Reg Smith's Music Box Restoration Work

We asked Reg Smith to say a few words about his music box restoration work and the ways in which MD is helpful to him. He gave us a recording of a music box (streaming) that you can listen to with an MP2/3 player.

SYMPHONION 8" disc playing music box made ca. 1896 near Leipzig, Germany.
What I do is full restorations of 19th century cylinder and disc music boxes. In case you aren't familiar with them, I will try to explain... The cylinder boxes were made between 1810 and about 1900, and consisted of a brass cylinder studded with thousands of very tiny steel pins, which plucked a tuned steel music "comb" as the cylinder was rotated by a clockwork (spring) motor. Cylinders ranged in length from about two inches to nearly two feet, and up to five inches diameter. They were always extremely labor intensive to produce, being mostly hand-made almost exclusively in Switzerland.

The sound they produce, especially the machines made during the earlier years (1830 - 1865), is absolutely without equal in our modern world; there is nothing electronic that can even come close to the ethereal sounds of a properly restored instrument. Many of the earlier ones play operatic arias or overtures in such fantastic detail and with arrangements which are so incredible one would be sure those long ago craftsmen must have been musical geniuses. I have seen several people actually get tears in their eyes at a first introduction to a fine example of this "lost art".

1895 CAPITAL "Cuff" box, made in Jersey City, New Jersey, so named for the metal music cones which at that time resembled fashionable men's shirt cuffs. The Capital was an atypical design; a hybrid of the earlier cylinder and the newest disc playing machines. Capitals were only produced for about two years and are today extremely scarce and highly prized by collectors.
In 1886, a new type of music box appeared in Germany - the disc playing music box. The emergence of this format in a number of ways parallels the modern introduction and subsequent takeover of the LP record by the compact disc. Cylinder music boxes, while musically fabulous, had the major drawback of being only able to perform the tunes which had been "pinned" to the cylinder originally. Thus, once a family had heard the 4, 6, 8, or 12 tunes their machine's cylinder could perform, dozens of times, it obviously would get tiresome, and the machines would often be relegated to closets or at least not played mushc anymore. The brand new disc playing machine solved this problem by allowing the owner to quickly change tune discs almost instantly.

Freshly repinned and restored BREMOND 13" cylinder music box, was made in Geneva, Switzerland in 1879. This fine example plays 8 tunes in the style of a mandoline.
With thousands of new titles being released each month, and since these new metal "records" could be cheaply mass produced, almost overnight the music box became something almost any family could afford to enjoy, whereas the earlier cylinder type had always been affordable only by the very affluent because of its extreme high cost of manufacture. As with the CD / LP phenomenon, disc music boxes caught on like wildfire and by 1890, it was getting hard for cylinder box manufacturers and vendors to "dump" inventory. In 1894, the Regina Company was founded in Rahway, New Jesey to make disc boxes and these were an overnight runaway success. Even today, Regina music boxes are considered among the finest ever made by most collectors.

Back to your original question... When a customer sends an old music box to me for repair, it is typically covered with rust, corrosion, and all manner of dirt; an accumulation of more than a century. Cylinder pins are often broken off which requires a total "repinning" of the entire cylinder- the remnants of old pins are etched away in an acid solution, which leaves a bare brass cylinder with thousands of nearly microscopic holes into each of which I must drive a brand new steel pin. Yes! One at a time!!

A typical cylinder of say, 13 inches length usually will have more than 10,000 pins. Also, the tuned music combs often get broken teeth which must be replaced and properly tuned. This work is so tedious as to defy description; it usually takes 8 - 12 hours work to make just one replacement tooth, solder it in to the comb and tune it in such a way that it sounds perfect and the repair joint is nearly invisible to the naked eye. Yes - this work is not cheap. But it is magical and rewarding to see and hear each one when it is all restored since each cylinder box is absolutely unique (there were no duplicates as far as is known today).

A completely restored 1899 STELLA 15" disc machine, with twin combs, made by Mermod Freres in St. Croix, Switzerland. This particular machine still bears the brass dealer's tag from the shop where it was originally sold in South Carolina at the turn of the century.

Thus, it is very important that I can make a reference audio recording of each machine at the time it arrives as an invaluable aid to tuning later on after all the filth and rust or corrosion has been safely removed. MiniDisc's random access allows me to instantly find a certain tone, for say a certain tooth of a certain comb, and also allows me to easily repeat that tone at will. Likewise, I can make extremely accurate recordings (no wow and flutter, or audible distortion or coloration of the tones of the original instrument). Tape recordings just can't do the same job at all.

Also, I like to make "after" recordings (when I am all finished with a given job) and locate them immediately after the "before" recordings for comparitive purposes. Sometimes I make recordings of other collectors' music boxes and it is great to be able to edit (delete) tracks of boxes that for whatever reason don't sound so great. None of these features would be possible with tape. I have been recording music boxes as they passed through my shop for almost six years now and I LOVE MiniDisc. I use two Sony mics: the ECM-957 and ECM-717 for my recordings, whether in the shop or in private homes. I get fabulous results. I used to use the MZ-1 but now use an MZ-RH1. All the pictured machine's restorations required major comb repairs and retuning for which I used MD recorders extensively. MiniDisc technology has proven to be an invaluable tool for effective and accurate voicing of these old music combs.

-Reg Smith ([email protected])

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