The Gas-driven Ferrograph

I have already brought up the subject of John Rothera (1916-1997) who was an alto songman in York Minster choir. The late Dr Francis Jackson (1917-2022) who was organist of York Minster remembered him.

John Rothera and his tape recorder

This anthology, containing music from the 16th century to the late twentieth, represents a part of the repertoire of the choir of York Minster in the daily sung services. The first five tracks were session recordings made by E.M.I. and issued on 78 r.p.m. Columbia records as part of the four part series An Anthology of English Church Music.

However, the majority of the recordings came about – one might say almost fortuitously – through the dedication and persistence of one who was a member of the choir for close on forty years and never lost a chance to make a tape recording of anything he considered of interest, and this included almost anything at any time. It is not easy to get at his reason for accumulating what in the end amounted to a bewildering collection of every kind of item that goes into the making of a cathedral service – not only canticles, anthems, hymns and psalms, but the reading of lessons or snippets of sermons. No stone was left unturned to procure the desired catch, and this is probably the chief attribute possessed by John Rothera (1916-1997) which enabled his amassing of things which were of interest to him, which included non-musical things such as ordnance survey maps (of which he had the complete set) countless photographs and even empty Woodbine cigarette packets (collected during his smoking days) and Bovril jars which he could not bear to throw away. This will make it clear that he lived a bachelor existence, and his activities extended far into the not-so-small hours of the night, causing his day to begin around noon, except on Sunday when he had to be roused – usually by a chorister – for the service at 10.30 a.m. His heavy Ferrograph tape recorder was permanently resident at his place in the cantoris choir stalls (where he sang for the whole of his songmanship), and a microphone slung between the two sides of the choir was a permanency for many years until it was pronounced unsightly and had to be removed.

Hence came the enormous welter of things recorded, naturally very varied in quality and always liable to be ruined by a missed lead, a flat or sharp note, coughing or other extraneous interferences but, on occasion, an acceptable or even an inspired performance. But all of them, perfect or not so perfect are the result of a live and meaningful act, not a studio product, all carefully edited, and this, one hopes, can be discerned whatever the quality of performance. Also one would hope for a certain measure of indulgence by any listener who may detect a flaw or two in a piece which was otherwise too good to reject.

It was the policy to use the best of music of all periods in the choir’s repertoire, and thus there was always a wide variety of style to feed the interests of the singers. It was also the policy to conduct items which were unaccompanied, but for the choir to look after itself when the organ was used. It is somewhat remarkable then that, unconducted, there was a high degree of unanimity for the most part, as well as inspiration proceeding from the knowledge, understanding and musicianship possessed by the individual choir members.

John Rothera’s interests were wide and varied and included taking up Greek at an advanced age under the tutelage of a student at the university who was a choral scholar in the choir. Astronomy was also one of his absorbing subjects, causing him to obtain a telescope which severely restricted his movements in his living room. He also gained permission to ride his bicycle in pedestrian areas of York on the plea of reduced walking mobility. A notice displayed on the cycle proclaimed the fact. He was always liable to make illicit recordings of orchestras, and on one occasion his persistence went too far and his tape was confiscated by the orchestra’s manager who had already issued him with a warning.

His eccentricities enlivened the scene wherever he was, and here his set purpose, his determination and staying power have left us with a wealth of material which, after the somewhat herculean task of playing them and choosing, affords us a glimpse of cathedral life and music which is absorbing and unique.

I knew John well when I was at school through our common love of English church music. One could go and visit him almost any time, and often he would be holding court with friends from the church music world, or indeed those with any common interest. He was certainly “on the Spectrum”, given his focused interests and technical talent. His machine was sometimes unkindly called the gas-driven Ferrograph. In actual fact, this was one of the most advanced and best tape recorders of its time. The recording level was set according to peak volume rather than the automatic level control on more recent recording machines, which gives a crappy result. It records via an external microphone in mono, and the type of microphone is chosen according to the intended use. John’s favourite was the “ball and biscuit”.This microphone (see the technical information if you are interested) took some of the recordings in a pair of CD’s of York Minster choir which were collated and remastered from John’s tapes. When John had to transport his heavy machine, he put it precariously on the back of his bicycle. I think I saw him do so on one occasion, but not by riding the bicycle, which would have been too dangerous. He would walk and use the bicycle as a trolley to bear the weight of the tape recorder.

Sound recording buffs often debate the virtues of analogical against digital recordings. I am not a sound engineer, and the difference of quality is extremely subtle. I have not listened to anything other than digital since a CD player took over in my life from a cassette tape recorder – in something like 1986.

Nearly fifty years after those days, I recently invested in a digital sound recorder made by Tascam, the DR-05X which was recommended to me by an English organist who is also a professional sound engineer. He was merciful on my budget! It is about the size of a mobile phone and can be hand-held or can be mounted on a tripod to avoid vibration noise.

It has given me some excellent results in my experiments in recording my house organ. Apart from stereo recording, it has all the refinements of the Ferrograph and more. There are other recorders on the market for comparison. It doesn’t flatten the rear tyre of a bicycle! It goes into a pocket and runs on two AA batteries.

On my YouTube channel Romantia Christiana, between my sailing videos, I have done some organ recordings with my mobile phone and a Logitech webcam with stereo microphone that operates through standard Windows parameters. I look forward to getting the adjustments right on my Tascam and using video editing software to synchronise the sound with a video.

Well, I am not John Rothera. My life is different from his was. People in fifty years time will have other devices – or none at all. I am grateful for the progress of technology. John taught me a lot about recording, getting the level right and the microphone in the right place – not too close and not too far. I remember the large loudspeaker in the corner of his downstairs room, which would do justice to the recordings when he played them back. “Ooh! You can hear the fundamental!” as the 16ft or even the 32ft pedal stops were caught on tape and faithfully reproduced. The fundamental is the basis of the harmonic series of any musical note. I remember that speaker as I bought a modern subwoofer for my own hi-fi. My world is digital, and John’s was analogical. Different times, different technologies.

The organist who recommended me the Tascam, Richard McVeigh, is a professional with sound and video technology. His house organ is amazing. See his videos. A full professional kit of microphones, cables and recording equipment will fill a car, let alone the back of a bicycle! The sky is the limit with the budget. I will never be a professional in this field, but I think I will get better results with my little gadget.

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1 Response to The Gas-driven Ferrograph

  1. Thanks for your homage and recollections of John.
    I knew him during my time as a decani alto songman in academic ’75-’76. He was not a strong singer but was, as you describe, a remarkable character.
    During evensong, John, when seated on his cantoris bench would frequently disappear from my decani view only to emerge scarlet faced and chewing–I was later advised–a mouthful of altoids.
    Be well!

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