The 5A sound box for the HMV 102. Dave found it a better all-round product than the HMV101 with a No.4 sound box
Getting the Needle
Gramophone needles are one of the most important of all the components in the playback system, for it is the needle which sits on the surface of the record and is responsible for translating the grooves into sound. As Dave explains, making sure the needle is regularly changed for a new one is absolutely essential.
“The needle is made of very poor quality steel and it is designed to wear out before the record. So the grooves in the shellac record wear the needle down from its really sharp point after one play.
“A lot of records I get given from old collections are unplayable because they were probably played with one needle for a long time. People used to put one needle in at the beginning of the year and then maybe change it at Christmas, and by that time it would be like a chisel, taking the surface off of the record.
“I always change the needle after every play. I play one side of a record and that needle is then thrown away. You get into a rhythm with it. While one record is playing you are changing the needle on the other gramophone, putting the new record on there, winding that one up, then you go back to the original one and wind it a bit more.
“While you wait for that one to finish and reach the last couple of bars of music, you hit the next one with the needle and just hope that it hasn’t got a long run in at the start. Of course, from knowing the music and by actually looking at the record, you can tell roughly when that record is going to finish, so you are just trying to get the needle on the other record so that there’s the minimum gap between the two pieces of music.”
It is obvious that Dave must get through a lot of needles, not only during his DJ performances, but also at home as he tests out each new record he buys. Fortunately, unlike the 5A sound boxes, needles are readily available and still in production.
“I’ve heard two stories,” says Dave. “One is it’s a couple of old gentlemen in a shed in Sheffield who turn them out. The other apocryphal tale I’ve heard is that there is a steel manufacturing company in Sheffield which closes down part of the line for half a day a year and transfer over to making gramophone needles, and in that half a day they make enough to supply the world’s demand.
“I buy them from a third party so they are probably made in China, but I like to think, and as far as I know, they are British made. I buy them in quantities of about 1000 a time, but they don’t take up much space and they are cheap. It costs about £4 for 100, so I don’t mind replacing them. But I just wish I could find a use for the dead ones because I’ve never thrown any of them away! I’ve got a big bag full of steel gramophone needles that are of no use to me.
“The HMV 102s can actually use a range of points but steel is the most common and comes in three volumes – soft, medium and loud. Tungsten tipped needles were introduced which were claimed to be good for approximately 50 plays and both thorn and wood needles were sometimes used. These produced no wear on the record, but resulted in a very much reduced volume and had to be sharpened with a special device after each play. Diamonds never entered the equation, probably due to the difficulty in mounting them, or perhaps because the enormous tracking weight of the soundboxes was a problem.”
Unlike modern portable music players, which run on batteries, the old gramophones were wind-up devices which used springs to store the energy needed to power the turntable for the length of a typical 78 record. Winding the gramophones is something Dave has to fit into his set between changing disks and needles, and has become an integral part of the DJ78 performance, adding to the overall spectacle.
“Once a player is fully wound it is supposed to do a whole record, but I wind them constantly because it is an insurance policy against them slowing down. They actually like it if you wind them while they are working!
“There is an enclosed spring underneath which gradually releases and turns the turntable, and there’s a regulator which allows you to adjust the speed a little bit. The regulator is basically an arrangement of spinning weights and you extend or suppress the amount that the weight spins out to change the speed of the turntable.
“Underneath they are beautiful pieces of equipment with absolutely stunning engineering, and they made millions of the things. And HMV never changed the design. They made the 102 model gramophone from about 1931 right through to the late 1950s without a single change to its design.”
Although Dave’s gramophones are incredibly well engineered bits of equipment, they still require maintenance and occasional repairs. One of the components which has a tendency to stop working or break is the aforementioned spring which becomes ever tighter as the gramophone handle is turned. Incredibly, like the steel needles, the springs for Dave’s old gramophone machines are still being manufactured somewhere!
“You can break a spring by over winding it,” Dave explains. “Otherwise they gradually deteriorate over the years because they are an enclosed metal box and the grease that’s inside solidifies. It’s not surprising when you think that the casing won’t have been open since the 1930s. When the grease becomes solid it stops the spring from opening smoothly. Luckily there is one guy who I know of in Bedford who runs a gramophone maintenance company and I’ve just got three gramophones back from him with new springs, fully serviced ready to go.
“I’d much prefer him to do that maintenance because the springs are very dangerous things. If you open a spring box it can have your hand off. They are basically just like a coiled Stanley knife – a really sharp edged piece of steel. So I let him do all that. But apart from that you can maintain them very easily because there are very few moving parts. They are mostly just a series of cogs. I’ve got ones working before and it is something I’ve always been quite pleased about because I have a love of pulling things apart and putting them back together again. I clean all the old grease off, put new grease on; tinker with a few screws and make sure everything is tight.
“Then they just keep going. There is absolutely no planned obsolescence about them; they were built to last more than a lifetime. HMV weren’t thinking ‘Well, if we build them to such a standard they will break after 10 years and people will have to buy another one,’ they didn’t think that way in those days.”