[78-L] Acoustical playback (was: Old Geezers)

Michael Biel mbiel at mbiel.com
Fri Mar 23 06:27:28 PDT 2012

You probably have not seen this before, but we have discussed this in 
the past.  When you play a record on an old acoustical phonograph you 
are not playing the record, you are playing the phonograph.  The horn 
resonances and reproducer characteristics overlays the distinctive sound 
of that machine on any and all records you play on that machine.   If 
you want to hear what is on the RECORD, this is not the way to do it.  A 
modern electrical playback is the only way to do it.

Consider it like this: when I was a teenager a neighbor was able to buy 
a mint condition Model A Ford.  We had a blast riding around in it 
occasionally, but we did it to ride around in an antique car.  If we 
wanted to actually go somewhere, we used a modern car.  Sure, if you 
want to get a kick out of playing your own phonograph, go ahead and do 
it -- but remember you are playing the machine, not the record.

Now, as for the care of your heirloom records, the reason why the 
records collectors find are not  usually in mint or even E+ condition is 
because people played them on acoustical machines -- not because they 
WANTED to, but because that is what they HAD.  They wore the records 
then, and especially if the reproducer has not been repaired, they will 
wear the records now.  If you want to keep the records i the condition 
they were in when you got them, don't play them on the acoustical 
machine.  Play junkers on it -- sometimes worn records sound less-worn 
on acoustical machines.  Occasionally play something you want to hear as 
it sounded back then on the machine, but unless it is a common records, 
don't do it too often.  And, of course, used a new needle EVERY TIME, 
and NEVER, EVER, turn a needle in the reproducer, or use a needle you 
found loose in an old machine.

You don't say what your machine is.  Unless it is an 
Orthophonic/VivaTonal, or some other post 1925 machine, it was not meant 
to play electrical recordings.  The machines that were continued to be 
made in India, USSR, China, etc, WERE meant to play electrical records 
-- which is why Crapophones can sometimes sound great -- but a 
pre-electric machine was not meant to play electrical recordings, even 
late Chinese records.  As for your specific question,   I would never, 
ever, play a Bluebird or any other 1930s record on an acoustical 
machine, even an Orthophonic.  They also were obsolete by then.

Over the decades I (and most of the rest of us old geezers) have learned 
that there are three kinds of collectors: 1) record collectors who might 
have a few phonographs just for the hell of it (but don't really care 
that much about machines), 2) machine collectors who have a few records 
just so they have something to play on their phonographs (and mainly 
otherwise don't care about records at all), and 3) collectors who have a 
fair amount of both machines and records, appreciate them both, and 
therefore don't abuse their records by overplaying them on machines 
except as demonstrations.   I actually had a type 2 collector say to me 
that he saw no difference between different records, but that the shelf 
full of seemingly identical Columbia cylinder machines were fascinating 
because some had three motor mounting screws but the next one had four, 
and other such minor production-line changes.  He saw no value in the 
wooden crate of mint white-label Zonophone single-sided test pressings 
other than he could sell them to Zonophone machine owners who didn't 
care which Zonophone records they put on their machines to display.  He 
saw no reason to make a discographical listing before scattering them to 
the winds to be worn out by Zonophone collectors.

I hope you understand what I am saying and I hope you are a type #3, or 
maybe a #1 like me and most of us here.

Mike Biel  mbiel at mbiel.com

On 3/22/2012 10:48 PM, Matthew Balcerak wrote:
> I'm 25, and definitely a lurker.  I am full of "stupid questions" but I
> usually try to get them answered elsewhere before I bother this esteemed
> body.
> On that note, I have one for you all.  I have not discovered a definitive
> answer about steel needles.  I have a variety of different gramophone, and
> of course a modern turntable.  I've read: acoustic recordings sound better
> with medium tone needles, electric recordings with soft tone, and if you
> want you can mix and match for loudness however you want.  Using that as a
> rule of thumb has been great for all my early records.  However, when do I
> have to stop using steel needles and only use an electric pickup?  Thus
> far, if the record hasn't been orthophonic (or one of their breed) or
> before, I've kept it off a gramophone.  Everything afterword, I've used a
> modern turntable.  I know they produced gramophones well into the forties,
> and in some countries into the sixties.  Does this mean I can throw my
> later Chinese records onto a gramophone and be OK?
> Also, is it different for different labels?  Do bluebirds handle better on
> gramophones than okehs?  I have read that records have a grinding agent in
> the opening grooves to make the steel needles ideal for the individual
> record.  When did they stop doing this?  Will this grinding agent effect a
> modern turntable stylus?
> Essentially, with at least fifty years of play time ahead of me, I don't
> want to leave my grand kids with a bunch of old coasters.

More information about the 78-L mailing list