On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]


[Italian version]

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: June, 2013

An exciting new home entertainment technology was in its infancy, and two incompatible systems were duking it out for consumers' hearts and wallets. The technology's originator had the better-performing approach and was first to market. The competing approach, devised to circumvent the originator's patents, had technical limitations but also some practical advantages in production and consumer convenience, and its advocates were better, more aggressive marketers. One by one the early adherents to the originator's system defected or fell by the wayside, and after occasional technical enhancements failed to shore up its sales it was driven from the market just as a radical new technology completely changed the face of the industry.

I hear disgruntled muttering: "Why is he wasting space in an audio journal recounting the tired history of Beta vs. VHS in the run-up to DVDs?" Ah, but I'm not! History repeats itself, we are told, and in the case of our favorite hobby that's all too true: in a nutshell, the above describes the early history of the phonograph record.

The "originator" above, of course, was Thomas Edison, and his system is known as "vertical cut," or, more colorfully, "hill-and-dale" recording. The competing system, brought to market supremacy by forces that would coalesce into the Victor Talking Machine Company and its foreign affiliates, was termed "lateral cut" or, sometimes, "needle cut." That's the one that prevailed, and today we know it simply as "mono," although properly speaking both were purely monaural. The two vied with each other up until electrical recording, that "radical new technology" introduced in the mid-1920s, put acoustic recording, and vertical cut, to bed permanently. Thus, the beginning collector of pre-electric records needs a working knowledge of both systems to handle them successfully on modern gear or, if exploring antique phonographs, to avoid destroying records!

Understanding the difference is easiest if you know a bit about acoustic recording. Think of a tin-can telephone: two cans with a string tautly stretched between them. Admiring his girl's crimson dress, the guy holding one can cries into it, "I like you in red." Concentrated by the sides, the sound waves of his voice set the bottom of his can vibrating; the string transmits those vibrations to the bottom of the can held by his lady friend opposite and causes it to duplicate them, at least roughly; and because our gentleman friend is not schooled in the peculiarities of speaking for a purely mechanical sound transmission system, she hears "I'd like you in bed," drops the can, stalks over, and boxes his ears.

Or maybe not. Sometimes there's something to be said for old technology!

But I digress. The point is that if you substitute a record for the string, that's how acoustic recording worked: sound waves were concentrated onto a diaphragm (analogous to the bottom of the gentleman's can, but usually glass or mica), causing it to vibrate; an attached stylus would trace those vibrations as a continuous wiggling groove in the moving surface of a recording blank. After the blank was processed into a commercial recording, the playing mechanism did the same thing in reverse: as the record turned, a stylus riding in the groove would transmit those wiggles to an attached diaphragm (analogous the bottom of the lady's can), making it reproduce the vibrations that cut the groove in the first place. Add a horn or rubber Y-tube to bring the resultant reconstituted sound to the ears of a listener, and you have a working all-mechanical recording/playback system.

So what about vertical and lateral cut? I'll bet you now can see where we're going. The difference is in how the groove is "modulated," that is, in which direction it wiggles. In vertical cut, the recording diaphragm makes the cutting stylus bob up and down perpendicular to the record surface, cutting the wiggles into the bottom of a groove that maintains a constant width.

The playback stylus, to recreate the sound, therefore also rides up and down: goes up hill and down dale, so to speak. Vertical cut—"hill and dale." In the lateral cut system, the cutter's diaphragm is set at 90 degrees, vibrating parallel to the surface of the record, so instead of wiggling up and down, the resultant groove is of constant depth but wiggles from side to side, as does the reproducing stylus in playback. And here's an important implication: because recording equipment relied on levers and pivots with no compliance outside their favored direction, lateral cut records have only noise in the vertical plane and vertical cut records have only noise in the lateral plane. Hence, with a conventionally wired stereo cartridge, setting your preamp to "mono" will cut out tremendous amounts of surface noise when playing a lateral cut record but cut out all the music, leaving nothing but noise, when playing a vertical cut one.

You can see how the designs play out in these two photos of "reproducers," the mechanical phonograph's equivalent of a modern phono cartridge. Note that the Edison stylus is a permanently mounted diamond, whereas the Victor reproducer relies on replaceable steel needles held by a screw chuck. And yes, in those days tracking force was formidable; for these two models, somewhere around 75 grams or so.

[Edison reproducer]
Edison's unique reproducer for vertical cut discs

[Victor reproducer]
Victor Exhibition reproducer for lateral cut discs

Why bother with vertical cut? Aside from the tendency of interesting performers to stay mostly in one realm or the other, vertical cut recording had an important technical advantage over lateral. Because the groove bottom carries the modulation, very loud sounds simply cut a deeper groove. In lateral recording, by contrast, an overloud sound could cause the cutter to swing so widely that it went right through the groove wall, spoiling the record. Hence, in theory, a vertical cut recording is better capable of conveying natural dynamics.

Adopting a wide groove pitch could ameliorate that problem, but, in those days before variable pitch cutters, only at the cost of reduced playing time per side. To address this issue, Victor, at least, engaged in a quaint form of "limiting": when, say, Enrico Caruso was about to hit a full throated high C, a recording assistant would rush over and pull him away from the recording horn to avoid overcutting the record! Thus, in my experience, vertical cut records, when played on period equipment, at their best give a better picture of the true size of a voice. I have some that reach rock concert volume levels and will drive you from a domestic room. As is usually the case with 78s, the sheer mechanical power of the sound springing from those old grooves is simply astounding.

What are the practical implications for those wishing to get their feet wet playing early records, be they veritcal or lateral cut? In the case of conventional lateral cut issues, by far the majority of those typically encountered, the requirement is pretty simple: a "mono" setting on the phono preamp to get rid of that vertical component, which as noted is all or nearly all noise. When copying a record, more advanced collectors sometimes prefer to play early records back in stereo and, with specialized equipment or software, select the groove wall with least noise, but a "mono" setting is your best friend for general playback.

Playback of vertical cut recordings with similar rejection of lateral noise is a bit more involved. For those whose tonearms feature interchangeable headshells or arm wands and who have preamps with a "mono" setting, the simplest solution is to wire a second cartridge for vertical playback by swapping the right channel leads, "hot" headshell wire to the cartridge's "ground" pin and "ground" wire to the "hot" pin. Engaging the preamp's "mono" setting will then yield a pure vertical signal. One can, of course, rewire a single cartridge as needed rather than buying a second one, but I don't recommend that approach, as headshell wires are fragile little things, and constant reshuffling raises the risk of inadvertently shifting the cartridge out of alignment. Therefore, those whose arms lack provision for easily interchanging cartridges my do better to buy specialist gear with a switchable "vertical" setting or otherwise yielding a vertical signal.

One such device, which I only recently discovered, is the KAB Great Sounds Escorts Stereo Canceler. I've had limited time with it, but after figuring out that I'd patched it in backwards (!) on my hasty first attempt, I found that it does work very well, although, as some have pointed out on various forums, those with a bit of do-it-yourself facility could concoct a home brew to achieve the same result with a minimum of expense and effort. The Stereo Canceler is a little black metal box, 1.5" X 2" X 4", with two sets of RCA jacks, one for input and one for output. I can now state with authority that the labels are meaningful!

Inserting this little passive processor into the signal chain between turntable and amplifier and playing a record in stereo yields a vertical monaural signal, just like engaging the "mono" button for a lateral cut record: much quieter and fuller than you can obtain with stereo playback of the same record. If you plug in the Stereo Canceler and then switch your preamp to "mono," you'll get dead silence. I detected no hum or noise issues, and the limits of acoustic recorings, the vast majority of verticals, overwhelm any questions of frequency bandwidth. That said, I tried the unit with a late, electrically recorded Edison diamond disc and got excellent results. My take is that it provides a neat solution for those whose do-it-yourself skills or inclination are limited. Its main drawback is that because it lacks a bypass switch, you'll need either to add some sort of external switching or else swap patch cables whenever you want to add it to or remove it from the signal chain. It's available for around $80 from KABUSA.

[KAB Stereo Canceler]
The KAB Stereo Canceler, a potentially handy tool for vertical cut records

More drastic examples of vertical-adapted hardware include the REK-O-KUT CVS-14 or CVS-16 turntables sold by Esoteric Sound and the KAB EQS MK 12 preamp, like the Stereo Canceler a product sold by KABUSA (I should note that I have no personal experience with either, although both sellers are well respected among collectors). The trouble there, of course, is that gear designed for such flexibility with old records may not be what one would want for modern ones in a single system asked to handle both, and in all events it's likely to be pretty pricey, more so if one sets up a separate system just for 78s.

How to recognize which records are vertical cut and which are lateral? All cylinders were vertical cut. The big names in the United States were Edison and Columbia; in Europe, Pathé was probably the largest, although certainly there were plenty of others. Less certain are flat disks. Here's a quick rundown of some disk labels that you may encounter:

Purely lateral Cut labels of the acoustic era number in the hundreds; those springing immediately to mind include Victor and its less frequently encountered early sublabels Monarch and Deluxe, the English Gramophone Company (HMV) and its various foreign branches, Columbia (disks; the cylinders, of course, were vertical cut), Edison Bell ("The Winner," "Velvet Face"), Silvertone (house label of Sears, Roebuck and Company, generally pressed by Columbia and drawing on its catalogue for content), Odeon, Polydor, and Parlophone. In a tip of the hat to our editor's homeland, some of the most beautifully recorded disks of the acoustic era were produced by the Italian company Fonotipia, a purely lateral label focusing on the opera. Legions of smaller labels, mostly purveyors of the day's popular tunes, include the likes of Cameo, Puritan, Grey Gull, Van Dyke, Romeo, the English Beltona ("Curiously Euphonic"), and on and on. All were intended to be played with single-use steel needles.

[Edges, Edison and HMV]
Comparative thickness of Edison (left) and conventional 78 RPM (right) records

[Edison disc, paper label]

[Edison disc, etched label]

The principal vertical cut labels were Edison and Pathé. Both started as producers of cylinders well before the advent of disks, and Edison remained the last holdout faithful to the earlier format at the company's demise in 1929. A latecomer to disks, Edison in 1912 introduced an 80 RPM record of a unique type, never copied by any other company, designed for playback with a permanently mounted precision-ground diamond stylus. Once seen, Edison "Diamond Discs" are instantly recognizable: ¼" thick, 10" in diameter (with a few rare exceptions, fodder for a later article), laminated in construction, with noticeably finer grooves than the average 78 and surfaces pressed not in shellac but in a Bakelite-like material actually called Condensite. I like to say that they are the closest thing man has devised to an indestructible object as long as they aren't played with a steel needle; one of those will quickly ruin a diamond disc. Earlier examples have the label information almost illegibly half-toned into the record surface (see photo to left) and may or may not disclose the name of the performer, while later ones have paper labels (photo to right), usually white with black lettering but occasionally black with white; not infrequently, these have fallen off, leaving behind only a brown cardboard circle into which the catalogue number has been embossed. On the half-toned discs, catalogue numbers may appear on the label or may be stamped, usually illegibly, into the thick edge of the record. Two years before its demise, Edison's company finally bowed to market forces and introduced an electrically cut lateral record, pressed in conventional shellac and sporting a black label with gold print and decorative lighting bolts. Unlike the diamond discs, which remained in parallel production, these new records were designed for playback with steel needles. It was too little too late, and Edison left the market in 1929; Edison laterals are quite rare and expensive today.

8" etched label (left) and 14" paper label (right) Pathé records with an LP for comparison

Pathé embarked on disk production much sooner and adopted a unique broad, shallow groove geometry for playback with a large-radius sapphire stylus, held in a chuck and hence replaceable in the same way as a steel needle but billed as permanent, the so-called "sapphire ball." After brief experiments with laminated pressings on a concrete (!) backing, the company settled on a shellac formulation, first with labels etched into the surface and playing from the inside out, later with paper labels and playing in the usual outside-in manner. These records were issued in a bewildering array of unconventional sizes, from 9.5" to 14" for domestic use and even larger for commercial applications, and ran at speeds ranging from around 80 RPM (paper label, mostly) to as much as 100 (etched labels, mostly coming in at around 90). Not too long after entering the disk market, Pathé abandoned cylinders for general sale but, curiously, not in recording: for some reason, the company adopted a procedure of recording everything first to large diameter cylinders, which it then dubbed mechanically to disk masters, rather than mastering directly to disk blanks. In 1920, seeing how the commercial wind was blowing, the company introduced lateral recordings under the label Pathé Actuelle. Many Actuelle disks were, again mechanically, dubbed from originally vertical cut masters; in my experience, they are prone to extreme rumble. Actuelles were designed for playback with steel needles, just like any other lateral cut record. Playing a vertical cut Pathé with a steel needle, by contrast, will destroy it.

Pathé vertical cut records present a couple of potential issues for playback on modern equipment. Because of their broad, shallow grooves, these "sapphire discs" are extremely susceptible to skating when played with modern, light-tracking pickups, particularly if they are not equipped with a large-diameter stylus. Moreover, the records were pressed in material that is prone to extremely fine hairline cracks, nearly invisible, that cause surprisingly loud clicks in playback. Edison discs, too, have their problems, the most noticeable being that they tend to have extremely heavy surface noise. In fact, a powerful software package for noise reduction by a company called Diamond Cut Productions came into being precisely to contend with this issue. In addition, of course, with Edison discs being much thicker than average, they can require adjustment of the tonearm's vertical tracking angle.

A few minor labels adopted the Pathé groove geometry. Examples known to this author include Disque Henry, Rex, and Rishell. Purely vertical cut labels whose records were designed for steel needles were more uncommon; one example had the peculiar name Par-o-ket.

Then there were the primarily lateral cut labels that began as vertical cut. The most notable names in this group are Aeolian-Vocalion and Brunswick, but others would include Gennett, OKeh, and Lyric.

Finally, there's Emerson, the odd man out. In a bid to make as close to a "universal" record as possible, this company adopted the Edison groove pitch of 150 threads per inch, but in a shellac pressing, and cut its grooves at a 45-degree angle, giving them useful signal, albeit at a reduced level, in both planes. The results were about what you'd expect: a record that sounded less than stellar on every type of equipment offered during its lifetime and that wore poorly when subjected to the heavy-tracking, specialized Edison players.

© Copyright 2013 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com