Friday, 27 September 2013

make your own record in 3 minutes


Roll the clock back half a century, and all kinds of fondly remembered coin-in-the-slot machines awaited passengers on the concourses of railway stations. From platform ticket machines, name plate machines, vending machines, photobooths, and of course, automatic recording booths.

In the UK these machines were originally manufactured by the Amusement Equipment Company who were based at the Wembley Exhibition Grounds site built in the early 1920s. Their 'Voice Records', 5" sized aluminium discs, were all the rage following their introduction at the 1935 Olympia Radio show. Anyone could cut a 78 rpm disc for just 6d in department stores, at the end of piers and railway stations. It's very likely that they were then dismantled early on during WW2 - not for scrap - but more likely because they could have been a security risk ('Walls Have Ears'). I've heard that the Voice Records machines were in fact converted so they could 'speak your weight' instead. It would then take some 25 years for the automatic coin-in-the-slot recording machine to be revived...

Fast forward into the pop boom of the 1960s, when 7" singles captivated the hearts of music loving teenagers. For half-a-crown (2s 6d) you could now make your own unique, one of a kind, 45 rpm disc. This time it was a 'Calibre' disc - it even looked like a vinyl single - and 'released' in booths manufactured by The British Automatic Company. The BAC had been making all kinds of coin-in-the-slot machines since the late 19th century, and had plants all over Britain, with their headquarters in the heart of the City of London. Again like the AEC in the '30s, the BAC recording booths became a popular landmark in public spaces throughout the nation. Thousands of one-of-a-kind records were recorded - and many still survive today. From joyous birthday greetings and spoken love letters, to wannabe Bob Dylan's strumming behind the booth's closed sliding-door. Like this one, photographed in 1967 at Waterloo Station:

the sign boldy proclaims 'HI-FI', but in reality most of these recordings were stunningly LO-FI


This is a rather worn 7" on the BAC's Calibre label


Another BAC format was the 6" 45 rpm single

This is a blank Calibre disc. It has a 'dinkable' centre hole (for jukebox use!)

The BAC automatic recording booths stumbled into the 1970s, and then began to be phased out as the public turned in droves to the lure of audio cassette culture. It's difficult to pinpoint a final cut-off date for these Calibre discs - except when somebody discovers an inspired Auto Recording cover of some top-ten hit from somewhere around the mid-1970s...

But nowadays, when we check out a Calibre disc, we immediately crash through a mighty potent audio window into the world of '60s Britain, when everyone could be a pop star for as little as 2s 6d!


Fono Post, Netherlands, 1950


Back to the first wave of 'make your own records' coin-operated machines. I've not come across a contemporary photograph of a 1930's 'Voice Records' machine in situ within the UK. But images do survive of the very same design which had been exported to the Netherlands (most likely before WW2). In 1950, the 'Fono Post' scheme was officially taken up by the Dutch postal service. The idea was that the user would purchase a special token, and could 'Step Up To The Mike' and record a personal message at their local participating Post Office. Judging by the scarcity of the Dutch 5" aluminium discs, the service was neither successful nor long lasting.

If you'd like to discover more about this kind of audio recording scheme designed for the public, please check my earlier posts entitled 'Send it with Sound' Pts 1 & 2, which focus on another short-lived scheme, this time using tape cassettes during the 1980s...

11 comments:

  1. Nice post...just found a 6 inch disc today with some youngster's rendition of "She loves You"...quite charming...

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  2. Thanks for your comment! Wouldn't it be wonderful to put together a compilation of all those surviving Calibre coin-in-the-slot discs which have renditions of songs by the Beatles and other hit makers of the day?

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  3. these booths were also manufactured and operated by CWC Equipment LTD of Maidenhead Berkshire. this must have been a joint venture as their booths were identical to the BAC ones with the calibre logo.In 1970 the price was reduced to 2 shillings after the half crown coin was withdrawn. CWC pulled out of the operation in 1973 when they moved to south Wales from Maidenhead phil b

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    1. Great! Thanks Phil for this extra information. There are no 'official histories' of these machines, so it's brilliant to collect more pieces of the story. I wonder if the final cost to record a Calibre disc post-decimalisation was still just 10p (two bob) - or did they make you have to insert 2 x 10p pieces, or perhaps more?

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    2. shortly after 1973 these booths began to be closed down as CWC Equipment and possibly BAC were no longer supporting them. most were kept at 2 shillings 10p although an operator in Scarborough doubled theirs to 20p and by 1975 coul no longer obtain the blank records philby

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  4. Got several discs I recorded as a kid anyone know the tech details of these machines or of any in preservation?

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    1. I am trying to find out if any of these booths have survived . if any have they could be in storage warehouses or a museum some where as for the spec they were straightforward using a recording amp. playback amp,incisor stylus playback stylus , carousel dispenser which also included the lathe (turntable) . a green and red signal light and timing device were installed into them with built in microphone and speaker. in the USA several of these booths still exist these being known as the mutoscope voiceograph and in comparison to the BAC booths they are crude devices with only 65 seconds recording the BAC booyhs are 90 seconds. CWC Equipment who also manufactured these booths exported them all over europe so this greatly increases the chances of some of them surviving

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  5. I recorded one in 1970 at Scarborough, sadly I lost it, but it stands as the first entry in my now lengthy discography that has over 150 entries.

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  6. Hello
    I am paying BIG, BIG MONEY to find a Calibre Recording BOOTH. Please email me at RecordBooth@gmail.com Finder's fee also available!
    Bill

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  7. Hi Nala,

    Would you be interested in talking to me about a BBC programme I'm making? I love the post!

    Best wishes,

    Janine.

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    1. Hi Janine, please do give this a listen 'Don't Write, make a Record': http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00767cc
      Thanks.

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