Revolutions Per Minute

Martin Theophilus of The Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording, Part Two

Issue 145

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, and the second part of the interview is presented here.

J. I. Agnew: What are the challenges of starting and maintaining a museum dedicated to vintage sound recording technology?

Martin Theophilus: Winning over folks to the vision is critical. However, it always comes down to funding.

One of our ideas was to co-locate with other Austin, Texas non-profits. [Our efforts to put this in place] began in July 2013 with folks from the Austin Museum Partnership, the Austin Museum of Popular Culture (which had a huge collection of music posters in a small space), and the Texas Museum of Science and Technology, which is no longer open. We met with a man, Jim Rankin, who had 500 antique radios. There is a small Texas Music Museum in Austin. It primarily has old Texas sheet music, some records and a number of acoustical machines they’re afraid to display for fear they’ll get broken or stolen. Then there’s Jim Cartwright, whose two-story Austin home is absolutely full of hundreds of antique Victrolas. These are all entities that were already operating on bare bones with no significant funding. Retail space in Austin was becoming unaffordable for them to survive.

We thought that creating a space that continually attracts new visitors, as well as getting return traffic, was essential. That was our goal for the two studios and [we also wanted] a performance space with a 1950s-[style] cafe.

Martin Theophilus.

Martin Theophilus.

JIA: Has the museum attracted the interest you had anticipated? 

MT: The response exceeded expectations; however, follow-through was disappointing. [The] media coverage was excellent. The Austin NBC affiliate covered our efforts three times. CBS, once. Texas Music Magazine wrote an article and gave us free ads. The Audio Engineering Society profiled the Museum. Local print media released stories.

The Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan was a strong supporter and provided great resources. Strangely, the Austin Music Office staff completed a tour and never helped at all.

We were inundated with inquiries. To this day I receive multiple inquiries every day for tape recorder repair resources, recorder donation offers (which I no longer accept unless they are truly unique) and [a] whole range of historical magnetic recording questions. I love the folks who worked in the recording community and who share wonderful stories. They also often clarify manufacturer information on our website, or they send [stories and information] about their work with Ampex, Studer and all the other companies.

TEAC Corporation of Japan contacted me, asking for photos of a very early recorder that we have and they didn’t. TEAC then provided a short story about our museum and linked to it, and released it in Asia, Europe and North America. Their advertising executive said he thought TEAC could do some joint promotion with us. He said he would bump it up the chain. A couple weeks later he said the top TEAC folks said they were interested, but only after our museum was in a permanent public facility.

 

MCI (later Sony) JH-110, Sony APR-5003 (with time code indicator) and Otari MX-5050 recorders.

MCI (later Sony) JH-110, Sony APR-5003 (with time code indicator) and Otari MX-5050 recorders.

 

There were other things like that. The Illinois Institute of Technology (ITT) had all of Marvin Camras’ early work in magnetic recording. plus his personal belongings. I was contacted by their curator. He said he was given a mandate by ITT that all [of] Marvin Camras’ artifacts and personal belongings needed to go as they were repurposing the building. [He asked,] “ITT will keep several of his patented items, but I have to find a home for the rest. Do you want them?” “Yes!” “Okay, I’ll finish the inventory next week and provide a list and we’ll arrange to send them to you.” Four weeks went by, and he called. Turns out [that] after ITT saw the list they decided to keep it all and divide it amongst their various buildings.

Before he passed away, I had several great conversations with Rusty Paul, Les Paul’s son. He loved the Museum’s plan and said Austin would be the perfect place for his Dad’s eight-track Ampex, “The Octopus.” He [told me], get into a permanent facility and I’ll loan it to your Museum for a while.

Eric, a physician in Iowa, contacted me and said that he was retiring and moving, and his wife was encouraging him to donate his tape recorder collection. He said he was inventorying it and would send me a summary. I asked [him] how many machines he had, and [he answered that he was] actually not sure. However he’d worked on all of them and they were [in] excellent [condition]. A month went by, and he sent an inventory of almost 500 recorders. We didn’t have a building [at the time], but our board discussed it and decided a couple of us would fly up and rent U-Haul trucks to bring the collection back and place them in storage. He had a bit of everything, including a six-foot-tall recorder that was intended for a US aircraft carrier and never installed.

A few weeks later, I got a call from Eric’s wife. Turns out, now that he was retired, and as he began inventorying and messing with the recorders, he decided to keep them. They were staying in their home. She was secretly calling [without his knowledge] to [tell me] he was going on a trip, and while he was gone, she was going to have shelves installed for his collection. What should she build for him? Eric is now active on Facebook groups [dedicated to tape recorders].

 

Sony TC-777 tape recorder, one of Martin's favorites. It came from a corporate boardroom and is as new. Martin actually carried the ad for this recorder in his wallet in college and aspired to own one, but settled for the Sony TC-600 because of its lower cost.

Sony TC-777 tape recorder, one of Martin’s favorites. It came from a corporate boardroom and is as new. Martin carried the ad for this recorder in his wallet in college and aspired to own one, but settled for the Sony TC-600 because of its lower cost.

 

We were offered some of Alan Lomax’s artifacts if we were successful in creating the Museum.

JIA: What were the circumstances that caused you to take everything back to a private collection, rather than bringing everything into a museum? What happened?

MT: All our funding applications were being turned down. One of the most significant was a grant proposal to the Moody Foundation. We made the initial cut. However, in the end they said there had been floods in Texas, and they were accepting grant requests to help disabled children and create historical art displays. So, [we couldn’t compete with that kind of need]. We received suggestions that we start pitching the museum in Oklahoma City, Nashville and other locations. One recommendation was that we build the collection into two semi-trucks, then drive around the country giving presentations at schools and colleges.

At the end of five years, my passion was waning. I realized the push for funding had taken me away from the basic enjoyment of working with the recorders. I hadn’t even dusted the collection for six months. So our board met and they voted unanimously that over the five years, we’d exhausted the attempt to create the Museum. They all said we gave it our best effort! It was [also] felt that if we’d had some famous [celebrity] memorabilia, maybe things would have been different.

JIA: Has this experience affected your perspective and aims for the future of your collection and museum in any way?

MT: I no longer actively pursue a [location] for the collection. [But] I’m always an optimist, and with the current interest in reel-to-reel tape recorders. who knows. I understand the desire for studios to add the “analog” sound. However, I did not anticipate the [emergence of the] individual collectors that are now appearing. So, who knows? I felt that we always needed to connect with someone who loved the old recorders and had the resources to make it happen.

JIA: What is your own background and how has this contributed to the Museum?

MT: I graduated from Sul Ross [University] with a Bachelor of Music degree, with the intent of being a Texas band director. However, I’d worked as a police dispatcher during college, and was drawn to law enforcement. I was hired as a state police officer for Sul Ross, but the pay was low and I couldn’t progress in policing because I was high-risk, having lost a kidney to cancer at age three.

So, I took a job with the State of Texas that paid twice as much, and became a social worker, mostly in child protective services. The state sent me to Austin for a month’s training. I spent days training, and nights absorbing the music scene and doing some recording. Austin was where I knew I had to be!

While ham radio definitely had an impact on my electronic skills, I’m sorry to admit that seriously working on electrons never stuck. I can do recorder maintenance, fix mechanical problems, and [do] some minor electrical fixes. However, tracing and fixing circuits usually leaves the recorder in worse shape! I do have an excellent tech person available when I need [them].

In the end, from Alpine to Austin, tape recording has been an integral part of my life!

JIA: What sort of skill set and/or personality traits would you consider important in anybody considering starting an audio technology preservation center, be it a museum or otherwise? 

MT: The electrical and mechanical know how I mentioned above would be helpful.

My strength in trying to create the Museum is that I am truly, deeply passionate about the importance of the preservation of the magnetic reel tape recorder. When Germany built those first tape recorders with the ability to edit content, it changed everything. When tape recorders went mainstream from the 1950s to the 1980s, the ability to record music was made available to everyone willing to learn to use them. Bing Crosby’s transition from vinyl to tape is probably the best example. {He took advantage of] the indistinguishable quality [between live and taped broadcasting], and [the capabilities of tape] editing.

 

Webcor Squire and Roberts 770X recorders; Tape-Athon Model 7210 background music tape player. Second row: Sony TC-630, 1954 Berlant Concertone 20/20 tape machines. Third row: Ampex 602-1 recorder; Akai Terecorder; Roberts Duet recorder with matching amp/speaker to its right. Bottom row: Dokorder 8010 tape duplicator; Roberts 770A and Wollensak 1980 recorders. In the photo is a revolving rack holding around 100 catalogs and brochures. Far right: Bell and Howell Model 2297 recorder with vacuum-loading; Marantz 5420 cassette deck; Viking 85 deck.

Webcor Squire and Roberts 770X recorders; Tape-Athon Model 7210 background music tape player. Second row: Sony TC-630, 1954 Berlant Concertone 20/20 tape machines. Third row: Ampex 602-1 recorder; Akai Terecorder; Roberts Duet recorder with matching amp/speaker to its right. Bottom row: Dokorder 8010 tape duplicator; Roberts 770A and Wollensak 1980 recorders. In the photo is a revolving rack holding around 100 catalogs and brochures. Far right: Bell and Howell Model 2297 recorder with vacuum-loading; Marantz 5420 cassette deck; Viking 85 deck.

 

It was the passion and commitment of all these folks who wanted to make the magnetic tape recorder better, from Brush units being improved by Willi Studer, to Crown recorders going from [being used for] missionary work to [becoming] radio and studio workhorses. It was passion that drove all those folks. Passion, skills, luck, and surviving a lot of disappointment.

Another key ingredient is a love of history. I wish I had time to follow all the leads I’ve received to better provide the details. Phil Van Pragg wrote a book, The Evolution of the Audio Recorder, and I met him and he inspired me to preserve the technology and further my collection.

A love of interacting with people [helps]. Interviewing Robert Metzner [founder of Califone and mentioned in Part One of this series] was amazing. We videotaped an interview with Rupert Neve at Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Texas; however, we never made it to the Neve factory in Wimberley before he passed.

 

Teac 25th anniversary commemorative box; Ampex 601-2, Pioneer RT-2044 four-track and Crown 722 SX recorders; two Teac Model 1 mixers on top of a Dokorder 1140 four-track recorder. In front of the Dokorder is a Shure box containing a Shure 3000 near a Teac Model 2 mixer. Mics and accessories, left to right, are a Shure 315, Turner 211, Ampex HD-16 tape head demagnetizer, Calrad Velocity VM-12, Shure 330, RCA 1945 Varacoustic, RCA MI-6204-C, RCA Junior Velocity 74B, Neumann U48, and a Shure 737.

 

We’ve interviewed Freddy Fletcher of Arlyn Studios and Pedernales Recording Studio. He is Willie Nelson’s nephew. Freddy’s interview was great, but so was hearing his mom Bobbie Nelson’s history and that of the Austin Opera House.

Ray Benson was a supporter and gave us a very entertaining interview, as did Floyd Domino (both are members of Asleep at the Wheel). For a while, Floyd and Asleep At The Wheel’s memorabilia were on display, along with our Ampex 200A, at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Part Three of this interview will appear in Issue 146.

All images courtesy of the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording.

Header image (left to right): Ampex AG-440; Magnecord 1024; Altec 1592B Mixer; Sony mixer made by Shure; Teac Model 1 mixer; Tapco 4400 spring reverb; Ampex ATR-102 recorder with manual; Ampex 351 with amp, remote, an Accurate Sound Company amp and an Inovonics amp. The briefcase beside the Ampex ATR-102 manual is a Crowncorder spy briefcase.

2 comments on “Martin Theophilus of The Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording, Part Two”

  1. I enjoy the CD’s from Octave Records and am considering an old passion, reel-to-reel tape machines. Is there any good source for Pre-recorded music on open reel tape any longer?

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