On a recent visit to Detroit, my friend Chad Gilchrist (a member of His Name is Alive, Outrageous Cherry, and his own Symphony of Science & Sound) played me a cassette under the name E.S.P. Family. It was a recording of communist miners' folk songs played and recorded by Warren Defever on an old wire recording system — sounding faint from time, but recorded recently. It was as if he turned on the old AM transistor radio to a distant station. It was a great medium for the simple folk songs that could be picked out of the tin. I wanted to find out more.
Long before this project, I was aware of Warren's innovative production through recordings of H.N.I.A, only recently becoming aware of the many other projects he has been involved in. I called Warren at his home/studio in Michigan and we had this discussion which started with the wire recorder then wound through the decades back to somewhere near where it started.
What was the device used to the tape of old communist miners' songs (E.S.P. Family)?
A Webster Wire Recorder, and as far as I can tell, it goes back to the late 30's.
What was the "tape"?
Early on, when they were experimenting with basically magnetic tape, they tried other substances as well. They used magnetic ribbons, magnetic wire, magnetic tape. This uses spools of wire.
Is the wire round or is it flattened?
Basically round, but it's really, really thin. Extremely thin and very breakable. In the owners manual it recommends using shorter reels until you've gotten used to it, before you use the longer reels. Early on, I lost some really good performances that were on a one hour spool of wire. It was incredibly difficult to work with. The good part is, when it breaks, you can just tie it back in a knot.
Any loss of time?
It moves very, very quickly. I imagine it's 30 inches per second. When it's going that fast, chances are there are potentials for danger. But at the same time, if you just wind on it then you can get it to go pretty smooth, once you know what you're doing.
Is the recording mechanism based in magnetic tape technology similar to what we have now?
Did you use whatever microphone you needed?
Actually, the way it's designed, it's got a built-in mic and a built-in speaker. For me, with that kind of thing, it's important not to mess with it, not to "fix it up", not to modernize it. So, we used that microphone. We used that speaker. And if we're going to record something with it, we use that microphone and we'll transfer that to something else. We'll actually mic the wire recorder and transfer (the original recording) onto DAT or reel-to-reel or whatever.
Do you just do a play back and mic the output (of the built-in Webster speaker)?
Yep. And it was before they had the word "play". They used the word "run". [laughs]
I really like that one.
Can you play it over and over again, or is it a pretty temporary recording, like earlier home-recordable 78s?
As far as I can tell, it's actually pretty sturdy. It's up to the actual tape itself. And I've had really good luck with it. As long as you don't break the wire, you can continue to play it back. I've got a couple boxes of wire now but I don't know what I will do if I run out. I don't know that you can go to the hardware store and get spools of wire... I don't think you can do it, plus I don't think there are sources to get it.
So the wire came magnetized already?
So it has a little 3 or 4 inch speaker you play it back through?
Yeah, it sounds really good. It's all tubes and it gets super hot and it's really great. You can kind of smell it kind of burning all kinds of dust.
Like an early 78 player — all self-contained?
Yeah, and it takes a while to warm-up.
Do you know when these recorders were first developed?
The earliest known reference I've seen to wire recorders, was the early '30s... '32.
Where was yours manufactured?
It was manufactured in Chicago. Compared to tape, they aren't quite as easy to deal with. A couple of times I've had it fly off the reel and when you get hit in the eye with this... it's a little different than getting hit in the eye with tape.
Were wire recorders developed for any particular use?
I have heard that originally they were used in the home but I don't think it really caught on very well in the general public. At the same time you could get one of these, it was just as easy to get a disc cutter, you know, cut your own 78's on a rec-ordable disc.
The all in one kind that came with built-in speakers, a radio, a record player, as well as a separate platter for recording? I had a chance to buy one at an estate sale with...
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