Wire Recorders

Restoration - Remastering - Duplication - Transfer - Vintage - Antique

 

History of the Wire Recorder

Most folks haven't even heard of a wire recorder.....  much less ever seen a steel wire recorder. Before the development of oxide based magnetic tape, "glorified" stainless steel piano wire was the dominant audio recording format of choice.

The technology of magnetic recording dates back to 1878, when Oberlin Smith proposed the idea of recording telephone signals onto a length of steel piano wire. Over the next thirty years the technology evolved at a "snail's pace"; stalled by lack of adequate and cost effective electronic amplification. By 1930, advances in electronics allowed the first commercially successful wire recorders to be introduced as dictating machines and telephone recorders in Europe and North America. During WWII, the machines found their way into the BBC who employed banks of them for sending messages to the French underground. Meanwhile the US Army & Navy also employed them for similar purposes in their operations centers. Following the war from 1947 to 1952, wire recorders became popular in America and across Europe, and started showing up in many homes. The wire recorder was the very first reliable audio recorder to find it's way into the American home in significant numbers. In their "Hay-Day", wire recorders were quite the item !

The advent of oxide based magnetic tape had many benefits over steel wire....  Mainly the ability to record and playback in stereo. Thus magnetic tape put an end to the wire recording era.

Signals recorded on steel wire recorders have held up quite well over the years and the sound quality was fairly good considering the limited technology of the day.

 

Depicted above is a Webster 80-1 which sold for around $150 back in 1947. Though early wire recorders used a DC bias which literally "brute forced" the modulated audio current and subsequent flux change onto the wire, the Webster's used a 40 kHz bias frequency for greatly improved fidelity.

Brief Chronology as related to Wire Recordings

Telegraphone

1878 - An American mechanical engineer named Oberlin Smith proposes the idea of recording telephone signals onto a steel wire. Though it never went any further than just an idea, the concept of magnetic wire recording was born.
 
1898 - Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen explores further the principle of magnetic recording.  The machine he developed was called the Telegraphone, and is described as a device to record telephone messages in the absence of the called party... in effect, the world's first answering machine.  Wire ran at a brisk 100 inches/second to create a viable flux field sufficient enough to drive a magnetic  reproducer, since this was well before the advent of electronic amplification.

1911 - Lee DeForest, then working for the Federal Telegraph Company, is asked to develop an amplifier to allow the recording of high-speed radio telegraph messages received on a type of receiver called the tikker.   Deforest uses his Audion tube, invented in 1907, to make the first practical electronic amplifier.

1918 - German inventor Curt Stille modifies & improves on the Telegraphone by using electronic amplification.

1939 - Marvin Camras at The Armour Research Foundation invents an improved wire recorder. Several thousand were sold to the American Army and Navy. Following the war, licenses were sold to dozens of American and European manufacturers to make wire recorders.

1946-47 - The first Amour Research Foundation licensed wire recorders that appeared in America.

1947-52 - The consumer hay-day for wire recorders which were then superseded by magnetic tape.

Audio fidelity of a wire recording is very limited by today's standards, but still quite acceptable considering the technology at the time. What's amazing is how well those early recordings are holding up. Typical Webster style wire recorder spools hold approximately 7200 ft of wire which allows approximately 1 hour of play/record time at 24 ips (inches per second).

Wire Recording Transfer - Convert to CD - DVD - MP3 - WAV

A Wire Recording may be transferred to almost any modern format such as a CD, DVD or even audio cassette, though transfer to a CD is the most popular. Converting the audio to WAV or MP3 computer files can also be done.

Although the wire recordings are holding up remarkably well, the main concern in the not too distant future, will be the ability to locate a still working machine.  This is yet another case where the media will out survive the hardware upon which to play it.

Spool Sizes - Webster - Armour - Pierce - GE Wires - Minifon

Up until 1946 or so, wire recorder spool sizes weren't standardized. Armour®, early Pierce® and GE® machines used a larger spool size than later to come machines, while some Army/Navy recorders used even larger reels for the recording of intercepted enemy transmissions during the War.

Most popular during this early period was the 3 3/4" diameter Armour reels that were 1 1/4" thick as depicted in the reel shown on the left. Later, when Armour licensed the technology to companies such as Webster®, Silvertone® and others, a smaller reel size was adopted as the new industry standard. The standard reels measure 2 3/4" in diameter and were approximately 3/4" thick as shown on the right. Each standard reel could hold up to 7200 ft of wire, which at a 24 ips recording speed would yield up to an hour of recorded material. Naturally the newer format machines would not accommodate the older larger Armour reels that also ran at a much faster 48 inches/second.  Unfortunately, unlike the Webster wires, the Armour wires were not made from stainless steel, and corrosion is a common problem.

Though all our machines are of the newer format, we can still recover these early Armour wires. By means of a fabricated jig to mount the larger wire spool, playback and recovery of the wire is possible. The correct speed is obtained in our restoration software which allows playback of the audio file at the proper speed.  Not what may be considered a glamorous solution warranting technical accolades of the highest order, but since these early recorders are virtually extinct and parts are nearly impossible to find, it's a solution that works extremely well ! Whether it's a "clever" solution or not, remains a matter of debate....

The only drawback to this "brilliant" solution, is that the wire bailers on the newer machines were designed to bail the wire back on a 3/4" thick reel, and not the 1 1/4" thick Armour spools. The only proper solution would be a complete re-design of the bailer mechanism, necessitating the fabrication of custom parts.  Not impossible, but there's little demand for these transfers, so it's yet another project around here that remains still on the "back burner". As such, we have no viable (or even clever way that's occurred to me so far) to rewind the wire back on the original Armour spools (neatly and properly, anyways). Thus these wires will have to be rewound on a newer Webster size spool. Since the newer spools hold less wire, most Armour wires may require 2 or 3 spools.

Sometimes in the world of vintage transfers, one has to improvise !

Tips for playing old wire recordings

Wire MUST be TIGHTLY PACKED on the spool before playback should be attempted. By pressing directly on the wire with your "pinky" finger, it should feel "hard as a rock" and not the least bit loose or "spongy".  Loose wires are guaranteed to snarl and break - often within seconds.

Most steel wire was of reasonable quality and had a high chromium content for inhibiting rust. Some wire sold back then was of lesser quality or was stored in a damp environment - even stainless steel is not completely rustproof.. Avoid playing any wire that clearly shows signs of oxidation. The rough oxidized wire surface will rapidly grind the head groove down.Record/Playback head gap and groove

Light oxidation may be removed by passing the wire several times over a 3M® "scrunge" pad - lightly moistened in WD-40. This will remove the lightly oxidized layer as well as provide lubrication for the transfer.  Be sure to make at least 3 cleaning passes using Pellon® or a lint free cloth to remove the oxidation and crud as well as any excess WD-40. This will enable the transfer to be made without destroying the record/playback head.  Though you will be tempted to try this on your working recorder, we advise getting a "junker" with a bad head to merely serve as the transport for this endeavor, lest your working recorder gets "trashed" in the process. Moderate to severely oxidized wires are often too far gone and you would be well advised not to attempt playback unless you intend to scrap your precious recorder before project completion.

At the right is pictured the recording head. The dark area to the right is the head gap where the actual recording/playback takes place. The wire passing over the head eventually will wear a deep groove in the head guide. The groove can get so deep that the wire almost disappears and the "canyon" it managed to carve out over time. The deeper the wear groove, the poorer the recording quality, as the air gap spacing is critical. Also as a deep groove is cut, there is a greater chance of a snag and wire breakage. This head on one of our Webster's depicts very little wear.

The wire used in all wire recorders is very thin..... just slightly larger than the diameter of a human hair !  Below to the right, is pictured the wire amongst my own gray hairs taken at a 200x magnification. This explains how 7200 feet or so of wire can be made to fit on a small 2 3/4" diameter reel.

 

Wire size as compared to hair


Wire tangles and breakage is a common problem - especially on old reels not having been played or re-packed in several decad
es, where splices tend to snag, or where the head tower assembly "sticks", resulting in uneven wire packing. Consequently, some of the snarls can be nothing short of "hellacious"......  If you enjoy the challenge of solving complex 3-dimensional puzzles working with hair thin kinky wire, then untangling a snarled reel will be right up your alley !    Solving a Rubik's Cube puzzle is child's play compared to the challenge & complexity of untangling a badly snarled wire.

The wire is quite thin and a pain to work with - especially when having to splice the broken lengths back together. Though not absolutely necessary, what works great for this are two similar devices.  The first is a fly fishing jig used to tie fly's.  The other is a jig commonly used in electronic assembly work for holding small components to be soldered or for inspection.  Radio Shack® sells a neat little jig complete with magnifying glass for about $10 or so (Catalog # 64-2063). On the Radio Shack jig, be sure to pad the alligator clips with anything soft so the wire doesn't get bent or pinched.  Anyways, both devices will hold the unruly wire and reduce your frustration levels !   A small pair of tweezers , needle nose pliers or just nimble fingers are all that's now required to make the splice.  A less glamorous but cheaper solution is to just get some temporary "sticky dot" labels from an office supply store. Use them to tape down the unruly wire while you form the splicing knot.  A little experience working with the unruly wire, and you won't even need those. But unless you deal with making wire splices a daily endeavor, the aids mentioned above will greatly reduce your stress levels !

When splicing ends, don't tie just any old knot - otherwise it will more than likely snag in the head groove and break again. (a picture of the correct splice follows below).. Worse yet, is that the broken bits may fall into the electronics, wreaking havoc  & damaging the circuits. After making several splices, you'll develop a technique and subsequent repairs should take but only a minute or two.

 

 

Wire Recording Quality - Wire Recording Life Expectancy

Audio fidelity is poor by modern standards - There is poor base response with a sharp roll-off below 200 Hz.  Hi frequency components are also non existent with very little response above 5 to 6 KHz or so.  Thus wire recordings were fine for voice recordings (typically most energy for the human voice falls in the 200 to 5 KHz range) but offered very limited fidelity for music. 

A major contributor to the wire recording's poor fidelity as compared to magnetic tape was not related to the wire recorder itself, but rather the poor quality included crystal microphone that all wire recorders seemed to be cursed with.  Microphone technology of the late 40's was pretty crude - some dynamics, but most were crystal mics, and quality wise, not much of an improvement over a carbon pile made to vibrate by a stiff diaphragm  - at least for a consumer grade mic anyways.  Thus the microphone itself had poor frequency response suited only for voice reproduction. Mic sensitivity was also poor and the mic had to be held close to the sound source for best results.  A wire recording made today with a good quality low impedance microphone actually sounds pretty good and a direct line level connection even better !.......  not hi-fi by any stretch of the imagination, but MUCH better than what could possibly ever be achieved by the supplied mic.

Another point worth noting, is that very few of the wire recorders had accurate level meters - or more accurately, ANY recording level meters.  Most had a neon "magic eye" to supposedly prevent setting too high a recording level. The "magic eye" was a "somewhere in the ballpark" reference at best. Most folks paid it no heed or didn't understand it's use anyways, and thus recording levels tended to be all over the place....  being either driven into clipping (as in children's screams) or recorded down "in the mud". Even so, when recorded at anywhere's near the proper levels with the mic in close proximity to the source, the recordings even after 60 years or more are perfectly intelligible. Compare that to early magnetic tape...... most early magnetic tapes which by now have ended up in a landfill due to oxide shedding.

On the plus side, wire recordings suffer very few of the maladies associated with the degradation of magnetic tape.  Wire doesn't suffer from the fatal effects of hydrolysis, oxide shedding and binder de-lamination as does magnetic tape. Though the wire is subject to oxidation, most manufacturers added enough chromium to the steel to minimize the effects.  Like it's tape counterpart, it is subject to slow erasure by long exposure to stray magnetic fields or repeated play in a machine that needed demagnetizing. Even so, wire is less effected (note, I didn't say UN-affected) by stray fields as compared to magnetic tape however.

Based on our own observations, wire recordings are already holding up amazingly much better than their magnetic tape counterparts for the reasons just mentioned. Unlike tape degradation that ultimately yields magnetic tapes unplayable, wire recordings' largest enemy is corrosion of the wire due to improper storage, or the wire having to be discarded after a bad snarl.   Though anything but "Hi-Fi", few will actually require audio restoration if transferred from a machine properly maintained in good operating condition.

Wire Recording Life Span Expectancy

Even though we feel that wire recordings will last another 200 years or perhaps even much longer based on how they've held up so far, the main consideration here will be trying to find someone with an old wire recorder still in good operating condition in another 10 years or so to make the transfer. This is another one of those cases where the media will outlive the availability of the equipment on which to play it.

No other magnetic recording media to date has so far matched or even come close to a wire recording's longevity. It remains an impressive record that has yet to be broken.......

Wire Splicing for all Wire Recorders

Use the following splice - if done properly, it will not snag.

1. Tie the ends of the wires together with a square knot.

2. Pull the knot tight.

3. Cut off the loose ends close to the knot.

This splice will pull through the groove of the recording head without catching.

Wire Leader

 

It is recommended that 3 foot leaders of #8 sewing thread be tied to both ends of the wire. The inside leader should be permanently tied to the supply spool and greatly reduces the possibility of wire breakage at the ends. A simple square knot is used to secure the thread to the wire.

Wire Recording Storage

Like magnetic tape, avoid storing or placing wire reels in close proximity to magnetic fields.    Long term storage in a steel cabinet is not recommended since many steel panels after being arc welded during assembly, become permanently magnetized.  Over decades, those magnetic fields can partially erase the wires.  

Moisture and the subsequent resulting oxidation, are both the recording wire as well as the recording machine's worst enemies. Place  several packets of silica gel desiccant in the case before putting the recorder and reels away and store in a dry, temperature controlled environment. Silica gel is commonly available in most craft shops and some hardware stores.

Acquiring a Wire Recorder

Interested in acquiring one ?  They often show up on eBay, though you might have to wait awhile for one in good working condition to turn up.  Note: despite the overly optimistic claims made of "working just fine", "As New !!!"  or being in "Mint" condition, nearly all are in need of repairs or general maintenance of some sort.  Experience dictates that unless the seller is willing to give at least some sort of warranty, you're best advised to "pass" or view it as a repairable or parts machine only and bid accordingly. 

Wire Recorder Repair Links

We are often asked if we repair wire recorders......  Though we perform our own repairs and servicing, our services are limited to the transfer and recovery of vintage recordings.

For the repair and servicing of wire recorders, you can contact:

 West-Tech Services:  www.west-techservices.com

Wire Recorder Repair & Maintenance Tips

Most wire recording servicing can be performed yourself. This is not an extensive dissertation on the repair or maintenance of a wire recorder, but rather some simple things you can do to prolong it's life...  If you're not comfortable with such endeavors, then it might be better to have a technician perform the tasks. Yet, it's actually quite easy to do......  First, above all - UNPLUG the unit before delving inside. All wire recorders are pretty much of the same basic design, so the following will apply to almost anything out there...

Ok, say you "lucked out" and found a working one.  To keep it working, it's going to require a little TLC.....  

Begin by removing the unit from it's case (surprisingly, this is the most difficult part..... locating the the right screws !). On most of the Webster 80 & 180-1's, there are 4 brass Phillips head screws on the bottom and one each on the left & right sides. Once out of the case, the rest will be easy !  If you have access to an air gun, blow the dust and years of accumulated crud off the electronic components and tubes. The dust acts as an insulator and will cause overheating (Vacuum tubes generate lots of heat !).  Also closely inspect for pieces of broken wire that managed to fall inside...... Small pieces of broken wire can short out the circuits and result in severe damage depending on where they land. (which is inevitably where they WILL land to wreak the most damage for reasons not fully understood)....  Again, an air gun works great for locating and dislodging wire bits, loose screws and 60 years of other accumulated "junk"....  Cleaning out the inside of some cases, often more resembles an "archaeological dig" than it does a simple cleaning. Small pieces of broken wire falling into the mechanism  (usually the result of snarls and sloppy splicing techniques) is a common problem and the cause for many wire recorder "early retirements". 

Do not touch the glass tubes with your fingers. If you do, be sure to wipe the oily residue off, as the oils present in your skin will cause early tube failure !

Wire Snarls

So endemic is this problem to wire recorders, I've decided to include
 a section to specifically address this topic.

TIPS:

Before even threading any wire for playback, first insure that the machine is working correctly - especially the bailer. Place the machine in play (you don't even need a wire mounted) and note the head/bailer smoothly moving up and down over it's FULL range. On most machines, the bailer is driven by the take-up reel and you needn't even have a wire threaded up to check for proper operation. You can lightly press down on the head to check for it's full range of travel. (If you have to press to get the bailer to move the head fully down, then the bailer lift guide needs cleaning and lubrication. It should not bind or get stuck in ANY position and should lower without having to force it.  This simple check for proper bailer operation will save many many hours of untold grief or sadly having to discard a badly snarled wire, which is almost always absolutely guaranteed if the bailer mechanism is not functioning perfectly. I cannot overstress enough the importance of proper bailer operation.....

As stated earlier, wire MUST be TIGHTLY PACKED on the spool before playback should be attempted. By pressing directly on the wire, it should feel "hard as a rock" and not the least bit loose or "spongy".  Loose wires are guaranteed to snarl and break - often within seconds.  Loosely packed wires are most often the result of last being rewound on a machine with improper back tensions.  The only solution here would be to pick up a wire recorder off eBay "for cheap" (you don't even care if it works) to use as a winding platform.  Slowly spool the wire onto the take-up reel being careful to offer resistance as you do so, such that the wire is tightly packed on the take-up.  It's important that when uncoiling the wire, that you manually turn the spool such than the minimum amount of force is used to extract the wire from the supply spool. This is a S L O W manual process that can take days of effort. Once fully & tightly on the take-up reel, then rewind back on the original supply spool. Insure it is being rewound TIGHTLY (you can even place your finger on the large reel to offer some additional back tension when it's being rewound back onto its' original spool).

Check take-up reel tension. It should be within specification.  Either a tensiometer or torque gauge is required for this, and is best done by a service technician who has such an instrument and is familiar with wire recorders.  Too much or too little tension or back-tension on the take-up reel, will result in upper wraps being literally pulled under lower wraps - even with a properly operating bailer.  Without a tensiometer or torque gauge, setting the proper back tension is impossible, but here are some "rules of thumb" to get you in the "ballpark"....  As the reel rotates, the tension should not vary. Also the proper tension is just that amount that ensures proper packing of the reel without having loosely wrapped wire.  The proper wire tension is maintained basically by a clutch allowing controlled slippage. Most machines use a felt pad for the clutch which often becomes glazed with crud over the years or simply wore off. The felt pad can often be reclaimed by lightly abrading off the glaze with some medium grit sand paper. Most Webster's have a spring type of adjustment that allows setting the proper pressure applied to the felt clutch pad.

The supply reel table also has a felt pad that rubs against the reel table spindle to insure proper back tension when playing or recording. This pad often wears out or the spring that controls the pressure grows weak with time, requiring replacement.  If recording on a machine with too little or no back tension, the wire will often "flutter" in the head guide, resulting in a strong tremolo effect being recorded, as the wire jumps in and out of the guide.  The "flutter" tends to be very consistent & has a period of one or two times the rpm of the supply reel.

If a wire snarls on playback, stop playback immediately and deal with the tangle before matters become much worse - as they most assuredly will.

NEVER try and brute force out a snarl by pulling and "hoping for the best". It rarely works and almost always results in your pulling upper wraps under overlying ones, or cinching the snag even tighter, making what started off as a simple problem, now a much more involved one. Trying to tug out a snarl will almost always kink the wire and the kink will then have to be cut out - though sometimes a loose kink can be carefully unbent and run between your fingers to smooth it out if not kinked too tight. (Be sure to wear white gloves or remove skin acids and oils from the wire after doing this). Instead of pulling, the best method is to cut the wire & push it back through.  You might have to repeat this several times, but when free, then just splice the ends back together and you're on your way (or until the next snarl !)

If you are forced to wind a wire by hand (not recommended), make certain it is tightly packed throughout. Loosely packed wires will immediately snarl on playback, and days to months of effort may all be for naught.

 

The bailer cam assemblyThe worm gear turns the cam - Note what little remains of the  old dried grease that must be removed and then re-lubed. The cam wheel cog is lacking any visible lubricationMany if not most wire snarls are machine induced. A properly maintained wire recorder will rarely if ever, snarl a wire that is not corroded, previously kinked or too loosely packed to begin with. Almost all wire recorders use a cam assembly for raising and lowering the head tower (called bailing) thus distributing the wire evenly on the take-up or supply spools. The head tower bailer assembly is usually driven by the take-up reel drive mechanism. In just about all machines, the head tower is "powered" up by the cam, but gravity is the sole mechanism that allows the head to lower thus following the cam, as the small diameter of the cam rotates into position. After 45 years or so, the unit is in dire need of lubrication - you can absolutely count on it ! The first to jam due to dried grease is the all important head bailer. The head/bailer slides up and down in a guide and must be lightly greased, as well as the worm gearing and cam assembly.  Before applying new grease, the old dry grease must first be removed. Use "PB Blaster",  which is a penetrating solvent available at any half decent auto parts store. Spray some on a Q-tip and have at it !   (NEVER spray directly in the mechanism) .....  Re-lube with a light lithium based grease. A drop of machine oil (or even motor oil if you don't have machine oil) on both ends of the motor shaft should also be performed while you have it apart.

As stated before, dried grease or lack of lubrication is a common problem that results in the head tower not falling freely, causing the wire to be packed wrap upon wrap atop of one another. The uneven packing due to the failed bailer, results in upper wraps being pulled under lower wraps - especially if the wire tension is not within specification due to grime on the clutch assembly, corrosion on the supply shaft or a glazed felt clutch pad.  When this happens, there will be hundreds of snarls created - - the end result being that the wire will have to be discarded and not worth the effort to try and untangle and splice back together. For those brave folks with LOTS of spare time on their hands or where the tangled wire is priceless and must be recovered at ANY cost, here is the procedure.......

Note dried grime and lack of lubrication on the lift plate which raises the head assembly. These pictures are of a Webster 180, and is typical of what you'll find on eBay. Most of these decks have never been serviced since leaving the factory over 50 years ago
Note the cam completely dry of necessary grease
Beware that attempting to untangle such messes will likely involve literally 100's of hours on some tangles.

Begin by cutting out the kinks, and splicing the undamaged sections back together.  Don't worry that some spliced sections may be out of order if the tangles are numerous and you can't follow the sequence.....  Get it untangled and spliced back together first to make the transfer. The out of sequence sections are best put back in their proper order by audio editing software rather than messing around more with the unruly wire.

Tools required for this frustrating endeavor are a pair of sharp scissors, a common pin for following/tracing the nightmares, tiny needle nose pliers, magnifying glasses , Scotch Tape or orange label dots for temporarily securing segments,  several bottles of Tylenol and optionally (though highly recommended), a LARGE bottle of rum.......  (for medicinal purposes only).  Kinks that have formed loops must be cut out - do NOT attempt to splice together segments containing kinks or another unbelievable snarl worse than the current one (if you can even begin to possibly imagine it) will soon ensue.

Take-Up Reel Snarls:   Should the wire get snarled on the take- up reel, avoid at all costs the temptation to remove the screws holding the top cover to free the snarl - BIG MISTAKE !!! .....  Once "sprung" free, the resulting tangle will almost always result in the wire having to be discarded, or literally 100's of hours spent untangling the unbelievable mess..  Take-up reel snarls are ALMOST ALWAYS caused by a faulty bailer, improper back tension or the wire being too loosely packed sometime back in the wires' deep past.

Supply Reels Snarls: Luckily, there is no cover to remove on the supply reel so the potential of making matters much worse is eliminated. The best procedure to use on a snarled reel, is to first cut the wire with a pair of scissors, then push the bitter (cut) end to reveal the loop, and pull the bitter (cut) end through from under the overlying wraps. A sewing needle will come in handy for probing and freeing any kink.  Again, never tug a snarl, or it will cinch up tight and make tracing it much more difficult.  After untangling 6 feet or so, splice that section back on the take-up reel. When hand wrapping wire on the take-up reel, make sure it is packed tightly, as loose wraps are almost guaranteed to snarl again.  Once free, wind slowly by hand for about 10 feet or so to make certain there is not a second snag close by, as is often the case.

Sadly, there is no magic trick to removing bad snarls other that the tips related above. The procedure is time consuming and often frustrating (unless you enjoy the challenge of solving 3 dimensional puzzles such as a Rubik's Cube). Some or many sections of badly kinked wire will unfortunately be unsalvageable. Keeping the machine well maintained in addition to having the recording transferred to an audio CD, is strongly advised. Even after having the wire recording transferred, please hold on to and preserve the original wire recording - even if it's still a snarled mess. Some unwitting soul in the future or someone who just lives solely for the thrill of self abuse, may take on the challenge !

Unlike magnetic tape, wire recordings are holding up much better over the decades than their magnetic tape counterparts. Please preserve the original recording...... As much of the original material as possible should be preserved on that medium for the future.

Fast Forward

Few of the wire recorders produced by any of the manufacturers have a fast forward function to allow a quick preview of the reel contents. It was not an important feature that was left out by any of the manufacturers by simple oversight or for economic reasons to keep prices low (even their top of the line machines did not have a fast forward), but rather to avoid fast shuttling of any wire coming off the small spool. The steel wire wants to stay "coiled" and any wire pinching needs a millisecond or so to pull itself out "gracefully" without snarling. Thus the high resulting rpm of the supply reel in a fast forward, would result in many a snarl, and thus the reason why none of the wire recorders had a fast forward function.  

To get around the problem on high speed rewind, you'll note that almost all wire recorders regardless of make or model, often have a much larger take-up reel.....   It's not a coincidence ! The over-sized take-up reel upon which the wire is now being supplied on a rewind, rotates much slower.  Even with a large take-up reel, most wire recorders by design aren't "blazingly" fast on a "high" speed rewind, as they all average between 6 to 8 minutes to rewind a full spool. Some of the early Pierce's used the same size reels for both the supply as well as the take-up, but those machines didn't have what could even remotely be considered a high speed rewind.

Only know exception is the Lear WC-311 that is reported to have identical size reels and can rewind 7200 ft of wire in 3 minutes...   Perhaps better known as the "Snarl-a-Matic" should the wire be the least bit kinked or loosely packed....

Now you know !

Wire Recorder Head Cleaning

Dirt & grime inevitably will accumulate in the head groove, causing the wire to "stick",  resulting in a wow or "spotty" playback. The head groove can be cleaned with Xylol (available at almost any hardware store in the paint section). You can use a folded cloth or a small stiff tooth brush soaked in the mentioned solvent to remove the sticky grime. Another technique we use here is to soak a  small piece of twine or string in Xylol and pull it back & forth in the groove - akin to a Wire Recorder's version of "dental floss"...   Be careful just to clean the groove and not go deeply into the head gap, otherwise potential damage to the head windings may result. Isopropyl Alcohol can also be used to clean the brake pads and idler wheels. Use only 99% pure medical grade IPA, as the standard off the shelf supermarket variety contains only 60% alcohol - the remaining 40% being mostly water. Note that Xylol should not be used on any rubber parts or felt pads, as it is an extremely effective solvent that will not only quickly dissolve the grime, but will also quickly dissolve the rubber parts.

Wire Recorder Demagnetizing

Over a period of time, the mechanism will become magnetized, which is a normally occurring process. Thus, every 10 hours of use or so, the unit should be demagnetized for the best fidelity. This includes the heads as well as any metal surfaces which the wire comes in contact or in close proximity to.  If not demagnetized, any wire being repeatedly played will be slowly erased by the magnetic field of the surface over which it passes. Also, audio fidelity will suffer and noise levels will increase should the head become magnetized.

If your demagnetizer is equipped with an on/off switch, be sure to turn it on before bringing the probes close to the surface to be demagnetized. Keep the power on while demagnetizing, and then SLOWLY pull the probes away from the machine before switching it off. Avoid turning the demagnetizer on or off when the probes are close, as the sudden power surge and resulting spike of magnetic flux generated will actually magnetize anything in close proximity.  Thus with the demagnetizer power on, SLOWLY bring the probes close to the surface and then SLOWLY pull the probes away before turning off the power. Avoid contacting the surface to be demagnetized.....  Bring the probes close, but avoid direct contact !

Demagnetizers can be purchased at your local Radio Shack® or any half decent electronic supply. Look for the type with two probes to get into tight places.  A handheld bulk type demagnetizer can be used on larger areas such as the take-up reel.

 

Electronics

Though far from an in depth discussion or service manual type dissertation, here are some tips as applicable to the vacuum tube electronics....

(Note: Vacuum tubes are referred to as "Valves" in the United Kingdom)  - though techs sometimes refer to them as "Glow Bottles" or ESD's ("Ether State Devices")

Vacuum tubes operate at much higher and potentially lethal voltages than those encountered in transistor circuits. Unless you are experienced in troubleshooting such devices, it is strongly suggested you leave such endeavors up to a trained technician familiar with vacuum tube circuits. (Note: These techs are usually easy to spot, owing to their proliferation of grey or white hair.)

Wire recorders have the simplest of electronics.......  A simple filtered unregulated bulk power supply, playback & recording amps (shared) as well as a bias frequency r-c oscillator circuit. There's not much to them.  Despite their simplicity, the electronics have two inherent weaknesses.....  the vacuum tubes and the capacitors.

The Webster Model 180 for example, used a 6X5 full wave rectifier tube - 6SN7 twin triode output amplifier operating in a "push/Pull" configuration - 2 - 6SC7's twin triode Pre-amplifiers -  and a 6V6 pentode beam power tube for the bias oscillator.

Replacement tubes are available from many sources on the net and are almost to be considered normal maintenance items owing to their limited life span as compared to transistors. You can even special order most of them through your local Radio Shack® store, but almost any tube you require will be available on eBay ®.  

Hickok 539C - perhaps one of the best tube testers ever made !Up until the early 70'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. Today, those testers are all but gone with the advent of the silicon transistor and integrated circuits. So how do you identify a bad tube without a tube tester ?  Sadly, other than the obvious physical damage, you don't.....   Luckily, most wire recorders had only 5 tubes, and without a tester or an oscilloscope, you will simply have to "shotgun" them all.

Aside from the tubes, an all too common electronic problem are the old dried out wax/paper capacitors. They are notorious for failing, and should the power supply rectifier caps start to go, you'll get a nice LOUD 60 cycle hum and probably not much else. For less than $20 and several hours of scrounging around for parts, substitutions and soldering, just replace all of them while you're at it. When substituting capacitors, make certain the working voltage is either the same or greater than the original - NEVER less. If replacing with electrolytic's, be certain to observe proper polarity.

A slight hum with low audio output is also a sign of a partially failed power supply filter capacitor.  The B+ plate voltage (the output out of the 6X5 in the case of the Webster 180) must be clean dc voltage, lest nothing will work right.

Another thing to check that frequently causes problems, is the two section record/play switch. The wipers often become "crudded up"  and may require cleaning (TV tuner cleaner works best - also available at your local Radio Shack). Also check for broken wipers or those that make poor contact due to metal fatigue after many years of use. Since the wire recorder electronics shares the amplifiers for the playback as well as the record functions, something as simple as a broken/dirty selector switch (depending on which pole is faulty) can often render the entire unit non functional.

A little TLC is all that's really needed to keep these great old machines running. They were built like tanks and almost everything was "over-killed" - all they often need is a little cleaning and some lubrication.

As a side note:    Shown here is our Hickok 539C tube tester. Perhaps one of the best tube testers ever made..   This model if recently calibrated and in good working condition, still commands top prices on eBay !  There are far less expensive testers, but if you do much at all with vacume tubes, a top of the line tube tester is a necessity.... 

    


This is a Lear WC-311 combination Wire Recorder and turntable. Interesting to note that it is the only Wire Recorder that had a Fast Forward function and an audio level meter.

Courtesy of Steve Gwost

  

 

Sample Historical Wire Recording Audio Clip - MP3

So how does a vintage audio wire recording actually sound you ask ?..... This clip is typical of a wire recording in just average condition.  These MP3's are raw captures and no restoration has been applied. 

The recording is an historical excerpt from a commentary criticizing President Truman and the Wage Stabilization Board.  April, 1952 -   (Amazing what will turn up on some of these old wire reels !)

Short 10 second Clip :   File size: 157K    Click Here to Listen.......  1

 


Original Wire Recorder Ad from 1948 Montgomery Ward Catalog.

Interesting to note that the Webster Model 80 Sold for $149.50 in 1948, which equates to $1236 in 2005 dollars, while a single spool of 60 minute wire sold for $5.00 ($41 adjusted for inflation in 2005 dollars).

 

             Click here to view full size Ad   (Note: This is a 169k jpg image file).  Click "Return" in  your browser to return to this page

 

 

 

 


Repairing and maintaining vintage equipment isn't everyone's "cup of tea" however.

For professional quality transfers to CD, MD, Tape or other formats, just give us a call.

Prices for transfer to Audio CD or other formats are on our on-line price list at http://www.videointerchange.com/price_list.htm

Note: Wires must not be snarled and also must be tightly packed on the spool. 
Loosely packed spools will NOT be accepted for transfer !

Last Modified:  Aug 22, 2011

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