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February 6, 2011


The Marché aux Puces and a Nagra III

by soundlandscapes

THIS POST IS DEDICATED especially to those interested in the technical aspects of sound recording and sound recording paraphernalia.  Not everyone’s cup of tea I know so, for those of you who regularly follow this blog for the Parisian street sounds, I have included something for you too.

Yesterday, I went to the Marché aux Pouces at Porte de Clignancourt – the flea market to beat all flea markets.  The Marché aux Puces is actually a collection of individual markets centred around the rue des Rosiers area.  I like all the markets there but my favourite is the Marché Dauphine, a large, two-storey, covered market, less ostentatious and less expensive than the Marché Biron but a cut above the outdoor Marché Vernaison both of which are close by. The Marché Dauphine just seems to have more things that interest me – and more things that I can afford!

All markets are I suppose a voyage of discovery – you start by looking at one thing and then get sidetracked into looking at something completely different.  And so it was yesterday.  I spent a long time in the wonderful section on the first floor dedicated to old prints and photographs which was indeed a voyage of discovery.  I could have happily stayed in there all afternoon – but I’m pleased I didn’t because my next discovery simply made my day.

At this point, the technophiles will be taking a special interest but for the technophobes here is the sound of the Marché Dauphine:

Quite unexpectedly and much to my delight I came across this Nagra III portable tape recorder complete with power supply and microphone.  I had never actually seen one in the flesh before so, for me, this was an exciting moment.  It had a price tag of 1500 Euros and if I were wealthier than I am I would have bought it in an instant simply for the pleasure of owning it.  But alas …

It’s hard now to remember just what a groundbreaking tape recorder this was in its day.  It was the first Nagra tape recorder suitable for use with film and consequently it took Hollywood by storm.

Stefan Kudelski, who founded the Nagra company, had examined several systems for synchronizing the film camera with the tape recorder.  One such system worked from a signal generated by the tape recorder which then slaved a rotary converter feeding a synchronous motor on the camera.  This method had disadvantages and it was very wasteful of power.  At that time, power transistors were not sufficiently developed to allow the elimination of the rotary converter so the method he finally adopted was the reverse of this recorder to camera method.  In the new method, the camera generated a signal which was recorded on the same tape as the sound, thereby reducing the power consumption enormously.

From 1956, Kudelski researched into the possibility of a self-contained tape recorder without a centrifugal speed governor, this latter causing endless trouble with the clockwork drive. This resulted in the Nagra III, which was launched in 1958.

The feature that gave Nagra the edge in quality and film use was Kudelski’s development of the Neo-Pilottone system, where the synchronisation data could be recorded on the tape in the middle of the audio track, but without crosstalk onto the program recording.

The frequency of the pilot signal was 50/60 Hz and was often derived from the mains. The signal was recorded as a twin track signal 180° out of phase so as to be invisible to the full track playback head.  The start point was indicated by the clap of the film clapperboard and the synchronization to the magnetic film was maintained using the pilot signal throughout the take.

Neopilot, as it became known, was the standard synchronization system used in filmmaking until the late 1980s, when timecode became the preferred standard.

So there we are, the Nagra III, an icon of its day – living history in the Marché aux Puces at Porte de Clignancourt.  And alas, there it remains – at least for the moment!  I hope it gives others as much pleasure as it gave me yesterday afternoon.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Vladimir
    Feb 6 2011

    Ah lovely gear! I’m trying to think of all those people and voice and stories witnessed by this mic, it’s just incredible. And a very timely sound recording, thank you.

  2. Feb 6 2011

    Great find Des. One of those moments you wish you were rich and could easily spend €1500 with no concerns!

  3. Peter (the Other)
    Feb 7 2011

    I remember the oily, almost hydraulic sense of precision the transport and its switches provided (the NagIII), but having to shepherd one around a 1968-69 Philadelphia Folk festival, my main concern was finding outlets to charge the large rechargeable batteries (but I learned battery nursing techniques that I instinctively follow to this day, although I am told they are no longer appropriate).

    1991, killing time in Marrakesh, an acquaintance I had made in the souk was so intent on finding something to sell me, that he insisted he would find some old German microphones. I agreed to meet him the next day. As I sat awaiting him, my heart started pounding, well he might actually show up with a Telefunken or Neumann, who knows? Boy was I disappointed with the Radio Shack plastic he brought, I bought it anyway, just to be friendly.

    Then there was the Ampex 350 2 track I saw in the window of a television repair shop in Indiana. I had to be on my way before they might re-open the next day (darn).

    The dream of finding great pieces of gear being sold by those who might not know what they are worth, stays with me. Still, I think this price for the Nagra, considering all the possible alternatives one might use, is high. That is unless you have a library of tapes recorded on a similar one that you want to transfer. It is kind of cool how the company has kept a similar case format and switches (or they did, if I remember rightly) for their digital line. How available is 1/4 inch tape these days, in Paris?

  4. Feb 7 2011

    The sound of the wheels running over the paving at the beginning is fantastic.
    I wonder how often you’ll return to that shop to eye the Nagra III again – where there’s a will …

  5. Sounds Good, marché Dauphine
    Feb 14 2011

    Hi there,
    thanks a lot for your kind post and brief Nagra history. I ran this shop 4 years ago and the idea was to please other people with my favourite things (my wife actually asked me to clear the garage & other rooms I filled with my HiFi equipments)… I can’t remember if we spoke together, but I should have let you hear a ’63 tape of the broadcasting of JF Kennedy’s funeral: it’s just amazing, sounds like it’s on the air of a today’s FM station! Well, the Nagra’s gone the same day you came (to Hanover, Germany). But, I’ve still other hidden diamonds that will soon go the shop, for your pleasure and others enthusiasts’ too! I also wrote an article in a French magazine (Rock&Folk) about Nagra’s history: if you’re interested, just drop me a line, I’ll send you a PDF file…


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