Restoring Dead Media

Yes, I can create digital transfers of your grandfather's Gray Audographs, Edison Voicewriter, and other old record album technologies. Please email me for prices and availability.  The article I originally wrote which describes how I reverse-engineered a Gray Audograph still exists. To this day I get a few emails a month from interested parties who need hundred-year-old audio restored, or want to learn where and how to do it.

The Gray Audograph

Gray Audograph 30 second sound sample from an Audograph disc

inside an Audograph

the "Executive" Audograph

(Photos of Audograph courtesy Sandy Trevor, used by permission.)

Once upon a time, a client sent my studio some "Gray Audograph" discs for transfer to a more modern, useful format (Compact Disc). I do high-quality digital audio transfers of LP records, so how hard could this be? It turned out to be a good challenge to even figure out how the record is supposed to be played without ever seeing or knowing anything about the original device it was recorded on. You can read about what I learned and how I learned it.

Here's the facts:
Years after my feat of reverse-engineering, I learned that the Gray Audograph uses pinch rollers directly on the recording media that track with the "tone arm" to maintain a constant track velocity: a clever and simple solution to the problem that I never considered because modern sensibilities preclude any thought of ever touching the recording media.

How to do What I do

  1. Don't play back your valuable recordings on that fifty year old player. The needle is huge and blunt, the tonearm is heavy, the machine may not track right: it all adds up to damage your precious recordings pretty fast. If the recording is valuable at all, don't do anything that might damage it further, please.
  2. Using a modern turntable (modified, if necessary) with minimal tracking weight, play back the old recording once only to minimize further wear on the record. If there's a lot of skips, pops, or if the record is bent (as occasionally occurs with the paperlike acetate "records" from the 1940s), consider spinning the turntable significantly slower to minimize the needle's tendency to jump.
  3. Catch the output from the turntable correctly into a digital input. [A "record player" does not put out the correct line level signal to grab directly into your computer. You'll need a phono preamp to boost the signal and equalize it even close to correct. All phono preamps include an RIAA eq curve that is necessary for all 33 1/3 and 45rpm records (but which may not be necessary or accurate for a lot of restoration of other disc formats).]
  4. In the digital domain, do your signal analysis with whatever tools you like to determine what speed the recording should have been played back at. If you have a good enough playback system, it's likely you'll be able to find the line hum that was accidentally captured in the original recording 50-100 years ago and create a continuous adjustment curve to bring the whole side of an album to the correct pitch. Please note that the Gray Audograph requires continuously changing correction to maintain accurate pitch.
  5. Once you've got an accurate track at the correct playback speed(s), do some minimal signal level correction to make the recording more listenable. Please do not use "pop and click remover" plugins and software blindly. Frequently you're removing real data. Frequently the semi-professional tools only smooth and re-EQ your recording, turning it into mush. It's much better to have some of the artifacts of the original media, than to make it sound like a bad current recording. Which would you rather hear: a recording of great-grandpa and grandma that sounds like it was recorded half a century ago, or a mushy recording that sounds like it was done recently?

How to Find Dead Media Playback Devices

For a lot of folks, it's cheaper and easier to try to find an old Gray Audograph or Edison Voicewriter so they can play back the old recordings themselves. Go for it. Please be aware that every time you play back your old recordings on a vintage machine that's in excellent working condition, you're doing damage to them. The tone arm is extremely heavy, the needle is carving into the record, etc. Also, what you hear will be no better sounding than the limit of the playback device: the 50-year-old speaker, the ancient electronics, and the dying vacuum tubes, will all conspire to make your record sound even worse than it needs to. In contrast, a good digital restoration will be at the upper limit of quality of the original recording.

Find broken and working Audographs and other dead technologies by looking up your local ham radio club. A websearch for the ARRL in your area should be a good start. These guys usually hold a swapmeet once a month in the parking lot of the local community college at some horribly early hour in the morning on a weekend. There you'll meet a lot of weird curmudgeons who know more than you ever want to hear about everything technological. If you're friendly you may be able to use, borrow, or buy exactly the device you need.

Assuming you can find, cadge, rebuild, or buy the device you need in good working order, you can take it and your records to almost any recording studio. Play back the records while a microphone is nearby and have the studio burn you a CD to take home.

If you have an interest in restoring and working with these old devices, email me, I may be able to put you in touch with other folks of like mind.

In conclusion

It's pretty amazing to hear the voice of great-granddad from back when he was in the prime of life. I've done some restorations that are pretty amazing. One fellow could whistle two notes at the same time. Another had great-grandma telling nursery stories to the next generation. Another family found a collection of boxing matches broadcast over the radio, which may be the only surviving recordings of these bouts. Do keep your old records, do try to listen to them. You can probably split the costs of the resotoration work among everyone in the family.

When shopping for a recording studio, make sure they've done the exact type of recording you have. The different formats can be tricky. You don't want them to damage your priceless heirlooms.

Don't wash, scrub, or otherwise clean your records! And don't let anyone else do it, either. Some cleaning products don't react well to some of the plastics used in old records. Be afraid. Be afraid of someone who says they'll clean your records for you. I'd much rather get a dirty record than one that's been scrubbed clean or melted with the wrong cleaning product.

I have never seen most of the "record players" I do digital restoration work for. I don't need to. I take the "record" only, and create the best sounding digital transfer possible: the record player would only degrade the sound quality.
I'm happy to talk with you if you have some audio restoration work for me. I also enjoy hearing from people who can send me photos of these old devices. Turnaround time on audio restoration projects is usually no more than one week.

If you'd like to know more about digital audio, buy my book, "Digital Audio," which you can find wherever books are sold. It's in Swedish, Polish, Russian, and a few asian languages, so buy one of each.

Russ Haines
La Honda, CA