Sound on Wire

Wire vs. Tape

There’s no way I’m going to tell you that wire recording sound is superior to magnetic tape. There’s just no comparison. However, when we compare tape recorders and wire recording devices from the peak era of wire recording (1948), we find that wire recorders were better from a variety of viewpoints. Their merits include affordability, durability, longevity, and usability.

Scotch 111, the beginning era of affordable durable tape.

Reel to reel tape recorders were very expensive…and originally developed by the Nazis. So, WWII postponed their development here in the US. Then in 1947 the Brush Development Company released Model BK-401 which was the first consumer reel to reel tape recorder. It’s cost? Well? A bit pricy compared to wire.

The medium used? Not plastic or even fragile acetate. That stuff was very expensive. No, it was paper-backed. Yes, it was quarter inch paper tape. I have a reel of this stuff. Nothing audible remains on it.

Having a number of open reel recordings from the 50s, I found that wires recorded in 1953 outlasted the 7 inch reels of tape recorded in 1958. How shocking to find these memories have faded. Whereas, a party recorded in 1947 is as real as if I recorded it today using the same machine.

Wire has a high media speed. This is necessary because wire is a solid metal medium. WC style wire is recorded or listened to at 24 inches per second as opposed to reel to reel tape at 15 or 7½ inches per second. In 1948, a one-hour reel of wire consisted of 7,200 feet of stainless steel wire. This length was possible on a spool of 2¾ inches in diameter because the wire was nearly as fine as a human hair. In that same year, a 7 inch reel of tape would have held about a thousand feet of paper tape and would have been a full track recording played back at 7½ inches per second. That’s about 20 or 25 minutes of recording time.

Note. With the exception of the Magnacorder SD-1, the recording wire was pulled past the head by the take-up spool. This caused the wire speed to increase slightly as the wire filled the take-up spool causing the diameter of the spool to increase. This speed increase is less prevalent on Sears style 78 rpm based recorders because these machines had larger diameter take-up reels.  The speed increase is not noticeable because the spool is played back under the same conditions as it was recorded.

Note. The SD-1 was equipped with a variable speed control.

After recording or playback, the reel had to be rewound because, unlike tape recorders, the take up reel on the 78 rpm based take-up reel wire recorders was not removable. Peak-era Webster Chicago machines did come with a reel that could be lifted off and another reel set on. But the wire eventually did have to be rewound back onto its original spool. These take-up reels were sophisticated and expensive.

Note. Pierce/GE style wire recorders used a larger spool and both the supply and take-up reel were the same size. The RCA used a cartridge.

While Playing or rewinding, the wire would pass through a slit on the record and playback head as it moved up and down like a fishing reel to ensure the wire was placed on the reels evenly. On the SD-1, moving wire guides performed this function).

In practice, the fine wire could easily become tangled and snarls are extremely difficult to fix.

Editing could be accomplished by cutting the wire and tying the ends together, with the knot sometimes being welded with the tip of a lit cigarette. Although wire was a little difficult to edit, it did provide tremendous advantages over trying to edit material recorded on transcription discs (large records), which was usually accomplished with stopwatches, multiple turntables and a lot of patience. Tied-knot edits in wire would cause the wire to momentarily pop out of the slit in the head, which caused a brief dropout in music recordings. Later on, tape recordings were edited by splicing with special sticky tape, hence no dropout. In fact, up until the digital era, this is how most recordings were edited.

In 1947, tape recordings were…at best fragile. The base material was often made of paper or the more expensive acetate. The magnetic material was an iron oxide powder coating that would, at times, not adhere to the paper or it would wear off. It was the use of a plastic film which made tape stronger. This was followed by Mylar in the mid to late 50s that made tape the standard.

In 1947, wire was much stronger. Also, you could record longer on wire, 60 minutes uninterrupted, as opposed to 15 to 25 minutes. It was when recorders were produced with half-track was when you could record 60 minutes on one 1200 foot reel…two sides.

For the amateur recording enthusiast between 1945 and 1950, wire was the way to go. Then tape recorders finally became affordable and by 1951, tape became much better, spelling the end of wire.

About wire’s audio fidelity: It was not so great.

Frequency response: 200 to 5,500 Hz.
Dynamic Range: 25 db
Signal to noise ratio: if the wire is clean and lubricated 32db, much better than a twice-used 78 RPM record.

Note. In 1938, the Germans did have professional thin flat metal tape recording equipment that was comparable to the WC Wire Recorders of ten years later, except with a higher background noise..

Why wire. This was the first reusable medium that a common Joe could afford and easily use to save memories.

Although I was born shortly after 1950, I do like the wire recorders I currently have. They are rare. While I was young in my adolescent/teen years, I was heavily into electronic gadgetry both vintage and modern. I did not see any wire or recorders except one on a shelf at one of my ham buddy’s house. I have been to thousands of sales and flea markets and I’ve not seen any wire at any of these sales. This includes perusing nearly 36 years of the mega-electronic flea markets at the Dayton Hamvention...since 1976.