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Dig That Reel Flat Response!
May 1956 Popular Electronics

May 1956 Popular Electronics

May 1956 Popular Electronics Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Electronics, published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

This 1956-vintage Popular Electronics magazine article by techno-kidder Carl Kohler taught me a new word - "darb," as in "Isn't that a darb, now." According to Merriam-Webster, a darb is a slang term for something superlative. Mr. Kohler penned many tongue-in-cheek stories for Popular Electronics in the 1950s and 1960s, all of them based on his antics involving the latest electronics gadget and Mrs. Kohler's reaction to them. Maybe they are real (in this case, "reel") and maybe not, but regardless, they are funny and even if made up, could easily be actual experiences. A list of the other Kohler sagas is given below.

Other Carl Kohler masterpieces: "The Great Electron-Pedantic Project," "Dig That Reel Flat Response," "I Married a Superheterodyne," "Unpopular Electronics," "Operation Chaos," "Thin Air, My Foot," "High Tide in the Tweeter," "The R/C Cloud," "Hi-Fi Guest List," "Kool-Keeping Kwiz ," "Boner Box," and "McWatts." Also, be sure to read "Carl Kohler's Life & Times per Son, Christoverre."

Dig That Reel Flat Response!

By Carl Kohler

It had to happen sometime.

Dig That Reel Flat Response!, May 1956 Popular Electronics - RF CafeAs an ex-musician, whose union withdrawal-card has gathered dust in the company of a tarnished cornet, I've long entertained the certainty that sooner or later I would saunter into my electronics jobber's store for a handful of transistors - and emerge lugging a late model tape recorder.

It finally happened a couple of weeks ago. So I wasn't a mite surprised at all when friend wife caught me crooning fondly over a professional magnetic tape recorder. In fact, I was prepared to be caught.

Friend wife batted her inscrutable brown eyes and stood as motionless as a Mohawk war lord while I fiddled with the push-button keyboard and nervously threaded tape into the instrument.

"We already have a movie projector," she said, finally, in the disillusioned voice of a long-suffering woman whose hubby has just brought home their fourth pool table. "We need another projector like we need another circuit around this humming warren of wire. If you're going to fling the long-green in all directions, why can't you, at least, throw it away on something we haven't yet blown fuses on?"

I dredged up an insincere chuckle.

"Now, relax. If you'll just tune down the verbal impedance and favor this fine instrument with a-"

"Relax, he says." She smiled a thin smile of self-pity, and snatching up one of the reels from the coffee table, held a foot of tape against the light - her film-editing squint working overtime. "Gruss Gott!" she yelped, "No pictures on the film even! The boy buys a big, fat, expensive projector and plans to run unexposed, undeveloped film through it yet!"

"This . . . is . . . a . . . tape recorder," I said in cleanly geometric English. "Stop acting like a ward matron in a funny house and give a listen." I turned the recorder to 'on,' jabbed the playback key, and the soothing, full-toned chords of the overture from La Boheme swelled into the room - courtesy Wilhelm Furtwangler, the Vienna Philharmonic, and electronic-hi-fi enchantment.

"Isn't that a darb now!" I whispered, under the dramatic sweep of the orchestration.

She dropped beside me, watching the 1200-foot reel of tape slowly rotating to the accompanying surge of melody.

"Phonograph music on a strip of paper!

My gosh, isn't that the craziest ever!"

"Plastic, magnetized tape," I corrected. "B-But we already have a phono-"

I hoisted an interrupting hand.

"Lady, you haven't heard anything! You are about to ear-witness one of the magics of the electronic age!" I switched reels, putting a blank one into the recorder. Thrusting the wide-range, cardioid microphone in front of her awe-stricken face, I flicked the "record" button and bent a companionable leer upon her. "Say something," I invited.

"W-What'll I say?"

"Oh, give with a profound thought, a crisply new idea, a cleanly enunciated series of well-chosen words worthy of the occasion."

"I-I feel kinda silly!" she shrilled, gaping coyly at the mike. "Uh ... hello, there! (titter) Gee, does this thing really ... I mean ... oh, I don't know what to say! It seems so foolish! (titter)."

Dig That Reel Flat Response! Carl Kohler - RF Cafe"Thank you, Miss Verbal Fumble of 1956," I said, and stopped the tape. Reversing the reel and watching the counter-dial, I played it back after I was able to start it from the approximate beginning. Together, we sat listening.

"... Miss Verbal Fumble of 1956," finished the tape playback. I stopped the tape, snapped off the recorder.

"Oh, that's simply marvelous!" she cooed. "It's fraught with possibilities," I admitted. "Armed with this rare instrument, one might enjoy all manner of merry fun and elaborate mischief. Surely, you'll agree that, heretofore, we've led rather dull lives; and purchasing this quality precision instru-"

Friend wife transfixed me with the pitiless stare of the natural-born, dyed-in-the-balance-sheets bookkeeper. "Before you wax sickeningly poetic about it, boy, let's hear what this little sound-caper does to the budget. Come on, all bush-beating aside: what's the damage?"

"Might as well hang for a horse-thief as be heel-twitching high for candy snatching," I quipped, my effort at light, gay-hearted whimsey momentarily putting me in the Noel Coward league ... for valorous attempt, if not notably successful comedy. "As dear, old penny-pinching dad used to put it," I continued, somewhat desperately stalling for time and a good out, "quaality is -" here, I slathered a phoney, nasal Down East twang into my golden, South Los Angeles native dialect, and did my absolute darndest to grin engagingly with a bucolic twist of lip, "- as quaality costs, heh, heh, heh!"

"What's the cost, heh, heh, heh?"

I told her.

"Great Galloping Bankruptcy!" she screeched, her attention riveted upon the recorder with much the same awe the Conquistadores must have regarded golden Inca altars. "Here comes macaroni three times weekly!"

"I'll eat like a bird," I vowed solemnly. "What do they build into these gismos to make them small invested-fortunes - pure platinum mainsprings or something?" Quickly and deftly, she swept a fly off the polished surface of the instrument before his feet could bruise the gleaming finish.

"Well, this model has four separate heads," I stated, importantly. "And those four heads -"

"... together with your two make six," she chimed. "And what's that got to do with the high price of pretty music, hah?"

Ignoring her cruel thrust, I continued to list the definite advantages of a really professional tape recorder.

"Well, when you reach the end of a track, there's no need to fuss with changing reels. With an erase head and a record-playback head for each track - you merely touch the conveniently built button and, presto, the tape reverses its motion recording. Or it plays back the second track without further fiddling or bother."

"Bully for old four-heads, here!" She drew the drapes to protect the gleaming instrument from the harsh effects of smog-filtered sunlight. "Don't quit when you're winning. What else does this sing-box have that I can shout praises about to the other old folks when we get to the poorhouse, Buster?"

That did it.

"Not that it'll mean any more to you than International Morse means to a pack of symbol-deaf aliens from another galaxy, but I could mention that this baby has a hysteresis motor independent of line voltage fluctuations, electromagnetic dynamic braking, two high-impedance and one low-impedance input ... and the whole works is relay-operated and triple-fused against improper operation, which it'll only get over my stone-cold dead body." I paused to change the air in my lungs and glare intensely.

Abashed, humbled and probably wondering what I was talking about (but not certain it hadn't been something vastly, terribly important beyond her frail grasp upon things electronic), she sat contritely in my lap and gazed at the recorder with much the same expression as I imagine the aborigines must have had when they spotted their first aircraft. Then, she turned the wonderment on me.

"I guess you know just about everything there is to know about these things, huh?"

I tried not to bridle proudly. "Oh, I wouldn't say that exactly," I hedged. "But, with pliers and soldering iron and a faithful copy of Popular Electronics, I think I can promise to keep things humming."

A lot of gibberish and an equal amount of good stuff has passed through the recording heads since then. We've found many, many uses - both entertaining and sheerly functional - for the tape recorder, and have learned much. I've used it to record lectures, concerts and meetings at my R/C club. Friend wife, after getting the hang of it, has used the instrument for recording various club meetings, club entertainments, and to begin cataloging some of her favorite social and family clambakes into a very fascinating (if somewhat occasionally discomforting) library of human interest and events. To date, the growing library contains gems like The Afternoon Mother Arrived from Michigan; The Night Carl Dominated the Party Thrown for Chuck Bradley's Fortieth Birthday; Disconnected Conversation with the New Neighbors; and a weird little thing comprised of ungodly sounds entitled simply, Noises Recorded in the Backyard at Night.

As a night-worker who is not at his best until he's taken aboard several gallons of coffee around eleven in the morning, I feel justified in my present plan to secretly destroy her favorite - a snide bit of unfair recording called What a Husband Sounds Like at Seven-Thirty When Unexpectedly Awakened. My groggy responses generally indicate a cretin badly in need of either rest or strong stimulant, and I'm tired of listening to callous friends snicker at the playback performances. However, I have a surprise which I plan to unload one of these nights. It's titled: One-Sided Comments from A Wife Who Thinks Her Husband Is Still Listening to Her. A real wowser calculated to put her in her place!



Posted March 1, 2024
(updated from original post on 4/24/2017)

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