Fragments of an informal History of Broadcasting
Recording at the BBC
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           CONTENTS
1  INTRODUCTION
2  STEEL TAPE
3  OPTICAL FILM
4  DIRECTLY-CUT DISKS
5  MAGNETIC TAPE
6  PORTABLE RECORDING
7  CARTS AND DARTS
8  DIGITAL RECORDING AND PLAYOUT
Portable recording
While before the advent of magnetic tape it had been possible to do mobile recording - involving a car-full of equipment - the only portable recorder had been the BBC midget disk recorder, used by war correspondents - and that was no light weight. With tape it became possible to make much smaller and lighter devices, with the aim of allowing a single non-technical member of staff to go out and make a location recording such as an interview without involving a lot of complex equipment.

EMI MidgetThe EMI Midget (left) was the first practicable device of this type used by the BBC. Its size was 14 by 7 by 8 inches; initially using valves (later versions were transistorized with consequent savings on weight and battery usage) it recorded at 7½ips on five-inch spools (holding 15 minutes): it had no erase head so it was vital to use clean tape (more than one producer failed to pay attention to this point and brought back an unusable recording as a result).

Two sets of batteries were required, nine dry cells lasting about 6 hours for 'low tension' (valve heaters) and motors, and two 67.5 dry batteries for the 'high tension' supply, lasting about 15 hours. The quality was very good, and the tapes - which were recorded full-track, as with studio machines - could be rewound onto larger spools for immediate editing or use in a studio.

This machine considerably increased the freedom of producers to obtain inserts such as interviews or background effects for features; but weighing in at 14½ lbs (6½kg) it was still quite a heavy object to carry any distance; so there was always a need for smaller high-quality machines.

UherThe Uher portable (right) became available in the early 1960s and rapidly replaced the EMI as the machine of choice; it soon became standard issue. It recorded on 5 inch reels at speeds of  7½, 3¾, 17/8 and 15/16 ips, though obviously only 7½ was ever used by the BBC.  It recorded half-track, like domestic machines, so it was advisable to use clean tape, and if both tracks of the tape were used it would have to be specially dubbed on return to the studio (this was before stereo: all studio machines were full track). The quality was excellent, though it was alarming how many producer-made recordings came back somewhat distorted.

A friend had his own Uher: on one occasion we were attempting to mimic the distorted sound of a producer-made recording for comic effect: we recorded so that the meter peaked well into the red overload area: and it sounded fine. So then we recorded with the meter never coming out of the red area: then it sounded like a producer-made recording.

The Uher was considerably lighter than the EMI at around 8lbs (3.6kg) but still heavy enough to make your shoulder ache if you carried it any distance; so there was always going to be a demand for really small machines. Unfortunately these tended to be domestic models with variable quality and poor reliability.

Fi-CordThe Fi-Cord (left) was marketed from 1959 for domestic use: it was very small at 95/8 by 5 by 2¾ inches and weighed only 4½lbs (2kg). It used 3 inch spools containing long play (1 thousandth of an inch thick) tape which would run for eight minutes at 7½ips - the very thin tape needed careful handling and had to be dubbed on return to base as it couldn't be reliably edited or played in a studio. The quality was capable of being very good, but the machine was touchy and tricky to use. One producer brought me a tape which had been laced with a small amount sticking out underneath the reel: this had caused the machine to proceed in a series of jerks. He asked if I could use the variable-speed unit to correct this...

NagraFor this sort of reason the Fi-Cord never really caught on and had very little use. At the other end of the scale, for doing high-quality recordings without the need for a carload of gear, the Nagra (right) could be used, though as it was extremely expensive an engineer was required to go along to operate it. It was 14¼ by 9½ by 43/8 inches, and weighed almost 16lbs (so heavier even than the EMI midget). It could record at 15 ips as well as 7½ and 3¾ ips on 7 inch reels, thus making it more suitable for music, and its very high quality produced results well up to the standard of the best studio machines. Obviously it was suitable only for special occasions.

MIni NagraAn interesting, if not very useful, development, was the Nagra SN (left), available from 1972, a sub-miniature machine built like a Swiss watch. It was less than 6 inches long, and used 2½ inch reels of 1/8 inch double-play tape (the same as used in Compact Cassette recorders) : there was no powered rewind. The machine would fit in a pocket and was capable of very high quality, but it was fiddly to use, and the tape could very easily be damaged; it never really caught on for broadcasting (although it was popular in America for security and covert surveillance work).

CassetteThe ubiquitous Philips Compact Cassette (right), introduced in 1963, was more promising. Initially designed for dictation, it soon caught on for domestic use because of the ease of operation: but it was only the addition of Dolby 'B' noise reduction that made the quality anywhere near acceptable for professional use. The 1/8 inch tape travelled at the very slow speed of 17/8  ips, bringing problems of dirt pickup, alignment, tape noise and flutter. The alignment of the tape to the head depended on the enclosing cassette itself , and it was difficult to get a match between two different machines.

Some small and well-designed recorders were used for a time, particularly the Sony Walkman Pro (left), and were popular with producers as they were so easy to handle, but it was never an entirely suitable format for broadcasting (though full-sized machines were installed in studios to make reference recordings of transmissions, not for programme use but to be kept in case of queries).

Sony pitched their MiniDisc system, introduced in 1992, as a replacement for the ageing Philips Cassette: it certainly had everything going for it. The small magneto-optical disks (right) were encased in a holder and easy to handle and load: the digital recording quality was excellent, despite the use of compression, and the disks could hold 75 minutes of high-quality stereo making them comparable to CDs. They never really caught on with the general public, though amateurs interested in high-quality recording found them a useful replacement for open-reel recorders. The recordings could even be edited, though it was a fiddly process.

minidiscSmall machines were available, having a footprint not much bigger than the disk itself; these were intended by Sony as replacements for the cassette 'Walkman' which had revolutionized personal listening (then came the iPod...): the top-level version of this range, which could also record, was used for a time by the BBC for portable recordings (left). The controls were fiddly, but the machines reasonably robust, without any of the difficulties experienced with the mini-Nagra, the Fi-Cord or cassettes. On the whole the results were successful and these machine saw some use until a complely new approach to recording came in in the 1990s.

Mayah FlashmanOne disadvantage of all the above-mentioned machines except the EMI Midget and the large Nagra was that it was advisable - and in most cases necessary - to take the time to copy the recording to normal open-reel tape before editing. The advent of digital systems opened new possibilities here, with a number of small digital recorders becoming available. Most were intended for dictation or note-taking, with mediocre quality: but the Mayah Flashman (right), introduced in 2002, took a fully professional approach to the idea. At 5 by 2¼ by 5¾ inches and weighing 715 grams (less than 2 lbs) it also had no moving parts, making it extremely robust.

Compact Flash cardIt had an XLR connector for professional microphones, and recorded high-quality stereo in a variety of digital formats to  a  Compact Flash digital card (left): on return to base this card could be plugged into a computer with audio facilities and the recording transferred in a matter of seconds. The machine would record for 2½ hours and as it used standard AAA batteries it was an easy matter to carry spares and change them.

Though it was comparatively expensive at around £1000 (its Mark 2 replacement is around twice that) its quality, robustness and ease of use made it an obvious choice and it came into widespread use.

By the time it came into use digital recording and playout facilities were well on the way to replacing tape across the BBC and other broadcasts: a major change in the process of recording, which will be examined on the final page; the next page examines specialized use of recordings for signature tunes and stings,

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