute belts are quite rare.


Dictabelts when properly stored, are holding up amazingly well - especially when you consider that most magnetic tapes from even the late fifties & early 60's are now unplayable due to oxide shedding. The very early belts tended to become brittle and break at the splices, but different manufacturing technology resolved most of those problems using a different composition more resistant to hardening with age (ie: exposure to ultraviolet light). Different manufacturing techniques also resulted in effectively extruding a seamless belt, which did away with the need of splicing the ends together during the manufacturing process, which was always the weakest point and prone to early failure - especially as the belts aged. Based on what we've seen so far, Dictabelt recordings will probably still be playable in another 50 years if properly stored...... The only common malady, is that as they age, they tend to lose their suppleness over time      (don't we all, huh ?)........   and since most were stored flat, they almost always developed  stubborn unyielding folds   (ditto that also...)    Most belts require special treatment & restoration techniques to restore their shape and flexibility....  Otherwise, skips, as well as hearing the two "folds" (which sound like loud repetitive "thumps"- two per each revolution of the belt) as they pass under the stylus is common.  The effects of this restoration process are short lived, but allow most  belts to be transferred with only minimal problems related to their being folded/flattened for so long.

Dictabelts were never intended as being archival media, though they have outlived many of their later to come magnetic tape media. The soft vinyl yields up to 20 plays before groove wear begins to take its' toll if played with a sharp stylus.  Since most dictation applications required no more than 1 or two passes, it was not an issue for the dictation transcription purpose intended.

Their small size also made them easy to mail as well as store, and soon became the defacto standard of many large & medium size offices.  When new, the belts were extremely supple, and could easily  be flattened into a mailing envelope or preferably a small box, with few if any consequences. Field offices could receive audiograms or even personalized audio messages/dictation in several days via the USPS.....  Naturally, the Dictaphone Corp sold 10's of thousands of em !

The Dictabelt machines were built like tanks and were mechanically over-engineered to put it mildly.  Other than a belt and a rubber idler wheel & replacement styli,  the drive mechanism if kept lubricated and maintained, will most likely outlive many generations of potential users..... ( some yet to be born ! ). Having rebuilt and maintained many a unit,  I can personally attest to the fact that Dictaphone® built one tough machine !   Short of being thrown out the window of a 5 story building (where it's not unlikely that the concrete below might sustain the most damage), the basic drive mechanism would most likely survive any torture even a "sick" demented office worker could conjure up !   By the time Dictaphone Corp switched to tape, they had by that time an understandably loyal following of Dictabelt users and a huge installed base, which made the transition to tape an easy sell. Had it not been for the Dictabelt, Dictaphone Corp probably would have gone the way of Edison.  Though "built like tanks", they did however require lubrication, occasional adjustment & alignment to keep the belt tracking true on the mandrels.

Although the belts and recordings are holding up pretty well even after  50 years or so in many cases,  finding a working Dictabelt machine today is quite rare. Even scrap "parts machines" are becoming hard to find. Sadly, most firms just tossed perfectly good working machines into the dumpster back in the early 60's, to make way for the new tape based dictation equipment.......  (enough to make one cry today).......   Yet another case where the media again outlives the availability of the equipment on which to play it.......

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The top image shows the internal layout of the machine with top skin , log/note panel, and cutter head assembly removed. This machine has just been completely re-built, cleaned, & all rubber parts replaced.  Even sports a brand new stylus from a lot of 10 we were lucky to locate from a former retired Dictabelt Service rep several years ago !   Placed alongside a new machine from the factory, you'd now be hard pressed to tell the difference !

For those familiar with the internal workings of Dictabelt machines, you'll also notice that the "cutter" head has been removed. Since there is no such thing as "write inhibit" on Dictabelts, we remove the cutter head to prevent any accidental recording-over of  pre-recorded belts.  We do this on all our machines with the exception of one that we still use as a recorder.

The image depicts both the red and blue Dictabelts. These are the second generation belts that are seamless  -  ( The early 1947 to 1950 belts being so prone to break at the early splices where the two ends met.  Note that these belts have been specially processed  to restore their natural round shape. Most  belts when received after having been stored flat for nearly 50 years, appear by comparison, to have been "mashed" almost flat in a grape press !  Where sharply creased, the vinyl deforms and even after restoration 2 "thumps" per revolution can often be heard as the remains of the creases pass the stylus.

Dictabelts were marketed for office dictation purposes and never really caught on as a consumer recording device........  though many an executive brought one home on the weekends to make early family recordings or recordings of the family when they came to visit Dad at the office.......  The reason for this,  was undoubtedly, the relatively high cost of the machines;  owing to their rugged high quality commercial construction & associated costs. Had a cheaper consumer machine have been designed & marketed, no doubt the Dictabelt would have been a major player in the consumer marketplace & have given Wire Recorders a "run for their money"........ Alas, Dictaphone Corp.  targeted the commercial office market, and never delved into the consumer marketplace.

The "hay-day" of Dictabelts, spanned a period of nearly 15 years from 1947 to 1962. Ultimately, Dictabelt machines were replaced with magnetic tape technology, and Dictaphone ceased production of Dictabelt machines by the early 60's. Even though out of production for nearly 20 years,  some remained in daily use at large firms up until even 1980.....  yet another testament to their quality of construction..

Perhaps one of the most "colorful" media (I couldn't resist making these images a bit larger) , the Dictabelts are often the only remaining audio recordings of family members or corporate history from 1947 to as recent as 1980.

In the case of brittle belts or belts that are stuck together, do not attempt to "open" the folds or separate the two, lest you end up with "Dictabits" !     Salvaging those, requires special techniques !


To listen to one of the earliest Dictabelt Transcription Recordings -  Circa 1947 of a WW-II medical report dictation:        Click Here  (794k  mp3)


Sonaband - Walkie RecordAll (1957)

The Sonaband machines used the same technology as that of the Dictabelt.  Namely  that it embossed the audio information onto a soft vinyl belt with a stylus, instead of cutting grooves into harder materials such as acetate.

There were 4 different models. 

LC         Basically the same as the CC, but only had a standard microphone where one had to be close to the mic.
LC4       Similar to the CC, but had a better microphone with a useful range to 4 feet and accepted the larger belts
CC         This unit could record up to 1 hour on each side of the belt. Microphone range was 60 ft.
CCB      Same as the CC, but came with the  "covert" briefcase.
CC4       Identical in function to the CC, but was larger and took larger belts, allowing up to 270 minutes of recording time.
CC4B     Same as the CC4, but included the "covert" briefcase  

1962 Prices:

LC        $350.00
LC4        650.00
CC         450.00
CCB       465.75   
CC4       750.00   
CC4B     765.00

To equate those prices into today's  (near worthless) 2008 "fiat" dollars, multiply the price by  7.04.  Thus a CCB (the model we have and shown here) if it were being sold in 2008 would cost $3280.  


What was unique about the device is that it was one of the first truly portable battery powered devices for making field recordings. 

Though sometimes marketed as a dictation machine, the lack of an auto backspace function with foot pedal control, made it somewhat less than practical for that application....   Nevertheless, many would transfer the audio to their Dictabelt machines that did support foot pedal controlled back spacing, where a secretary could then transcribe the dictation to paper.

Where the Walkie RecordAll excelled however, was it's use as a covert audio recorder...  It became very popular in law enforcement and used extensively by private investigators...  

What made it especially  "covert" was it's ability to fit inside a special brief case that housed a special highly sensitive  microphone - the CCB model, being the most popular...   Today, that certainly wouldn't seem all that covert, but back then it was quite the thing...  No one would ever suspect a briefcase could contain a portable audio recording device ! 

Interesting to note that a very sensitive microphone was  built in to the briefcase..   That alone, was one of the major selling points.  The CC series included a very sensitive microphone with a useful range to 60 feet !  With today's technology, a 60 foot useful range would seem  "no big deal".    But this was 1962....   Condenser mic technology was still a good decade away.

If you look closely on the right side, you'll notice that there is a small hole...   Looks like a blemish or where one of one's kids poked a hole in the leather...  Instead, this is where the highly sensitive microphone was located.




Battery Power

For the drive motor, the device utilized 3 standard D cell 1.5 volt batteries..   The 9 volt battery was used to power the electronics. Access to the battery compartment couldn't have been simpler....   The cover was held on  by 6 magnets !  Simply "peel off" the cover to gain access to the batteries, electronics and drive motor... 

Since the Walkie Recordall was the very first transistorized portable field recording device, it's Interesting to note the discrete transistors that were inserted into their own sockets for easy replacement...   Vacume tubes had a short life and were constantly being replaced. That concept carried over to the first transistor devices.

On the left is the motor that used a worm gear to transfer the torque to another worm gear that drove the stylus positioner.

As a side note:  The CCB model we came across was in near  mint condition.  The stylus and  cleaning brush appear  virgin. Also interesting to note are the batteries...   These are the original as received.   What's amazing is that there was no leakage or corrosion of any sort.  The batteries appear as the day they were first installed some 35 years earlier ! 

Drive Mechanics and Stylus

Drive mechanics of the Walkie Recordall are similar to those of the Dictabelt and IBM's Magnabelts.

The motor shaft itself is a worm gear that drives the main shaft  positioner that itself is another worm gear.  The stylus position is determined by a pawl that rides in the grooves of the worm gear. (Not unlike the steering in most cars...)..

The stylus is somewhat hidden by the cleaning brush in the photo here, but is made to contact the belt once loaded.  Shown here to the right is  the mechanism in it's retracted pre-loading position.


The standard Sonaband belts  for the LC, & CC series,  measure 16.5 inches in circumference by 1.75 inches wide...  The belt slips down over 2 spindles and is kept taunt by spring tension.  

What's amazing, is the amount of material that can be recorded onto a single belt. Rotating at approximately 15rpm, one side of the belt could hold approximately 60 minutes of material. 

Although it is possible to turn the belt inside out and use the other surface, it was seldom done...  The CC4 series accepted larger belts that could record up to 270 minutes of material !  That was unheard of in that day - especially in a portable recorder.

I won't belabor the operational details, as I scanned in the original owners manual as an Acrobat PDF which is available  HERE

The full 1962 price list can be viewed HERE

The Walkie Recordall we received was in near pristine condition in full working order..  All that was needed was removing the dried grease and a simple re-lubing...


Open Reel to Reel



This little 2 Track Mono Realistic, is typical of the home audio recorder of the late 60's to early 70's. Inexpensive & reliable, much family history still resides on those old tapes.  Sadly, some are no longer recoverable.



The Tascam 34 is a 3 head
 4 track discrete ATR.
It was used by both professional and
hi-end audiophiles.

The first audio tape machines were open reel to reel, and evolved into a wide number of tape widths and track configurations.

The first being the Ampex Model 200 released in 1948 and purchased by ABC for the recording of delayed broadcasts. By 1954, Ampex began marketing the first multi-track machines, and the stage was set for the switch from Dictabelts  & Wire Recorders to magnetic tape.

Open reel to reel was the predominant format, from audio tape's inception, to the early 1980's, when digital started making in-roads.

Popular tape widths ranged from 1/4 inch to 2 inch, while track formats ranged from 1/4 inch mono to discrete 32 track analog 2 inch tape  -  and almost anything in between ! Tape speeds ran the gamut...  15/16, 1 7/8, 3 3/4, 7 1/2, 15 and 30 ips.... Though 1 7/8 to 15 ips are the most common. 15/16 ips was normally relegated to the 24/7 of police and military recordings of phone transcriptions and shortwave interceptions.

1/4" consumer machines typically used anywhere from 1⅞ to 7½ ips, while 15 & 30 ips speeds were normally found only on the professional machines.

Early home and educational classroom recorders such as the Wollensack most of us remember from our school days of the 50's, were all reel to reel. The transport system was both simple and highly reliable. As the consumer moved on to the "no thread" - "idiot proof" cassette and cartridge systems to come, the professional community stayed with the open reel to reel. Since much early editing was done literally by "Cut and Splice", open reel had a distinct advantage, and most early professional decks came with a built-in splicing block. Advancements in solid state electronics and motor servo systems made these transports a dream to work with.

Various open reel formats remained the professional's transport of choice from it's early inception, to it's slow demise, when it was retired in favor of the newer evolving digital formats.

Some of us still prefer working with the open reel to reel machines. High quality analog audio has a certain warmth and richness of sound so far unachievable by the seemingly harsh digital encoding technology of present.

The beauty of these machines are their availability on sites such as eBay.  Many of the transports have had little use, and are in virtually new condition.  Typical prices in the mid 80's for a good 1/4" 4 Track such as Tascam or Otari started at around $3000 while 1/2" 8 tracks went for about $6,000 or so. (And that was in 1980 dollars  which equates to about $7600 and $15,235 respectively in 2005 dollars !)  Today, 1/4" professional decks can be had on eBay for about $350 to $500 for a mint one that occasionally turns up every several months.  Be prepared however, to take it apart and remove the old dry grease, re-lube & re-belt it no matter what the ad gloriously claims.   "PB Blaster" (available at any good automotive store) is a great solvent for removing the old dry grease. Just spray some on a "Q-tip" and have at it !....... Be warned though....... it's also an effective solvent on many plastics and any rubber components.   Replacing the old drive belt (which are readily available) just on general principals, would also be a nice touch while you have it apart. Once cleaned, lubed and de-magnetized, you'll have to check head alignment/azimuth and adjust the equalization for the tape you intend to use. For less than several hours of effort, you'll have a sweet, almost "new" reel to reel machine...


Track Layouts


Full Track

One track in one direction only, where one single head recorded across the entire width of the tape. This was more common when magnetic tape was first introduced. There is no tape "B" side.





Two Track Mono

Two Track Monophonic is similar to half track in the sense that 2 tracks were allocated on the tape.  Unlike Half Track that recorded both track simultaneously for Stereo in one direction, the Two Track Mono recorders only had one head that spanned across just half the tape and obviously only the electronics to record and play back one channel at a time since there was only one head.  The user would record track 1 on the A side of the reel in the forward direction, and then flip the reels or cassette over to continue recording Channel 2 on the B side.  This layout is still widely used in inexpensive consumer monophonic tape recorders, be they cassette based or open reel.




Half Track

Often referred to as the "broadcast standard" due to its popularity in the broadcast industry. The format uses half the tape width to record each track independently and simultaneously & hence its name. Therefore, there's two channels, recorded simultaneously in ONE direction. (There is no "B" side)  Since the format uses the entire area of tape to record the the two tracks simultaneously, it offers the best sound quality and superior signal to noise ratios. As tapes age, the audio is far less affected by oxide dropouts.

 One drawback of the 1/2 track, is that there is no additional channel upon which to record SMPTE time code.  For many users who merely demanded high quality recording, and did not employ the use of SMPTE Time Code, it was not an issue....





Quarter Track Stereo  

Visually similar in appearance to a half track machine,  in the sense it has just two level meters. However, the similarities end there. It became perhaps the most popular of the quarter inch formats.

This format uses a quarter of the tape to record a single track, and thus its name. The track use is staggered however. In the forward direction, tracks 1 & 3 are recorded for stereo. Upon flipping the tape, tracks 2 & 4 are then recorded in the reverse direction. More expensive machines incorporated a reverse function to reverse the tape direction and a mechanism whereby the head tower was either stepped down to position them on tracks 2 or  4. Other even more expensive machines used a head tower that encompassed 4 heads that were electronically switched to the alternate tracks, thus negating the need to "flip the tape". In any event, there were electronics for only 2 channels.




Quarter Inch 4 Track Discrete - 4 Track MultiTrack Multi Track

This layout or use of tracks allows 4 track simultaneous recordings to be made in one direction, utilizing all the tape. Thus there is no "B" side. The advantage of this layout is that 4 separate musical instruments could be recorded independently and the tape later used to "mix down" the channels into the final stereo or even mono mix if desired. Like its quarter and half track counterparts, there is no provision for a SMPTE channel.





Half Inch 8 Track Discrete - 8 Track MultiTrack - Multi Track

Similar to the 4 track discrete track Tascam-34 above, but instead uses half inch wide tape which allows 8 discrete tracks to be recorded all at once in the forward direction only.  This format uses the entire width of the tape, thus there is no "B" side.

Eight track SMPTE is identical in concept to Quarter Track SMPTE which is explained below.  The only difference is that by convention, track 7 is allocated for the guard band and track eight contains the SMPTE time code. 




Quarter Track SMPTE

This is really not a separate format, as the machine is really a 4 track discrete. It's just a matter of how each channel is utilized. To enable SMPTE time code to be recorded, something had to "give.  Thus channels 1 & 2 were assigned the left and right channels respectively, and channel 4 was assigned to the Time Code.  To prevent and cross track interference from the time code which was usually recorded "hot", plus since it was a harsh distinctive sound whereby the least amount of crosstalk could be heard, channel 3 was not used and thus served as a guard band.


The first audio tape machines were open reel to reel, and evolved into a wide number of tape widths and track configurations.

The first being the Ampex Model 200 released in 1948 and purchased by ABC for the recording of delayed broadcasts. By 1954, Ampex began marketing the first multi-track machines, and the stage was set for the switch from Dictabelts  & Wire Recorders to magnetic tape.

Fostex R8  8 Track - 1/4 inch tape


Open reel to reel was the predominant format, from audio tape's inception, to the early 1980's, when digital started making in-roads.

Popular tape widths ranged from 1/4 inch to 2 inch, while track formats ranged from 1/4 inch mono full track, to discrete 32 track analog 2 inch tape  -  and almost anything in between ! Tape speeds ran the gamut...  15/16, 1 7/8, 3 3/4, 7 1/2, 15 and 30 ips.... Though 1 7/8 to 15 ips are the most common. 15/16 ips was normally relegated to the 24/7 of police and military recordings of phone transcriptions and shortwave interceptions.

1/4" consumer machines typically used anywhere from 1⅞ to 7½ ips, while 15 & 30 ips speeds were normally found only on the professional machines.

Early home and educational classroom recorders such as the Wollensack most of us remember from our school days of the 50's, were all reel to reel. The transport system was both simple and highly reliable. As the consumer moved on to the "no thread" - "idiot proof" cassette and cartridge systems to come, the professional community stayed with the open reel to reel. Since much early editing was done literally by "Cut and Splice", open reel had a distinct advantage, and most early professional decks came with a built-in splicing block. Advancements in solid state electronics and motor servo systems made these transports a dream to work with.

Various open reel formats remained the professional's transport of choice from it's early inception, to it's slow demise, when it was retired in favor of the newer evolving digital formats.





So.....  You found an old reel and wondering how much may potentially be recorded on it ?


Time Chart for Open Reel-to-Reel Analog Audio Tape   (Approximate)


One Direction
Mono/Stereo/4 Track Discrete

2 Directions
Mono or Stereo (A & B)

Four Directions
4 Separate Mono Tracks

Speed - ips

Diam  Length
15/16 1 7/8 3 3/4 7 1/2 15 15/16 1 7/8 3 3/4 7 1/2 15 15/16 1 7/8 3 3/4 7 1/2 15
    3"          300 ft 1 hr 30 min 15 min 8 min 4 min 2 hrs 1 hr 30 min 15 min 7.5 min 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr 30 min 15 min
    5"          600 ft 2 hrs 60 min 30 min 15 min 8 min 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr 30 min 15 min 8 hrs 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr 30 min
    5" *        900 ft 3 hrs 90 min 45 min 22 min 11 min 6 hrs 3 hrs 1.5 hrs 45 min 23 min 12 hrs 6 hrs 3 hrs 1.5 hrs 45 min
    7"         1200 ft 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr 30 min 15 min 8 hrs 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr 30 min 16 hrs 8 hrs 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr
    7" *      1800 ft 6 hrs 3 hrs 1.5 hrs 45 min 23 min 12 hrs 6 hrs 3 hrs 1.5 hrs 45 min 24 hrs 12 hrs 6 hrs 3 hrs 1.5 hr
    7-10" *  2400 ft 8 hrs 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr 30 min 16 hrs 8 hrs 4 hrs 2 hrs 1 hr 32 hrs 16 hrs 8 hrs 4 hrs 2 hrs
    10"    *  3600 ft 12 hrs 6 hrs 3 hrs 1.5 hrs 45 min 24 hrs 12 hrs 6 hrs 3 hrs 1.5 hrs 48 hrs 24 hrs 12 hrs 6 hrs 3 hrs


* Some tape is thinner and thus more can be spooled on the same diameter size reel.



NAB Hub History

One question we're constantly asked, is about the difference in the reel spindle sizes......NAB Hub Adapter

The larger professional machines held large heavy metal reels & were capable of shuttling tape at lightning speeds. Professional machines recorded at 30 ips or about 150 feet of tape/minute. Broadcasters and production houses had deadlines to meet, and demanded machines that could "Move Tape" in every sense of the word !  Metal reels were used as opposed to plastic, as plastic reels have a tendency to shatter at high rotational speeds. Should a reel come loose, a plastic reel would disintegrate, shooting plastic shrapnel about the studio, so metal reels were much safer for this reason.

Keep in mind that on professional machines near the end of tape in a fast forward or rewind mode, the reel with the less tape will seem to be approaching gas turbine rpm's. The last thing needed was to have a heavy reel break free and commit suicide by careening through the studio - hell bent for total destruction of anything either too stupid or not fast enough to get out of it's way  - until it's wildly untamed kinetic energy was expended.  The reel would randomly ricochet off anything encountered and could easily "climb" equipment racks as high as the ceiling and sometimes repeat the mayhem several times before it exhausted itself or became imbedded in a nearby wall. The damage (depending upon what it hit) could be substantial - especially with large heavy one or two inch reels..... not to mention dangerous. Quite a spectacular if not expensive event..... (Having witnessed such excitement, & being forced to "dive for cover", all this is not an exaggeration...) Being an audio recording engineer in the "good ole days" was sometimes dangerous work....

Enter the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters). Since the manufacturer's didn't seem all too concerned about the problem or couldn't agree amongst themselves as to a common standard solution, the NAB thankfully stepped in and established the standard for professional reel hubs. Since the broadcasters were the primary buyers, the manufacturers finally listened (albeit, mostly out of economic "bottom line" concerns) and astutely became quite agreeable with what the NAB demanded. An adapter would slide over the existing spindle on smaller 1/4" machines (so standard non-NAB reels could still be mounted) and be locked securely in place. The NAB type reel then was tightly secured to the hub by a simple yet effective rotating screw lock mechanism.  The NAB hub adapters were an option (albeit a necessary one) on some machines, though larger half inch, 1 inch and 2 inch machines (owing to the much greater damage they could inflict) had only NAB type hubs and were not removable. Not only was it a safety issue, but it also at the same time set a standard size for industry wide interchangeability...........  Before purchasing a set, make certain your machine supports them, as the existing spindle must have a locking mechanism to secure the adapter.

Now you know !



Dictaphone Dictet (1957)

The portable Dictet Dictation recorder by the Dictaphone Corp, was the very first dictation machine to use magnetic tape cassettes !

The unit itself measures 6.25 x 4.5 x 1.75 inches and weighed a mere 2.5 lbs, which was considered micro miniaturization for it's day. The cassette measures 5.875 x 3 x .4375 inches and internally houses 3 inch reels.

Interesting to note that the first audio cassette was not plastic, but the shell was made of rugged aluminum and painted gray.  Nothing flimsy about those cassettes - even the internal reels were solid metal !

Also interesting to note that in 1960, it sold for $314.00 which in 2008 dollars, equates to  $2258.00  !  Cutting edge electronics back in the late 1950's thru the early 60's, didn't come cheap !   However, you could also rent the units from Dictaphone.

The Dictet was actually just a standard tape recorder.  Unlike true Dictation equipment, there was no backspace capability.  However, an accessory cable allowed the Dictet to connect to a Dictabelt recorder which did have backspace capability, so the common practice was to use the Dictet for field dictation and then transcribe it to a Dictabelt to be transcribed to paper.  Dictaphone sold special cables for this purpose...

The unit took three 6 volt mercury batteries which could power the unit for up to 20 hours.  Two batteries powered the motor drive, and the other powered the transistor electronics. Today, those battery sizes are no longer made, so if you come across one, you will have to wire in an appropriate DC power source as there was no AC adapter.

There was no fast forward - only a rewind function. Thus to fast forward down tape, one had to flip the cassette over - "guestimate" how far to rewind, and then flip it back again.

There was no built in microphone, but the one that came with it, plugs into the front of the unit.   Like other included microphones of the day,  the supplied microphone left a lot to be desired in the quality department, but was still  adequate for voice reproduction.

The cassette held 300 ft of tape and recorded for 30 minutes on each side for a total of one hour per cassette...  Tape speed was 2.48 inches per second.

Being the first cassette based recorder, it was even adapted for use as an early cockpit voice recorder !



RCA Sound Tape Cartridge (1958) - Soundtape

In 1958 RCA developed an audio cartridge system known simply as the Sound Tape Cartridge.

It was one of the first attempts at taming unruly reel to reel audio tape and making it transportable in the consumer marketplace.

The cassette housing appears more as an over-grown standard audio cassette, measuring  5 x 7 1/8 x 1/2 inches. Tape speed was either 3.75 ips resulting in 30 minutes of audio per track on 1/4 inch tape or 1 7/8 ips selected by a small lever which would yield 60 min of material per track. The speed selector lever merely re-directs & "jumps" the drive belt from one pulley to another. Simple and a bit crude perhaps, but it works !

For the monophonic machines, the recorded tracks could be selected via a switch that selected track "1" or "2" per each side, so it is in fact a 4 track format.  Most machines were 4 track mono, yet the later higher end SCP-2 model was 4 track stereo. 

One shortcoming of the machine that was endemic to many early audio formats,  is that there is no fast forward. To fast forward, you flip the cassette over and do a rewind, then flip it back over to continue further down tape, thus screening a tape for content or locating a section was somewhat time consuming. Depending on the machine, you could have 2 separate mono tracks per side or a singe stereo track . On the stereo capable machines, if one only had 1 mic plugged in to the left channel, it would use that single mic to record both channels .

The second shortcoming not only endemic to the RCA Sound Tape Recorder, but to all recorders of the era, was the poor quality microphones provided..   This was well before the day that high quality condenser microphones could be manufactured inexpensively.  Make a recording using one of  today's better microphones, and it's like someone "threw a switch"..   Not CD quality, but suddenly there was Fidelity !

The recorder features a built in speaker, line level inputs and outputs, provision for an external mic and was all vacuum tube technology. Interesting to note, is the wide use of plastic for the main exterior body of the machine.  Plastics were just coming of age...

RCA Records made an early attempt at making this a popular pre-recorded music format. However it turned out to be a major "flop" in that regard. The format did find it's way into homes by 1960, as an early mono cartridge format for recording family history. A lot of priceless family recordings have been made on this early cassette format...

NAB Cart Tape (1959)

Introduced in 1959 by Collins Radio, the cart tape format was designed for use by radio broadcasters to play commercials,  bumpers and announcements. 

Cart Machines were NOT a consumer format !   8 Track cartridges though similar in size, will not play in a cart machine. In fact, the carts more resemble the early Muntz 4 track stereo cartridges where the pinch roller resides in the machine and not in the cartridge. Note also that the cart tape format offers better fidelity than the later to follow 8 track cartridge, owing to it's wider track pitch & 7.5 ips speed.

Prior to the Cart Tape format, commercial spots and bumpers were often recorded on open reel half track machines, which always necessitated manual threading and cueing.....  both time consuming  processes,  that were prone to operator errors & resulting mis-cues   (No offense: but DJ's & radio personalities were not often noted for their technical skills - except perhaps in the early days of broadcasting)..... 

Mis-cues often resulted in the dreaded "Dead Air" AND almost always;  in a "pissed off" client - - -  demanding a free re-airing of his spot without it being "butchered".

Though no one in the broadcast industry will openly admit it,  the ONLY reason for programming, is to entice people to listen or watch the commercials that ultimately "pay the freight".   All programming including the alleged "News", sports, movies, dramas, comedy's, Talk Shows, sit-coms etc etc etc, are simply there to fill in the "black holes" between the commercials.    In the radio industry, it was the "Cart Machine" & what advertising they could sell to play on it, that ultimately determined the success or failure of a station.

Anyways, the time consuming threading/cueing process of open reel audio tapes, meant that usually a technical director was required to deal with such mundane tasks to free the DJ/Talk host to do what he does best - - -  thus necessitating at least two personnel to pull off even a simple broadcast.  With the advent of the Cart Machine, even a DJ/Radio personality working alone  on a Sunday morning for example, could do it all  - especially in small markets where the budget for a technical director was simply out of the question...    Thus in most cases, the burden of playing the proper commercial/bumper without mis-cueing, rested with the DJ/Radio personality.   Like an answer from Heaven itself, the cart tape solved all those issues, by eliminating those two time consuming & error prone steps.  Now a DJ merely "popped" a cartridge into the machine which would cue itself to the exact starting point ,and he'd merely hit "start" when ready and adjust the levels on the board if need be !        No threading - no manual cueing: ......  all he had to do was to "hit Start" !         The entire operation was now virtually "idiot proof" !   (no insult intended, as I have a GREAT ADMIRATION for ANYONE that can DJ or host a live broadcast ! .................   God knows, I certainly haven't the verbal/communications skills.....)

Then for the next  30 or 60 seconds, all they'd have to do, was to either "cue up" other carts ..........   "Veg"...........    figure out what to babble about next........  or personally reflect on the meaning of life !            (whatever....)

The first machines were one track mono used extensively for AM radio broadcasts, such as this fully restored monophonic Tapecaster X-701RP as shown.......  but stereo machines were soon to follow.  No plastic parts here. The chassis and skins were steel, as in the TapeCaster depicted above. Those played 2 track stereo on 1/4" tape at 7.5 ips. Both included a separate 1 kHz cue track to mark the location of program material. Development of the format led to secondary cue tones of 150 Hz and 8 kHz which were used to trip dedicated internal relays that could be used for external device control - even computer control ! 

Perhaps one of the nicest cart machines as the format evolved, was the Otari CTM series as shown here on the left with 3 players and one recorder. (personal opinion anyways).

Many Cart recorders did not have full erase heads, necessitating the use of a bulk eraser, should the tapes be targeted for "re-cycling"  and dedicated to other uses. Some cart bulk erasers also incorporated  "splice finder" logic, to aid in quickly locating the endless loop splice, which by default, was usually always the cue point.

In general, cart machines were "built like tanks".....  (They had to be !  -  as they were in constant use 24/7).    Because of the high mechanical reliability and audio quality demanded by broadcasters, the cart machines were not "cheap".... averaging $2200 per player and $3500 for a player/recorder  (Note:  and that was in 1980's dollars !)

Though still in use today, most stations have switched over to computerized digital technology for day to day operations.

But when windows inevitably crashes, the "trusty ole" cart machines are still retained by some stations,  standing by in the ready ! ....  They may be antiquated mechanical "beasts", but they don't "Crash", and are capable of reproducing excellent quality audio when properly maintained........ (and as the old motto goes in the broadcast industry) .....  ANYTHING is preferable to "Dead Air"

Though the hay day of cart machines is long past, Cart Machines are still being manufactured to this day.......

Not bad for a technology that has spanned some 47 years (and still counting) as of 2007 !


Sonifex Discart Recorder - Player

Sonifex Discart Machine (1987)

Though this machine came along much later in the Cart Machine timeline, we ended up placing it just below the original cart tape machine,  to better show the evolution.

"Though the name played on the "Cart" terminology, it wasn't really a cart based unit at all. This was perhaps one of the first moves away from analog tape  based carts, into the digital domain.  The Sonifex DX-300 used 3 floppy drives.  The top drive could be used as either the player or recorder, while the two lower drives were dedicated for use as players only. The Discart had all the Cueing functions like a tape, but unlike tape, cueing is almost instant, owing to the relatively fast seek time of the floppy drive.  Though the audio was stored as digital files on floppies, the format was proprietary to the unit and cannot be read directly on a PC.  As such, the unit performs it's own formatting and verifying functions . The unit could record up to 37 seconds of CD quality stereo audio on a 2mb floppy

The unit recorded in high quality stereo with balanced audio in and out XLR connectors. There are also provisions for a keyboard, 9 pin digital in/out,  RS-232 remote for computer control, BNC Datalink and conventional remote connections.


IBM Executary Dictation Machines - Magnabelt (1960)


In October, 1960, IBM decided to enter the fray of the Office Dictation equipment marketplace.   The IBM Selectric had quickly become the coveted office typewriter of choice, so adding dictation equipment to the office product lineup, was seen as a complimentary market and an "easy sell"....  The office dictation product line using IBM's Magnabelt technology, was dubbed the Executary....

First to be introduced were the 4" wide x 12" in circumference magnetic belt machines...   They were often referred to as "Magnabelts".   They were a solid  4 inch wide magnetic belt whose ends were taped together to form an endless loop...   Belt speed was 10 rpm which works out to a recording speed of 2 inches/second.  The 4" wide belts held up to 14 minutes of content, which works out to 140 tracks across the 4 inch wide span. The single read/write head was positioned by a worm gear and pawl mechanism, and slight variations in track pitch could be adjusted via of a "tuning control" that shifted the head small amounts either right or left of center to keep the single read/write head in the middle of the track on playback and out of the guard band..  Today, it would probably be referred to as a tracking control.

Fidelity left something to be desired by today's hi-fi standards, but after all, it was designed as a transcription machine.  All it had to do was to reproduce the human voice.  It was never designed nor intended for the recording of hi-fi music or even lo-fi music for that matter.. 

All the various Executary models had a foolproof backspace mechanism that simply backspaced the head a fixed amount on the worm gear each time the "review" lever was pulled. Unlike the mechanism in Dictabelt machines which was a far more complicated solenoid based mechanism, IBM's backspacing method was simple and foolproof - requiring no adjustment or service calls as the far more complicated Dictabelt machines often did.  The downside of this reliable simplicity, is that to backspace, meant the typist had to stop typing and reach over to actuate the lever, and then re-acquire the initial hand position.  In the Dictaphone system, the typist could merely tap the foot switch without having to re-position her hand..  That was a major plus and a feature that most secretaries were unwilling to give up.  Had IBM listened to the secretaries, they would have made far more market penetration.  But alas, IBM... after all being IBM, thought they "knew better" and failed to listen to their customers...   Let's face it: the secretaries ruled the office.  Woe be to any office manager or purchasing dept that failed to give them what they wanted.... (Today as then: that proved to be a  Big Mistake.....)

What plagued the machine like most other recorders no matter their format back in 1960, was  the low fidelity  (read: Cheap)  insensitive microphone that came included with the unit..  Back in the 1950's and 60's, a half decent microphone was big money..  The technology to manufacture such a microphone inexpensively, simply didn't exist..  Even the cheapest microphone of today would run performance circles around the average included microphone of the early 1960's...  Upper end roll off of the included microphone began at a dismal 3.7 KHz, which was ok for voice and only slightly better than early telephone equipment that used "carbon pile" microphone technology....  Substitute the original mic with a much better performing microphone of today, and the fidelity nearly doubles to a high end of about 6 KHz... - still not in the league of what could even remotely be considered hi-fi, but nevertheless, a vast improvement... 

The other design feature that limited the inherent fidelity of the format itself, was the elongated head  which was both wide, but especially long in length.  From a design standpoint, the smaller the head, the greater the potential fidelity recorded as well as reproduced...    However, a smaller head also meant a narrower track which would have made the mechanical tracking and interchangeability between machines, far more critical.  With today's accurate linear positioner's and servo systems, it would have been no "Big Deal"...  (Consider that a 67 tracks on a DVD fit into the width of a human hair).  But at that time, tracking was a crude mechanical worm gear - pawl setup.  A larger head simply allowed "sloppy" tracking tolerances commensurate with the technology that existed at the time.  Since belts had to be interchangeable between machines, there was a design tradeoff between fidelity and machine interchangeability of recorded material.   The big selling point was that belts recorded in offices across the globe, could be mailed and played back reliably on any other Executary...  That  would equate to their concept of email...

The major design flaw of the Executary entire product line, (personal opinion) was that there was no recording level control. The only level control was a crude "dictate - conference" switch which equated to selecting between either low or high mic sensitivity...  Without a recording level meter, any type of automatic recording level capability, or even any way to accurately manually adjust the recording level, it was far too easy to make recordings either "down in the mud" or the levels so "hot ", that the audio would be clipped into distortion  (the recording level exceeding the available headroom and driven into saturation on tape)...    Today we take Vu meters or auto level control for granted, but that technology wasn't made available across any of the Executary product line.  It was still too far cutting edge and costly to implement...  Thus setting a perfect recording level on any of the Executary models was more of an art than a science.  In short: hold the mic too close and/or speak too loudly, and the audio would be distorted: having gone into clipping...   Speak too softly or position the mic too far away, and there would be an insufficient  recording level....   Mis-position the slide switch to "conference" and speak naturally into the mic, and you'd over drive the recording into clipping..  Set it do "Dictate"  and try and record voices  more than 2 ft away, and the level would be  "down in the mud" .... It wasn't until later until after the demise of the Executary's that Vu level meters and AGC (Automatic Gain Controls) became commonplace. But back then, setting the proper recording level often involved a streak of good luck, or a working knowledge of the Black Arts....

Later to come in the time line were the 3" Magnabelts.  They held the same 14 minutes, but took smaller 3 inch x 12" in circumference belts..   The slightly smaller size with their subsequent slightly more compact track pitch doesn't sound like much, but it allowed portable dictation machines to be designed with nearly half the weight and size.  Not easily seen in the images above since there's no reference to scale, but the 3 inch belt machine is almost half the size of the 4 inch belt machine...

Like most office equipment for the period, they were well made and built like tanks.  All steel cases & heavily chromed....  No cheap plastic here !   I never tried it, but my guess is that you could drive over one in a pickup truck !  Other than the backspace lever getting "lobbed off", it would probably survive just fine.

In the brutal marketing wars, IBM's Magnabelts were in direct competition with Dictaphone's "Dictabelts"...  Unlike Dictabelts, IBM's Magnabelts could be recorded over and re-used many times, like any other magnetic tape medium.   That would have been a major selling point..  Though more flexible and a better dictation machine (especially should backspacing via a footswitch have been addressed), the other reality was that Dictaphone literally "Owned" the dictation market since 1878, and was deeply entrenched with a huge base of deeply loyal customers...   

Not even "Big Blue" with all it's marketing muscle, could dislodge Dictaphone from it's coveted high ground in the office dictation marketplace...  Unless Dictaphone stumbled, IBM stood little chance  of making serious inroads into Dictaphone's installed base.   Unfortunately (for IBM anyways...), Dictaphone never stumbled...  Dictaphone customer service was unrivaled !

By 1970, the Executary line was for practical purposes, no more...

Today, the 3 inch belts are far more common...  Far less common are the 4 inch belts..   We support both belt sizes....





Sanyo Micro Pack 35  - Channel Master Cartridge (1964)

Sanyo Micro-Pack 35The Sanyo Micro Pack 35 also sold under the Channel Master brand name as a Re-badged Sanyo, was an early format portable dictation player/recorder for the busy executive of the 60's. The tape was housed in a transparent cartridge measuring  2.6 x 2.9 x 1.9 inches and slid easily into the bottom of the recorder. What's unique, is how the tape was stored on two reels residing atop one another, keeping the cartridge compact.

An exclusive innovation of the era, was a variable speed control which was possibly one of the first vari-speed portable dictation recorders produced. The entire machine is ruggedly built and quite heavy, though the dimensions of the unit are a mere 3.5 x 6.5 x 1.25 inches. Solid heavy gauge metal throughout, there's little doubt that the unit would probably survive being driven over by a car !  (try that with a modern device .......)

The Micro Pack used what's called a rim drive mechanism. Instead of a conventional pinch roller/capstan system, the Micro Packs used a single pivoting motor with extended shaft that entered thru the side of the cartridge,. There it made contact with a rubber ring built in to the outside circumference of each reel to provide the drive.  The drive motor could be pivoted up or down (play or rewind) by the mechanical linkage of the function switch - an incredibly simple and also reliable design.  Course the tradeoff was that there was no fast forward, and rewinding was somewhat slow.

A microphone is not built in, and an external mic is required to record. There is however, an earphone plug. A meter serves as both a recording level indicator (no auto levels here !) as well as a battery meter. There is no provision for an ac adapter.....  Too bad, as this little machine is a bit power thirsty.  A single twist control selects between rewind - stop - play and record (there is no fast forward). To fast forward, you'd have to flip the cartridge over and rewind - then flip it back over again ! The standard cartridges held approximately 15 minutes on each side.

The unit is powered by 4 AA batteries and the tape would record up to an hour per side. Though only mono, the audio quality is surprisingly good (assuming a quality microphone was used to record) owing to a good quality 2 inch built in speaker.


Compact Cassette (1962) - The Standard Audio Cassette - Quad Compact Cassette

Ironically, the standard audio cassette still in wide use today, was never intended for wide usage, but instead was originally developed by Philips in 1962 for use in their new line of dictation machines. However it's compact size, reliability, low manufacturing costs and Hi-Fi stereo capability, ultimately led to wide market acceptance. Popularity of the format, surprisingly, was not immediate. Though 8 Track cartridges were not to be introduced for another 3 years since it's introduction, it wasn't til the early 70's, that the compact cassette became the predominant consumer tape format.Tascam 234

The format employed 1/8-in. tape with 4-tracks running at 1-7/8 ips, initially allowing 30 or 45 minutes of stereo music per side, until longer tapes became available . 

The original tapes were Ferrite (Fe2O3), but later, Chromium Dioxide (CrO2) and other metal particle formulations were used in order to greatly improve sound quality.  Chrome tapes had different bias frequency requirements, requiring more sophisticated recording equipment. Later machines employed various noise reduction technology, though in later years, Dolby became the most popular by far.

Quad Compact Cassette - DBX

Though really a different format; so closely associated with the standard Compact Cassette, that I ended up placing it here, so as to more easily compare the differences....

 Though the vast majority of consumer decks were stereo, Tascam as well as a few others, offered a Professional 4 track discrete machine that allowed 4 separate discrete tracks to be recorded at once !  Introduced in 1983, the Tascam 234 Syncaset offered high quality 4 track discrete recording that included on-board DBX noise reduction. Many claimed that with DBX & being recoded at twice the speed of a standard compact cassette, it's fidelity rivaled that of many open reel machines. Quite an achievement for the time (and with DBX built in !) ....  Unlike standard compact cassette machines, the professional Syncaset recorded as well as played back at twice the speed of a standard compact cassette at 3.75 ips, for much improved audio fidelity and reduced noise.  Unlike 2 channel stereo, there was no cassette "B" side, as all 4 tracks were recorded independently at once in one forward direction. Though the 4 track discrete Compact Cassette is a really a different format, the track layout is in fact identical to that of a standard compact cassette. The only difference is that the 4 track discrete deck employs 4 heads in the record/playback head tower and all 4 tracks were recorded at once, in just one forward direction.  TASCAM later came out with newer similar products such as the 424/424 MK-II that utilized the much newer Dolby noise reduction system, however these were not compatible with those that were recorded earlier using DBX encoding...  Though the 424 is widely available today,  the earlier 4 track DBX discrete machines are now quite rare...... (at least well maintained working ones anyways...).

DBX Side Note:

Attempting to play a Quad DBX in a standard tape player, will result in the content sounding  very "low and slow" -  since it's being played back at literally half the speed at which it was originally recorded....  Even compensating for the speed difference, DBX encoded tapes  will sound "tinny" with poor fidelity when played on equipment that does not employ DBX. Put another way: DBX and Dolby are NOT compatible.   

Initially, the standard compact cassette found wide use in archiving vinyl records. Though the CD put an end to it's 20 year reign, it was by far the most popular of all the audio formats to date. The compact cassette is not dead yet though.... Most homes currently have at least one of these machines with a large library of tapes stashed away in closets . They are still widely used in  heavy over-the-road trucks, due to their inherent immunity to shock and vibration. My guess is that the compact cassette will still be hanging on in another 20 years (or at least until the old tapes finally disintegrate or new tapes are no longer available).

Over 40 years since it's initial introduction, and it's still being widely used...  Not bad for a format initially only intended for monophonic Dictation.....        

"Who'd a thunk"........

Pre-Emphasis/De-Emphasis, DBX ® & Dolby ®

Not even sure where to place this; but I suppose something should be said of the various noise reduction schemes employed by many of the various equipment manufacturers to minimize the effects of tape hiss.  This is not a comprehensive discussion, as there are plenty of excellent references that delve into the finer details, but this will give a brief overview.

With magnetic tape, comes tape hiss. Discreet magnetic particles no matter how fine being pulled by the heads will result in a certain level of tape hiss....  It's a simple fact of life. This "hiss" is uniform, and although at a low level, it is still objectionable.  The energy distribution of the "hiss" is normally right in the middle of the higher frequencies of the recorded material, resulting in a lower signal to noise ratio in the low level "brighter" sections of the material.  Since as we stated that tape hiss is a fixed given, the only "out" is to increase the high end frequencies of  the recorded material so as to improve the signal to noise ratio (which is just a fancy way of saying that we intended to "drown out" the tape hiss by recording the material louder.  It's more than just turning up the recording level and recording everything "hotter" however.  To preserve the dynamic range, one must do it somewhat selectively by boosting only the frequencies or sections in a way that will not introduce clipping....   The 3 main techniques for this are Pre-Emphasis/De-Emphasis, DBX & Dolby.

What follows are the basic differences written as simply as I know how (at least without over-simplifying it)..


The basis  of the noise reduction techniques... in fact, DBX and Dolby just take it to the next level so to speak....   Pre-Emphasis may be thought of as using an equalizer or glorified tone control if you will,  to record the material with a lot of extra treble or high frequency boost.  Doing so, increases the signal level of those high frequencies, which yields a greater signal to noise ratio. The desired high frequency material is now at a greater level than it otherwise would have been, and is recorded as such to tape.  To put it another way, we boosted the level of the signal that got recorded to tape.   The hiss in a sense has now been "drowned out" by the much louder recorded material. Thus we can say the recording now has a much greater signal to noise ratio and we have thus "beaten" the hiss problem...    That phase is called Pre-Emphasis.

Only downside, is that if nothing is done upon playing the recording back, it will now sound overly bright or "tinny"...... To restore the frequency balance, we now must attenuate by the same EXACT equal amount the same frequencies we boosted in the pre-emphasis stage.    This is called De-emphasis, and restores the material to it's normal fidelity.  End Result: Tape hiss has been greatly reduced !

Pre & De-Emphasis is pretty simple.  It takes somewhat of a "global" approach....  Low volumes  & high volumes are treated all the same.....


Most early 1" type C Video formats used DBX as well as TASCAM's professional line of audio equipment. DBX also uses pre-emphasis and de-emphasis but adds  2:1 compression across the full spectrum. By compressing, the entire program can effectively be recorded even "hotter" without clipping. By doing so, some pretty impressive signal to noise levels are achieved and recorded that way to tape.

On playback, the material is now equally de-compressed (expanded) as well as de-emphasized, thus restoring the material to it's natural fidelity.

Since DBX pushes Pre-Emphasis and compression to the max, achieving an exact countering de-compression and de-emphasis, requires high end studio equipment that has very repeatable accuracy, such as usually found in the large open reel formats. There is not much room for error when pushing the limits !

Later in an attempt to break into the evolving consumer market, DBX Type 2 was developed for incorporation into cassette formats.

The difference you ask  ? ....  DBX Type 1 could achieve almost unbelievable reductions in tape hiss. - on the order of 30 dB.  Again: to do so required very repeatable accurate transports to allow  exact de-emphasis and de-compression to restore the material to it's exact fidelity.

Since cassettes had none of the repeatable accuracy characteristics of an open reel deck, DBX could still be used, but the amount of  emphasis/compression/expansion was reduced to account for the "sloppier" cassette transports.  This was called DBX Type 2. It used the same "strategy" as that of Type 1; just that it didn't boost and then attenuate as much....

Dolby ®

Like DBX, Dolby uses pre & de-emphasis. Unlike DBX, Dolby realized that in loud sections of the material, the signal to noise ratio was already more than acceptable...  No sense having to do anything with the loud passages, as the noise was unable be be heard over the "din" anyways. In those sections of the material, the signal to noise ratio was already more than adequate...   Where noise (tape hiss) became noticeable to the listener, was in the quiet sections.

Where Dolby differs, is that Dolby uses pre-emphasis/de-emphasis only for the quiet sections.  Since only the quiet sections are processed and compression/expansion not used at all, the necessity of exactly replicating the exact de-emphasis correction on playback, is not nearly as critical. .

The end result:    Dolby averages around 10dB in noise reduction.  Still pretty good, but a far cry from DBX's 30 dB....

There are various "flavors" of Dolby such as Type B & C (the most popular to consumers) as well as a few others. Without delving into it, the main difference between B & C are the cutoff points below which nothing is processed (400 Hz for Type B and 100 Hz for Type C).


Today, DBX ® is relatively rare. Most consumers never even heard of it. The question then becomes; if DBX achieves 30 dB of noise reduction and Dolby on average only 10 dB, then why did Dolby ® become so recognized and adopted by most of the consumer equipment manufacturer's  ???

Part of the reason is that DBX simply got "out-marketed"...  But again, that's only part of the reason...

The others are more pragmatic...

Making a good DBX encoded recording, means paying close attention to the recording levels. Since DBX uses a 2:1 compression, DBX will ill tolerate recording levels going much above 0 on your VU meter. Not only is transport stability critical, the recording engineer had much less "maneuvering room" in setting proper recording levels.  Even in the case of DBX Type 2, Dolby was still easier and more forgiving for the consumer to obtain good results.

Dolby A, B & C was much more forgiving of technical shortcomings (both in equipment & operator). I suppose one could say it was more "idiot proof"....

 Personal opinion:  Since Dolby didn't resort to more sophisticated (read: expensive) compression/expansion techniques, the Dolby circuitry was also dirt cheap to manufacture.  That perhaps was the real reason....

In any heated battle between quality and cost, lower cost almost always wins...


Stereo 4 Track Cartridge (1962)Stereo 4 Track Cartridge

The stereo 4 track cartridge was the forerunner of the 8 track cartridge system. The format was actually developed in 1954 by George Eash at Muntz Stereo in Van Nuys, CA.   Muntz took up the call and began marketing the 4 track system in 1962.

Aside from the obvious differences in the number of tracks and track spacing, the only difference between the 4 track cartridge and the 8 track in terms of physical dimensions, was that the 4 track cartridge did not house the rubber pinch roller inside the cartridge, but rather the pinch roller was located in the machine.  Subsequently, there is an additional hole in the cassette shell where the machines' pinch roller fits in to. Thus although the same size, a 4 track cartridge will NOT play in an 8 track machine.

Though a 4 Track cartridge will fit in a broadcast Cart Machine and play (of sorts), Cart machines were either full track mono or stereo half track. Also 4 track cartridges were recorded and played at 3.75 ips, while the standard speed for Cart Tapes ran at 7.5 ips.

Unlike the soon to come 8 track system, there is no auto-switching between tracks.  Track switching is performed manually.

Fidelity of the 4 track cartridge was very good for it's day and is similar to that of the 8 track. 

By 1970 the 8 Track was King, and the Compact Cassette was quickly gaining ground. Production of the 4 track cartridge was thus discontinued.

Orrtronics - Cousino Auto-Mate Cartridge (1962)

Herbert Orr thought he had a better idea for an endless loop cartridge when he teamed up with Bernard Cousino to manufacture the Automate 8 track cartridge.  The AutoMate followed Cousino's original Echo-Matic cartridge design. Though the tape format- were compatible with one another, the shells were not.

The Auto-Mate Cartridge sold fairly well in the mid 60's shortly after it's introduction and was even picked up by several major labels as a means of distribution. In the sound quality department, it offered slightly better fidelity than Bill Lear's 8 track.  Yet the market place is a fickle thing, and Bill Lear was riding the wave of his highly successful Learjet Business aircraft. Consequently, the 8 track won out and the Orrtronic Auto-Mate was abandoned after a short lived success in the mid 60's.

(We support the Orrtronics Auto-Mate, but not the earlier Cousino Echo-Matic)   - - -   picture forthcoming


8 Track Cartridge  - Stereo-8 (1965) - 8 Track Quad

Pioneer H-R100 8 Track Recorder - StereoA consortium consisting of Ampex, Lear Jet, Ford, Motorola and RCA Records joined forces to create the "Stereo-8" format tape players. The initial target market called for a cartridge system that could be added as an automotive luxury option. "Stereo-8"  is the format's actual correct official name, though later it became far better known as the "8 Track" Cartridge.

The format uses 1/4 " tape divided into 8 tracks and recorded at a speed of 3.75 ips. The audio is recorded and played back in 2 channel stereo. Four stereo passes yields the 8 tracks and hence it's name. The tape is stored on only one endless loop reel, and tape is supplied from the center of the reel. For the most part, it worked ok, but was sometimes prone to jamming... The tape was notorious for binding up after constant use, as the lubricating agent was worn away.

Magnetic sensing tape marks where the tape is spliced together to form the one large loop and subsequently the beginning of the tracks. When the metallic tape strip is detected by the sensor, a solenoid driving a latching mechanism, steps the head tower assembly down to the next group of stereo tracks. At the end of track 4, the tower assembly latches the head tower back to the top. Track switching invariably made a neat distinctive "cher-clunk" sound, endemic to the 8 track.  Since the tape is endless, the process goes on ad-infinitum.

Interesting to note that this was the first audio player of it's kind to employ mechanical "automation" for continuous play as a standard feature. The head tower latching mechanism was quite ingenious, and it's head positioning method, surprisingly accurate, considering the mechanical menagerie of gears & cam assembly necessary to make it work. Early units were players only, intended for automotive installations. Home recorders were soon added to the product line to allow recording of personal material.

Audio quality was actually quite good by the standards of the day, and the 8 track became an instant hit. The 8 track was actually the first truly successful format for commercial distribution of recorded music on tape, until it was replaced by the smaller compact cassettes which slowly gained in popularity. It's popularity in the automotive industry alone, sparked the development of much higher quality speakers found in cars & later trucks.

What's unusual, is the fact that the format was first used as part of an automobile's sound system, and was only later widely adopted for use in the home. In all other cases, the opposite is true.

Though initially intended only as a two channel stereo format, it's 8 separate tracks offered an excellent opportunity for the recording all 8 tracks simultaneously at once (known as discrete track recording).  Though the format was fully capable of recording up to all 8 tracks at once in one direction, for reasons unknown, no manufacturer ever made a deck to fully utilize its 8 track discrete potential - most likely due to a very limited market.  A few manufacturers did go "half way" however, with the maximum number of discrete tracks capable of being recorded at once being 4 tracks.  Four track discrete format tapes (quad) can still be found on eBay, however the decks to play them are becoming somewhat more scarce. It's interesting to note that this was the first successful 4 track discrete format to find it's way into the hands of the consumer.  I suppose you could say the 8 track quad was the first commercially successful "Surround Sound" system !


Playtape (1966)Playtape 1200

In 1966 the dominant formats were the 4 track reel to reel and 8 track cartridge systems. Both were large, cumbersome and not by any stretch of the imagination, truly portable.

Enter "Playtape".... a neat little machine that played pre-recorded cartridges that was both light and portable. It was billed as a replacement to the transistor radio (though it was actually more of an alternative than a replacement).

The small cartridges measured 2 3/4 x 3 3/8 x 1/2 inch and housed 1/8 inch tape. It was only a two track stereo system that would play in only one direction, but the cartridges were wonderfully small as compared to an 8 track cartridge. Their small size made for a compact and power efficient player. The tapes ranged from about 8 to 24 minutes in length. Sears sold the players for $19.95, and they moved like hot cakes. Playtape was an instant success !  Now for the first time, you could take the music YOU wanted to listen to anywhere ! ..... The dawn of "Micro-miniaturization" was at hand !

In today's' terminology, the Playtape could be considered  the must have "i-Pod" ® of the 60's......

So successful was the format, that by 1968 there were already over 3,000 titles recorded on Playtape.

There are a number of web sites dedicated to the Playtape - it has somewhat of a cult following ! (and I mean the word "cult" in the kindest way !)


Smith Corona  Mail Call Letterpack  Letter pack (1967)

Similar to an 8 track cartridge in physical design, it was also an endless loop format but of much smaller size...   Smith Corona (of typewriter fame) released what they dubbed the Mail Call Letterpack as the vehicle to propel them into the exploding office dictation marketplace. 

Unlike Dictabelts ® or the IBM Executary that would sometimes get  mashed flat and creased in the mail, the cartridge shells were rugged and  offered excellent protection for the magnetic tape inside.

Unlike an 8 track, it was only a single track format (known also as Full Track),  in a much more compact form factor.

Physical dimensions of  the cartridges are: 3 3/8 x 2 7/8 x 7/16 inches.

The cartridges from Smith Corona came in 3 standard lengths: 3 minutes, 6 minutes and 10 Minutes.   An oddity is that the recording format was Full Track: That is; the information was recorded across the full width of the tape in one direction only.  Tape width is 3.3mm or about 1/8th inch.  That would have been more than wide enough to support 2 tracks, but my guess is that this was not adopted not only to keep manufacturing costs lower, but it also forced the end user to purchase twice as many cartridges ! 

The black square pad directly above the volume control and play/stop/record selector in the photo, is actually a momentary record button that had an interlock feature where it had to be slid down slightly by thumb pressure to allow activation of the record switch.  Nice touch to prevent accidental erasure.

Sound quality had the potential of being on par with later to come standard oxide compact cassettes, but sadly it was never implemented. What severely plagued the quality of the Letterpack recordings, had nothing to do with the format per se, but rather the speaker also served as the microphone.    (A speaker could also do "double duty" as a dynamic microphone, though sensitivity and especially fidelity suffered greatly)...    Audio recorded using the built in microphone/speaker, sounded "tinny".... in fact  the quality was below 1960's telephone quality and was barely acceptable even for voice recordings... Sadly, there was no provision to connect a much better dedicated external microphone, nor was there a recording level control.  The pre-set recording level assumed the person spoke directly in to the unit at a standard level (whatever that was.....)  What ever possessed Smith Corona engineers to take such a shortcut to save several dollars, shall forever remain a mystery...

The Letterpack Mail Call sold for $75 back in 1967. As of 2007, that would equate to about $461 in 2007 dollars...   Even so, that was still far less than a Dictabelt recorder...  As a dictation format that sold for far less than Dictabelt equipment, it should have been far more successful than what it was. But at the time, Dictaphone ® had a vice lock grip on the office dictation market that Smith Corona was never able to successfully penetrate.  Short recording times using only one track made the blank media expense more costly than it should have been in terms of cost per minute. Being an endless loop, the tape ends were spliced with foil tape similar to 8 track tapes.  Unfortunately, there was no built in detection of the foil and thus no auto shutoff or stop at the splice, so one had to "hunt" for the start/end point.  Neither was there any fast forward or rewind.  (One has to play the tape until you "think" the start point has been reached)...  The real "killer" for any secretary that had to transcribe dictation to the printed page, (and it's real Achilles Heel) was that there was no backspace capability...  (Dictabelts had a foot operated Backspace capability)...  To penetrate the business marketplace, it needed to be much more user friendly than what it was.  In terms of function, it was far better suited for consumer use to swap audio tapes....

Compared to a Dictabelt player, the Mail Call Letterpack was amazingly light weight and compact with physical dimensions of 10.5 inches tall x 4.5 inches wide x 3.5 inches deep (at it's deepest point).  The Letterpack Recorder weighs only 2.6 lbs and that's including 4 standard C Cell Batteries.  It was truly a portable device, whereas a Dictabelt recorder was not...  It also has a mini power jack allow powering via an external 6volt DC power source...

Despite it's technical short comings such as lack of a real microphone, it was well built and rugged.

Had Smith Corona addressed these technically minor problems, it no doubt could have become a major player in the office dictation marketplace, and should have been far more successful than what it was.

Unfortunately, the Smith Corona Mail Call Letterpack was not accepted in the office dictation marketplace...  The Compact Cassette was about to "do it in".....

Today, the Mail Call Letterpack is considered a very rare tape format......


Speed:                            3.75 ips
Freq Response:               100 to 6.8 kHz
Tape:                               1 mil Mylar .125" wide  -  single track - endless loop

Elcaset  (1977)

ElcasetElcasete Compared to standard Compact Cassette
The Elcaset format was introduced by Sony in 1977.  Though marketed as a consumer format, it was intended as a platform to offer open reel to reel quality with the convenience of a "compact" cassette.

Cassettes for the Elcaset, were somewhat larger than today's compact cassette... The cassette measured 6 x 4 1/8 x 11/16 inches approx.  Kind of like a standard compact cassette on steroids !  Considering it's competition were the much larger open reel machines, the design was very compact by comparison !

Note the size difference between the Elcaset and a standard Compact Cassette.

Though not the quality of current digital formats, it rivaled standard open reel recordings of the day made at 7 1/2 ips.  Part of the reason for the high quality at the time, was the tape formulations supported (such as "new" high bias metal particle) as well as supporting the "new" Dolby noise reduction technology.  Only the relatively high cost of the decks, resulted in the format not being widely accepted by other than true audiophiles.

Compared, to even current day standard high end compact cassettes, the Elcaset offers superior fidelity !

For a technology introduced in 1977, the Elcaset was ahead of it's time.

Sony PCM-F10 (1978) - PCM-F1 (1981)Sony PCM-F1


The Sony PCM-F10, though not the first digital stereo recorder, was the first to make it truly affordable.

PCM is the acronym for Pulse Code Modulation, which is the recording technique for recording digital data on tape.  To achieve a low cost, the PCM encoder/decoder used a standard Betamax Video deck, though any video deck would usually work. 

The initial system was somewhat bulky and by 1981, Sony released the second generation called the PCM-F1 which reduced the processor size substantially. Quality (although not up to current standards) was actually quite respectable.  The analog to Digital and Digital to analog (ADC and DAC) chips developed  for the F1, soon found their way into the very first CD players.

Considering Sony's $2500 PCM system was only about 1/10th the cost of a dedicated digital recorder at the time, the F10 & F1 became milestones in the start of the digital audio revolution. 

The technology incorporated into the PCM-F1, paved the way for the soon to come DAT machines.


Channels 2
Sampling Freq 44056 Hz
Quantization 14 or 16 bit linear
Frequency Response 20-20,000 Hz ± .5 dB
Harmonic Distortion less than .0007% (16 bit)
Dynamic Range Greater than 90 dB
Channel Separation Greater than 80 dB
Error Correction CRC & Parity
Dimensions 8.5 x 3.25 x 12.1


CD  (1982)

Developed by Philips and Sony in Japan, the audio CD in the form we know it today, was released in the UK in September, 1982. The CD was highly marketed, but slow to gain wide market acceptance, owing to it's high initial cost. However, the sound quality and portability of CD's was undeniable, and outweighed the high cost for many consumers. With the efficiencies of mass production, prices plummeted, and the CD became the medium of choice by the end of the '80s. 

The CD ultimately became the final "nail in the coffin" for the long running reign of LP records. Skips, crackles, pops. wow, flutter, surface noise and worn grooves all part of the vinyl "experience", was now a thing of the past....   So cheap and reliable is the media, that software companies began distributing software on the discs. Companies such as AOL® did numerous mass mailings of their on-line software. Many of these CD's were found to be quite useful for applications ranging from beer coasters to "anti-wobble" table leg adjusters  - and almost anything imaginable in between.......  The CD had a versatility greater than anyone could have ever possibly imagined !

The CD quickly became another cornerstone of the current digital music revolution. Later product development led to the CD-R  and CD-R/W formats for both audio and data. Now you could "burn your own" !

Today's higher sampling rates and bit depths, have resulted in improved fidelity. Yet owing to the world-wide huge established base, the CD with it's 44.1 kHz sampling rate at 16 bit depth still reigns as the audio "king of the hill" for music distribution.

(So popular is the standard CD player, that we decided not to include a picture - there are literally hundreds of models !)

DAT (1987) - Digital Audio TapeFostex D-5 DAT Recorder

Introduced in 1987 for the professional studio market, digital audio tapes quickly claimed the high ground in professional recording industry circles. DAT's never garnered consumer market penetration because of the high cost of DAT players. However, they remained a mainstay of the pro-audio world because of their relatively low price and digital storage capabilities.

Our own government was a major contributor to the DAT never making in-roads into the consumer market.  Bowing to corporate "pressures" (and not surprisingly, not that of the voters who put them there) a stiff tax was added to each DAT tape sold. The collected funds were used to "compensate" the powerful music industry  for songs that could possibly be pirated. Must have been a pure coincidence that the music industry spent millions in lobbying and campaign contributions.  Our constitutional doctrine of "innocent until proven guilty" sadly and frighteningly, got tossed out the window. Most insiders "in the know", view it as just another case of flagrant "corporate welfare" in operation at it's best (at taxpayer expense), supported by the best politicians that money could buy .. 

Not to be beaten, the DAT manufacturers quickly re-designed machines that could utilize less expensive computer-grade DAT tape to circumvent the steep tax.  The damage to the consumer marketplace however, was done and sadly never recovered.

The DAT system design more closely resembles a helical scan VCR than a traditional reel to reel or cassette based recorder. Digital audio is recorded much like video, using a helical scan FM technique. Note also that DAT cassettes are nicely compact !

The Fostex D-5 shown here, has analog, digital as well as optical inputs and outputs. Unlike MD, CD-R and most other digital formats,  DAT recorders are regarded as a professional digital format used for original mastering and therefore bypass the SCMS (Serial Copy Management System), thus allowing multi-generation, loss-less digital recordings. 

The digital age was at hand !



Alesis XT-20 ADAT

Alesis ADAT (1991)

Released in 1991, the first ADAT machine took the recording industry by storm. An 8 track high quality digital recorder with 16 bit depth and 48 kHz sampling - all in a compact footprint. The ADAT's use standard S-VHS cassettes that allow up to 60 minutes of better than CD quality recordings to be made.  Initially, the first machines had an approximate $4,000 street price, but compared to their earlier 8 track open reel counterparts priced about the same for a studio grade machine at the time, the ADAT won the quality battle hands down. The current era of Multi-track digital recording had begun !

Later incarnations of the product line, resulted in 20 bit sampling, designated the Type II series.

Like it's soon to come Tascam competitor (The DA series), the ADAT's can be slaved & synchronized together and the amount of the channels you can add is up to 128 channels (requiring 16 decks).  Of course the real limiting factor is how many decks at $4k a piece would it take before ending  up in divorce court !)

One major advantage of the ADAT deck, is the 1/2" S-VHS tape format it uses.  The much wider tape is much less susceptible to edge damage than Tascam's much narrower 8mm format. The much lower data density per square mm owing to the larger tape, results in increased reliability and longevity of the tape.



Specs of the XT-20 (Type II)

ADAT Rotary head digital recording Type I (16-bit)
and Type II (20-bit) S-VHS cartridge
Recording Format
ADAT Rotary head digital recording Type I (16-bit)
and Type II (20-bit) S-VHS cartridge
Tape Format:
Heads: 4 (2 Read, 2 Write); Read before Write
Approximate Recording Times:
ST-60:               22 minutes                      ST-120/SE-180:  40 minutes
ST-160/SE-240:  54 minutes                      ST-180/SE-260:
   62 minutes
Fast Wind Rate:
40 x play speed (Threaded)
Number of Audio Channels:
Eight Discrete
Record (A/D):
over-sampling, single converter per channel.
Playback (D/A):
over-sampling, single converter per channel.
Sample Rate:
44.1 /48kHz, Selectable
Vari-Speed Range: +100/-300 cents (48kHz), ±200 cents (44.1kHz)
Frequency Response: 20Hz– 20 kHz, ± 0.5dB Dynamic Range: 102 dB, A weighted in 20-bit mode
Distortion: 009% THD+N @-1 dBFS in 20-bit mode Channel Crosstalk: Better than -90 dB @ 1kHz
Wow and Flutter: Un-measurable Balanced: One ELCO® connector (in/out)
Unbalanced: Sixteen RCA jacks (8 input, 8 output)
Input Impedance: Balanced: 10k  Unbalanced: 10k  


The following are the main differences between the LX20 and the XT20:

Both the LX20 and the XT20 offer 20-bit A/D and D/A converters, but the XT20's converters provide a slightly broader dynamic range with lower distortion.

The LX20 provides only unbalanced -10dBV input and output connectors on RCA jacks, while the XT20 adds support for a balanced 56-pin +4dBu connector.

The LX20 has limited onboard editing, five locate points, no selectable meter peak hold/clear controls, while the XT20 supports onboard digital editing with Tape Offset, Track Copy and Track Delay, 10 locate points, meter ballistics control.


Digital Compact Cassette - DCC (1992)

Picture and write up forthcoming !



TASCAM DA-88 / DA-38   8 Track Digital Format (1992)

The TASCAM DA-88 is a professional 8 track Digital Recorder that uses standard Hi8/Digital8 standard Videocassettes as the recording medium.  A standard Hi8/Digital8 videocassette is both inexpensive, but was also designed for high data density recordings, since it was made to record high resolution video.  A perfect tape format for high definition multi-track audio recordings !  (A standard Hi/8/digital8 "120" tape can hold up to approximately 1 hr and 48 minutes of high quality 8 track digital audio).

So widely has the format been accepted by the professional community, that the format continues to this day in the form of the DA-98.

For many years, including up to the present, the format has become the industry standard multi-track digital recorder used by professional studios in the tape mastering of commercial CD's. If you possess a commercial music CD mastered in the mid 90's, then there's a good chance that the master recording session was recorded on either a DA-88 or an ADAT machine.

There were initially two products in the product line.... The DA-38 and the DA-98. The main difference between the two, is that the DA-88 supports a variety of plug in boards for expanded capability. Most notably is the SY-88 SMPTE/Video board that allows perfect sync lockup between recorded video and the DA-88.   The SY-88 board also supports virtually all popular SMPTE/EBU time codes.   The DA-38 by comparison, was pretty much a basic 8 track Digital Recorder without the expand capabilities or "frills" such as SMPTE.  Most, if possibly not all, music videos were mastered on the DA-88 owing to it's SMPTE video synchronization capabilities. Today, the same can be said of the DA-98.

Tascam covered all the bases it seems in this product....  up to 16 DA-88's can be slaved together in what Tascam calls "Chase Mode" - all referenced to the same sync (including video), thus allowing up to 128 separate tracks to be recorded separately at once, in high quality digital ! (Rewind the master and all 15 slaves will rewind to the same SMPTE point as well - - - regardless of function, all 16 decks behave as one - all locked to the same reference!).  The format also supports track bumping, where for example, say 5 tracks could be externally mixed and "bumped" to an unused track - all  "on the fly".

The format supports both 44.1 as well as 48 kHz sampling rates at 16 bit linear depth encoding at either CD, or better than CD quality. 

Basic specs:

Sampling rate: 44.1 or 48 kHz - 16 bit linear
Pitch control: +/- 6%
Freq Response:  20-20,000 Hz @ +/- .5 dB
Dynamic Range: Greater than 92 dB
Wow & Flutter: Less than measurable limits
Total Harmonic Distortion: .007%

The only weakness in the product, is the small diameter pinch roller which engages the capstan to transport the tape through the mechanism. Over a period of time, the pinch roller deforms as well as looses it's "suppleness" - resulting in mis-tracking or edge damaged tapes depending upon the severity.  With such a small diameter pinch roller, it takes very little deformation to cause problems. On the plus side however, a new pinch roller assembly from Tascam runs about a mere $14 (in $2004 dollars) & will restore the tape transport to as new !  Head life is estimated at a reasonable 2,000 hrs.

With advances in technology, sampling rates and bit depths have soared...  But for recording from 8 to 128 tracks at CD quality or slightly better then having it lock in perfect sync to video, even an older DA-88 still remains a hard machine to beat !

MiniDisc MD (1998)

The Sony MZ-N707
MiniDisc Recorder

Sony MDS-JE530 Minidisc DeckMarketed exclusively by Sony, Minidisc's captured a small, but highly devoted, segment of the consumer market since 1998.

Devoted users of the MiniDisc swear by its small size, high quality recording capability, and durability. 

With MiniDisc you get true CD quality stereo recording on a "mini CD" only  2 3/4 " square by 1/8" thick - permanently housed in a protective plastic cassette ! 

Up to 74 minutes of high quality CD audio can be recorded in standard play mode. Newer models offer twice that capability, plus the capability to record and play MP3's, Wav and WMA files. Digital audio may be up/downloaded via a built in USB port on small portable models such as the Sony Walkman NZ-N707. Incredible versatility in a portable stereo "sound studio" measuring only 3x3x1 inches or so.

Although very popular abroad, the MiniDisc has never found wide acceptance in the United States for reasons somewhat unfathomable.

No one I know who had purchased one, had ever been disappointed........



MP3 (1989) - Motion Picture Experts Group Audio Level IIIApple iPod

MP3 is actually a software compression/de-compression (codec) algorithm rather than a piece of hardware. MP3 stands for Motion Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer III which defines the codec.

Prior to MP3, audio wav and wma files were huge, and transferring a wav file over the net could be better described as more of an "endurance test" rather than that of a file transfer.

MP3 changed all that ! ....... It typically compresses these huge files down anywhere's from 1/6 to 1/12th their normal size, making file exchange of great sounding audio across the net, viable. MP3 has also effectively changed the way that people now listen to their music, and has cemented the marriage between the computer and the home entertainment center. A typical CD can store typically 74 minutes of audio in CD audio format. Compare that to approximately 14 hours of MP3 audio on a single CD !

The compression technique has led to a plethora of MP3 based products.  Portable MP3/AAC players such as Apple's highly successful iPod ® have all but replaced the bulky portable standard CD players.

The compression/de-compression is not lossless however... there is a price to be paid for that wonderfully small compactness. Though the losses sound absolutely negligible when played back, a lot of audio information is lost in the process and can never be reclaimed.

The reason for mp3's success, is that mp3 compresses parts of the audio spectrum that are not well heard in the first place, based upon how our ears detect sound and how our brains process it.  (What you don't perceive anyways, isn't missed !).....  However, the high compression is actually quite "lossy" in terms of audio information that is discarded. By selectively compressing or sometimes even simply "tossing out" the frequencies we tend not to hear anyways, the end result sounds a lot better than it really is ! Since it's the perceived sound that actually counts when all is said and done, most MP3 encoded audio if done properly,  sounds great !


The latest advance in MP3 compression technology, is called MP3Pro.  It offers full stereo compression yielding file sizes at about 1/2 the size of standard MP3. It is backwards compatible with standard MP3, so that any player that currently supports MP3 will also play Mp3Pro. But you'll need an MP3Pro player to realize the full frequency response on the high end.  There are free MP3Pro player downloads on the net and Nero V6.0 CD/DVD burning software is also supporting the new format for both encoding as well as playback. (The mp3Pro encoding capability is an optional plug-in from Nero)...   Live365 (a music web casting site) is also supporting Mp3Pro on some of it's channels. At half the file size of standard MP3, this new variant will undoubtedly become widely accepted especially for audio streaming applications.

Note that archiving of audio is best saved in uncompressed wav files. Though huge, there are no losses, and the files can used as a reference for future audio restoration techniques.

Read more on Audio Restoration...

AVCHD - Advanced Video Coding High Definition (2006)

Developed by Sony and Panasonic, the AVCHD codec offers better compression than MPEG2, which becomes especially important when it comes to HD content.  There is much info on the web regarding this topic.

VersaCorder (2000)

The VersaCorder (made by Sangean) uses a standard audio cassette, but unlike it's counterparts, it is also capable of 1/4 speed recording and playback. Thus using a standard 120 min audio cassette, up to 4 hrs of voice quality audio can be recorded on each side of a standard audio cassette. Sadly, it does not however, auto reverse, meaning that the cassette will have to flipped over every 4 hours. (a major over-sight).....   A switch allows record/playback of standard cassettes at normal speed, which is better suited to music. The unit is powered by 4 "C" cell batteries or via an ac adapter.

The recorder is used primarily for recording of both talk shows as well as lectures.  It has a built in microphone, though it is recommended that a better mic (preferably a wireless mic) be used for recording distant voices. It supports timer recording, voice activation, mic in, line in/out as well as headphone jack. An optional cable allows it to be used as a telephone recorder. 

The internal microprocessor also supports scheduled unattended recording which can be programmed in many various ways.

Sangean also makes a VersaCorder player only,  for playback of 1/4 speed tapes mastered on a VersaCorder Recorder........  Quite versatile !

Today, there are many digital solutions with recording lengths determined by the amount of memory available, offering the possibility of hundreds of hours of recording on a single SDHC card.  The new digital technology has already made the Versacorder somewhat obsolete.

AAC (2001) - Advanced Audio Coding

AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) is a newer audio codec algorithm. This new standard, developed in part by Dolby, the Fraunhofer Institute, and others, may become the major medium by which 21st century digital music is distributed.

The AAC codec promises  smaller file sizes and better sound quality than the now standard MP3 format and also features built-in copyright protection. Compared to MP3, it offers around 30% smaller file size for the same quality. 

The mp3 community, not to be out beaten, came up with Mp3Pro (see above) which yields even much smaller file sizes at a quality which rivals AAC.

Though loved, adored and cherished by the music industry for it's built in copy protection, the AAC codec, so far has not been accepted by the end user for the transfer of music files. Though standard mp3 might be slightly inferior, it has a wide established base and a wide range of hardware and software that supports the codec.

AAC holds the potential to be a possible replacement of MP3. However, with the advent of Mp3Pro, the bloody battle lines are now drawn. Our guess is that the music industry will adopt AAC for distribution, while the rest of the world will stick with Mp3 & Mp3Pro....


Digital Age

With thousands of models by now, it's impractical to even attempt to list each one...

Hence, only a generic description and representative discussion of the current technology is  appropriate...   Course; current technology is a fleeting thing, if not a "moving target". By the time this is written, it will most likely already will have been rendered obsolete...

Micro Electronics has  resulted in some pretty fantastic technically advanced devices whose small physical form factor, belies their capabilities...   What fit's in a shirt pocket now and what it can do, almost defies belief compared to what was available only a short decade ago ! 

Course with that said, in another 10 years,  today's sound studio with specs that would put even top of the line professional equipment to shame that fits in a pocket, will itself be rendered obsolete.

Back in 2000, the VersaCorder allowed up to 4 hrs of programmable recording on a single side standard Compact Cassette...   The LS-10 will record up to 238 hours on a single chip with better quality !

Today for example, the Olympus LS10 literally buries it in terms of cost and capability...    I won't belabor all the LS10 can do and it's inherent specs, as that info is readily available on line...   But in short, it represents a professional sound recording studio that fits in your shirt pocket, with audio specs that 10 years ago would have been unheard of....







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