Mike’s voice is crackled and cut by static. He only has 65 seconds in the booth to record his message onto a record to send home before he ships out for the war. Seizing the short time he had before the light in the booth went out, Mike’s message is one of many that were recorded by a voice-o-graph.
Voice-o-graphs are coin-operated record booths, machines from an arcade era that in their current residences in record stores and studios appear as an anachronism set to send you on a storyline akin to that of Tom Hanks in Big. The machines are a phone booth-like structure with a microphone that allows the user to record up to three minutes of music onto a record.
When they adorned fairgrounds and boardwalks, the booths served both to delight those hearing their own voice for the first time and serve a functional purpose of sending a message to loved ones. Today, however, they are the darling of music makers. Voice-o-graphs are currently in guitar shops, record stores (including Third Man, Jack White’s store in Nashville), and recording studios around the United States.
If you ask an owner of one of these rare booths about their voice-o-graph, one name will inevitably come up: Bill Bollman. Bollman, a patent attorney by trade, is also the primary, if not only, person restoring these machines to the glory of the days they sat in arcades and on boardwalks.
He restores coin-operated games and machines out of his home in Bethesda, Maryland. His first voice-o-graph came out of chance from a trade with another collector in Chicago. Hunting down information on the newly acquired machine, Bollman did a simple Google search, which turned up no results. Since then, he has become the foremost expert on the vintage machines.
Unlike the vinyl you would pick up in your local record store which is made through pressing, the voice-o-graph booths scratch the audio onto the vinyl. It took Bollman three years of trying out dozens of materials to find the right plastic to make the records. That turned out to be par for the course in the uneasy feat of restoring these booths.
It took Alisha Edmonson, co-owner of the Songbyrd Music House and Record Café in Washington, DC, six months of frustration to figure out why the record café’s booth wasn’t scratching the records properly. The epiphany—a proper warm up time for the heating tubes—came from a 2 a.m. chat with a friend, who just happened to be an engineer at NASA. While one can joke that NASA helped fix their voice-o-graph, Edmonson said the truth is that the machinery within these booths is so obsolete that nothing was actually broken, they just didn’t know how to make it work properly.
That scratching mechanism means that every voice-o-graph has a different sound. “Everything that is spoken or sung in there is kind of interesting it has this pop and crackle that you can't replicate,” Edmonson said.
The voice-o-graph’s heyday was between the 1920’s and 1960’s. Most of the machines that have been restored are from models that came out during the 1940’s. And from those, only a small handful have survived. Prior to Bollman the booths were kept nonfunctioning in collector’s homes and garages—a labor of love in itself.
“It takes that kind of love for any one of these to survive,” Bollman said. “To go through 60 years of non-work non-functioning to save it. In the end, they're just plywood boxes, they're not necessarily made for surviving time.” One of the most famous voice-o-graphs was at the Empire State Building during the 1930’s. That machine made aluminum records, which required a bamboo needle to play. None of those machines survived because aluminum and other heavy metals were scrapped for the war effort.
The records have held up a lot better than the machines though. Bollman approximates that he has the world’s largest collection of voice-o-graph original records. That collection, of about 1000 records, has since been donated to Princeton University for curation. Bollman created a collection—ranging from recordings of gleeful surprise at hearing one’s own voice for the first time to purely functional recollections of how the family is doing—of some of those recordings on Soundcloud.
“They've seen thousands and thousands of personal stories come in and out of the booth. It's part of the magic for me, you just imagine some of the audio that was produced in there.”
That magic has returned with the restoration of the booths. In Songbyrd Music House and Record Café, A Tribe Called Red recorded samples that were used for their performance at the Canadian Music Awards. Ryan Adams recorded special acoustic tracks at the booth at Electric Lady Studios in New York, NY, that he slipped into some of the packages of his latest album. Neil Young recorded an entire album out of the booth in 2014 at Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville, TN.
Young’s record, and his promotion of it on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon prompted much of the resurgence of these booths. For Edmonson at Songbyrd, that episode happened to be on in the background as she and co-owner Joe Lapan talk about the direction of the record café. The pair instantly knew that the recording booth is how they would connect the spirit of their live music venue to the record store and café.
The machines bridge the feel of the stage—the light goes on, the microphone records, and there are no re-dos—and the timelessness of vinyl, a medium that has withstood the introduction of cassettes, CDs, and digital recordings.
“We've only left one media on the moon and that was a record,” Bollman said.