Version: Mar. 8, 2004

Oliver R. Graham and George A. Blacker

Some remarks on electronic
introduction1) of cylinder records

by George A. Blacker, 1973


A request for suggestions on the reproduction of cylinders with the IOI2) styli and cartridges that Mr. Lowell Schreyer of Mankato, Minn., sent to "Record Research" reminded me that I had, indeed, promised to comment further on the use of that equipment for cylinder playback. When I wrote the article that appeared in "RR" #103, I was not in a position to comment on this, as I had no means of setting up a satisfactory experimental playback apparatus. In the light of experience accumulated over the past year, I am now in a position to offer what I hope will be some useful tips and suggestions.

Let it be said, to begin with, that there was never any reason why the IOI equipment should not play cylinders satisfactorily. The vertical cartridge and the Edison and Pathé styli were an ideal combination for the purpose, since the stylus dimensions are correct for the two different types of grooves. Obviously, the Pathé stylus should be used for the two-minute records, the Edison for the four-minute ones. The main question in my mind was whether the styli would perform satisfactorily on wax cylinders, which are rather more delicate than the later (and more common) celluloid records. I can now state confidently that they can and do perform well on wax cylinders of either type, provided proper precautions regarding stylus pressure are observed.

Mr. Schreyer does not state what model cylinder phonograph he uses for his electrified playback, and that could be important. If he has managed to fit the cartridge through the small hole in the reproducer arm of some such model as the "Standard", "Home" or most other types in which the reproducer is not in a horizontal position above the mandrel, he may well be in trouble. Since the cartridge would be more or less leaning slantwise against the surface of the cylinder, it would have an almost unconquerable tendency to tilt sideways, especially if jolted by the irregularities that occur frequently in the surfaces of celluloid cylinders. (I might mention here that these irregularities are also the cause of a very high level of rumble in the reproduced sound. The best cure for this would probably be a series resonant inductance-capacity filter, resonated at abour 30 Hz, and shunted across the cartridge. Lacking such a filter, the next best thing is, obviously, to set the bass tone control at minimum.) If no other type of machien is available for conversion to electric playback, it might be possible to "induce" the cartridge to stay upright by applying a slight upward pressure from a spring or elastic band. The best solution is to use one of the machines that took the larger horizontal-mount reproducers, such as the "O" or "Amberola". If you're so lucky as to find one of the "moving-mandrel" models, such as the "Opera", that was capable of playing both two- and four-minute records, you'd have it made. All you'd have to worry about then would be a mounting for the cartridge, and provision for about 1/2 inch of vertical play in the cartridge, to accommodate eccentricities of the groove spiral and irregularities in the record surface.

Needless to say, it isn't possible for everybody who wants one to go down the street and buy an Edison cylinder phonograph of the "right" type for conversion to electronic playback. Let's face it, ANY kind of cylinder phonograph is going to be expensive nowadays! If you have a machine that is capable of providing a smooth, wow-and-flutter-free drive to the mandrel but whose arm construction does not seem to lend itself readily to adaption for an IOI cartridge, it might be best to consider the use of a self-tracking arm. I have discovered that a light-weight arm, with no "offset" angle for cartridge tracking, will track both wax and celluloid cylinders at pressures moderate enough not to damage the wax. Because the mass of the arm should be kept to a minimum, it is best to make it of wood. The best thing for this purpose is "parting bead", sold by most lumber yards. This is specially cut wood 3/4 in wide, 1/2 in. or less thick and available in lengths of up to 8 feet. The pivot asembly must be as free of friction in all directions as possible. I used the pivot assembly of a ball-bearing caster for some time on an experimental player (to be described in detail further on). Because a self-tracking arm of this type will describe an arc across the cylinder (as opposed to the straight line of the cylinder player reproducer), the arm should be fairly long to keep the curvature of this arc to an acceptable minimum. I would recommend an arm length of no less than 12 inches (as measured from pivot point to stylus. See Tracking diagram. 3))

The arm must be counterweighted at the rear, as the total weight of the cartridge, its mounting and whatever kind of lift handle may be installed on it will make for an excessive stylus pressure. The counterweight may be made of whatever is handy - a chunk of iron, brass or lead attached to the rear of the arm. I have found it most convenient to use a counterweight heavy enough to lift the stylus off the record, or just barely allow it to touch the surface. Correct stylus pressure may then be obtained by means of small pressure adjusting weights placed on the front of the arm. To keep these in place, I recommend installing some kind of pin on the arm. This can be a wood screw with the head sawed off and the shank exposed by at least 1/2 inch. Pressure adjusting weights may be made of pennies with holes drilled through them, or those that "slugs" from electrical conduit boxes. For most purposes, three or four of these will suffice. I do not specify weight and dimensions of the rear counterweight; this is best determined by a bit of "cut-and-try" experimentation.

If you wish to use an arm such as I have described above with an existing cylinder phonograph, it may be desirable to arrange for its quick and easy installation and removal. Perhaps a platform in which the cylinder phonograph can be set (always in some predetermined position) is best, if it is not desirable to drill holes in the case of the machine. If this is not important, the arm mounting can be arranged so that it may be attached direct to the case or removed from it at will. A couple of screw eyes in the case can be placed so that hooks on the end of the arm platform will drop into them, the rear of the platform being supported by short legs. The arm should, in all cases, be so positioned that when it is at the middle of the record, two conditions are met: (a) the stylus and arm are almost exactly parallel to the line of the groove spiral, and (b) the stylus is, as exactly as possible, about 1/8 in. forward of center line of the cylinder. At the beginning or end positions of the record, the stylus will be slightly to the rear of the centerline and no longer exactly parallel to the grooves, but this is inevitable with such an arm arrangement, and can be tolerated if the arm is long enough to keep the discrepancy within reasonable limits (see Tracking diagram).

Stylus pressures must be determined empirically, but it will generally be found that the four-minute wax cylinders require the least pressure. 4 to 8 grams seems to be about average. Two-minute wax or celluloid will require more pressure, due to the great width and relative shallowness of the grooves. The values required for four-minute celluloid will vary somewhat according to the "bumpiness" or lack of it, of the playing surface. Generally, it is best to get by with as little as possible, especially with wax records. The celluloid ones can take pressures high enough to cause the stylus to retract ito the "T-guard" assembly without being harmed. The apparatus on which I've been playing cylinders for some time is not actually my own machine, nor is it entirely of my own construction. It was built originally several years ago by Mr. Oliver R. Graham of Westerly, Rhode Island, with assistance from Barber and Howard, an electronics concern located in that city. They used the "top deck" assembly from an old Edison "Home" phonograph, with the original arm and back rod removed. Motive power was supplied by a 600 rpm hysteresis synchronous motor, probably salvaged from a tape recorder. The drive pulley on the motor was turned on a lathe to the correct diameter to yield a mandrel speed of 160 rpm. Actually, the machine is slightly fast, so someday the motor pulley will have to be turned down a bit more. For now, the slight difference in speed is not too noticeable. The obvious defect of this arrangement is that because the machine runs only at one fixed speed (nominally 160 rpm), it can be used only with cylinders produced after 1901 - i.e. molded cylinders. It is hoped that a variable-speed machine will be developed sometime, so that older cylinders may be played at their correct speeds, which varied between 100 and 144 rpm.

Mr. Graham's original reproducer arm was a self-tracker, modified from a standard Barber and Howard transcription arm. The cartridge originally used was an old-fashioned crystal unit, which was turned at a 90-degree angle to the grooves and tilted so that the needle could track the cylinder and the vertical motion of the grooves was "seen" by the cartridge as lateral motion of the needle chuck. The stylus was a cactus needle. Unfortunately, the adjustment of this crystal cartridge was tricky and difficult, and the arm was decidedly temperamental. When Mr. Graham showed me the machine, more than a year ago, the arm had been removed and the electrical mechanism was dusty with long disuse. I asked him to let me take the thing in hand myself and try to see how the IOI equipment would perform with it, and he consented. I made a few minor mechanical modifications, desinged a new self-tracking tonearm, and within a few days, I was playing cylinders electrically upon in. Mr. Graham's main interest is collecting recordings of brass bands, and I have made several tapes of cylinder recordings for him, mostly from my own collection and more recently, from cylinders of his that were not previously taped.

Now, as regards the quality of reproduction of this machine: for those who think of a cylinder phonograph as sounding tinny and distorted, the sound will be a surprise. Many of the early molded cylinders, especially the Edisons, had sound infinitely superior to that of the disc records of the day. The Edison Blue Amberols of 1912 - 1914 have truly amazing fidelity. The later Blue Amberols, which are dubbed acoustically from Diamond Disc masters, do not sound quite as good, but it is still a tribute to the quality of the original discs and the response capabilities of Edison's acoustic recording equipment that the dubbed sound is that good! Generally, the best sound is obtained from the wax cylinders; their smooth surfaces, if not too severely worn, give good sound. The celluloid cylinders have the advantage of a smoother, noise-free surface, but the irregularities, or "bumps", on them, can cause rumble (as discussed above) and a slight wow, this latter caused by the slight, but rapid, back-and-forth motion of the stylus as it follows the "bumps". I have thought that if some means could be developed of locating the vertical pivot of the cartridge in the forward end of the arm, this phenomenon might be made less objectionable, but I have yet to try any experiments with such a setup. I did once try to adapt an old Pickering 190D transcription arm to cylinder reproduction, but found it unworkable, apparently because of the extreme mass of the arm.

I am convinced that the best solution to the problem of playing cylinders will be in the form of a feedscrew-driven arm, similar to and adapted from the feedscrew-driven arms of the old cylinder phonographs. I have worked for some time on a machine incorporating this feature along with variable-speed drive (a prototype version of this was used to produce the master tapes of Folkways LP's 3886 and 3887, "Phono-Cylinders" Vols. 1 & 2), but lack of money, combined with a siege of unemployment, has not permitted further developmental work on it of late. Meanwhile, the self-tracking arm device is a reasonably satisfactory substitute. We may reflect, even while we give thanks, on this little irony: the audio technology that has brought us stereo sound, which has largely displaced monophonic sound and relegated the old 78 rpm disc records to the "museum-piece" category, is also responsible for giving us the means of getting the best sound out of these archive recordings!

Editor's notes:
1)The title is rendered as it appears in Record Research 124 (Nov., 1973). It seems clear that the word "introduction" should be "reproduction".
2)IOI refers to International Observatory Instruments - now out of business.
3)The arc described by the stylus seems to have disappeared from the diagram, and only the ideal straight line followed by a cylinder player reproducer can be seen.

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