No good espionage thriller, even in today’s digital age, looks the part without at least one dimly-lit scene featuring the ominously revolving spools of a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
In 1888 an American engineer, Oberlin Smith, published a description of a magnetic recording device in Electrical World. Smith proposed that sound waves, converted into electrical impulses, could be ‘recorded’ onto a string impregnated with iron filings drawn past an electro-magnet. No-one knows if he actually achieved this feat of magic, but in 1898 a Danish engineer, Valdemar Poulson, patented a working device using a hair-thin wire instead of string. Sound quality was poor and wire recorders eventually proved to be a technological cul-de-sac.
In late-’20s Germany, Dr Kurt Stille developed a machine that we would recognise as a tape recorder – except the tape was made of steel! Recordings still suffered from a high background ‘hiss’, but in 1931 Ludwig Blattner, a German film producer living in England, imported one, and in co-operation with the BBC and Marconi produced the improved Marconi-Stille.
This fearsome machine recorded onto wafer-thin steel tape travelling at five feet per second on massive spools weighing 25lb. Breakages were not uncommon and the prospect of being eviscerated by a thrashing razorblade of steel encouraged the engineers to operate it from an adjoining room. Repairs were achieved by cutting the tape with tin snips and spot-welding the ends together!
The big breakthrough came in Germany in 1935, when AEG demonstrated its ‘magnetic phonograph’. Looking remarkably modern even by today’s standards, the AEG Magnetophon used a ferrous-coated cellulose acetate tape produced by BASF. The first public recording was of a concert given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in BASF’s own concert hall in Ludwigshaven in 1936.
In America the arrival of tape-recording seemed to pass almost unnoticed. This was perhaps because the musicians’ union had effectively banned the use of pre-recorded material over the air and there was little pressure to develop a recording medium to replace the disc. That is, until superstar Bing Crosby went on ‘strike’. Irritated by his radio station’s refusal to allow him to pre-record his nightly show onto disc, he decided in 1944 to take a year out from the gruelling schedule.
At the end of WW2 an American Army Signal Corps engineer, Jack Mullin, was presented with a brace of liberated AEG Magnetophon recorders. Back in the States Mullin caught the attention of Bing, who, realising that he could record an entire show on tape, invested a considerable amount of his own money in the embryonic Ampex Corporation so that it could develop the machine. Crosby gave one of the first production versions to his accompanist and great friend Les Paul, of future electric guitar fame (see Octane issue 59) and an accomplished electronic whiz.
Within no time Paul was re-wiring his Ampex with extra heads and inventing multi-tracking. Overnight the recording and broadcasting industry underwent a revolution. Tape recorder manufacturers soon proliferated, and in Switzerland, in 1948, Willi Studer founded a company that would become second to none in the production of studio and domestic machines.
One of Studer’s Revox recorders was used in the production of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. Often cited as the ‘most influential album of all time’, it was a tour-de-force of special effects and creative editing – all achieved on a four-track machine.