The rise and fall of recording tape

Part 1 _ Wire recorders

When I was a kid back in about 1949 or so, we were all very excited because my Dad had acquired a Webster wire recorder. Up until then, the only recordings we ever heard were on gramophone records but that’s a whole ‘nother story. 

The Webster was an American machine in a box with a flat top. Against the back edge of the top but central between the sides was a record/playback head. Silver wire was drawn from a bobbin on the left of the deck, passed through a groove in the head and rolled up onto an initially empty spool on the right hand side. During recording, Webster wire recorder_1the sound from the microphone amplifier or radio created a magnetic field in the groove of the head and as the wire passed the head, it was magnetized to a varying degree in accordance with the sound.  Later, the same wire could be run past the same head and it would create an electrical signal in proportion to the magnetism in the wire, thereby theoretically reproducing the original sound. The wire would frequently break or stick, and the speed would vary depending on mechanical limitations in the system. The playback sounded pretty lousy. It was also true that the magnetism induced in the wire did not stay exactly where it was put because each particle of the wire slightly re-magnetized the adjoining particles. In other words, the magnetism spread in the wire to some extent and this caused a loss of fidelity when the wire was played back.

Everybody had lots of fun sending each other recorded messages etc but the wire recorder wasn’t much good for anything else. You couldn’t go down to the store and buy a piece of music recorded on wire. A better system was needed and sometime in the 50s or so, domestic tape recorders started to become available. Professional tape recording had been around since the 1930s but home equipment only happened about 20 years later. It was better than wire for various reasons. The tape was made of an acetate base of some sort with a layer of very fine metallic dust embedded into a varnish-like surface. The tape would be passed over a recording head and the magnetic field in the head would magnetize the separate metallic particles in the surface layer. Because these were not touching each other, the magnetism could not easily spread through the tape and the reproduction was very much better that wire recording. The system was however still fraught with problems and the quality was still not good.

But more about that in a few days time.

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3 thoughts on “The rise and fall of recording tape

  1. Thanks, I never knew it existed. I have a Tascam Portastudio 4-track cassette recorder and still use it.

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    1. Hi Benjay. Yes the Tascam was really the first way of doing multitrack production in your own home and there are still quite a lot around. I see you like making gadgets and installing them in available boxes etc. I do the same. The other day I built an electronic metronome using a 555 timer chip. It works well but then a friend told me he used to enjoy doing Morse Code when he was at sea on a yacht. I am also a registered radio ham and also used to do morse code, so I added a switch to the metronome to make it run much faster and a jack plug to allow a morse key to be plugged in and we now switch the box between being a metronome and being a morse practice oscillator. I installed the whole thing in a plastic lunch box, what we call Tupperware, and it suits the purpose very well. I can’t post a picture here but I will do a whole article on our little box and post it on the blog. Go well Benjay. Regards. Neal

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      1. Thanks for the reply Neal. Your blog post hit the stop today, I really enjoyed it. Look forward to more. All the best. Ben

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