Gakken’s New Edison-style Cup Phonograph Kit is a cylinder recorder that uses a needle to cut sound waves onto plastic cups. This kit lets you relive the excitement of Thomas Edison as he successfully recorded and played back sound for the first time on a similar cylinder recording system back in 1877.
Thomas Edison first experimented with sound recording by using paraffin paper, metal cylinders wrapped in tin foil, and then eventually settled on wax cylinders. As the story goes, the first thing to ever be successfully recorded and played back was Edison reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Gakken’s phonograph kit lets you recreate a model of how Edison first experimented with sound recording and playback, replacing the wax cylinder with regular plastic cups.
How does it sound? Here’s a video, yours truly, recording a brisk rendition of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”:
This is certainly no mp3 player, but that’s what is so great. It’s eerily low-fi and nostalgic; it makes your voice sound like it’s one hundred years old. You can hear and see the medium speak, and that is what makes this kit so much fun! Clear some space next to your music collection: You might never throw away a plastic cup again.
View the Gakken Phonograph Kit in the Maker Shed.
The first time I saw this kit was when I saw this video of Phil’s visit to the Gakken office in Japan, where a fellow from Gakken croons gracefully into the phonograph (note: he’s using a different, older model of the phonograph kit, the one we carry in the Maker Shed is like the model pictured above):
How does this amazing device work – without a microphone, preamp, digital audio converters, amplifiers, speakers, and all that other fancy stuff?!? Here’s an excerpt from the instruction manual detailing the pleasantly simple process by which sound is transferred to the cup:
The needle cuts a groove in the plastic cup as it spins, the guide moves the needle along so that it cuts the groove on new territory on the cup, and the air coming out of your voice movies the needle slightly from side to side, making wavy grooves in the cup that result in wavy playback from the cone on playback, resulting in wavy waves traveling through the air an to your ears! It’s totally groovy! <-Sorry, I had to. I have now become my 5th grade science teacher.
Making the Kit – Highlights of a Leisurely Saturday Afternoon
The kits is stylishly packaged in a nice box, and comes with everything you need to complete the project – there are no external tools required (but make sure you have two AA batteries on hand to power the motor that spins the cup).
Below I give you a few shots illustrating my brief voyage through the assembly of this kit. Don’t worry, the instructions are very thorough and are presented in clear English, these pictures are just for supplementary guidance, and to show you how much fun it is putting this kit together!
Here it is, in the box.
Building the kit is pretty straightforward, it took me about an hour total to get the whole thing put together and spinning. Make sure you have a good work space cleared off and a place where you can keep all of the parts, because there are a lot of small screws, springs, etc. that can roll around and escape if you’re not careful.
When you first open the box, you are greeted with instructions in Japanese, but do not fear, the English instructions can be downloaded here. Print this out before you start working on the kit, and you will be good to go.
The contents of the box. There are even ten cups included. The only other thing you will need is two AA batteries.
Some of the parts come in form-sealed packaging. Be careful when removing the cardboard backing from the form-packed parts packaging as you want to avoid any kind of “explosion” that might send the pieces flying about.
Diving Right In!
Once you get started, the first thing they have you do is bend the plastic sheet that will become the cone. Tip: When you’re bending the cone, have your pieces of tape ready before you start bending it, as the plastic sheet will want to return to it’s original, flat form. Make sure that when you are putting the tabs into the slits, that you put the tabs in so that they are facing the inside of the cone. Then apply the pieces of tape to the tabs on the inside of the cone.
Here’s the cone inside the elbow. There are small tabs inside the elbow that match up with the small slits in the end of the cone. Snap those together, and then screw the two sides of the elbow together.
The guide clamp. Put a spring here inside the hooks.
It’ll require a bit of stretching on the spring, but once you have it on, it will look like this!
And the small spring goes here:
The ball joint in place.
The pickup attached to the end of the arm.
The parts for assembling the gear box.
Screwing the D7 pulley into the motor box.
The cup holder on the opposite side of the motor box.
The D9 bearing, going in between the cup holder and the motor box.
Stringing the wire around the screw supports.
The D3 rubber absorber on the top of the motor. Nice and snug.
The rubber D2 rubber absorber.
The wires coming out of the motor box, into the base.
The bottom of the base, showing the battery holder and affixed wiring.
The battery stopper in the “off” position.
A note about the battery contact switch:
I did have to make a few slight modifications to the battery contact switch, since its shape kept the battery from making contact regardless of whether it was switched on or off. The part that keeps the battery from touching the contact appeared to have already been scraped down a bit already when it arrived in the box, suggesting that this has been somewhat of a lingering problem in the manufacture of this kit. Regardless, it required a bit of filing with a rotary tool, but after a few swipes and some plastic chipped away, everything worked just fine. If you’re reading this blog, you will probably laugh at a minor challenge such as this!
Here’s the battery contact, the wire wrapped around the contact. You could add some solder here to make the connection a bit stronger if you wanted to, but I had no problem making a connection by just wrapping the wire around the contact as the instructions suggest. This picture shows that the battery stopper is in front of the battery contact, interrupting the circuit and keeping the motor off.
The almost-assembled phonograph, before the shaft holder is put on. Almost there!
One of the last steps is putting the sweet bell on the cone. Here’s the double-sided tape attached to the bell of the cone to keep it stuck to the inside of the cone.
Once you have the kit put together, it actually looks quite nice, vaguely vintage while also a bit modern.
(Sorry, I know, this isn’t my picture. By the time I got to this point, I was too giddy about recording to remember to take pictures!)
Tips for Recording:
There are a few variables to consider when making a recording on the cup, and it might take a little bit of trial and error before you can get things going clearly, so don’t get too frustrated if you don’t get things sounding great the first time. Besides, I think we can all agree that “sounding great” is a relative term when it comes to recording onto plastic cups. An audiophile system this is not – and that is okay, you will no doubt quickly grow to love the old-fashioned, scratchy, ghostly sounds coming out of Gakken phonograph.
- First off, make sure that you have all three weights placed on their holder near the needle when you start recording. I experimented with adding even more weight to this area (putting coils of solder around the weights, etc.), but I seemed to reach a point of diminishing returns as far as how much weight used during recording made a difference in integrity of the sound when played back. Experiment as you wish, but the three weights provided seem to do the trick just fine.
- The sound coming into the cone should be loud and clear. Sing like you would imagine a voice sounding on an old record. I now know why people in the old days used to sing on recordings with such exaggerated annunciation and dynamics: that’s precisely what it took for the sound to translate to the medium. So give it a shot, sing with your best “opera guy” voice, it really does make a difference.
- The needle angle is adjustable. You may need to make a few adjustments to the needle angle as necessary, typically a smaller angle (one in which the needle is closer to being perpendicular to the cup) will cut a deeper groove, resulting in a more pronounced sound on playback. After you’ve recorded at a smaller angle, you can bring the needle back to a wider angle during playback.
- The kit comes with about ten plastic cups, but don’t worry too much about running out because you can use pretty much any plastic cup, as long as the sides of the cup are flat and there is no ribbing or other obstructions that would get in the way of the needle as it makes its groove in the side of the cup. Experiment with different types of cups, thick plastic, thin plastic, soft, bendy plastic, or rigid plastic. They all have their own “sound,” mannnn.
- The kit comes with two needles, and includes an adapter so that you can use regular sewing needles as replacements. The sharpness of the needle with have an obvious effect on the depth of the groove that is cut and the quality of the recording. The manual says that you can get about 40 plays per needle, so you might want to replace these every once in a while if you aren’t getting a noticeable groove cut into the record, or if the needle has a tendency to skip on playback.
- Another thing to note is the styrene foam cup support ring that comes with the kit. This is to be used with cups that become a little bit flimsy under the weight of the needle to give them extra support during recording and playback. The cups that come with the kit are made of a pretty thick, rigid plastic and are also a bit shorter than most cups here in the U.S., so you can get away with not using the foam ring with those, but with most of the American cups I used, I found that the ring was essential in making sure the cup didn’t get too flimsy in the middle when cutting a groove during recording. If the cup dips at all during recording, there will be a noticeable warbling effect during playback, and the groove might lift up off the cup, causing the cup to skip during playback.
A plastic cup with the styrene foam ring placed inside it for extra support.
Other extra tweaks to improve recording:
- Make sure the source of the sound is clear and focused towards the cone. This won’t pick up many of the sounds coming from outside the cone. I had grand visions of maybe playing a guitar while singing into the cone, but the guitar did not come through at all. It will pretty much only pick up the sound of a voice singing directly into the cone. I tried lots of other things, from an amplified electric guitar to a choir of friends singing together in a room, and in the end I’d have to say that a single, polyphonic voice singing very close to the cone is about the only thing that consistently works.
- According to internet rumor, some people have experienced a considerable degree of success by heating the cups during recording with a hair dryer or other heating device. In theory, it would make sense that the plastic would become softer and therefore easier to cut grooves into. I went ahead and tried this but was only able achieve inconsistent results. Sometimes the cup got too hot and would sort of cave in on itself, other times it seemed to actually be quieter than when the recording was made with the cup unheated. Your mileage may vary.
Playing the Cups:
As the diagram indicates, you should remove two of the three weights during playback.
At this point you can also widen the angle of the needle to the cup so that the needle will wear less on the cup during playback. Clip down the release, pick the needle up, and drag the cone and needle back towards the wide end of the cup where you started. Unclip the release lever, flip the play switch, and listen to the sweet, warbly, lo-fi sounds of your Gakken Phonograh.
Modification idea: Amplifying the Output:
The sound of the cone can sometimes be overshadowed by the sound of the needle scraping against the cup. You can make the output louder by amplifying the signal of a piezo contact microphone that has been placed inside the cone or near where the needle meets the pickup – but be careful of feedback, because the cone then becomes not just a method of playback but becomes its own part of the microphone when the contact mic is placed on it. Once you have a piezo element connected to the needle or its neighboring parts, you essentially have the makings of a piezo stylus cartridge, which was the primary means of amplifying record player output until about 1925 when the magnetic cartridge was invented!
If I May – Waxing Philosophical About Edison’s Experiment:
It’s pretty monumental that what Edison established in this invention is a concept that has held true for over one hundred years since then, and the fundamentals of this technique remain the basis of analog (and later digital) sound reproduction to this very day. Think about this: Groove-based audio and video playback is even being carried on the grooves of a golden record to other lifeforms beyond our solar system via the Voyager spacecraft, complete with non-linguistic pictographic instructions on how to play this disc. Although figuring out the correct speed to play the record by referring to the speed of the fundamental transition of the hydrogen atom might be a little hard for our alien friends to figure out, it remains the most fool-proof way to bring Chuck Berry songs to lifeforms in other solar systems.
Even today, the fundamentals of Edison’s discovery are used to reproduce sound. Modern day phonograph records employ the same basic principles of Edison’s design, with only a few modifications to the concept (amplification, for example). Even today, the sound waves on LP records are still first cut into slabs of wax, and these wax “masters” are then turned into metal plates that are used to press the vinyl that becomes LPs. Many audiophiles even claim that the LP is still the best-sounding format, reproducing a more palatable, “warm” sound than digital playback systems. Not too shabby for a concept pioneered over a hundred years ago!
So have fun with your Gakken Phonograph Kits, sing a beautiful song, cut some sweet grooves onto some cups, listen back and enjoy!
P.S. Anyone out there want to trade cup recordings? Who knows, cups could be the new 7″.