Part 3. Purchasing an antique disc music box
The disc music box was introduced in the mid 1890s. These machines, which involved little hand worksmanship, were mass produced in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. I won't subject you to a long list of brands; it would be a little like trying to list every marque of antique automobile and although an Overland, for example, was a rugged car it's unlikely you'll ever be required to restore one. So here's a short list: in the United States -- Regina, Olympia and Criterion; in Europe -- Polyphon, Symphonion, Kalliope, Mira and Stella.
These antique music boxes were made in sizes capable of playing anything from around a 5 inch disc to around a 33 inch disc. When collectors refer to, say, a fifteen and a half inch Regina they're talking about the size of the disc and not the size of the cabinet.
What if every automobile in the world required a different size and type of tire? That's exactly the situation with disc music boxes. The cut of the star wheels, and the tuning of the comb, were different on each brand. The discs don't swap between brands, with the following well-known exceptions:
Regina and Polyphon will swap in 8", 11" and 15 1/2" sizes.
Olympia and Criterion will swap if you adapt the center spindle in your machine.
Kalliope and Monopol will swap in some small sizes.
Later on I will discuss the availability of records. For now, just memorize the above.
The workings of the antique disc music box are fairly intuitive, as you can see from the image of a 15 1/2" Regina below. The disc is rotated by a sprocket at the rim of the bedplate. (On smaller boxes the disc was usually rotated by the center spindle.) As the disc rotates it snags the star wheels in the star wheel gantry. The star wheel then plucks the tooth. The disc is held in place by the pressure bar. The dishing wheels put the proper bend in the disc so that the projections on the disc attack the star wheels at just the right angle.
It is at this point that I must re-introduce you to the dreaded damper demon. For those who bypassed the section about cylinder music boxes, or those whose brains are still reeling from the damper discussion therein, let me repeat what the dampers are supposed to do, because you need to know at least this much. Then you can skip the next two paragraphs. If a tooth is plucked while it is still vibrating it will emit a blood-curdling squeak (treble note) or buzz (bass note). This sound is so noisome, so distasteful, that it has been known to drive antique music box repairmen to the insane asylum. Don't believe me? Look down your street--how many music box repairmen do you see? The dampers stop the tooth from vibrating.
Each manufacturer of antique disc music boxes employed a different damper system. Below is a picture of a damper rail from a 12 1/4" Regina. You can't see the dampers once they are installed. What you can see, at least on a Regina, is the bottom of the rail and, if you squint, the tips of the dampers extending microscopically beyond the tips of the teeth. The secret of the Regina dampers worked like this: there is a little dimple pressed into the damper. The damper stalk was wedged against the side of the star wheel. When the star wheel turned it hit the dimple and pushed the damper against the side of the tooth, and then away. That was the Regina system. Mira, by contrast, used a set of rocker arms and a fine wire that contacted the tip of the tooth.
There's a lot of fine adjustment to the dampers, as to how much they're bent, or as to how they're timed. I've heard repairmen use the phrase "swallowing the dampers," which would certainly be a wicked case of musical indigestion. I told you that bad dampers squeak but there's an opposite dilemmma, as the swallowing analogy suggests. Let's say that your damper is adjusted so stringently that it never comes off the tooth; in other words, the comb is overdampered rather than underdampered. In this case that note becomes inactive, all you may hear will be a dull thud as it is struck by the star wheel.
Probably the most frequently asked question with respect to antique disc music boxes is this, "What's the difference between single comb and double comb." I'm going to show you.
This is single comb:
This is double comb:
That was easy. There are actually diffent types of double combs, if we think hard enough about it. The most common type, and the type most people think of when they think of double comb, is the arrangement on the 15 1/2" Regina we saw above. When the star wheel turns it hits both combs at the same time. The combs are tuned slightly off from each other, yielding a rich, deep ethereal sound. Some people call this double comb, double strike. In truth, most people think of double combs very little; they're usually more worried about weightier issues, like international relations. However, you can also have double comb single strike, where you have two combs, but each star wheel lines up with one and only one comb. This type of double comb was used on the 20" Regina.
Is double comb really better than single comb? In a word, yes, All things being equal, double combs are not twice as loud as single combs, as old advertising sometimes suggested, but they are more satisfying, more room-filling. Single combs tend to sound tinny. A double comb machine will set you back fifty per cent or more over the cost of a single comb machine, but the difference is well worth it. Once in a while a seller will offer an exceptional single comb machine with the phrase, 'Single comb sounds like double.' You might consider such a box. Also, if your budget allows for only a small machine be aware that many small machines like the 8" Regina never came with a double comb option.
The antique disc music box isn't as delicate as its cylinder predecessor, but there are still a few things you should inspect before you purchase. Look for evidence of rust on the comb, and for oxidation on the leads, just like you did with the Swiss box. Rotate the star wheels to make sure that they are turning freely, if they're not, this usually indicates bent star wheels and/or mangled dampers. If this is a double comb, double strike machine, place a hand over the teeth of each comb as you turn the star wheels; this will let you hear how the dampers and such are doing on the opposite comb. One thing that's very hard to see is wear on the comb. Each time the steel star wheel hits the tooth something has to give, and it's always the tooth. Over the years the star wheel bites a groove into the tip of the tooth. Removing metal, as we remember, will de-tune the tooth, and in extreme cases the wear may become so significant that we get the lonesome star wheel paradox, where the star wheel can't quite reach its partner. Wear can be especially pronounced on coin-operated machines, which saw a lot of commercial use. Yes, the comb can be honed but you'd rather not go there.
I recommend you purchase a double comb machine playing a disc of at least fifteen inches, if you can afford it. Prices right now for a machine of this size are starting at about $3500. What brand? Should you buy a Ford or a Chevy? Is a Symphonion more reliable than a Toyota? Isn't a Regina the best music box?
As you probably guessed, with an antique music box everything depends upon condition. You should buy the Ford in good condition. Or the Symphonion in good condition.
Regina was the biggest selling brand in the United States, so that's what most people start out wanting, since it's what they've heard of. Quite a testimonial to brand name recognition, ninety years after the fact. After the company quit making music boxes they segued into vacuum cleaners; you probably remember the Regina vacuum cleaner, even if you never saw the early, hand-pumped one your grandmother muscled about. The Regina company was actually begun by Polyphon; a Polyphon employee by the name of Brachhausen was sent over to supervise the Regina factory in New Jersey, and the early Reginas were nothing more than Polyphons in disguise. A neighbor of Brachhausen named F.G. Otto, who had been in the electrical parts business, saw how well the music boxes were selling and spun off his own box, the Criterion, which later morphed into the Olympia.
The Regina wasn't any better or worse than any of these other antique music boxes, but there is one type of Regina that the collectors esteem above all others: the late, short bedplate machine. These exquisite machines, made in the teens, are acoustically superior to anything else that Regina ever did. Many are associated with pretty serpentine cases. Rather than try to describe them I'm going to show you a picture:
This is a long bedplate:
This is a short bedplate:
If I had to choose just one antique disc music box my personal preference would be an 18" Mira. Made by Mermod Freres in Switzerland, the Mira is known for its brilliant tone and resonant bass. Once you hear a Mira you're hooked. Mermod Freres also made a machine with a projectionless disc called the Stella, which had a beautiful tone, but is a notorious tooth-breaker. I do not recommend that you purchase a Stella.
Availability of music can sometimes be a consideration, but often isn't. There are a lot of Regina discs floating around, plus Regina discs in many sizes have been recut for years. Someone in Europe has been reproducing Polyphon discs. A man in California had been recutting all sorts of metal records, although that enterprise has come to a halt, at least for a while. Music box specialist dealers try to maintain a large inventory of discs; one lady in New York State advertises that she keeps over 1500 records. If I was buying an obscure box like an 13" Komet I'd check to see if anyone had discs on hand before I put out good money, but if I was springing for a 15" Regina I wouldn't worry very much.
NEXT: PART FOUR: ANTIQUE MUSIC BOX REPAIR
BACK: PART TWO: THE ANTIQUE CYLINDER MUSIC BOX
BACK: PART ONE: PURCHASING AN ANTIQUE MUSIC BOX
Copyright 2005 by Lynn Bilton