by Dave May
Recently, I began an Internet search for information on a professional 2-inch quad video tape machine donated to the BBA by Sherwin Greenberg Productions a few years ago. The goal we have in mind is to restore this iconic machine to working order if possible. Specifically, my search was for any technical information I could find that would help in this regard. At the same time, I was searching for history of the VR1200B and its manufacturer, AMPEX, to include informationally in our database, thinking ahead to the time we realize our dreams for a public museum and research center. I could not have guessed where this search would take me, how it would drag me in, nor how it would eventually end up on, of all places, Main Street, Buffalo, NY.
Magnetic recording dates back to the late 1800s when steel wire was first used to make audio recordings. Wire recorders, and later wax, then hard rubber and finally vinyl disks, were the only means of recording and playback of audio, and the early commercial radio stations were a large customer of these technologies. But the quality of wire recordings â€“ the only method for fast record to playback time â€“ was far inferior to a live performance on the AM radios of the early 1920s (although you might be amazed if you could hear the quality of some of the early high end consumer radios of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s). Additionally, disks, though of somewhat better audio quality than wire, were impractical for recording and quick playback and were limited as to the recording time they could contain. Sure, there were some instantaneous disk cutting systems and equipment, but the recordings were fragile and couldnâ€™t stand more than a few plays until they became physically damaged, and were also limited as to available recording time.
As US radio broadcasting evolved and the nation continued to grow, especially on the west coast, a problem for the radio networks arose in presenting their shows in the western time zones. The most popular shows would be done live for the east, then several hours later mounted live again and sent via leased telephone lines to stations west of the Mississippi for broadcast. As cumbersome as this was, the networks did not want to provide a noticeably inferior wire-recorded audio program to those stations and listeners who heard the second broadcast, so both broadcasts were live. The industry longed for a technology that would allow them to record the first performance and then play it back for the west, but by the late 1930s none had been developed, and world events were slowing research into a solution.
Magnetic tape had been invented in 1928 by a German, Fritz Pfleumer, but from a technological standpoint, the device was a wire recorder with tape instead of wire and the quality of sound was not materially improved from wire itself. While research was conducted on a new method of recording audio in good quality and having it available immediately for playback, World War II broke out, detouring all US research to the war effort.
In the latter years of WWII, allied intelligence sources became baffled by the interception of German broadcasts that appeared live from an audio quality standpoint, but conflicted with what the intelligence services were being told of the events. There is a story (perhaps apocryphal) that an apparently live speech by Adolph Hitler was broadcast from one location while Hitler himself was verified as being physically somewhere else at the same time. German industry had obviously developed superior recording and playback technology, but it remained until the war ended for the allies to find out exactly what it was.
Called the Magnetophon, the device had been developed by a German company, AEG. The breakthrough had been the development of the ring-type tape head by Edward Shuller (instead of the pointed needle shaped heads inherited from wire recording that tended to shred Pflummerâ€™s tape in rather short order). Also, and even more important, AEG research discovered the technique of AC biasing in the recording process, greatly improving audio quality. While tremendously important, I wonâ€™t go into the technical details of this advancement here. Suffice it to say these developments are what gave Germany the best recording and playback system in the world during the last couple of years of WWII. The tape was made of paper, coated with iron oxide. This proved later to be less than optimal and many improvements in tape were to come, but the entire recording system was markedly better than any other, and intrigued the alliesâ€™ technical community.
In that same time period a small US manufacturing company, founded by Alexander M. Pontianoff (in 1944), was engaged in making small motors and generators, mostly for the US military. The company was called AMPEX, the name being based on the initials of the founder, AMP and the tag EX supposedly standing for excellence. When the war ended, the contracts for AMPEX motors and generators dwindled and Pontianoff was searching for something else to manufacture. Also at the end of the war, several Magnetophons were â€˜liberatedâ€™ by the allies and sent back to the US where they were shown in demonstrations across the country. At one such showing, Pontianoff and several of his engineers were present and enthusiastically embraced the idea of magnetic tape recording as the direction they wanted to take AMPEX.
The broadcasting industry was also enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by this new technology, but it was left to the manufacturing industries to develop it for broadcast use. One such broadcasting enthusiast was Bing Crosby, who for years had been plagued by having to perform twice for each of his live shows. Bing lamented that it was hard enough to perform one show with no mistakes, let alone having to do it again three hours later. Crosby, who had experimented with the use of a captured and borrowed Magnetophon to record his program, got wind that AMPEX had built a workable high quality machine. He contacted the company and arranged for a demonstration. Being thoroughly convinced that he had found the answer to his need, Bing ordered 20 of AMPEXâ€™s new model 200A at $4000 each with a 60% ($48,000 in 1940s dollars!) down payment.
At that moment, there were still problems with the recording section of the 200A, and demonstrations of the machine consisted of playing back recordings that had actually been made on a Magnetophon supplied by Jack Mullin. Mullin was a former army man, who had helped â€˜liberateâ€™ the machines. Himself an engineer, Mullin had helped AMPEX with the electronics of the 200A based on his knowledge with the Magnetophon, significantly improving the playback audio. Along with AMPEXâ€™s Myron Stolaroff, Mullin solved the recording problems before the delivery of the first machine to Crosby, who began recording his shows for west coast playback. Bingâ€™s network, ABC, was so impressed with the results Crosby had obtained, they wanted more machines to allow other programs to use them to service the two coasts. Crosby sold some of his machines to ABC to help in this process.
As an interesting aside: Jack Mullin was to play many important roles in aiding AMPEX and others in developing magnetic tape recording. He had become intimately familiar with the German Magnetophon and its electronics, and freely advised and aided anyone who was seriously developing and improving the technology. This he did with no remuneration as he claimed that being from the military group that had captured and reverse engineered the Magnetophon, his education regarding tape recording had been paid for by the citizens of the US. Consequently getting paid for sharing this knowledge would not be ethical. Where are such people today!
The first production units of the model 200A were delivered in April of 1948. While several other companies had dabbled with tape recording, most were aimed at the consumer market and while of quite good audio quality compared to earlier recording technologies, these machines were not suitable for the professional needs of broadcasters. Crosbyâ€™s success, and ABCâ€™s enthusiastic acceptance of the AMPEX model 200A, set the company up as the premium manufacturer of audio tape recorders. So thatâ€™s pretty much how it got started, but…
There is much more history to AMPEX, including early forays into the development of 2 and 3-track stereo audio, and there followed many quality competitors such as Magnecord, Scully, Revox, Crown and others in the audio recording industry. Who can forget the Magnecord PT6 which found its way into hundreds of broadcast stations? But AMPEX was probably the king, especially with the Model 350 series, and Model 600 series machines which were found in as many or more stations as the Magnecord PT6.
The company broadened its scope, manufacturing specialty magnetic recorders for instrumentation and other non broadcasting applications. And it shortly began work on video recorders for television, which they rather quickly brought to fruition, in B/W helical scan machines, and later in color VTRâ€™s including the VT1200B in our BBA collection. AMPEX created a lucrative market they quickly dominated for quite a few years.
AMPEX also dabbled in other uses of magnetic recording, and it was this broad field of expertise that brought them to the attention of a motion picture mogul named Michael Todd. Todd wanted to provide six-track surround sound for his new 70 millimeter film system to be called ToddAO. His idea was to record three magnetic stripes on each edge of the film and use 65 mm for the picture. AMPEX was to work with Todd, the film manufacturer, and also the company making the optics and mechanics for the cameras and projectors to make this happen. AMPEX was also to develop the theater audio playback system, and assigned this task basically to one of their young engineers named Ray Dolby who had been a key player in the video recorder development and who would later win fame with his own company and inventions.
Making a long story short(er), AMPEX developed the system of recording and playback of the six magnetic tracks and also the amplifier and speaker system to be installed in theaters to accommodate ToddAOâ€™s surround sound. Mike Todd was in negotiations with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to film their Broadway hit Oklahoma in the new format. After much testing in a rented theater, Todd arranged for the two to see a demonstration of ToddAO, complete with the astounding new AMPEX surround sound system in a real theater. With Rodgers and Hammerstein in attendance, the demonstration took place on August 8, 1953, and the rented theater was the Regent Theater at 1358 Main Street in Buffalo, NY.
Why the Regent? Indeed why Buffalo? Simple. The projector and specialized lenses for the ToddAO system were developed by Buffaloâ€™s American Optical Company, now known as Leica, and it was they who had been using the rented Regent theater to use as a research bed for the film system they were developing for Todd. After the demo, Rodgers and Hammerstein were convinced and granted Todd the rights to film their musical show.
The Regent was one of four sister theaters in Buffalo and the marquee existed until 2004, when the building was turned into a church. The original theater built around 1914 had been remodeled in 1934 after some 20 years of use. If you want a glimpse at this huge movie house, part of Buffaloâ€™s rich entertainment history, click on this link to an ad for theater seating from a 1936 publication:
At this writing Iâ€™m still looking for information on the AMPEX VR1200B, and also for TV engineers who may have worked on it and are familiar with the machine. What Iâ€™ve learned here is that several hours on the Internet can take you on a journey that leads you in directions you never dreamed of, and can reveal interesting information of mild interest as well as of importance.
Iâ€™m also looking for more help in researching and cataloguing BBAâ€™s many, many artifacts, pictures, documents, etc., currently stored in our warehouse on Elk St. If you can spare some time to join our meager staff, I can promise you an interesting experience. Together we can find plenty of fascinating things regarding Buffaloâ€™s broadcasting history – and who knows what else may show up or where it might lead us?
For comments or for information on volunteering please contact the BBA.