With the advent of vinyl records, the 78rpm record vanished virtually overnight. The same happened with the arrival of the CD, and then the vinyl record appeared to be doomed (however the LP album market is currently making a revival). This doesn't mean that 78rpm and vinyl records are no longer played, it is just that those who wish to play them have decreased in number.
There are many people who have 78rpm records 'up in the loft', but few have the means of playing them. Not so long ago new equipment suitable for the vinyl speeds of 16, 33 and 45rpm did not even have a speed of 78rpm. Currently though there are a number of multi-speed machines available (particularly via mail order), and some offer a suitable stylus for 78's. Unfortunately it is NOT possible to use any other needle than a stylus with such machines, but repeated playing of 78's with a stylus will result in some wear to the records. So the following article applies only to acoustic (and some early electrical) reproducers.
78rpm records are made of a hard material which will wear any needle in contact with their surface. If the needle is as hard (or harder) than the record, the record will wear as well. If the needle is softer than the record, the majority (or all) of the wear will be to the needle. Needles can, and must be, replaced, but records can't be. So to preserve one's precious recordings it is important that record wear is kept to a minimum, or even better to reduce it to zero.
To get the best from a recording, the needle 'point' needs to fit the record groove. The use of soft needles ensures this, though if the needle wears down too much before the end of the record is reached the reproduction will become useless. The use of a steel needle will obviate this, but at the cost of some record wear as the needle 'beds in', so understandably the first few grooves of a record suffer the most damage, hence the scratchy first few grooves. High frequency passages damage easily due to the lateral accelerations imposed on the needle/soundbox combination, hence the shrieking soprano!
A photo of a steel needle point (a) when new, and after playing (b) one and (c) eight 10inch records is given in 'The Gramophone' for June 1933 - Trade Winds and Idle Zephyrs. As the photo is difficult to see in the archive, I show it here. For those of you who use steel needles, I suggest that you read this article as it describes in graphic detail what happens to a steel needle, and how it can wreak the record grooves if over-used, or worse still, removed and then re-used. Steel needles are available from outlets specialising in gramophone memorabilia.
So what are your options if you do not want to use steel needles? The solution is to use triangular shaped fibre needles (made from bamboo) or circular thorns (typically Burmese thorns or Prickly Pear thorns) neither of which, being relatively soft, will significantly damage the record. Please note that the term 'fibre' in many articles can refer to both thorn and/or bamboo needles. Both types as they wear will leave a deposit of material within the groove, so it is best to use a special brush to keep the grooves clean. Also avoid touching the playing surfaces with your hands, as this will leave fingerprints which will attract dust.
An important aspect to bear in mind is the tracking of the needle/soundbox combination across the record surface. In general this is a compromise, as perfect tracking is only obtainable using systems that allow the needle/soundbox to stay at a tangent to the record grooves across the WHOLE of the record surface. So to get the best compromise it is a good idea to read 'The Book of the Fibre Needle' by H. B. Davey (of E.M.G. Hand-Made Gramophones Ltd, 11 Grape Street, New Oxford Street, London, WC2) to set up a particular machine's alignment. I have copies of this, so if you are interested, please e-mail me.
A few points regarding tracking. I have found that to reduce the load on the needle, the tonearm needs to have a slight outward swing bias when not on the record. This involves putting shims (say cardboard) under the back two feet of the cabinet until the tonearm swings outward. This assumes of course that the main tonearm bearing in the sound board is as friction free as possible. I've found this is best if left dry as oil causes drag! Adjustment of the locking ring is crucial for free movement.
TIP NO 1:- Handle records with a cotton handkerchief, and keep grooves clean by using a fine bristle brush. An Expert brush is shown below. Also ensure the needle/soundbox tracking is set up correctly.
For getting the best out of fibre needles, they need to be kept dry. This was achieved by using special containers that contained Silica Gel. A photo of an original one is shown. With most houses now having central heating (unlike the houses of the 1930's), the use of such a container may not be a necessity - still it can't do any harm, so one might as well!
Of course there are down-sides. Fibre needles - original ones shown on right - normally need sharpening every playing side, but even then the point can degrade enough to cause reproduction problems before the end of the record side. This latter point is a particular problem when trying to play records that are already badly worn, or if the recording is of high modulation (eg 12 inch discs of Wagnerian operas!). To try and overcome this problem, fibre needles were 'doped'. This involved soaking them in a liquid solution, which when dried hardened the needle (it was still softer than a thorn though). The actual recipe appears to have been a closely guarded secret, each manufacturer having his own version. For my experiments on this see the article on NEEDLE 'DOPING' below.
The use of fibres also requires reproducers that will accept the triangular shape - ie acoustic sound-boxes like the E M Ginn Expert shown. Early electrical reproducers, or sound-boxes designed for circular needles (normally steel) can use triangular fibres, but only if they are short, and have one end made into a circular shape so they can be inserted into the reproducer (see photo near end).
Being circular and short, thorns are eminently suitable for electrical pick-ups. They can be used on sound-boxes with great success, but being short the output volume can be rather loud. Also being a bit harder than fibre re-sharpening between records may not be needed.
There is no definitive answer to the question 'what is the best type of needle to use'? There never has been an answer, even when all types of needle (steel, fibre and thorn in the 1930's) were in daily use - everyone had their own, often fiercely entrenched, opinion. However, it was generally accepted that fibres gave a mellow tone, thorns a slightly brighter tone, and steel gave a rather harsh tone.
Another consideration is the surface noise which is particularly loud on 78rpm records, and generally is worse the earlier the recording. 'Modern' electrical reproduction using a stylus gives an intrusive 'hiss'. Acoustic sound-boxes using steel and thorn give a more acceptable background noise. However, fibres tone the high frequency components of the surface noise down, so that though apparent it is less obtrusive.
Fibre needles were disappearing, but some specialist shops advertise that they do sell them. I make needles to order, but this is a very time consuming job and not really a commercial proposition, even though I do sell a limited number. It all developed because I bought an 8 foot bamboo pole which would have lasted me several lifetimes of personal use! But if you wish to make your own needles, read on.
TIP NO 2:- Source your bamboo some months before use, and then keep pole warm (eg near a radiator) so it dries out completely - with luck it may even crack along the grain, so making needles will be easier.
Joe Ginn has written in his book 'The Magnificent Music Machine' that bamboo poles of between 1 inch and 2.5 inches were used in the thirties. Having tried poles of this size in the past, I prefer a larger diameter, say 5 inches. In any case it must be clean, dry, and with no major surface blemishes (a damaged surface cannot be made into needles, as it is the outer shell of the bamboo that provides the needle's strength). So you have found a suitable pole at your local garden centre, or store (eg Homebase, B & Q), and then find it is 8 foot or 9 foot long and you have only a small car!
TIP NO 3:- When searching for a suitable pole, take along a good saw, and you can then cut the pole in half, or thirds etc, once you have left the shop. The bits will then fit into your car.
When you are happy that the pole is as dry as it is going to get (Tip No 2), cut it up into lengths so you end up with a number of totally hollow cylinders (or bits of).
TIP NO 4:- Use a fairly fine saw for this, but bamboo is hard, so the saw blade may not survive for very long! Try to avoid damage to the bamboo outer shell.
If the pole is fully dry you may end up with each cylinder actually being in half (or less). This is good. Now take a section (or make one by splitting along the grain), and saw it to produce needle lengths of about 1 1/4 inch. Then using a strong short knife cut each of the smaller arcs into strips some 3/16 inch wide - I use a hammer to strike the back of the knife. You should now have bits of bamboo that already look like needle blanks. See picture on right which shows each of the above processes.
The following cuttings are best done with a craft knife (eg X-Acto).
Refer to the sketch below
Cut each needle 'blank' into equilateral triangular cross-sections. The grain of the bamboo is a great help here - in fact the sharpest edge will come from a split cane rather than a sanded or planed one. I hold the blank in a small vice (with jaws covered in card covers to protect the knife blade and needle) and cut off most of the pith side of the blank (Fig 1). Then holding it with the shell facing me, and using a guide made of brass, I cut a 60 degree slice off the right hand side (Fig 2). Then reverse needle (end over end) to put that edge on the left, and using another guide ('V' shaped) cut another 60 degree slice off the right hand side (Fig 3). If left handed I presume you would want to do this process the other way round. At each cut check to see that the shell is undamaged and edges are sharp. Check that the cross-sectional size of the needle is not too big to go into sharpener or soundbox holders - if so trim off excess. If too small, either use for loud records or discard! Then using a cutter, create a point at one end (Fig 4).
TIP NO 5:- Ensure the point is at the correct end of the needle so that the shell will be on the outside of the record (ie facing you) when in the soundbox (Fig 5). One normally gets this wrong only once!
'Traditionally' bamboo needles were sharpened using a cutter like the Columbia one illustrated on right. This is equipped with a small sharp blade which cuts off a small length of the needle from the pith side to the shell side, at a fixed angle. This leaves a very clean 'point'. However I have found that a 'sharper' angle of cut produces a point that is less likely to break down when playing a record. So I sharpen my needles using a butchered Pointmaster as shown right.
With the rotation locked, a triangular fitment attached (both soldered), and an angled slope with grade 240 Silicon Carbide waterproof abrasive paper glued on, this makes a very effective sharpener.
Compare the two needle point angles in the picture to the left. The upper one is mine, the lower one is made by the Columbia sharpener.
And now the photo of a 'special' bamboo needle, for use in soundboxes that will only take circular needles (normally steel, but also thorn). I do have a couple of originals, but the circular end has all but been removed, so one of my own manufacture is shown. This is a triangular needle, shortened, and having one end carved down to a circular cross-section.
I am currently playing with various ideas for 'doping' the bamboo needles. Apparently at one time the needles were put into hot Paraffin Wax (see http://www.angelfire.com/nc3/talkingmachines/fibreneedle.html). I have not tried this, but I suspect this technique worked OK on pre-electric records whose surface was very rough, and the added lubrication of the wax would have reduced surface noise. I can't think it would work very well on later records with higher modulations.
What is needed is a strengthening process to bind the bamboo fibres tighter together. One method is given in the book 'Gramophones Acoustic and Radio' - compiled by G Wilson - where a mixture of Gum Arabic, water, and Potassium Bichromate (or Dichromate) is given. However, from Wikipedia, comes the following:
''Gum bichromate printing was one of the very first stable photographic printing processes, dating back to about 1850. A solution of gum arabic and potassium dichromate, once applied to paper and dried, will harden when exposed to ultraviolet light.
Safety: Potassium dichromate is one of the most common causes of chromium dermatitis; chromium is highly likely to induce sensitization leading to dermatitis, especially of the hand and fore-arms, which is chronic and difficult to treat. It is also toxic, with doses of approximately 100 mg/kg being fatal in rabbits and rodents. As with other CrVI compounds, potassium dichromate is carcinogenic and should be handled with gloves and appropriate health and safety protection. The compound is also corrosive and exposure may produce severe eye damage or blindness''.
Attempt no. 1: I soaked some needles in a saturated solution of Gum Arabic to which a few drops of water miscible food dye had been added - for authenticity - and to distinguish doped from undoped needles. The container needed to be sealed to prevent evaporation. After 2 weeks the needles were removed, wiped, and immediately put in a Fixative solution. This was covered (again to prevent evaporation), and left for a week. At this time the needles were removed, wiped, placed on a bright shiny metal tray, and put in the sun (in a dry greenhouse). They were then ready for use.
The solutions I used (obtainable from art shops) are shown in the photo on the right. This attempt resulted in a harder needle, but it still was not strong enough to stand up to my test record; namely side 1 of Die Walkure, Act 2, HMV DB3719 (auto DB8737) which unfortunately has some slight wear.
Attempt no. 2: I decided to dope some of my earlier needles, made from another bamboo cane which was very dark in colour (as bought it looked almost burnt in places, and appeared to have been varnished). These were soaked in a watered down solution of the Gum Arabic for a couple of weeks and dried off in the greenhouse (no fixative was used). On sharpening it was apparent that the solution had not soaked through the needle very far (as shown in the diagram of a needle cross-section).
However this worked well, playing through my test record, and even though these earlier needles were longer, the volume was much greater. So it would appear that soaking my original needles produced a better result.
Currently I am soaking the needles in a Gum Arabic solution (approx 50/50 with water, plus a small 'libation' of food dye) for four weeks, drying off with tissue, and placing in the greenhouse on a metal tray for some days (depending on the amount of sun we have!). The solution does not completely soak through the needle, but far enough to give a harder point. The result is shown in the picture. Soaking for more than four weeks (if one can wait that long) seems to give slightly better results, even if the needles have been dried out after the first four weeks.
At various stages of my later experiments I soaked the doped needles in the Fixative solution, but I did not find that this improved the 'hardness' of the needle any further.
I have done a test on how many sides I can play with just one sharpening. I played the 1931 HMV recording of Ruddigore (DB4005 - DB4013) - a good mix of vocal and orchestra. To my great surprise I played the first 14 - yes, fourteen - sides before the reproduction on the 15th side became a bit wooley, but the point did not actually break. So I think I can claim success at last!
Finally I show a drawing of how a needle point looks like AFTER a successful playing of a record. The view is from above the 'ridge line', and shows how some of the point has been worn away, but leaving a 'peg' which sits in the groove, and 'shoulders' on either side which rest upon the record surface. A 'broken' needle can occur when either the 'peg' breaks off, or the 'shoulders' become too wide and start to erode into grooves either side of the playing track.
Fortunately the break is not normally severe enough for the soundbox to lose groove tracking, and fall off the record edge - though this should never happen with a well adjusted tone arm where the drag into the record (friction when playing) should be balanced by a slight outward swing (gravity, when not in contact with the record).
PS At last I have found the page in 'The Gramophone' that gives a doping recipe (see Correspondence for May 1924 - Realists Versus Impressionists). Similar to my attempt using gum (ie Gum Arabic as he makes clear in reply to a letter from America where 'gum' has other meanings). I've now tried this method, but it was not a great success.
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