Django’s Tape Recorder
In 1932, AEG chairman Hermann Bucher hired Pfleumer to work with Theo Volk and BASF chemist Friedrich Matthias to develop a magnetic tape recording system.
Innovations were many during the Magnetophon’s three-year development. In 1933, Eduard Schuller invented a ring-shaped magnetic head that created a concentrated magnetic field without touching the tape surface. The BASF group put carbonyl iron powder on a tough cellulose acetate-base material that could easily be edited, yet was strong enough to handle the torque of the transport motors.
In August 1935, the Magnetophon K1 was unveiled at the Berlin Radio Fair. The 1st serious recording using this portable, self-contained recorder was in November 1936, with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic at BASF’s concert hall near its manufacturing plant in Ludwigshaven. Other improvements followed, such as BASF’s ferric-oxide tape in 1939 and Walter Weber’s rediscovery and application of high-frequency AC biasing, which had been known since the 1920s, giving the 1941 Magnetophon’s a bandwidth of 10 kHz.
Not until BASF had mastered magnetic oxide coated plastic tape in the 1930s, did tape recording, as we know it, come to the fore. War-time ‘live’ broadcasts by the Nazi propaganda machine awakened the allies to advances in Germany by BASF and AEG in magnetic tape-recording and a post-war battle was fought between America and Britain in its development. An analysis of the pioneering German AEG Magnetophon for the British government in late 1945, opened the door to development of magnetic tape recorders in Britain by EMI for broadcasting and record production, By the mid 1950s, live recordings were now being mastered on tape and the days of direct recording to disc, almost, came to end.
The story of the Ampex 200A – in October 1947 the 1st tape recorder from Ampex – is inextricably linked to the history of the German Magnetophon. Near the end of the war, while serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Major Jack Mullin was assigned to investigate German radio and electronics experiments. He discovered the Magnetophon‘s with AC biasing on a trip to Radio Frankfurt which gave much better fidelity than shellac records. Mullin acquired 2 Magnetophon recorders along with 50 reels of BASF Type L tape and brought them to America where he produced modified versions. He demonstrated them May 16, 1946, to the Institute of Radio Engineers in San Francisco He modified them for HF bias and demonstrated them to Bing Crosby, who used them to record, edit and play his weekly ABC radio shows. Helped in part by the U.S. government’s declaration that all German and Japanese patents were invalid, the decks were studied by the fledgling Ampex Corp., which launched its own recorder program. Recording one track across the full width of the 1⁄4-inch tape, the 200A was capable of performance that was flat within 0.5 dB from 30 Hz to 15 kHz. In all, only 112 of the 200A recorders were made (the $1,500 model 300 followed it), but the impact of the benefits of tape-based production was felt throughout the world.
Les Paul a friend of Crosby‘s and a regular guest on his shows had already been experimenting with overdubbed recordings on disc. When he received an early Ampex Model 200, he modified the tape recorder by adding additional recording and playback heads, creating the world’s 1st practical tape-based multi-track recording system.
In the early days of recording there weren’t any tape recorders, they used to use sort of wax pancakes which were kept in the ‘fridge, and if you made a mistake the record was ruined. So, we had 4 of these pancakes to make the record with and we played I Saw Stars. We missed nothing so we went on to do Lady Be Good, Tiger Rag and Dinah. We were amazed that we didn’t make any mistakes in spite of the fact that Django was a bit late for the recording. The recording company was so impressed that we signed a contract for more recordings, and after a while everybody wanted to record us. Stephane
In Brussels with Rostaing. Rostaing buys Django a tape recorder. It has been mentioned that Django made numerous tapes in Samois near the end of his life but no one knows what happened to these tapes.
Recorded Track ‘Webster‘ – This composition is not a tribute to sax-player Ben Webster but it’s the name of one of the Webster Chicago Electronic Memory tape-recorders that Django bought in 1948. The tape-recorder was a revolution for Django because he could record his own concerts, like the one in Brussels Dec. 1948, and it made it easier for him to compose larger arrangements. Webster has a flavour of bebop and the chord-changes are similar to another Django-tune called Coquette. It was suggested it was recorded only one time in Rome together with Stephane Grappelli and an Italian group Jan. & Feb. 1949. Research suggests that Webster Chicago made the 180-1 model chrome wire recorders which were capable of recording music and their 1st tape recorder was Model ,210 produced in 1952 – much later – so Django may have had a AEG or Telefunken Magnetophon if he was using tapes instead of wire.
In 1952 the company launched a new line of tape recorders and eventually discontinued its production of the modern wire recorder as the industry movement towards Hi-Fi was in it’s initial stages. In that same year Webster-Chicago Corporation also decided to change its name to Webcor, a shortened and more streamlined name to take the company forward into the 1950’s. The conversion of the name actually showed up on some of the product line that year. One example was the Model 210 Tape Recorder in which the top head cover displayed the name Webcor and the bottom head cover displayed the name Webster-Chicago Electronic Memory.
The Model 210 was also the 1st tape recorder built for the consumer market with dual record/play heads and 2 balanced induction motors. This would allow for playing a tape in both directions without having to turn the reels over by hand and a single TV type control knob for ease of operation, huge selling points at that time. In 1953 the company also produced a matched 3 speaker series which began the company’s endeavours into the Hi-FI arena.
The 1948 concert in Belgium (with his son Lousson Baumgartner on rhythm guitar) that had been recorded by Django himself on his tape recorder was kept by Naguine and sold to a producer to make a LP years later.
CONCERT DE BRUXELLES
Hubert Rostaing (clarinet)
Django Reinhardt (guitar solo)
Henri “Louson” Baumgartner (guitar)
Louis Vola (basse)
Arthur Motta (drum)
Brussels, Theatre des Galeries, December recorded with Django’s tape recorder.
Louis Vola never recorded ‘officially’ with Django after 1938 and the only evidence we have of them working together is the Brussels Concert recorded on Django’s own tape recorder where Lousson his first son was the rhythm guitarist. Lousson never made any formal recordings but we do hear him accompanying Django at the 1948 concert in Brussels’ Theatre des Galeries recorded privately on Django’s own tape recorder. Although not perfect, the quality of these recordings is surprisingly good. They certainly throw some light on Django’s “live” performances and illustrate how different his solos could be from the officially recorded versions but also indicate that certain phrases he obviously liked would often be carried through.
Oriole was the first and sole distributor of Django Reinhardt’s recordings in the UK. By the late 30s they had established Levy’s Sound Studios at 73 New Bond Street, a former dance hall and sometime gallery. The sons of the Chairman, Maurice and Jacques Levy were introduced into the business and together they created ‘Oriole Records’ and embarked on creating a catalogue. The pressing of records was done ‘in house’ and consequently Oriole was rapidly outgrowing the old Whitechapel premises.
Les Paul – AEG Magnetophon – Ampex Audio 200
1935 – An improved AEG recorder, dubbed the “Magnetophon,” is demonstrated by recording the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The RRG (the German radio authority) begins to use the Magnetophon for broadcasting, replacing the earlier C. Lorenz recorders.
1945 – American and British technical investigators “discover” the Magnetophon in Luxembourg, France, and other places formerly occupied by the Germans. By Spring, these investigators begin gathering information about the production of tape recorders and tape, and the U.S. Department of Commerce publishes the information. The U.S. Alien Property Custodian seizes German patent rights on the technology.
It was in 1946 that Les Paul saw a tape machine for the first time — invented by the Germans and rescued from recently-liberated Luxembourg by a group of US Army officers. Familiar with wire recorders, Les had no idea about the AEG Magnetophon that made use of plastic-based magnetic tapes.
“Judy Garland and I flew from LA to New York to do the Paul Whiteman Show,” he recalls, “and at the rehearsal this fellow kept trying to get my attention. Finally, I walked over to him and he told me that his name was Colonel Dick Ranger and that he had a tape machine that Sherman Fairchild — the founder of Fairchild Aviation, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, and Fairchild Recording — thought I should see. Well, Judy and I got into a car with Colonel Ranger and went to see this device, and then I called Bing Crosby out on the coast and told him about it. It turned out that one of the fellows working for him, Jack Mullins, had been in the same signal corps as Colonel Ranger, and he also had a tape machine, but he’d left it in pieces in his garage. So he dug out the pieces and took them to Ampex, and Ampex bought them right there on the spot. Colonel Ranger already had the assembled machine but he was not a good businessman, so it was Jack Mullins who made the very first tape machine for Ampex, which was the 200. The rest is history.
Which, as we now know, was perfectly logical. But was Les sure at the time that this would work?” In 1949, Bing Crosby brought an Ampex 300 over to my house in LA, where I was then living. He asked me to go out into the front yard and help him get it out of his trunk, and then once I did that and the machine was indoors he said, ‘Well, have fun,’ and left. So, there I was, busy recording to disc, and I looked at the machine and all of a sudden the light went on — what if I put a 4th head on this machine? I took a piece of paper and a pencil, I drew it out, and I went to Mary and I said, ‘Forget hanging up the laundry, forget the whole thing. Lock the place up, we’re leaving. I’ve just found a way to record without needing the garage or a recording studio. I can do the whole thing anywhere that we wish to record.’ All I needed was a 4th head on that mono 300 deck.”
“Oh yes, I knew,” comes the reply, “but Mary didn’t. We drove from LA to open up in Chicago at the Blue Note, the machine was in the truck of our car, and when we got to New Mexico she said, ‘What if it won’t work? You haven’t tried it yet.’ I said, ‘Oh, it’ll work,’ but as we kept driving she’d say, ‘Well, you didn’t make a prototype. This thing may not work.’ The closer we got to Chicago, the more concerned I became about the fact that I hadn’t made a prototype. Without that I couldn’t be absolutely positive it would work. However, I’d called Ampex before we left California and told them I needed another head that they should send to Chicago, and when we arrived in Chicago and went to the New Lawrence Hotel the head was waiting for me. So, I got a guy to drill a hole in the machine for me and we mounted the 4th head, and then I turned the machine on, Mary said, ‘One, two, three, four, testing,’ and I said, ‘Howdy, howdy, howdy,’ and my God it came back.
“At that time I was still walking with crutches following our automobile accident, and I threw my crutches in the air and we danced around in the hallway. Then we got in the elevator and went to work, and that was a big day. After that we’d record ‘How High the Moon‘, ‘The World is Waiting for the Sunrise‘… in fact, at least 90 percent of our recordings were made on that [Ampex 300] device, not on the 8-track.”
History again was made, and a contract with Capitol Records quickly followed. Capitol asked Les what this new sound should be called. Les keeping it simple, said “The New Sound“, and that’s how his records were marketed! After WW II, a Newark, New Jersey electronics engineer, Colonel Richard Ranger, showed Les a tape recorder which he located in a German military electronics laboratory. Les then informed Bing Crosby of the machine since Bing wanted to record away from the studio and have more time to play golf. When Les assured Crosby that the device would work, Bing said he wanted 50. The Rangertone Electronics Company could not mass-produce the recorders fast enough so the idea was submitted to the Ampex Corporation. Bing Crosby put up the capital and gave one recorder to Les. On the road to Chicago with Mary Ford (nee Colleen Summers) and the new recorder, Les thought that if he could put in one additional recording head he could do sound-on-sound recordings anywhere. So Les called Ampex and said he burned out the recording head and could they send another. The additional head was installed by a machinist named Mr. Goodspeed and it worked on first try. No more was a studio needed for him and Mary. Then to solve the problem of recording with other musicians who were not present, Les conceived the idea of recording on 8 separate tracks then blending them together. He consulted Ampex again (1952) and they agreed to build him one at his cost. Les did not seek a patent on this concept or the “Sel-Sync-Octopus” idea (1956-60), which made the now-famous multi-track possible. On Jan. 30, 1962 Les was granted patent # 3,018,680, “Electrical Musical Instrument”, and on Apr. 3, 1973, # 3,725,561 “Method of Electrically Reproducing Music and Improved Electrical Pickup for Practising the Same”. Both were for improved pickups. He was working on 10 electronic pickup modifications, in as many guitars, chasing after his quest of “the perfect sound.” Not bad for a “tinkerer” wouldn’t you say? Les was inducted into the New Jersey Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1996. On February 20th 2001, Les received his 5th Grammy, for his technical achievements, from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
While Les Paul, at one time, was a reasonably competent guitar player, and by no means nearly as proficient as those who get lower billing on your web page, Les Paul DID NOT invent multi-track recording. You write “Les conceived the idea of recording on 8 separate tracks then blending them together. He consulted Ampex again (1952) and they agreed to build him one at his cost. Les did not seek a patent on this concept or the “Sel-Sync” idea (1956-60), which made the now-famous multi-track possible.” This is an outright lie and doesn’t belong in piece about a popular but mediocre guitar player (capable of dazzling speed recording when recording at half-speed.)
Les Paul was also quoted as saying: “Working from his plans, Ampex began building the world’s first eight-track deck”. When they delivered the prototype, billing Les $14,000, he says, “It didn’t work right. They had the speeds wrong, the EQ was all wrong – just a million problems. To finish it off cost us another $20,000. So it cost me about $36,000 to make Ampex Billionaires ! (Laughs) But I’m not complaining – I was glad to do it”
This is the truth, from those who were there:
I’d appreciate readers’ exercise of scepticism about those tales, still being repeated, of Les‘s alleged conference with us as early as 1953, about an eight-track recorder. As the middle-level manager of the Ampex section that would have handled any such matter, I am in a position to report on behalf of the company that the tale is fiction. I repeat, Ampex proposed to build the famous Octopus for him in 1956, including the Sel-Sync feature I invented with him in mind. He accepted the offer. He did not solicit the proposal. The faults in the machine as first delivered I acknowledged in my last transmission here; those were corrected at Ampex‘ expense, in accordance with standing warranty practice. And yes, carting it across the country from Redwood City to New Jersey and back was costly. When the fault was ours, that was the only proper action to take. (Was sent with a 30/60 IPS, not 15/30 IPS motor. The motor had to be changed an EQ reset for the lower speeds.)
Let us celebrate his extraordinary musicianship. An engineer and inventor, however, he was and is not.
Roth Technical Services
Oklahoma City, OK
Since I was the person at Ampex that was responsible for getting the machine built that Les Paul used, I have some comments to make.The machine was the result of a Letter of Inquiry, an offer to build a multi-track recorder, to 10 people by our Marketing Department of several people who were currently popular in the Hi-Fi recording business. Only one person responded who was Les Paul. It was generated by Ross Snyder and Walter Goldsmith, who were the head of Professional Products, and Walter Goldsmith, who I believe came from RCA and had been in charge of their classical department. Ross Snyder retired as a Vice President of Hewlett-Packard Corporation. I am uncertain of what happened to Walter Goldsmith. I apparently am the only person at my age to remember these things. While Les Paul always claimed that he was responsible for the machine, it is not true. In fact, I did not want to build the machine. He paid $10,000 at that time for the machine. This was a significant loss to my department. It was an instrumentation top plate to run 1″ tape, which I had to steal from the Instrumentation Department.
Since my department was undercapitalized, I assigned our 2 least utilised engineers, one of whom was Akio Hosoda, and another person who was not truly an engineer at all but a repairman that we had picked up for his mechanical skills. Les Paul called me weekly about the progress on his new machine. I, frankly, did not want to build it in the first place but was informed that since we were a capital gains corporation, we needed to do this for the publicity involved.
If you are interested in Ampex machines, I’m apparently the only person still alive that can tell you the history of Ampex professional machines. Sincerely, Robert K. Englehart
The complete story according to Ampex Audio here: