Written by 4:06 am Audiophile Music

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

Test. Test. 1, 2, 3. Is this thing on? Mark Smotroff looks at some early marketing behind home recording technologies…

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) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonograph_cylinder) 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.. 

]]>So, going back to my thrift shop discovery that I mentioned earlier, what I had in my hands was a fascinating missing piece of the home recording marketing puzzle. In my hands was a package from a company called Packard-Bell one of the makers of home entertainment systems back in the day including then-new and cutting-edge recordable disc technologies. This package — called the “PhonOcord Playhouse” which not only acts as a storage case for home made recordings (thus it looked like an 78 RPM multi-disc album set) — includes creative instructions on how to use the device on a fairly involved level. It features fun and engaging pictures of colorful and average families and friends gathering around the microphone to sing and perform skits and such. The booklets inside offer tips on the joys of home recording with enticing copy created by a clearly engaged and fine promotional writer:  

AR-PBPhonOcord225.jpg“Magnificent in its beauty, thrilling in its performance, outstanding in its versatility — the PhonOcord opens new horizons of delight in home entertainment.  Radio, phonograph and home recorder in one precision-perfect unit — each featuring, separate and together, fulfilling the highest standards of Packard-Bell engineering, craftsmanship and dependable operation.”

I’m sold. Where can I buy one? 

But … wait… there is more… Seriously, Packard-Bell had clearly thought this complete product offering through very thoroughly, something most modern folks think only could be done by companies like Apple or Sony.  

I think these folks took it all a step further than our modern tech heroes:  you see, also included in this package are, indeed, actual scripts for little fun skits the family could perform and record. 

But … wait…. there is a series of them in the package… It seems that Packard Bell was marketing a monthly subscription service delivering by mail to participating families a series of scripts for them to act on. The documentation reads: “Packard-Bell presents your ‘Script of the Month” and they offer “50 New Ideas for Record Making Fun.”

Its a pretty cool thing. Someone really had a vision for this technology. 

I wonder how many future actors got their first bite of the show business bug by making recordings this way?  Honestly, I have no idea how extensively these scripts were used by the public, but its cool to imagine and consider its potential influence.

Fast forward to present times, looking at some of junk that people post on YouTube these days, I wonder if there might be a new opportunity for someone to start a business that sells little scripts to people for making a fun YouTube video…. or perhaps it could be a mass market script consulting service, where retired theater and film buffs can help bullet-proof aspiring home broadcasters can review script ideas and offer constructive criticism before a video gets posted widely (perhaps someone is doing this already, I don’t know… just sayin’, folks…)

AR-WilcoxGayRecordAlbum225.jpgAnyhow, Packard Bell was clearly not alone in this process of building a market for home recording enthusiasts.  I know that a company called Wilcox-Gay marketed their blank “Recordio Disc” media to be used on a lot of these DIY recorders and even sold a special record album for people to store their beloved home-brewed productions (which, of course, I found at a garage sale). 

And of course there were more “pro” oriented disc recorders which have gone on to the stuff of legend, used by inspired fans of certain musicians to record live performances of artists at their peak at times when it would have been other wise impossible to preserve these performances. Duke Ellington’s legendary 1940 concert in Fargo, North Dakota, was recorded by two young men with access to disc recording technology from a company called Presto.  You can read more about this still amazing sounding recording on the Wiki here which apparently won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance upon its initial commercial release in 1980! There are numerous versions of this album out there. I own a two CD set which, while it offers somewhat cheesy artwork, does offer a well written booklet and appears to be the complete performance. It sounds pretty remarkable and you can find it pretty inexpensively up on Amazon.

There is a famous series of fan-made recordings made by a fellow named Dean Benedetti who near fanatically followed legendary Jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and got permission from the artist to record his performances on his portable consumer-grade record recorder.   Made by a company called Wells-Gardner (sold via the Sears catalogue), due to limitations of length of recording time on the discs, Benedetti only recorded Bird’s solos. Nonetheless these recordings from 1947 have gone on to become the stuff of legend, eventually the being compiled for the digital ages by the great Mosaic label on an extensive seven — count ’em 7! — CD set! You can get this at Amazon or direct from Mosaic. You should explore the Mosaic website if you are interested in this as they have a lot of information on this history of these vintage recordings.

AR-GoldRecord225.jpgBut these are incredible exceptions. Most of these home-brewed recordings are sadly lost to the ages.  Few people, such as myself, have a record player that spins at 78 RPM to play these things. Mostly these discs show up at garage sales and flea markets as tossed out remnants of an era long gone.  

In fact, I first became conscious of these discs as a conceptual entity worth exploring after a friend sent me a posting of a “found” recording from one of these discs which was posted on Found Magazine — a publication (in print and online) that specializes in all things forgotten and abandoned from other people’s lives. From their website we learn: “We collect found stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles- anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life. Anything goes.”  The recording posted was fascinating; it felt like you the listener were a fly on the wall of some sort of cosmic time machine, peeking into lives long past.

So, you see, I am not alone in my fascination with this sort of thing, folks. Because it is audio related, I consider it a piece of our social history as audiophiles…this is early technology that probably helped spur a certain level of interest in recording among future generations of music fans… enthusiasts who may well have gone on to become great producers of music we know and love today. 

AR-RedRecord225.jpgTo that, if you have any stories about your experiences with these early recording devices, I encourage you to please share your personal exposure to these early pre-tape recording technologies in the comments section below. Its cool stuff and, frankly, something everyone should remember.  

As the Wilcox-Gay Recordio Disc packaging said so poignantly:  “This is your memory album! Record it to Re-live it!”

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