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.
(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:
A Gray Audograph plays from the center of the disc to the outside edge. That's backwards from everything else ever built.
The turntable rotational speed is continuously variable, ie- the record doesn't spin at a constant speed.
The groove starts closer to the spindle than any current model
record player and can play until the needle falls off the outer edge of
Signal to noise is often no more than 12dB, frequency response is 150-2000Hz, but the records are still useful and listenable.
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
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.
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.
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).]
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.
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.
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
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 don't want to buy, nor do I have for sale, any Gray Audographs,
Edison Voicewriters, Tru-Kut, Recordios, 78rpm records, Victrolas, etc.
or anything that creates or plays back these formats.
I don't know where you can find these things for sale, beyond "your local ham swapmeet".
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.