Voices From the Past: Recovering Audio From Wire Recordings

wire recorder setup[Nick]‘s grandfather was quite the old school hacker. In the 1940s, he built his own wire recorder and microphone to capture everything from his children’s Chirstmas wishes to his favorite songs and programs from the radio. Only 20 or so spools have survived and were doomed to silence until [Nick] was able to find a vintage wire recorder, restore it, and feed digitized audio into Audacity.

Once he restored one of the two machines that he was able to get his hands on, [Nick] was in business. Since his grandfather also rolled his own spools, [Nick] had to build a playback spindle that would hold them. His uncle found an old mechanical counter to do the job, which [Nick] secured to the workbench. He fed the output from the wire recorder’s playback head into a guitar pre-amp, effectively digitizing the audio for recording in Audacity.

After playing all the spools, he adjusted the levels where necessary and cleaned up the recordings. His biggest challenge was feeding the wires back on to their original spools, which he managed with an electric drill and a rubber grommet. Be sure to check out the mp3 clips on [Nick]‘s page. If you’re in the mood for old audio hacking stories, here’s one about building a tape recorder in 1949.

15 thoughts on “Voices From the Past: Recovering Audio From Wire Recordings

  1. This is so hard-core! Awesome job. Now, in 70 years, will his grandchildren have better luck with the mp3 CD’s or the old, dusty spools of wire?

    1. Most likely the MP3s are the best bet. Many spools of magnetic tape have been lost to time, because the magnetized properties of one layer of tape affect the properties of the other layer wound tightly against it. I know one Vietnam war vet whose audio letters between him and others are not not readable, so I’m surprised this old wire was still playable, and it would be a mistake to believe these wires and the machines will survive another 70 years. Today a lot more people are creating digital recording than there where people creating wire and later tape recordings. I suspect there will always be someone creating players that will work with new hardware. The major failure point would be family members not transferring the files to any new storage mediums that come along in a timely manner and not distributing copies widely in the family. Using a variety of storage mediums couldn’t hurt either. As long as flash memory remains so cheap, wouldn’t hurt to make yearly copies keeping them in a safety deposit box at a bank as well.

    2. Yea, his grandson’s HAD post will probably read “I 3D printed a tunneling electron microscope to read the old hard drive platter and processed the information through my AI Quantum computer to clone my great-great-grandfather.”

    1. Yes I thought so too. His grandfathers machine did a great job of recording even he had to do a lot of restoring the recordings after all those years. To bad the homebuilt machine had been lost. I wonder if any of his grandfathers homebuilt stuff has survived. That would be really cool to see… His grandfather seems like a really interesting guy.

  2. Check this out too…

    http://www.firstsounds.org/sounds/scott.php

    Audio recordings from the 1860′s

    Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s Phonautograms

    The sound files of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograms released during 2008 by the First Sounds collaborative were created using the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s virtual stylus technology, which sought to track the soot-scratched wavy lines as though they were standard record grooves.

  3. “favorite songs and programs from the radio”

    Best keep mum on that part, otherwise the RIAA will step in and try to sue your grandfathers estate (for the benefits of all those old starving artists of course)..

  4. We have stored away a large console in 4 sections, a record bin, speaker, record changer, and wire recorder integrated into the rest of the radio-phono electronics. This was a commercially sold setup. It caused a kerfuffle in the late 40′s as it was able to record anything in sight (sound) just a push button away!
    Wire recording had one bad mark. The wire would twist and the strong signal side of the wire would no longer be at the head but on the other side. It sounds like shortwave radio fading, clear then soft and back and forth.
    Hear is the hack-challenge. Make a rotating head and some way to correct for this problem, best done at low speed perhaps. Or use heads all the way around with time alignment.

    1. Did these recording use an AC bias signal, that could be detected and used for head alignment, ALC, or a reference for other methods? Would make it a lot easier if so.

  5. Wire recorders are a fascinating niche of technology. I’ve got one here in my office at work. As of yet, only one person (who I only marginally suspected of having geek-like tendencies) has identified it for what it is. It seems that even those alive during the era when such wire recorders were being used & wire recordings were being made don’t usually recognize them. Never ceases to make for interesting conversation though!

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