Sunday, March 9, 2014

Photo-of-the-Week #149, The Ampex 200 Studio Audio Recorder, Phantom Productions Collection, Austin, Texas, October 2013

This week's photo of the week is for any of my audiophile, recording studio and Bing Crosby aficionado readers. This is the Ampex Model 200A audio recorder. It is the first American commercial studio grade audio recorder designed specifically to be used by recording studios and radio broadcasters. This recorder was released in 1948 making it 66 years old and still fully operational and able to produce broadcast and studio quality recordings.

On a personal note, this is only the second Ampex 200A I've ever seen and touched first hand. The other was in a small radio station in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, where it is still used. (A side note, Mt. Airy is where the late actor, Andy Griffith was raised and was the model for the fictitious town of Mayberry in the Andy Griffith, Mayberry USA TV show.)

The reason I brought up Bing Crosby's name is because Crosby, acclaimed as the most popular radio star of that period (TV hadn't really begun to build an audience in the late 40's), helped finance the development of the Ampex 200A recorder because he wanted to pre-record his radio program and not be bound by the rigorous time constraints of the broadcasting industry. The only high-quality recording medium of that time was disk recording and there were numerous disadvantages to using that medium as Crosby wanted to use the pre-recording idea. So, the first two Ampex 200A recorders, serial numbers 1 and 2 were delivered to the American Broadcasting Company in April of 1948. And, accordingly, the Bing Crosby show was the first pre-recorded, delayed broadcast radio show in the U.S. (Another side note, in the future, Bing Crosby also helped finance the development of the first broadcast video recorder with Ampex for the same reason.)

The recorder to the left of the Ampex 200A that is only partially visible is an Ampex Model 300, the next studio grade recorder in the Ampex line up. I am very familiar with the 300 and operated several 300's during my Air Force days in Washington, DC. I also had a custom modified 300 that was modified into a 1" tape, 8-track studio recorder in our small basement recording studio in Upper Marlboro, Maryland in the early 1970's. While I embrace and love all the flexibility and capability of digital recording, there is still a glamour attached to these old heavy, bulky "beasts" that those of us who used them will always miss.  


Steven Lewis said...

Before the Ampex recorders were produced, Bing used a restored German Magnetophone to record his Philco Radio Time shows for the 1947-48 season. The recorder was recovered at the end of World War 2 by John Mullin, disassembled and shipped to the U.S., where it was reassembled and demonstrated for Bing. He recognized its value, and his show became the first prime time radio show to be recorded to tape for later broadcast. The edited shows had to be pressed to disc, however, to be playable over the ABC network.

Ed Helvey - Professional Nomad said...

Thanks for the extension of the story, Steven.

I knew of the Magnetophons and Mullin bringing two of them back to the U.S., modifying them, demonstrating them and Crosby's interest in them, but I wasn't aware that he actually did anything other than a demonstration show on a Mullins modified Magnetophon that ignited his interest and financing the Ampex development of a practical studio recorder. As I understand the story, Crosby Enterprises went on to be the west coast sales organization for Ampex recorders until somewhere between the mid 50s and 1960. I didn't realize that they still went to a disk, though I'd have to wonder if they actually pressed copies other than cutting a couple lacquers disks for delayed broadcast. And since ABC was originating the program, I would have thought they would just play back and broadcast the tape for the eastern time slot and the western time slot.

I'm pretty familiar with the radio program distribution model or that era because we were still using that model in the early to mid 70's when I was in the USAF producing "Serenade in Blue" - possibly one of the most widely syndicated, if not the most. The program was distributed to over 2000 stations each week. We produced the show on Ampex 300's (until we replaced them with Scully 280's) in our studio in Washington, DC and then Keyser-Century Corporation pressed the 7 record (13 programs) set at their plant in Saugus, CA and distributed them to the subscribing stations. I still have sets of all the shows I engineered from 70 - 73. But, as I said, SIB was syndicated and it was a public service program, so each station played it when they chose to. Crosby's show was a network show and was sent down the line for airing at a specific time set by the network by all network affliliates.

Thanks for reading the blog and for expanding the facts of the post.