16 May 2009

The transfer of an old Filmophone Record

My World's Record - Sir Malcolm Campbell (Filmophone n°. 164)

Leo Enticknap

(Hans Koert) A week ago, Leo Enticknap from York, England contacted me and told me he had made a transfer of one of those rare Filmophone records I described in my Flexible Records project. If you’ve ever seen a Filmophone flexible record, made of transparent celluloid in various gaudy colours, know that these ephemeral records are very vulnerable and most are unplayable after 80 years. After all those years it might have shrinked, so the surface might be no longer flat anymore. And, of course, the material, the substrate, is rather soft, so the record might easily damage and have scratches and needle drops. Filmophone records, like Goodsons, Phonycords, (New) Flexos and other 1930s flexible records are hard to play now-a-days. I invited Leo to tell how he did this transfer that and below you’ll find his contribution, which became a rather technical story ( I'm sure the boffins will like it! ). At the end I'll introduce you to Sir Malcolm Campbell who actually does the speech on the transfered recording.

Filmophone records were so-called flexible records made in 1931 and half way 1932. Flexible records were the answer to the breakable shellac records. Flexible records, like Filmophone, Goodson, (New) Flexo, Phonycord and of course, the card board Durium ( e.g. the Hit of the weeks) records were made to play a dozen times and then throw away, but now, 80 years later, some have survived. The Filmophones, British made, were sold for 2/6. The first ones have, as mentioned before, brilliant colours – the “younger ones” are pressed in opaque black celluloid. There was no paper label, but the information is engraved in silver or gold letters in the surface. With help of the Flexible Records project and the Flexible Records blog I hope to preserve some of these rare labels. The Durium records have been extensively described in the Hit of the week - Durium weblog and the online Hit of the week - Durium discography.

I posted a (limited) FILMOPHONE DISCOGRAPHY (Hans Koert).Love to introduce you to the contribution of Leo Enticknap now: The TRANSFER OF AN OLD FILMOPHONE RECORD.
This Filmophone record from 1932 (no. 164), belongs to a friend, who knew that I collected shellac 78s and asked if I could make him a digital copy. I was apprehensive about trying, due to the very fragile nature of the record substrate. This appears to be either cellulose diacetate or cellulose acetate butyrate. It isn't cellulose nitrate, because it doesn't have the characteristic mothball smell of nitrate - I'm a film archivist by profession and would recognise that smell anywhere. The substrate had shrunk slightly, making the surface uneven. I managed to more or less flatten it by putting the record on the turntable platter and placing a thick, heavy, 1908 12" shellac 78 on top of it overnight. As you will see from one of the photos, there is quite a lot of surface dust that I deliberately didn't try to remove with any chemical method for fear of causing corrosive damage. My usual technique with shellac records is to immerse them in distilled water overnight and then leave them to dry for a day in a draining rack. But I didn't want to risk it in this case, and so I decided to wipe it with a dry, lint-free cloth only and remove the worst surface noise digitally after the transfer and digital capture. For my 78 transfers I use a Vestax BDT-2500 turntable. While it's by no means a high-end audiophile job (it's belt-driven for one thing), this model is in my opinion ideal for a record collector who has both coarsegroove 78s and microgroove LPs, and a limited budget for equipment. Originally designed for DJs and costing around £UK300, it has several features that make it very useful for antique record collectors. Most obviously is the infinitely variable speed from 16-96rpm, which can be adjusted without any need to remove platters or change belts. As it uses a standard headshell mount, it is quick and easy to change cartridges, and to adjust the tracking and anti-skate force accordingly. So if, like me, you have one cartridge for LPs and another for 78s, it's a five minute job to convert the turntable from LP to 78 operation and back again. Crucially, the BDT-2500 has a built-in phono preamplifier which can be bypassed if needed.
The vast majority of phono preamps apply the RIAA (= Recording Industry Association of America) equalisation curve. In order to improve the sound quality of vinyl LPs, the treble frequencies are boosted and the bass ones attenuated during the mastering process. The RIAA preamplier reverses this in playback, boosting the bass level and lowering the treble. This reduces the audibility of the surface noise, which is found in the higher frequency range: in other words, RIAA mastering improves the signal to noise ratio in the treble region. The problem for 78 collectors is that coarsegroove 78s were not mastered using RIAA equalisation, and so you don't want that preamp in the circuit when playing back a 78. A 78 played back using RIAA equalisation will lose a lot of detail in the treble range, because this hasn't been boosted in the recording process as it has on a vinyl LP. For acoustically recorded (pre-1975) 78s you don't want to apply any equalisation at all, obviously, because they were just recorded with a horn and a needle - no electronic amplification was involved. Most electrically mastered 78s (from the mid-1920s onwards) were mastered using either the Blumlein or the Westrex equalisation curves, which increase the bass frequencies in mastering, rather than the treble ones boosted by RIAA. It's possible to approximate these EQ curves using a software graphic equaliser, of which more later. There are one or two specialist manufacturers who make standalone phono preamps that can apply any of the 78-era curves to a phono signal and output a balanced line level signal, but these cost four figures as a bare minimum and I can't afford that sort of money.So, with the RIAA built-in preamp bypasses, I connect the phono level output from the cartridge to the mic input of a computer sound card - in my case a Creative Audigy 2. The mic preamp in the sound card will amplify the phono level signal to a point at which a computer can capture it. It's then a case of simply playing the record into the computer. I use a Shure M78 cartridge and N78 stylus. Sadly, my budget does not extend to a full range of coarsegroove styli covering all the groove types. I believe the N78 has about an 0.0025 inch radius, which makes it ideal for 1930s and '40s records, but less so for earlier acoustic ones that tend to have wider grooves. For this 1932 pressing it's fine. Given the fragility of this flexible acetate record I used the bare minimum of tracking force I could get away with without the needle jumping - 1.5 grams, with 0.5 of anti-skate. I made one pass of each side before capture to get dust and contaminants out of the grooves, cleaning the stylus tip with a compressed air spray after each side, followed by the capture pass. The capture was made straight into Adobe Auditon 2.0. Sir Malcolm Campbell behind his Blue Bird racing car. (1930s)
The automated noise reduction features of Audition were really designed with tape hiss in mind rather than the surface noise of records, and so the only functions I tend to use are the equalisation ones and the 'fill in single click' to manually get rid of the worst noise and scratches. In the last minute or so of side 1 of the Campbell record there is a deep scratch. I probably could have eliminated it by nuking each 'pop' individually, but I didn't have the time! For this record I applied an approximation of the Blumlein curve using the graphic equaliser function, followed by a scientific filter to roll off the frequency response above 3khz, which gets rid of a surprising amount of the surface noise. I find that you need to experiment with the cutoff level from side to side: both the pressing (e.g. HMVs are a lot noisier than Columbias, in my experience) and how worn the side is can make a difference. When these records were in mainstream use they were played with steel needles, and it doesn't take too many passes with one of those to inflict considerable wear.

After that it was simply a case of editing out the side break, and that was that. The side break is at 3'48" on the Campbell record, and the eagle-eared among you will hear it because the surface noise changes pitch suddenly at that point (it gradually reduces in frequency from the outer to the inner part of the playing surface). When I'm digitising 78s I save one uncompressed .WAV file before applying any equalisation, filtering or side break editing. This is so that if for any reason I lose the record but acquire better software in future, I can start with a 'raw' version of the capture from which to attempt restoration. I then save an uncompressed file with equalisation and filtering applied, plus a compressed MP3 for reference purposes, which is what you can download from this site.

My World’s Record part one – Sir Malcolm Campbell
My World’s Record part two – Sir Malcolm Campbell

Recorded 1931 and released as Filmophone no. 164

Leo Enticknap (York (GB))
keepswinging@live.nl or ldge[at]enticknap[point]net

This contribution has also been published in English at the Keep Swinging blog and in Dutch as Het digitaliseren van een oude Filmophone..

Who was Sir Malcolm Campbell ( 1885-1948)? Sir Malcolm Campbell was an English racing motorist and motoring journalist. He gained the world speed record on land and on water at various times during the 1920s and 1930s using his Blue Bird. On the record he tells about one his new speed records attemps, problably held in 1931. He was the first one to drive a car with a speed of more then 300 miles/hrs ( = almost 500 km/hrs). I found a fragment of the 1930s where you can see Sir Malcolm driving his Blue Bird along the beach.

Sir Malcolm between some of his co-workers.

Leo Enticknap is a university lecturer and former moving image archivist living in York, United Kingdom. Since 2006 he worked at the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds as a Lecturer in Cinema. His research and teaching interests focus on the political history of non-fiction film and television, the history of moving image technologies and the practice and ethics of archival film preservation and restoration. On his website you can find more info about his projects ( source: Leo's own website)


You can find more photos of FILMOPHONE records at the online FLEXIBLE RECORDS Project site.

134 - Crying For The Carolines / Singing My Way Round The World - PHIL REGENT and his ORCHESTRA
143 - My Man / My Handy Man = ANY BURTON
164 –My World’s Record = SIR MALCOLM CAMPBELL
190 – Egyptian Ella / I Lost My Gal Again = THE REGENCY DANCE ORCHESTRA
203 - Ten Cents A Dance = ARTHUR LALLY and his ORCHESTRA
210 – Maire My Girl / The Floral Dance = PETER SINCLAIR
216 – Musical Comedy Switch! = ARTHUR LALLY and his BAND
219 = Roll on Mississippi Roll On - ARTHUR LALLY and his ORCHESTRA
223 - When I Take My Sugar To Tea - FENTON's RAINBOW
224 – Mood Indigo / Farewell Blues - FENTON's RAINBOW
239 – I Surrender Dear / African Lament = ARTHUR LALLY and his ORCHESTRA

241 – Two Little Blue Little Eyes - FENTON's RAINBOW
262 – I’m Crazy ‘bout My Babuy – AL DOLLAR and his TEN CENTS ( = Cab CValloway and his Orchestra)
303 – I Found A Million Dollar Baby - AL DOLLAR and his TEN CENTS (= Chick Bullock and his Levee Loungers)
304 – My Honey’s Loving Arms = AL DOLLAR and his TEN CENTS (= Cab Callloway and his Orchestra)
322 – We = ARTHUR LALLY and his BAND
329 – Have You Forgotten / Now I Have You = FREDERICK HARTLEY NOVELTY QUINTET
353 – When It’s Sleepy Time Down South / Linda = JIMMY FERGUSON and Orchestra
375 – My Sweet Tooth Says = VERA WUNSON with ORCHESTRA
402 – Oh Mo’nah = NEW CUMBERLAND DANCE ORCHESTRA (= mogelijk Billy Cotton Band)
441 – Open Up Dem Dearly Gates = FRED DOUGLAS
444 – There’s A Rng Around The Moon / Home = C.D. SMART - WURLITZER ORGAN

The bold-marked records are in my collection.