As we have examined throughout several previous issues of Copper, it takes an insane amount of precision engineering to store sonic information in record grooves and see it through multiple stages of manufacturing, for a run of several thousand identical copies of a record.
But, even with a successful final product, we are still only half-way though our journey! The record is just the storage medium. The only reason to go through all this effort to accurately record sound on disk, is to be able to get it back out of that disk again, as sound!
There were only ever a relatively small number of manufacturers of disk recording lathes, with most already out of the picture by the time stereo arrived.
Only Fairchild, Westrex, HAECO, Neumann, and Ortofon ever produced a commercially available stereophonic cutter head. The Fairchild head, as with most of their products, was out of this world in terms of innovation and build quality. It featured a system which, in an oversimplified attempt at very briefly describing it, was essentially a miniature radar tracking the cutting stylus and correcting its errors electronically, using vacuum tube electronics (with ceramic output tubes!). It was way ahead of its time and shared the same fate as most products introduced a couple of decades too early. Not many were made and there are no examples of it in active service nowadays. The head alone weighed in at 4 lbs, being smaller than a Westrex 3D in size! The Model 642 was Fairchild’s only attempt at a stereophonic cutter head. They folded shortly thereafter. The Westrex 3D and the Neumann SX68 and SX74 were the only cutter heads in widespread use.
Well… If one could call this widespread. The HAECO head was a Westrex 3D with minor changes. Ortofon made a few different models, which were not as widely used until the quad thing arrived. Then they introduced a special head with an extended frequency response for the CD-4 system, which JVC bought and rebranded.
This was the only dedicated CD-4 product and was also short-lived. There were a few attempts at cloning Neumann heads and other similar designs, but with questionable commercial availability.
These cutter heads would be fitted to lathes manufactured by Neumann or Scully, and to a much more limited extent, Lyrec and Fairchild. So, that was seven manufacturers all together, with some of them in close collaboration.
Compare this to the reproducing side of things! How many different companies can you count, which have introduced a turntable, tonearm or cartridge, from the late 1950’s to the present…?
Scully was one of the earliest in the game, already active in the acoustical recording era. They folded in the late 1970s. Neumann started in 1931 and left the disk recording field in the late 1980s. It was acquired by Sennheiser, in 1991. It was the last one standing of the seven. Lyrec was supplying the motors used in Neumann lathes up until some point in the 1980s, having stopped their own manufacture of lathes much earlier. They also ceased their disk recording operations in the 1980s, but remained active in other fields, such as tape duplication, for a while longer.
Westrex was the Western Electric Export Company with its origins tracing back to 1869. They became affiliated with the Bell Laboratories and were involved in early lathe and cutter head development. Westrex was acquired by Litton Industries in the 1960s and appears to have left the disk recording field by the 1970s, with Litton probably deciding that disk recording equipment had not found as much application in the defense sector as they had originally anticipated…!
Western Electric remained active in the manufacture of vacuum tubes and film equipment until the 1990s. They shut down in 1996, to be revived a year later by Charles Whitener, who restarted the manufacture of some of the most highly regarded vacuum tubes, such as the 300B directly heated triode.
HAECO was a less well documented entity, founded as the Holzer Audio Engineering Company in the 1960s. They developed a range of disk recording products, compatible with the Westrex range at the time. Not much was heard of them past the 1970s.
Ortofon, with its origins in 1918 in the Danish Fonofilm company, did not enter the disk recording market until 1946. By 1981, they had decided to just stick to reproducing equipment, which they still manufacture to date.
Fairchild lathes were initially marketed by the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation in the early 1930s, until the creation of the Fairchild Recording Equipment Corporation. These were only two out of more than 70 companies founded by Sherman Fairchild throughout his life.
Bill Leebens covered Fairchild in detail in issues #75, #76, #77, #82, #89, all of which are interesting to read. Their disk recording products were pretty much out of the picture by the 1960s. Fairchild Semiconductor is nowadays perhaps the most well-known company of the lot, still in business.
Fairchild, Lyrec, and Neumann also made reproducing equipment. Presto, Rek-O-Kut, RCA, Connoisseur, Thorens, and several other companies, whose reproducing equipment were well established, also made disk recording lathes and cutter heads in the days before stereo. Which brings us to the sheer vastness of the reproducing equipment market!
By now, we are literally spoiled for choice: Belt-drive, idler-drive, rim-drive, gear-drive, direct-drive, oil-coupled, water-coupled, glass, acrylic, aluminum, or exoticum turntables are offered in any imaginable, unimaginable, and hard to believe configuration. Sprung, hung, floating or just plain heavy. Tonearms come in S, J, straight, or more complex, pivoted or tangential arrangements, short or long, heavy or lightweight, aluminum, magnesium, carbon-fiber or wood, oil-damped, dynamic, with jewel bearings, air bearings, knife edge bearings, or anything else one could possibly think of.
As for cartridges…? Moving-iron, moving-magnet, moving-coil, crystal, optical, spherical, elliptical, hyper-elliptical, uber-elliptical, shibata, fine line, micro ridge, super fine line, very compliant or not so, tracking at 1 g or even 5 g, with a range of VTA to even cater for records imported from far away galaxies, where the lack of gravity forced them to adopt wildly different standards. As for absolute polarity (https://agnewanalog.com/blog/absolute-polarity-for-disk-records.html), forget about it!
So, what works best?
There is no golden brand and correct or incorrect technology or approach. But, there is certainly proper or improper implementation. Direct drive can work wonders, or horrors, depending on implementation on a particular product. Same for belt-drive, or anything else. There are some amazing J-shaped tonearms out there and plenty of mediocre ones. Some moving coil cartridges can sound exceptional while others just sound plain wrong. The same cartridge can reach its peak of performance on one tonearm and sound dreadful on another one.
First and foremost, there is no way around good engineering, careful selection of quality materials, and good old traditional craftsmanship, for each individual component.
Then, these components need to be matched to work well together. The motor needs to work well with the platter, the bearing must be designed for the load and speed range, the tonearm must be compatible with the cartridge.
Finally, when we have the entire system assembled, even if we have chosen the finest components the world has to offer, at a price tag which could be mistaken for a telephone number, we cannot expect decent performance until everything has been properly adjusted and calibrated, using the required tools and measurement instruments.
A less refined but perfectly matched and calibrated system will always audibly outperform the finest components, if these are not properly matched and calibrated.
The reproducing setup must extract the information stored within the groove. In order to be able to do so, each component must be designed based on how records are cut, matched to a system that will allow it to operate under the conditions it was designed for and calibrated to its intended operating point.
There are published standards documents and, fortunately, only very few models of cutter heads, lathes, and electronics to consider. If a record was cut with a certain value of modulation angle, stylus rake angle, frequency range, peak velocity and background noise, it naturally follows that the reproducing system must conform to the same values of modulation angle (VTA) and stylus rake angle (SRA), have adequate tracking and tracing ability, sufficient linearity and headroom, as well as an adequately low noise floor, to fully be capable of reproducing the recorded information.
This implies that the designers of record reproducing equipment must be intimately familiar with how records are cut, which is unfortunately rarely the case, nowadays.
Direct communication between the few remaining people who cut records (and the even fewer people, such as myself, involved in the engineering and design of disk recording equipment) and the many more people involved in the manufacture of reproducing equipment, although essential, appears to have fallen out of vogue.
We have a lot to learn from each other.
There is little point in manufacturing reproducing equipment that cannot accurately reproduce the records being cut and likewise, there is no point in cutting records that cannot be accurately reproduced.
[Header image: Reference Reproduction System. Photograph courtesy of Magnetic Fidelity.]