Recording and Playing Machines

Magnetic & digital medium


Valdemar Poulsen invented magnetic recording technology in 1898. It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that this recording method was developed and marketed. The first tape recorder was built in 1936 by the German company AEG (widely used by the Third Reich, it only crossed the German borders after the end of World War II). The technology spread across the United States from 1946. It was widely used by radios and the sound recording industry to edit recordings.

Magnetic recording uses a magnetised medium. Reel to reel magnetic tape became widely used at the end of the 1940s.

Over the years, magnetic recording carriers evolved from wire to strip and then to tape. In the early 1980s, the first digital magnetic recording options were released, among them the DAT (Digital Audio Tape), which was a favoured medium among professionals.

The compact cassette was then launched by Philips in 1963, followed by the compact disc (CD) in 1978. CDs remained the most common audio format until the 1990s.

Wire recorder

This Kolster-Brandes Model EWR 60 wire recorder was made in the late 1940’s by Kolster-Brandes of Sidcup, Kent. In addition to recording and playing back magnetic recordings on wire, the machine has a high-quality Garrard record deck. However the small turntable is a design compromise. For some years this machine was used in the British Library Sound Archive for dubbing wire recordings to conventional tape.

Scotch Boy tape

3M started started making Scotch Boy magnetic recording tape in the 1940s. The tapes in the photograph were used by John Lorne Campbell, a pioneer in the collecting and recording of Scottish Gaelic song and folklore. He recorded more than 400 hours of audio recordings.

EMI dictating machine

The Emidicta portable magnetic disc dictating machine combined the mechanics of a disc-cutting lathe with magnetic recording. This portable version dating from the 1950s has a spring motor to drive the turntable and a small generator powering the record head. The head is in the arm above the disc. The microphone is at the front. The recording discs can be stored in the lid when not in use and are made of the same material as magnetic tape.

Studer Tape Recorder

This Studer Revox A-77 stereo tape recorder came from the company founded in Zurich, Switzerland in 1948 by Willi Studer. The A-77 was launched in 1967 and has sold over 400,000 units - a large quantity for a piece of high-end audio equipment. It has three motors, can play at 7.5 ips (inches per second) and 15 ips (19 cm and 38 cm per second respectively). There are three tape heads, for erase, recording and playback. Separate pre-amps for each head, and separate record and replay circuits permit full-source tape monitoring.

Nagra 4.2. Portable Tape Recorder

The Nagra 4.2. portable tape recorder was produced by the Swiss Kudelski Group from 1971 until the 1990s. It was widely used in professional sound production for radio broadcasts and also in film production. The model in the photograph has product number L 15.550 and is likely to have been manufactured in the 1970s. The Nagra was very popular during the 1970s and 80s amongst reporters, being a rugged and flexible device suitable for different recording situations. It produced high-quality tape recordings and was used to record many of the radio broadcasts which are now part of Europeana Sounds.


EMI first manufactured Emitape magnetic recording tape in 1969. The Emitape in this photograph was used in 1975 to copy an original tape recording made by John Lorne Campbell in 1962. Campbell was a pioneer in the collecting and recording of Scottish Gaelic song and folklore.

Uher 4000 Report

The Uher 4000 Report Monitor was produced by German company Uher Werke from the late 1960s to the end of the 1980s. It was a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder which was used for news reporting and by sound recordists. Since digital equipment has become widespread these older analogue machines are no longer produced.

Crown tape recorder

The Crown 800 four-track tape recorder is a large recorder made by the International Radio & Electronics Corporation of Indiana, USA in about 1972. It is a very heavy and high-quality machine, shown here without tape spools. There are four input faders (two on each channel), two large VU meters and two sets of bass/treble cuts. There are also two pairs of output controls. In the base is a transformer added for the UK market to enable 240v operation. This machine was donated by Peter Handford, the Oscar-winning film sound recordist. It was used in his Suffolk studio for dubbing steam train recordings for commercial release.

Sony CD player

The Sony CDP 101 is widely believed to the first ever compact disc player. It was launched in Japan on 1st October 1982. Sony, Philips and other makers launched CDs and CD players in Britain during the Spring of 1983. The CDP 101 was priced at £545. The only moving part of a CD machine is the revolving disc. The amplification and sound reproduction all have solid-state wiring. The sound carried by the disc is encoded in binary units which are ‘read’ by a laser beam. There is no surface noise.

Studer A820MR Studio Tape Recorder

The Studer A820 studio tape recorder was produced by the Swiss company Studer from 1984 until around 1990. It was the last analogue professional studio tape recorder produced by the company. The model in the photograph is an A820 MR (“master recorder“) with the product number 1192 and is likely to have been manufactured in 1990. As a result of its many features, stability, precision and sound quality, the Studer A820 is used for archival preservation and digitisation of historical tape recordings for archival purposes.

Casio DAT Recorder

The Casio DA-7 DAT tape recorder could record stereo for up to two hours on a standard DAT cassette. It was extremely robust and easy to use for location recording, although the VU meter on the LCD display was difficult to read in bright sunshine. The DAT tape format was launched in the late 1980s, using tape much smaller than that of analogue cassettes. Casio, a company previously known for watches and calculators, developed some of the first professional DAT recorders. The DA-7 appeared in 1992 and was initially priced at £600. This was considered cheap compared to high-end analogue recorders such as the Nagra, but within a few months the price dropped further to £330. At this reduced princing level digital recording was brought within reach of the masses.

Otari MX-5050

The Otari MX5050, manufactured in Japan, is a professional-quality analogue audiotape recorder that uses the open-reel format known today as reel-to-reel tape – tape that is 1/4" wide, wound on open reels of various dimensions. The Otari, in its playback functions, has proven to be an invaluable tool for the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) in its sound digitization programme. When professional and domestic-quality reel-to-reel recorders became available after WW2, very important field collections of Irish traditional song and music began to be made by professional, semi-professional, and amateur collectors, and ITMA holds a significant collection of these recordings. The Otari is a versatile and reliable tool that can cope well with the wide diversity of formats and speeds in ITMA’s collections, a diversity reflecting the many different configurations of the early tape machines. The Otari can process tapes recorded at speeds of 3¾, 7½, or 15 inches per second, and in half-track and quarter-track formats in either mono or stereo. It is sometimes the case that speeds and/or track formats other than those built into the Otari are needed in ITMA’s digitisation programme; where this happens, software tools in the digital audio workstation being used are employed in order to achieve accurate playback.