The Dawn of Home Recording: A Look At Phono-O-Cords and Recordio Discs

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Step right up folks to the greatest show on earth! Recorded by you right in your very own home! Invite your friends! Wow your family!

AR-MicMan225rev.jpgOk folks, so this article isn't quite a review as much as it is a look back and a look forward on where things were at one point and where things have been going in the world of pre-recorded sound... 

It's actually taken me about six months to figure out how to write this article for you, Dear Readers, in a way that might be compelling and fun. You see, the genesis for this started when I found a very unusual bit of packaging, if you will, at a thrift shop, from the earliest days of home-recording technology.  This packaging was stuck in the used records section because it looked like an old set of 78 RPM records. 

But it was so much more. 

There in my hands I held a piece of music making history, an artifact of an early home recording technology from the 1940s. It was something I'd never seen before yet as soon as I opened it up, I realized what I was -- in effect -- looking at: one of the earlier do-it-yourself guides to making home recordings ... on records!

If you'll play along with me as Sherman to my Mr. Peabody, let me set the way-back machine to 70-plus years ago before most of us were born, to a time when there were efforts afoot to stimulate a nascent market for home recordable media. I don't have the exact timetable down just yet, but we'll land roughly around the early 1930s when some technologies emerged that enabled consumer-driven recordings.  

Now... lets take a moment to reflect and consider some perspective details.... Firstly, most of you have probably heard of magnetic tape -- a recordable technology which is still used (essentially) in computer hard drives (steadily being phased out by flash memory drives) but which stretched over numerous applications for many many years on diverse formats such as audio cassettes, reel-to-reels, Elcasets ('member them?), 8-track cartridges, 4-track cartridges, VHS and Betamax tapes and so on.  

AR-Foursome225.jpgBefore tape, wire recordings existed. Yes, wire. These were literally what they sound like they were: thin reels of wire were used to record a signal, stored for future playback. According to the Wiki, these things were marketed for less than 10 years (1946-1954) by a number of manufacturers, offering a time advantage over length-challenged disc recorders.  Eventually after WWII, magnetic tape recorders started to become commercially available and eventually took off becoming the standard for recording until the advent of digital technologies 30-plus years later. 

But ... before even the wire recordings happened...  there were home disc recorders dating back to the 1930s.  Yes, disc recorders! 

These things recorded on thin acetate type discs that were made of a core of (frequently) cardboard and sometimes even metal. I've written about these things a little bit for another site which I encourage you to check out here.  Yup... way before the four-track cassette recorder in the 80s (and of course the four-track reel-to-reel before it in the 60s and 70s for that matter) people were trying to make their own home recordings with varying levels of sophistication -- or lack of it -- and success. 

The thing is, folks -- and where I'm going with this article -- is that I never considered fully how the public took to this new recording technology back then.  Stick with me as I jump around a little bit to provide some examples...

To most average people, recording at home had to have been a new and foreign concept at a time.  It was arguably a new thing for most people.  As far as I know, the only recorders were wax cylinder-based mostly-dictation oriented devises marketed by Thomas Edison, but those never quite caught on in any sort of mass manner as far as I know and were phased out by the 1920s.  Dictaphone apparently repurposed the cylinder into the 1940s (assuming the Wiki is accurate) ( but that was an office device.  

AR-Umvf225.jpgFast forward to today even our grandparents more or less know what it means to make a recording of some sort. By the 1970s, most everyone had some sort of cassette recorder and people used them to record everything from conversations to radio and TV broadcasts. This set the stage for the home video revolution with the dawn of VHS and Betamax formats for home recording.

So, how did people come to embrace the concept of home recording?  There must have been some sort of effort to educate the public, right? 

Going back to the old home made phono recordings I have heard -- and I have a couple stacks of them that I've picked up along the way --  they are often awkward attempts at pulling family and friends together to do things like sing a song or getting an aging grandparent to reflect on times past. Often times these discs got mailed to a relative or loved one for playback on their own record players. Nowadays, consider how people create elaborate videos shot on their iPhones, replete with special effects worthy of a major motion picture posted up on YouTube for millions to see and hear.  

We've come a long way, baby, indeed... but again, did this fascination with home recording devices just happen by happy accident?  

No, not at all it seems.. 

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