Are you a vinyl enthusiast looking to expand your knowledge of turntables?
Have you ever heard of a transcription turntable?
Originally designed for transcribing content from vinyl records, these specialized turntables have a unique history and purpose.
In this article, we’ll explore the origins of transcription turntables, their unique features, and how they differ from traditional turntables.
So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of transcription turntables.
What Is A Transcription Turntable
A transcription turntable is a specialized type of turntable that was originally designed for transcribing content from vinyl records. These turntables were used to play vinyl records at slower speeds, which made it easier for transcribers to listen to and transcribe the content of the recording.
The term “transcription turntable” has been co-opted over the years to mean simply “high fidelity”, but originally it referred to a turntable that could play 16-inch transcription discs common from about the mid-1930s to the late-1940s for radio station use. These 16-inch transcription discs were cut at 33 1/3 rpm and could hold about 15 minutes of continuous playing time per side (as contrasted with 5-7 minutes for 78s regularly played in that period) and were often used for syndicated programs or government broadcasts.
Most radio stations had equipment on which they could cut their own transcription discs of programs or for spot commercials. Some transcription systems encoded the signal in a side-to-side playing groove, but at least one used vertical grooves requiring a separate tonearm/cartridge. Thus, the tables often accommodated two arms.
The History Of Transcription Turntables
Before tape recorders became common in the early 1950s, shows were either done live or recorded and distributed on records. These records were called transcriptions, or ETs (Electrical Transcriptions) in radio. The early transcription discs were 16-inch 78 RPM discs, and programming and spots were later distributed on smaller discs (especially 12 inch and 7 inch) and at other speeds (most commonly 33.33 RPM).
Some of the later 78 RPM ETs may have been cut using a 1 mil needle. Early records were recorded at a variety of speeds near 78 RPM. By the time ETs became popular for program distribution, 78 RPM was standard and variable speed playback was rarely needed.
The earliest radio programs to be broadcast from tape instead of ETs or live were done in Germany during World War 2. Some radio shows on this side of the pond were done live because of problems recording high-quality records until Ampex introduced its Models 200 and 300 about 1950. After they became common, most records were recorded on tape and then dubbed to disc in a mastering facility.
The term “transcription turntable” has been co-opted over the years to mean simply “high fidelity,” but originally it referred to a turntable that could play 16-inch transcription discs common from about the mid-1930s to the late-1940s for radio station use. The iconic Garrard 301 transcription turntable is revered the world over. Its successor, the Garrard 401, is by all accounts sonically superior, but the classic design of the 301 outshines the 401.
The Garrard 301 was the first transcription turntable that played at 33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm speeds. It was robust, minimalist, and beautifully built. It featured a four-pole Garrard Induction motor driving an idle wheel which drove the platter from inside its rim. The chassis and platter were made from diecast aluminum and weighed 16 pounds – six pounds of which was the platter. The platter was balanced and freely spun on a high precision bearing.
Production of the Garrard 301 started in 1953, and it hit the market in 1954. The table was usually sold without a plinth, tonearm, or cartridge. The strobe-rim platter was around a £2 extra-cost option.
Today, some audiophile records are still recorded “Direct to Disc” to avoid tape losses. In the mid-1960s, WCWM-FM at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA received the Goon Show from the BBC on 12-inch 33s and some PSAs (Public Service Announcements) on seven-inch records.
KAB still manufactures a “transcription” turntable that will manage those 16-inch discs and allow for infinitely adjustable speed control throughout this range.
How Transcription Turntables Work
Transcription turntables work by using a special speed adjustment mechanism that allows the user to adjust the speed of the turntable. By adjusting the speed, the user can slow down the recording to make it easier to transcribe. The iconic Garrard 301 transcription turntable was the first transcription turntable that played at 33 1/3, 45 and 78 rpm speeds. It featured a 4 pole Garrard Induction motor driving an idle wheel which drove the platter from inside its rim. The chassis and platter were made from diecast aluminium and weighed 16 pounds – 6 pounds of which was the platter. The platter was balanced and freely spun on a high precision bearing.
The speed adjustment mechanism in transcription turntables is crucial for accurate transcription. When a user slows down the recording, it becomes easier to discern individual words and phrases, which is especially important for transcribing audio content accurately. The Garrard 301 had a strobe-rim platter that allowed users to make precise speed adjustments.
In addition to the speed adjustment mechanism, transcription turntables often have two tonearms or cartridges, as some transcription systems encoded the signal in vertical grooves, requiring a separate tonearm/cartridge. This allowed users to switch between tonearms or cartridges depending on the type of recording they were transcribing.
Unique Features Of Transcription Turntables
Transcription turntables have some unique features that set them apart from other types of turntables. One of the most important features is the speed adjustment mechanism. This mechanism allows the user to adjust the speed of the turntable, which is crucial for transcribing content from vinyl records. By slowing down the recording, it becomes easier for transcribers to listen to and transcribe the content accurately.
Another important feature of transcription turntables is their ability to play at different speeds. Most transcription turntables can play records at 16 2/3, 33 1/3, 45, or 78 revolutions per minute. This versatility allows users to play a wide range of vinyl records, including those that were designed for radio station use.
To ensure the best possible sound quality, transcription turntables used by radio stations were often weighted to minimize speed variations and driven by synchronous motors. This helped to maintain a constant turning speed, which is crucial for accurate transcription.
Finally, some transcription turntables were designed to accommodate multiple tonearms. This allowed radio stations to cut their own transcription discs of programs or for spot commercials. Some transcription systems encoded the signal in a side-to-side playing groove, while others used vertical grooves requiring a separate tonearm/cartridge. Thus, the tables often accommodated two arms.
Differences Between Transcription Turntables And Traditional Turntables
Transcription turntables differ from traditional turntables in several ways. Firstly, they were designed to play vinyl records at slower speeds, which made it easier for transcribers to listen to and transcribe the content of the recording. This is in contrast to traditional turntables, which typically play records at standard speeds of 33 1/3, 45, or 78 rpm.
Secondly, transcription turntables were often used in radio stations and other professional settings where high fidelity and accuracy were paramount. As a result, they were built with high-quality components and precision engineering to ensure that they could deliver the best possible sound quality.
Thirdly, transcription turntables often featured multiple tonearms and cartridges, allowing users to switch between different records or even different sides of the same record without having to stop and manually change the equipment.
Finally, transcription turntables were often sold without a plinth, tonearm or cartridge, as these were typically chosen by the user based on their specific needs and preferences. This is in contrast to traditional turntables, which often come with these components included as part of the package.
Uses For Transcription Turntables Today
While transcription turntables were originally designed for a specific purpose, they have found new uses in the modern era. Today, transcription turntables are used by audiophiles and music enthusiasts who seek to achieve the highest quality of sound possible from their vinyl record collection.
One common use for transcription turntables today is to play rare or hard-to-find vinyl records. Many vintage records were cut at unusual speeds or on larger discs that cannot be played on standard turntables. A transcription turntable can accommodate these unique formats and allow listeners to enjoy music that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Another popular use for transcription turntables is in the creation of high-quality vinyl recordings. Many professional recording studios use transcription turntables to master new vinyl releases, as they provide greater accuracy and fidelity than standard turntables. Additionally, some audiophiles prefer to record their vinyl collections directly onto high-quality digital formats using transcription turntables, as they believe this results in a more authentic and faithful sound reproduction.
Choosing The Right Transcription Turntable For Your Needs
Choosing the right transcription turntable can be a daunting task, especially if you’re new to the world of turntables. There are several factors to consider when selecting a transcription turntable that will meet your needs.
The first factor to consider is your budget. Transcription turntables can range in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. It’s important to determine how much you’re willing to spend before you start shopping around. Once you have a budget in mind, you can begin researching turntables within that range.
The second factor to consider is sound quality. You’ll want to make sure that the turntable you’re considering has a good frequency response, low distortion, and low noise. To ensure you get the best sound quality, you should read reviews and check out demos of the turntable you’re considering.
The third factor to consider is setup. Setting up a turntable can be a complex process, so it’s important to make sure you understand the process before you purchase. To avoid any confusion on setup, look for a turntable with an easy-to-follow manual or a tutorial video. This will help make the setup process much easier and less stressful.
Finally, you’ll want to consider features such as auto-stop, a built-in preamp, and a USB port. These features can enhance the performance of your turntable and make it easier to use. To find the best features for your turntable, research different models and read reviews to determine which features are important to you.
In conclusion, choosing the right transcription turntable can be a difficult decision, but with the right research and knowledge, you can make the right choice for your needs. Consider your budget, sound quality, setup process, and desired features when selecting a transcription turntable that will meet your needs.