Version: Jan. 7, 2007

Trevor Hill

My home made cylinder player

by Trevor Hill, 1999

Introduction - "Why bother?"

As my collection of cylinders grew, it became clear that for others to hear them, it would be necessary to transfer them to another medium, at the time audio tape. With the advent of PC sound cards, large hard disks, CD-ROM burners and advanced audio processing software, the original transfer-to-tape option has easily been exceeded. But whatever the final medium, the process of playing cylinders has been achieved by one of the following:

  • Play using a well-adjusted (hopefully) original machine and a microphone in or near the horn. This is fine for once-off playing, and demonstrates the machine's charm, but causes wear to both the machine (stylus & drive-train) and the cylinder itself. Also, mechanical reproduction through most reproducers and horns introduces a "characteristic "sound, due to resonance and linkage movements. Finally, room acoustics can be introduced. The phone could ring!
  • Play using a stereo phono-cartridge adapted to fit into the carriage arm of an original machine. This method has the advantage that the stylus is tracked correctly along the cylinder, and will not "stick" for any great length of time even on worn/damaged grooves. Also, changeover styli may be employed to match the groove geometry. The stereo cartridge wired anti-phase responds to hill-and-dale modulation as used in the cylinders. The only problem with this method is that all the imperfections of the cylinder player's mechanism (wow, flutter, mechanical/gear noise, spring "thumps" and wind-downs) are expressed in the final result.
  • Play using either cylinder player mandrel or home-made mandrel and long tone-arm/stereo cartridge. The long tone-arm approach (I've seen one 3 foot / 1 metre in length) minimizes tracking errors. The limitations of the original machine (see last item) are present, and the stylus is subject to sticking in locked grooves. The long tone-arm also has more mass, forcing the stylus to cause more groove wear.
  • Play using a professional-made machine. Professional cylinder-transcription machines are available; the major problem of this method is simple: sheer cost!!! But they do represent the pinnacle of the art. Feel free to buy me one! I'm not too proud to accept...
  • A Do It Yourself machine It costs a lot to have mechanical parts made, and designs don't "appear" out of the ether. Yet this is my favorite approach. As an electronic/computer engineer I had access to most common machine tools, as well as a sympathetic relative with the metal lathe needed to copy a cylinder mandrel. I chose to design a tangential tracking mechanism to move the cartridge and stylus across the cylinder being played. The raw audio out is passed to a phono pre-amp and then to the PC for recording and noise reduction.

The machine

"A picture is worth a thousand words" I'll keep the waffle down, and show you some pictures!

Front view of the player - tone-arm in rest position Top view with tone-arm in playing position with Blue Amberol on mandrel

The first picture shows a front view of my player. Toggle switches control "Power", "Carriage Left/Right" and "Mandrel". A two-color LED indicates tone-arm normal (green) and mis-tracking (red). When a tracking error is sensed by a opto-sensor, the arm is moved incrementally to the left to correct it.

The flywheel on the end of the mandrel has two sets of strobe lines, for 120 and 160 rpm. Currently the machine only plays at 160 rpm...   I'm still working on this aspect. I'm contemplating a small AC-motor and variable frequency drive. This would eliminate residual brush noise, though could be called "overkill".

The tone arm is simplicity itself - I chopped most of the length from an old straight-line tone-arm and make use of the head-shell socket for access to the Stanton 500 Mk2 cartridge. A custom counterweight and tracking opto-sensor (hidden) under the carriage base completes the tracking components.

End view showing mandrel bearing and some carriage detail Rear view showing phono-cartridge out, and dual worm gear drive for the carriage

The opto-sensor under the carriage registers tone-arm mis-tracking in one direction only. Thus the tone arm "falls" from right to left across the cylinder. Flexible cable links the LED/sensor array to the control electronics inside the base. Twin isolated fine-shielded coax links the cartridge output to the output connectors on the back of the unit. No pre-amplification or equalisation is done within the player - this was due to the availability of higher-quality components than I could hope to construct.

The tracking motor is fed via a dual worm gear drive to the taut-band that moves the carriage and tone-arm. Even this is sometimes too much and results in skipping...   another thing to work on!

Please note that Trevor Wayne Hill sadly passed away on 2nd July 2005.


See the later development of the Hill player:
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