History of sound recording.

The History
of Railway
Sound Recording

by Ian Strange

This is the history of railway sound recording in the UK, as I know it. If you have other information on the early years, then I would be happy to include it here with appropriate source credit.

Peter Handford

Peter Handford was a professional film sound recordist during world war 2 and for many years afterwards. As a railway enthusiast, this gave him opportunities to record steam engines in the days when there was no easily portable recording equipment available. By 1953, he had his own 78rpm disc recorder before progressing to a reel-to-reel magnetic tape recording machine. Since these machines were designed to run off AC mains supply, it was a bonus that he also lived alongside the railway line at Princes Risborough.

In 1953, Peter Handford found himself out of work, and he started a business recording musicians on tape and transcribing it to disc. The business was named Transacord, as a descriptive title, little knowing how appropriate it would sound in later years of transport recording. From 1954, he did work on location for film companies, running the tape-recorder off car batteries via a DC/AC converter. After this experience, he got his own similar equipment and was now able to travel with it for on-location railway recordings for himself.

Unfortunately, such an unusual pastime led to a few arrests, both at home and abroad! He also made a fundamental mistake in technique that I've seen recordists make in more recent years: He used directional microphones, as normally used by professionals for film and TV. These tend exclude surrounding atmospheric sounds, and thus fail to convey a "sound picture" for the rail enthusiast listener.

With that lesson learned, he made his first venture into publishing records for enthusiasts. This was inspired by an American company's release of a railway LP record entitled "Rail Dynamics", produced by Cook Laboratories. He initially produced 10 inch 78rpm records with a 3.5 minutes playing time. His first two released were entitled "Birmingham - Leamington" and "Freight Trains", featuring recordings made during 1954/55.

With the alarming news in 1955, that steam was to be rapidly phased out, he decided to make a concerted effort to record steam engine sounds for posterity. This was helped along by the enthusiasm of his early customers who wanted more sounds to savour. It meant a tough decision to decline film work abroad, which was seen as madness by his colleagues! But thank goodness that he did save so much history, which can be relived through sound. Almost inadvertently, he also captured many of the diesel prototypes that were soon sent for scrapping, and some of the unsuccessful early diesels that were never preserved. Such as the Blue Pullman, LMS 10000, Baby Deltic, etc. and rarities such as a double-header Clayton (only 1 Clayton was preserved). Many recordings were on lines that were soon to close, including the Waverley route.

By the early 1960s, Handford decided to cease publishing railway records, because of the time involved with recording, transcribing, editing, printing covers, etc. But as luck would have it he was approached by Argo. Argo had also started as a small independent record company, doing specialist productions such as documentaries and audio books. They had then been bought up by the Decca record company who took charge of actual record manufacture, freeing up Argo to concentrate on their creative work. Transacord then joined up with Decca, and did joint productions as Argo-Transacord. This permitted railway recording to be done more intensively as steam was being phased out, capturing so much history for future generations, as well as for the enthusiasts of the day.

As steam faded in Britain, Handford went across Europe in search of steam recordings. He did do a number of diesel recordings in the 1970s, and notably produced a title "This is York", comparing steam sounds at that station in 1957, with diesel sounds in 1977. I was shocked when I first played this, to find no Deltics at all! I believe this may have been due to industrial action putting the whole fleet out of service at the time of the 1977 recordings, thus making an unfair comparison.

He lived to a ripe old age, and I understand steam recordings were played at his funeral. His recordings were moved to the National Railway Museum. Subsequently, a CD was published of his rare diesel recordings, "Diesels Through the Decades", featuring early prototypes, Blue Pullmans, lots of Westerns, plus Claytons, etc.

Alan Vitty

I used to chat with Alan on the phone, and we kept in touch by letter, having been a keen customer of his, but I never found out much about his background. He referred to Peter Handford as "our mentor", and no doubt Handford was his inspiration. From his published recordings, I know that he was doing professional quality tape recordings of steam from 1965, just in time to record many of the final railtours.

Like so many steam enthusiasts of the day, there was then a period of a few years before he revived his railway interest in the diesel/electric world. By 1976, he was doing excellent quality recordings again. He lived in Middlesbrough, and therefore many recordings were made in that area, but he also ventured to the West Country, the Settle and Carlisle Line, and the West Highland Line and other Scottish locations. He captured all 22 class 55 Deltics on audio, as well everything from 08 shunters and DEMUs, to 73s and class 56s.

During the 1980s and 1990s, he published over 30 cassette-tapes, the majority being of diesels. Class 37s thrashing in the Scottish Highlands; 40s on the S & C; Peaks on the Lickey; 37s on the China clay. All of first class quality. In later years I suggested that he publish on CD, since these would bring out the full quality of his reel-to-reel originals, and I offered to assist. He had someone else assisting, but sadly, abandoned the idea. He passed away in 2011, in his 80s by then, and I don't know what has become of his tape collection.

Other pioneers

As mentioned earlier, American company Cook Laboratories of Stamford, Connecticut, produced an LP called "Rail Dynamics" in 1952.

Between 1950 and 1952, tramway enthusiasts Jack Daw (of Decca), Geoffrey Ashwell and Victor Jones, recorded London tramcars. These historic recordings were later published by Argo: "London's Last Trams".

Argo/Stavely Makepeace

Another Argo collaboration was with musicians Stavely Makepeace. Also known as "Lieutenant Pigeon", two of the group's members - Nigel Fletcher and Rob Woodward - were evidently railway enthusiasts. They made a series of recordings of Westerns during 1974 and published them on an LP, "Westerns", in 1975. During 1975, they recorded Deltics at various ECML locations and published an LP, "Deltics", in 1976. A few decades later, CDs were released of more of their recordings from the 1970s.

Audicord

Audicord was founded in 1962 by film/TV sound recordist Ken Mellor. He had worked in the film industry with Peter Handford, briefly, on the film "The Railway Children". Ken was associated with the record company Eyemark and Amberlee and later took them over. Audicord published music as well as specialist audio work including railway sounds. Initially, titles were released on 3 inch tape spools, but later cassette-tape, EP and LP records.

Their diesel railway titles included some great Deltic recordings, such as St. Paddy at Kings Cross in 1964, and Deltics on Stoke Bank in the late '70s. In the 1980s, Audicord were based in Leicestershire, not far from myself. I recall that at one time, our local city W. H. Smiths store, stocked their Deltic tapes in their music section! Some tapes make no mention of the sound recordists, but a few of them credit J. H. G. Saunders. He went on to produce a series of tapes under the publisher title "Badger Tapes".

Ken sold the Audicord business in 1993, and 10 years later it closed. A few years later, Ken formed a new publishing company under the label "OK ROLLEM" (his name backwards!). The music side of the business was then passed to someone else, but railways CD production has continued under that new label. These CDs cover steam in the 1960s, and some diesels in the 1980s.

First Choice Modern Traction

This was a railway video producer, notable for publishing their "Magic Machines" Deltic videos in the early 1980s. As a spin-off, they published an audio tape "36 Cylinder Symphony". It fully lived up to its wonderful title, with the most atmospheric sounds of Deltics during 1981, heard from the lineside.

Badger Tapes

As mentioned above, J. H. G. Saunders, having published recordings via Audicord, later released a series of cassette-tapes, mostly of diesels. This included a Deltic title of superb quality on-train sounds of some of the final Deltic railtours in 1981.

Cassette-tape revolution

With cassette-tape firmly established in the 1980s, it became easier for specialist publishers to produce railway titles in limited numbers. Inspired by some of the names mentioned above, many more enthusiasts released their own work. These varied in quality from superb, to somewhat poor! The poorer ones weren't necessarily poor original material, but rather, the re-recording had not been done properly. Once home computers evolved further, this issue was less likely to arise.

Video revolution

By the 1990s, home video players were in widespread use in the UK. While the British TV companies insisted that there was no demand for railway enthusiast programmes, a vast range of video publishers emerged to fill this "non-existent" demand! With thousands of video tapes on sale at any given time, it looked as though, maybe, sound recording had had its day. Unfortunately for those who appreciate sound, the video tape format in general use was VHS. If you ever saw material mastered on VHS and transferred to more VHS tapes, you will know how awful the picture quality was. Yet that was nothing compared to how diabolical the sound quality was!

Even professional productions, featured sound quality that was mediocre. VHS tape advertising "hi-fi" sound, were just about acceptible. But it was not just the technical quality that caused problems. The recording techniques were usually lacking too, since the emphasis was put on good camera-work. TV and film companies tend to have a separate sound recordist to obtain a decent sound track, but most railway video sound is simply from a camera-mounted mic. Railway footage was usually limited to the few seconds when the train was visible, and all sounds of it in the distance were not normally covered. Worse still, any decent sounds heard were frequently obliterated by annoying commentary! A good commentator knows when to keep quiet.

Frustrations with published video sound, meant that there was still a market for sound recordings. Some sound recordists switched to video, but with so much video coverage of railway activity, I decided that there was little point in doing my own videos. I stuck with sound knowing that fewer and fewer others were doing so.

Digital revolution

The 1990s brought much confusion over sound recording formats and media. Gramophone records, reel-to-reel tape, analogue cassette-tape. Then came digital recording on DCC tape, DAT (digital audio tape), mini-disc and CD-R. I almost went for DAT, but the high cost of equipment put me off. Then I discovered mini-disc (MD) which had practical advantages over CD-R and DAT. Any criticism of this compressed format quickly became redundent, as MD improved rapidly. It's convenience encouraged a few younger enthusiasts to try their hand at recording, while Alan Vitty also changed to using MD.

With home computers being used more and more for sound processing, and CD production, it was inevitable that on-location sound recording would enter the computer world. Flash memory (as found in solid-state recorders) permits recordings to be made directly as files recognised by computer software. This makes it easier to make professional quality masters, and then do any processing back at the studio.

Sadly, while all this technology was appearing, the number of audio productions was declining. Some of the older recordists passed away. Others moved to video once DVDs became established. Yet when cam-corders brought us high-definition pictures, they also still had poor sound quality. Eventually the sound issue was addressed, although the microphones are no match for what is possible with a separate sound recordist to handle extra equipment.

Internet

The sharing of video footage online, primarily at Youtube, has prompted renewed interest in sound tracks. This is evident in viewer comments as well as the publisher's remarks, both for rail and air transport. Being able to see as well as hear footage, may always be more popular, but when the sounds are really exceptional, pictures can actually detract from the audio pleasure. The subject may come and go from visual contact, but the sound might be continuous. At night time, often the best time for recording, video is more likely to be redundent, and sound recording really comes into its own. And it will always be a great way of saving memories where sound plays a major role.


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