The Secret Tests

In the Thirties I was working for Western Electric, then mainly interested in Talking Pictures and the numerous Recording Studios of those times. One day I was summoned to the office of the Chief Engineer, an-ex Post Office man, who flourished a document at me and said “We’ve got a funny one here, read this”. It was a letter from high up in the Post Office hierarchy asking for help with some important tests they needed to make. They could not say what the Tests were, but the Bell Labs had told them that we were the only people in Europe who had the equipment that was needed.

They wanted some duplicate recordings made on one of the very latest Vertical Cut recorders, and apparatus set up in their Carter Lane Repeater Station for playing these and other similar recordings which they were being sent. We had been sent from the States, a mighty Vertical Cut machine for demonstration to the Studios. there was a tradition of playing back musical recordings right away, based on 33 1/3 RPM lateral cut discs, in all Studios. They were hoping that they might sell the new machines of better quality to the Studios.

At that time the Bell Labs were at the peak of their reputation, and they really had let themselves go in this design. It was a massive device, with a 50 watt drive for the cutter. The cutter was really massive and was rather like a loudspeaker movement. It was mounted on a very resonant arm which resonated at around 3 KHz. Some small distance away on the cutter axis, was a small pick-up coil whose output, when amplified, was applied as negative feedback.

This enabled a flat recording to be made between 20 Hz and 15 KHz. If this had been done at full amplitude, there would have been 15 watts input at 20 Hz, a few milliwats at the cutter resonance frequency, and a glorious 25 watts at 15 KHz! Of course nobody tried recording tone at anything like full power.

This monster did have an advantage, you got the cut you intended. When you make lateral cuts on Acetate or the like, progressively the cutter above 5 KHz, pushes the disc material aside rather than cuts it. On thinly coated metal discs, this does not happen with Vertical Cut. The reproduction was extremely good, particularly after I cured it of oscillating at HF, because the cutter assembly had not been earthed in the original design.

As I was the only engineer who had worked with the equipment, the job was landed on me. There was no trouble in cutting the test discs that they wanted, but the recorder was like all studio equipment, 60 Hz mains and Carter Lane was 50 Hz. However, in the early days of Talkies there had been one or two Cinemas in the West End who had used a detached turntable driven by a 50 Hz motor, which played epics such as “The Singing Fool” on 33 1/3 from 50 Hz mains. I found some of these kits in the junk store at Cricklewood. A turntable was tarted up, given new rubber couplings, and a motor with its control box sorted out. Luckily the playback pick-up was a standard model which we had in stock.

On the appointed day I was decanted at Carter Lane with the assorted load of junk. Some of my acquaintances of my “Daily Express” Picture Transmission days were still around. I enquired of the one I knew best, as to what this was all about. He said he was forbidden to tell me. I set everything up and a dummy run (without me) was ordained for the weekend. Monday morning I got a call, that the other end said that there was too much vibration. I got them to shift the gear on to a concrete floor, and took with me the lab’s Wow and Flutter meter. I managed to get the flutter down to rather less than 0.1%, and said that that was the best we could do. They had another session the next weekend, and I got a message that the Tests had been successful, and would I collect my equipment.

At this stage I had overheard enough hints to reckon that this was a transatlantic test, with the Post Office and the AT&T involved in assessing Speech Quality of one of the links. At this time there were two possible candidates, the transatalntic speech cable, and the newer radio link, on which very little had been published. This latter was believed generally to be a long wave transmission, which for security reasons scrambled and transposed speech bands, altering the arrangement every few minutes.

It being lunch time we all went off to the “King Lud” at the bottom of Ludgate Hill, it being the local watering hole. Tongues soon wagged freely. We got on to local history, whether the knights did really come down the other side of the Repeater Station in Knightrider Street, where exactly that western bulwark of the city, Barnards Castle had stood, etc. In the end I got the talk back to the tests, somebody said “A story was circulating that on one of the links, the quality of speech in one direction was greatly inferior to that in the other direction”. I am fairly sure that they were referring to the new radio link. I am also sure that as they all looked so pleased with themselves, it was either untrue or not the fault of our end.

As to why such a business was kept so secret, seems most odd. These were two large corporations, who did not like ever admitting they could make a mistake, so I suppose in the end, it became a matter of national prestige, which was at stake. In these days of digital sound such disputes are unlikely to arise. In times past it was only too easy to get such disputes. It was probably on such an occasion that the immortal words of the German Professor were first uttered, “I cannot be in two places at once, I am not a bird”.

They never did sell any of the new monsters to the Film Studios. Musical Directors are never concerned with sound quality, but rather with whether the oboes came in late, or one of the violins played a wrong note. The Monster was still at Cricklewood when I went to the wars. It had disappeared by the time I came back. Nobody knew where.

Eric Vast. December 1994.

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