DIY Records: Mini Audio Documentaries of Times Gone By

Sections: Love Hz

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Have  you ever wished you could just press your own records?  Not a CD-R, mind you, but actual grooved discs that play on an old-school turntable?

Long before portable all-digital flash drive-based handheld recorders, and long before even the now-standard (and almost antiquated) CD-Rs and recordable DVDs (all very cool for their ease of use and low cost) –even before magnetic tape — there actually were home disc recorders. (And “wire” recorders, too, but that is another story entirely)

Most of these recordable records, as it turns out, were cardboard, metal, or glass discs with some sort of acetate or shellac.  A quick Google search unearthed some websites maintained by fans who describe the makeup of some of these so-called “instantaneous” discs, and how the materials changed over time.

  • (1934) “Acetates” or Lacquers or “Direct Cut Discs” – [matrix or instantaneous] cellulose nitrate lacquer on an aluminum, glass, or zinc core; or cellulose acetate on a core. 10 inch, 12 inch, 13 inch, 16 inch (also unusual sizes larger and smaller)
  • (Early 1940s) Dictation discs – [instantaneous] “plastic” discs under the names Voicewriter, Gray Manufacturing, Audograph

I also came across another site that has a gallery of labels and the recorders used to make the discs!

I had seen these types of discs periodically at garage sales and thrift shops for years but only began to collect these odd gems after a friend turned me onto Found Magazine, a blog that spells out their mission:

“We collect FOUND stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, receipts, doodles — anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life. Anything goes …”

Along the way, I heard a posting someone made of a “found” recording from one of these old discs, and it was really cool… like being a fly on the wall in someone’s home listening in on a conversation with an aging relative who was born before the steam engine existed… or hearing a snippet of a radio broadcast recorded off the air in 1941…

I have a stack of these old discs, and now that my life has settled down again a bit, I am planning to resume trying to clean them up for one-time play and recording for posterity.

This past week, while journeying around Southern California, I came across a rather big stack of these discs, the vast majority of them red-colored, in sizes ranging from around 6 or 7 inches to 12 inches. I bought the whole stack from the dealer for $5. I have no idea what is on the  discs, though some of the writing indicates there will be musical performances by various family members. There’s one disc made by a military man stationed in Kansas (I am guessing during WWII) for his family members. (Which reminds me: I have to ask my Dad if he knew the guy, as he too was stationed in Kansas for a period during WWII.)

Following are some pics I took of the discs.

Let me know if you have any discs like these, or other information to share on their history.

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  • Dave Barton

    I grew up using my father’s old Steno-Disc machine for dictation and playback. Fun for a child but the disks were so light that they were difficult to play on a regular turntable (even with a quarter taped to the tonearm.)

    Jump forward 30 years and I came across shellac/cardboard self-made recordings made by a friend who was a former teacher. The ability to document lessons or important life experiences via recorded disc somehow were much more special in the “olden days”. Now everybody can record on their iPod or cellphone … personalized recording no longer holds the magic that it did using recording devices per your article.

    Thanks for the photos which illustrated your writing. They brought back amazing memories.

  • Richard Guile

    My sister has one of these discs from the 60s. It’s a recording of her boyfriend singing the song “Yeh Yeh” by Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. He does a pretty good job of it too! It was recorded in a kind of booth at a fair ground. The disc is quite thick and substantial like a 78 but is a 7″ 45 rpm record.