The Inverted Record Player



Most of us, who were alive long enough to remember L.P. (Long Play) vinyl records, also remember those old stories about playing a record backwards and hearing secret messages.  Indeed, some of the most widely known of these stories revolved around certain Beatles records (The infamous "Paul is Dead" message). Well, to take this concept a step farther, what would happen if you played a record upside down? What? Who would bother to do something so nutty? What would be the point? Well,  this very question would be offered up and eventually answered in response to the culmination of back and forth subjective opinions vented in a long standing debate which took place over the CB radio in the mid 70's.


While it's true that many of our conversations over the CB radio were often inane and silly, a slapstick affair of fun and games interspersed with idle chit chat, we would occasionally delve into more serious technical topics.  Mostly, these topics revolved around CB radio and 2-way radio itself, and normally dealt with improving range, channel capability, or the relative loudness of our setups.  But our technical curiosity wasn't limited to CB radio alone.  Many of us were also into music and the best means to deliver that quality rock and roll sound.  Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Who, and many more bands graced the radios and stereo's of most of us young people back then.  Since most of us could not afford anything close to the top shelf audio components, we instead became accustomed to and accepted what we had (much the same as with our CB radio setups). Most of us didn't realize just how dramatically different the fidelity of the music could be on higher quality stuff until we had a chance to experience it personally.  It then becomes like a drug addiction.  One you get a taste of better equipment, your old stuff just didn't seem to cut it any more, so you have to "upgrade". Then you got used to the sound from the "better" equipment, until you sample some even better (and more expensive) equipment, and the cycle repeats. It doesn't take long before you become one of those guys who listens for, and becomes irritated by, the most minute defect in sound quality, and someone who can no longer be happy hearing music being played out of an ordinary radio.  Fortunately, most of us never had enough disposable income to allow this addiction to reach critical mass.


Enter one of my long time radio friends, Bob (Cougar). Bob had always been somewhat of an audio perfectionist.  Even back in the mid 70's, he had aspired toward that goal, at least within the limitations of what a teenager's buying power would allow.  Bob spent many days cutting lawns in his neighborhood to save up the money to afford a fairly decent stereo setup.  He was a big proponent of L.P. vinyl records, and often touted their superior sound, which he played on a turntable equipped with a light tracking, high quality cartridge and needle.  I, at the time, had taken a vastly different path, and had become enamored with the utility and convenience of another 70's classic, the 8-Track tape.  My financial situation was even more dismal than Bob's and most of my audio gear had been obtained as resurrected trash can (curb alert!) candidates, which I would carefully repair and then add to my equipment stable.  Even such items as ripped speaker cones, which most people would never bother with, I would carefully stitch together with nail polish and then place back into service.  Not knowing any better, I was quite pleased with the quality of the sound that my ragtag, kludged together stereo equipment provided to me.  It was a major step up in fidelity from the monaural record player and voice quality cassette recorders that I had been using.  From my perspective, based solely on the exposure to my own limited stereo gear, I thought that the sound from my 8 track tapes was much better than my records had sounded on my old record player, so I figured the comparison would be the same compared to Bob's records.  This flawed conclusion was based on my comparison between my old 60's vintage monaural record player with a low quality ceramic phone cartridge and my somewhat better quality 8-track stereo.  It's all relative, and I guess it all boils down to what you become used to listening to.  Looking back, it becomes obvious that I was a bit lower on the audiophile food chain than Bob was.  So after bandying the debate over the advantages/disadvantages of records vs. tapes back and forth for a few weeks, Bob finally invited me over to his house to listen his stereo system and hear what it could do and to finally settle the argument.  I accepted Bob's gracious invitation and one day soon afterward, a few of us spent an afternoon at Bob's listening to some of his meticulously clean and well taken care of records, while sipping glassful after glassful of iced tea, offered by Bob's charming mother. 


Not long into the experience though, it became painfully clear to me that I could no longer make an intellectually legitimate claim that the fidelity of 8-track tapes were any competition for that obtained by a record played on a high quality turntable.  Bob's system was clearly head and shoulders above anything I ever owned.  The clean L.P. sound, without notable tape hiss, or drop outs, and the crisp clear high frequency response, was hard to deny.  My position had been based on comparing the sound from a mono record player to a stereo 8-Track tape player.  It was not a fair comparison, and I could see that now.  Not wanting to concede defeat, and admit that I was wrong however, I decided to continue the on-air debate, but instead spun it more toward the utility advantages of 8-track tapes over L.P. records. After all, I would point out, you couldn't play an album in your car, or carry it with you in a portable. My conclusion therefore, was that 8 tracks were "better", not because they sounded better necessarily, but simply because they were more portable.  I should've quit right there, as I had made my point, but I made an additional qualifying comment along the lines that you just couldn't play a record upside down.  Bob didn't dispute the other claims but he did challenge the notion that you couldn't play a record upside down.  We sort of let the debate drop at this point, and went about our normal routine.


At the time, Bob was taking machine shop at our local tech school, and unbeknownst to me, he started using his machining skills to put together a turntable that he could play upside down. He took a turntable from an old phonograph, not much different than my old one, and fabricated a threaded spindle and nut which could hold a record in place in an inverted position.  He then machined a counterweight for the tone arm which would hold the stylus needle against the record while inverted.  He then mounted the whole unit upside down and attached it to the overhead 1st floor joists in his basement.  Once he fine tuned the whole thing, Bob invited me to come over and witness first hand that a record could, in fact, be played upside down.  When we got there and saw Bob's contraption, we all got a good laugh.  Even Bob's dad got a chuckle out of the whole thing.  Bob then demonstrated on an old (Not one of his spotlessly clean and unscratched) record that it could be played in an inverted position.


Well ok Bob, you won that one, but I still would not concede, and continued on now about playing a record sideways, and in a moving car etc, etc. ad nauseam.  Bob was not about to go though the trouble to prove me wrong in all of those circumstances, so we pretty much let it drop. We eventually (some time in the 80's after CD's came along) came to a mutual understanding about the relative merits and drawbacks of tape vs. records.  Bob was, by that time, heavily engaged in comparing the sound quality between the "newfangled" Compact Disc and a 1/2 speed master L.P., and that was another story in itself.  To this day, we still laugh about that upside down record player.  If I run across Bob, I'll see if he still has the pictures that he took of it, and post them here.......


Update: Well, true to my word, I managed to run across Bob on ham radio one night and I broached the subject.  He did indeed take a picture of the inverted record player and he was gracious enough to scan it and send it to me.  So without further adieu, here it is, just click on the thumbnail to enlarge it:


invertedrecord.jpg (69087 bytes)