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MMD > Archives > February 2000 > 2000.02.07 > 12Prev  Next

Ampex, Jack Mullin, The Magnetophone & Welte
By Richard Simonton, Jr.

I have just caught up with a week's worth of MMD and now feel
completely overwhelmed by the potential for unlimited speculation and
the impossibility of expecting historical accuracy on any subject.

Of course, the Welte T-100 recording process remains a tantalizing
mystery which invites speculation.  But even words written in tribute
to the memory of my father by people who knew him have begun to enlarge
on the facts and add fertilizer to the legend.  Well, as he once said
to me about notoriety, "The most you can hope for is that they spell
your name right."

Without arguing whether instant playback of Welte master rolls was
feasible, I would like to restate the obvious.  It is generally
accepted that the ink was electrically-conductive, from which I infer
that it could be read for playback.  After the master had been thus
approved, it was punched and used in the process of perforating copies
for distribution.

The point I want to make is that the inked master and the punched
master must have been one and the same.  There was no translation from
one medium to another.  If they had been different, then any number of
perforated "master" rolls could have been made from the ink record.
Evidence suggests that there were never two or more perforated "Master"
rolls of the same performance.

Regarding the Magnetophone, which has been discussed in relation to
recording the Welte rolls, I can add some details.  First of all,
Magnetophones recorded on tape, not wire or steel bands.  From as early
as about 1934, AEG made tape recorders very much like those we know
today, but with limited frequency response and distortion at 5 or 6

In 1939, while testing a new model, one of the engineers accidentally
sent the recording circuit into oscillation and suddenly the quality
skyrocketed.  Thus was born the phenomenon of high-frequency bias.  All
through WW2, the Germans were recording with superb fidelity, time-
shifting Hitler's speeches, and broadcasting symphony concerts at all
hours of the night.

Jack Mullin, with the US Army Signal Corps, was listening and became
suspicious of the quality coming through his short wave receiver.  Were
the orchestras actually performing lengthy symphonies in the middle of
the night?  Or were the performances somehow transcribed?  Allied
Intelligence was aware of no German recording device capable of this
quality or uninterrupted program length.

(Jack claimed that if the machines had been considered classified
information by the Nazis -- in other words, a secret -- we Americans
would have known about them long before.)  The answer came almost
immediately after the end of the war, when Jack was given a
demonstration of the perfected Magnetophone at a radio station near
Frankfurt.  To quote his reaction, "I just about flipped."

Jack acquired two Magnetophones and 50 rolls of German tape and sent
them home as souvenirs of war.  After reassembling them and rebuilding
the electronics with American parts, he gave a demonstration of the
system in San Francisco.   A man named A. M. Poniatoff was present that
night.  He owned a small company (6 employees) which had been
manufacturing motors for radar devices during the war.  The company's
name, Ampex, was taken from his initials, with "ex" added from
(possibly) the words "experimental" or "excellence."

Jack Mullin began recording Philco Radio Time with Bing Crosby in
August of 1947, using his Magnetophones.  Meanwhile, Ampex began design
and production of the Model 200 tape recorder, of which 112 were made,
and numbers 1 and 2 were delivered to Jack Mullin in May of 1948.
Concurrently, 3M began providing magnetic tape to take the place of
Jack's original 50 rolls from Germany and Bing Crosby Enterprises became
the distributor of the Ampex product.

How do I know all this?  In 1984, I produced a video documentary of
Jack Mullin telling his story and displaying his collection of rare
audio equipment including those two Magnetophones.  He still had the
original 30 ips master tape of that first Bing Crosby Show from 1947,
and he played it on the Magnetophone while making a copy for me on an
Ampex.  The quality of that copy, which I treasure, still sounds
fantastically good, even in this digital age.  It is exceptionally
clean and quiet.

All of this ties in with Welte again.  It was through Jack Mullin that
my father arranged to have demo tapes made at a radio station in or
near Freiburg in early 1948.  The signal of the piano in the home of
Karl Bockisch was sent over telephone lines to the Magnetophone in the
studio, (exactly the way my father was distributing Muzak in Los
Angeles at that time).  It was then that my father was tipped-off that
the French officials intended to confiscate the tapes, so an employee
of the station smuggled them out of the country.  That employee was
rewarded with American citizenship, with my father as sponsor, and
became a distinguished university professor.

After Columbia Records heard the demo tapes, they signed a contract
with my father to go to Germany and do a series of Welte master piano
recordings that could be issued on the new long-playing records.  Jack
Mullin again helped out by arranging for the loan of a Magnetophone to
use in the Bockisch home.  That first series of records was highly
successful, and my father went to Germany again in 1952, this time with
a new Ampex recorder (which, incidentally, I still use).

Before my parents arrived in Germany, Karl Bockisch died.  The
recording sessions were canceled.  My father purchased the master
rolls (along with some claim to copyright) from the widow, apparently
with the blessing of Edwin Welte.  The second set of records for
Columbia was recorded in this country.

Wait, there's more.  In about 1963, I was at a recording studio in
Hollywood where my father was producing a new set of Welte piano
recordings for Book-Of-The-Month Club that was also issued as a series
called Legacy of Recorded Treasures.  These were also later released as
the Ampex pre-recorded tapes that Jim Crank mentioned.

Anyway, I was fascinated by the recording studio.  There were two
stereo recorders in use and one mono machine.  The mono recorder was
Ampex Model 200, serial number 1!  It was the exact machine given to
Jack Mullin at ABC in May of 1948.  Eventually, Ampex acquired that
machine and placed it in its museum, which I believe closed its doors
many years ago.

Where are those machines now?  I have no idea.  Where is my video
documentary of Jack Mullin?  Tradition compels me to wrap the master in
oil cloth and hide it in a barn in the Black Forest, to be discovered
at the end of World War III.

Richard Simonton, Jr.

(Message sent Mon 7 Feb 2000, 19:26:01 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  Ampex, Jack, Magnetophone, Mullin, Welte

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