Martin Theophilus is the Executive Director of the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording (MOMSR), a private collection of recording machines, tapes and other materials, along with a companion website. The site contains a wealth of information and photographs of vintage gear. J.I. Agnew interviewed Martin at length. Part One appeared in Issue 144, Part Two was published in Issue 145, and the final installment of the interview is presented here.
JIA: It appears that your collection/museum has been a family project. Who else was involved over the years? What were their roles and contributions?
MT: Family has been essential in this quest. Chris (Martin’s wife) and I met in 1984 and were married in 1985. Our first date ended in a recording studio. Second date was at a horse dressage event, where Chris was a judge’s runner. So, recording and horses would become our life. Chris is from Suffolk, England. Her British accent and outgoing personality added a wonderful edge of credibility to our company. She never hesitated to support our efforts to succeed. This was especially true for the collection and Museum. She helped lug heavy tube recorders up to the second floor studio/museum.
She integrated herself in the Texas music community. For several years [our music management company] represented Texas music at the Cannes Midem [music] conference. Chris was great in establishing international relationships for us. In fact, [after] her presentation to a Canadian [management] group, it resulted in their recommendation [that] we should be pursuing more profitable work with corporations, rather than investing our resources on new talent. She evolved us to a very profitable booking situation in a partnership with David Perkoff Music.
We both served on the Austin Music Business Association’s board. This later merged with the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s music business support organization, which then became the Texas chapter of NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, later The Recording Academy). We were part of the group that [officially] named Austin “The Music Capitol of the World,” and were committed to making Austin music a serious business endeavor as well. We were part of the first South By Southwest (SXSW) conference [in 1987] and the following year, the first company to bring international representation to SXSW. We formed a partnership with a British company who became Phantom Productions, UK with offices in Milton Keynes and Hong Kong.
In addition to Chris’ total commitment to the Museum, she previously joined me in another multi-year project. MIX magazine released a list of recording [engineering] schools in 1986. I realized there was no school in the Austin area that provided recording tech. Chris and I decided to advocate for one. We were working with musicians who were fabulous performers. However, their business skills were sorely lacking. We wanted them to know basic copyright law, simple contracts, advertising, and how to promote their music. We wanted this to be included in a business and music [curriculum as] part of a university.
I researched and visited several recording schools around Texas, in Houston, Dallas and Lubbock. We then put together a proposal and began going to local schools. We visited the University of Texas at Austin, Concordia University, St. Edwards University, and Texas State University in San Marcos. Sounds interesting, but no takers. Finally we found interest at Austin Community College. We formed a working committee made up of Austin music business and performers as well as ACC staff. We worked on the project for three years. Finally, ACC granted us one trial class called Music Marketing. Our advisory group met after a week and the ACC staff came in and asked if we had any interest. The class of 12 had 37 signups. We were on our way. I taught music marketing for a while. Today, ACC has a full recording studio complex. It is [part of] the music department; however, it does provide all the business courses we wanted [to implement].
One other unrelated surprise. Chris likes hot air balloons. So, I [signed her up for] a class at Austin Community College about crewing for hot air balloons. I videotaped the class. The instructor had catered our wedding, and asked that we produce a hot air balloon crew training video with him. We did, and for 30 years it has been the video used for training new crews at events around the world. Additionally, Chris and I [have] videotaped ballooning events from Austin to Baltimore, Andrews Air Force Base, Mexico and England. One of us would ride in a balloon, and the other with the ground crew.
JIA: What kind of activities have you been involved in as a museum curator and collector?
MT: I’ve continued my active memberships in the Audio Engineering Society and The Recording Academy, and we joined the Austin Museum Partnership. We’ve attended all the Texas Chapter Grammy events and have met with the Austin Museum Partnership. We were always promoting the prospects of a museum.
JIA: What would be the ideal team size to run an organization like a full-on museum of recording?
MT: We hoped to [have] 10 full-time, plus some part-time staff. The staff for the proposed non-profit museum included a director, an assistant director, two studio manager/engineers, a stage manager, an accounting/business officer, an advertising/promotion person, a workshop restoration staff, two or more tour guides, a receptionist, and other support staff.
JIA: How demanding is it in terms of capital, both in acquiring the machines and in maintaining them, keep everything running and keeping the team going?
MT: This past week, we met Margaret Koch, the Bullock Texas State History Museum director, for a tour of their current traveling guitar display. The coronavirus hit them hard. However, they were able to place staff on emergency leave, so no one lost their jobs. She talked about the challenges of keeping [exhibit items] rotated, and creating events to keep folks coming back to the museum. The Bullock has significant donors, as well as State funding. As we were initiating our quest [to establish a] museum in 2012, Margaret showed us their open space on their third floor and I salivated. She considered taking on more of our displays (we had already provided some recorders and hardware for their exhibits); however, the Bullock’s curator came out, went through our collection and said, one, our items were too big for their displays; and two, only the Ampex 200a [recorder that] had ties to [the band] Asleep At the Wheel [had any] potential visitor attraction. The Bullock instead converted [one of] their theaters into a history of the Austin City Limits show, and displayed historical artifacts from Texas musicians.
Acquiring the recorders [in our collection] was a matter of watching eBay and following forums, plus following up on leads and offers. Chris and I have both talked about how lucky it is that we started the collection when we did [when it was easier to find things]. Prices and availability have definitely changed. Plus, [higher] shipping [costs] now impacts all the buys and sales.
Interestingly, 3-D-printed parts have provided a new resource; previously [we were] dependent on eBay, Craigslist, Goodwill, or Reverb [to obtain certain parts]. There is [also a company called] Terry’s Rubber Rollers. Terry rebuilds tape recorder rollers, and they’re excellent. Often, I have sourced parts by purchasing less-desirable units that had the needed parts intact, [and using them as donors].
Then, regular exercise (running the recorders from time to time) is truly the key to keeping them healthy. Some will always be on point, like the Berlant Concertone, [and our] Otari, Ampex, Studer and mostly Teac [models]. Teac dominates the hits on our website, and there are [in general, also] more parts available for the Teac TASCAM machines.
JIA: What are the potential sources of income if one wanted to get involved in such an endeavor?
MT: I’m not sure there is a profit to be made. As I built the collection, I was able to upgrade regularly, and in almost every case, sell the old model for enough [money] to replace it, which was very lucky when I think back. Interestingly, some of our most profitable sales were of the Calrad 1960s mics that originally sold for around five or six dollars each. We sold them to all sorts of folks like The Tony Danza Show, theaters, and just folks who wanted to display them. In fact, we have a web page of Calrad mic sightings. For a while, we were buying the mics for under $25 and selling them for up to $350. [At one point] Chris said, “boy, I wish we had a whole crate of them.” Sure enough, along came an electronics store [that was] going out of business, and we bought all of them. I wouldn’t want that to be a museum’s [sole] income stream, [however]!
JIA: Looking back over the years, has it been a satisfying experience? Would you say it has served its purpose?
MT: We know that we seriously raised awareness of the reel to reel tape recorder. We have an e-mail list of several thousand folks. The DVD set [we produced] sold well and its now downloadable from our website. Folks from all over the world visit our sites every day. They’ve also participated in many surveys we’ve released as we tried to gauge folks’ interest in a permanent museum.
Would I do it again? Probably! However, go in with less-rose-colored glasses. But maybe it was better to believe it was going to happen than [to] have reservations.
JIA: What are your hopes for the future of your own collection and of magnetic sound recording technology in general?
MT: After the dissolution of the non-profit [The MOMSR began in 1998 and was run as a non-profit from 2012 through 2017 – Ed.], I decided to regroup and downsize the collection to the items I believed to be most relevant to the development of magnetic tape recorders. This dropped the collection from about 225 to 115 [pieces], plus the 100 mics, many mixers and other accessories. It also opened up our space to improve the displays and have only the best available for tours.
The board [of the non-profit] had voted to transfer the name Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording to Chris and me, so there would be continuity.
So, my “to dos” are:
1. Update the 10-year-old video series about the collection.
2. Sort and add a couple of thousand photos [that are] pending addition to our website.
3. Organize all the donated archive documents. My hope is to source a repository for the printed material. I’ve had one recommendation for the Smithsonian. It seems more logical, [however, for the materials] to be in a technology or music museum. The Ampex archives went to Stanford [University in California], and are only available to researchers.
4. Return to providing limited private tours to the existing collection until I’m no longer able. Then I anticipate we’d sell or donate the collection to another collector.
On a hopeful note, I [recently] received a comment on one of my YouTube postings, Part Three of our series on reel to reel tape recorders. It said, “my mother was told a while ago these [recorders] were only going to increase in value, and they have, so she bought a couple of them [that] she keeps as a sort of nest egg.”
If someone’s mom is investing in reel-to-reel tape recorders, that’s a very positive sign for sure – depending on what she bought! 🙂
Header image: Across the top: Webcor Squire recorder; Roberts 770X; Tape-Athon Model 7210 background music tape player; Second row: Sony TC-630 and 1954 Berlant Concertone 20/20 recorders. Third row: Ampex 602-1, Akai Terecorder; Roberts Duet recorder with matching amp/speaker. Far right: Tandberg 3500X; below it is a Marantz 5420 cassette deck and a Nagra III machine. The mics are from Shure and Sennheiser.