Version: March 14, 2004

Tim Brooks

Electrical reproduction of cylinders :
an easy way

by Tim Brooks, 1975


A passing remark in George Blacker's excellent article on "Playing Oldies the New Way" (Aug.-Sept. APM) deserves further comment. It provides a simple and inexpensive way to reproduce cylinders electrically, with a minimum of mechanical skill or "rebuilding" necessary. There are three main requirements:

  1. A turntable which allows the tone arm to be rotated 90° or more (such as the Lenco L-75)
  2. A tone arm equipped to play vertical cut records, such as Edison Diamond Discs or Pathés
  3. A cylinder machine

Essentially, the idea is to swivel the tone arm around until it clears the side or back of the base, place a cylinder machine underneath the stylus, and play your cylinders. The Lenco tone arm tracks across the cylinder just as if it were tracking a disc. The sound from the cylinder is then fed electrically through your amplifier where you can use tone controls or filters, tape recorder outputs, etc.

There are several theoretical reasons why this system should not work very well, but work it does. The set up was demonstrated to me by Maine collector and researcher Bill Bryant, who got the idea from George Blacker's writings. What surprised me when I tried setting up the same system in my own home was not only the quality of reproduction-which is excellent-but how easy it was. If you happen to have the three requirements mentioned above, the whole arrangement might take 15 minutes to set up. When you are through, everything breaks down just as easily.

A few more comments about the three requirements. The Lenco L-75 turntable/tone arm, which is so useful for playing odd-speed discs, also works nicely for cylinders because the tone arm does swivel, is mounted close to the edge of the Lenco's base, and is both long (9" from pivot to stylus) and very lightweight. However other turntables may well have similar capabilities, so check yours if you don't happen to have a Lenco. George tells me that he has successfully tracked cylinders with tone arms as short as seven inches.

On the Lenco L-75, loosening a small set screw at the bottom of the pivot permits the tone arm to be swiveled around, and also to be raised or lowered to the same level as the cylinder mandrel. The Lenco's built-in stylus pressure gauge allows fine adjustment of the weight bearing on the cylinder surface, as well. I found it possible to track wax cylinders with no more than 5 to 7 grams, thus minimizing wear. Compare with the "stylus pressure" applied to the cylinder surface by original Edison reproducers (my measurements):

ReproducerStylus Pressure
Automatic9-10 grams
Model C29 grams
Amberola 3060-65 grams

Cylinders and vertical cut discs can be played with an ordinary stereo cartridge; however, reproduction is very much improved if you rewire the cartridge for vertical reproduction only. George explained several ways to do this in his article, and also provided the address of a manufacturer of pre-wired cartridges and switch boxes which accomplish the same thing. I have been using the IOI1) pre-wired cartridges and special styluses for several years, and have found them quite satisfactory.

Likewise a modern 78 rpm stylus will produce sound, but IOI's custom ground versions are much preferred. Nothing you use is likely to damage a Blue Amberol cylinder, but be careful what stylus you use on wax cylinders (IOI's Pathé stylus is recommended). If a white "frosting" appears under the stylus as it plays, lift off the tone arm fast!

As for the cylinder machine, almost any will do, providing only that you can get it physically close enough for the overhanging tone arm to reach the mandrel from the turntable, and that the original cylinder reproducer arm can be lifted out of the way or temporarily removed. Edison Standards, Homes and Triumphs work fine. Note that either two or four minute cylinders can be played, even if the machine doesn't have a 2-4 minute attachment. This occurs because the tone arm is doing the tracking, and the gearing and feedscrew which would normally drive the cylinder reproducer is not used. The only function of the machine here is to spin the cylinder at 160 rpm.

There has to be some drawback to a system this simple, and it is that the tracking can be rather touchy at times. The tone arm has to be in the right relationship to the mandrel or it will either "ride off' the cylinder at some point, or go skittering across it without tracking at all. This can usually be corrected without too much difficulty, by moving the components slightly in relationship to each other, until everything works. But early brown wax cylinders may not track at all, because of their shallow grooves. Some will, some won't. And warped, gouged or out-of-round cylinders will give you problems. Good condition black wax and celluloid cylinders generally track quite well, and the quality of reproduction is in some cases astounding. Among other things, "blasting" practically disappears.

This makeshift system is not the ideal way to electrically reproduce cylinders, and the ambitious collector will want to pursue the more advanced, custom systems described in George's fine article. But for the "duffer" who doesn't want to get involved in rebuilding cylinder machines or tone arms, or for those who simply want to find out what electrical reproduction sounds like using their existing equipment, the "Lenco method" is quite simple. If you've been dubious about the merits of electrical reproduction of cylinders, it may convert you from a skeptic to a believer. It did me!

Editor's notes:
1.IOI refers to International Observatory Instruments - now out of business.
This text was originally published in:
Antique Phonograph Monthly (ed. Allen Koenigsberg), Vol. III, No. 9, November 1975

  Visit Allen Koenigsberg's site:
Main page External link