Stefan Kudelski, Who Made Sound Recording Portable, Dies

Jan 29, 2013
Originally published on February 4, 2013 1:29 pm

While few outside the film and radio industries may recognize the name Stefan Kudelski, his Nagra recorder — meaning "will record" in Kudelski's native Polish — transformed the world of sound recording for radio, television and film.

Kudelski, inventor of the first portable professional sound recorder, died Saturday in Switzerland at the age of 84, according to a statement from the Kudelski Group.

Before the Nagra, sound recording on movie sets required devices that "took several people to carry them around," says Randy Thom, director of sound design for Skywalker Sound in Marin County, Calif. "They typically had to be transported on a truck."

That made a Nagra set up — weighing in between 8 and 20 pounds, depending on accessories — profoundly freeing for filmmakers, particularly because the device reached the market just as cameras were shrinking.

"It was one of the tools that made the French New Wave possible, by allowing the young directors in the late 50s and early 60s ... to shoot a scene almost anywhere they could think of shooting one," Thom tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block.

And the Nagra was tough. "You could drop them and they would still run. They would run in very cold weather and they'd run in ... humid conditions," Thom says. "You could take them just about anywhere."

Born in Poland in 1929, Kudelski fled the Nazi occupation with his family in 1939, eventually ending up in Switzerland. He built his first tape recorder while a student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

He invented his Nagra device, which recorded on 1/4-inch magnetic tape, in 1951, and filled orders for his first customers, Radio Lausanne and Radio Geneva, in 1952, according to the Swiss company Nagra Audio.

Kudelski went on to win five Academy Awards and two Emmys for his contributions to sound engineering.

While digital audio recorders have largely overtaken tape in the film industry, sound designers still use them – particularly for recording very high-volume sounds like gunshots, Thom says. And no matter how small digital recorders become, Thoms says sound engineers still "get a bit of a starry eyed look" at the mention of the Nagra.

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A moment now to remember an inventor and engineer who revolutionized sound recording for film, television, radio and helped shaped how this program sounded for many years - Stefan Kudelski, the inventor of the Nagra professional tape recorder, died over the weekend at age 84. His invention was portable, using quarter-inch magnetic tape, battery-powered and the quality was fantastic. Stefan Kudelski was born in Poland.

In fact, the word Nagra in Polish means will record. His family fled the Nazi occupation and ended up in Switzerland, which is where he created his line of tape recorders. And here to talk about why they're so revered is Randy Thom, director of sound design at Skywalker Sound. Randy, thanks so much for being with us.

RANDY THOM: You're welcome.

CORNISH: Stefan Kudelski came up with the prototype in 1951 and then the machines evolved in quality over the years. What made them so revolutionary for film?

THOM: Well, for film, the Nagra opened up a whole kind of shooting and kind of sound recording because it was so small and so portable. Before the Nagra showed up, the audio recorders that were used to record the actors speaking on movie sets were huge. They typically had to be transported on a truck and so it limited the kinds of locations that you could easily record sound for a film.

CORNISH: So you could be nimble with a Nagra.

THOM: Absolutely. You could say that it was one of the tools that made the French new wave possible by allowing the young directors in the late '50s and early '60s in France and elsewhere to shoot a scene almost anywhere they could think of shooting one because they had this beautiful little Swiss-made recorder made by Mr. Kudelski.

CORNISH: You know, it's funny, we're talking about them as little and portable. I'm old enough to remember when Nagras were used here at NPR by engineers out in the field and, yes, they were portable, but by today's standards, they were big, heavy contraptions. You needed sort of a brace to hold it on your body if you didn't want to kill your back and it took how many batteries to run one?

THOM: A dozen batteries, D-cells.

CORNISH: So it was a pretty heavy proposition.

THOM: Way heavier than what we're used to now. Now you can have a great recorder that literally fits in the palm of your hand and just weighs a few ounces. The Nagra weighed, you know, somewhere between eight and, you know, 15 pounds, maybe 20 pounds if you had a bunch of accessories to go with it, as I usually did when I was recording sound on location for "Apocalypse Now" and "The Empire Strikes Back," 25 years ago.

CORNISH: And the cost? All that quality came with a price.

THOM: All of us coveted the Nagra so much. We wanted to have a Nagra. But they were really expensive. They were several thousand dollars.

CORNISH: I remember it being more. I think I remember being told on one gig, that's basically the equivalent of a small car that we have with us right now.

THOM: Yeah, I think that's right.

CORNISH: Were they finicky machines, Randy, or tough? Did they hold up to lots of wear?

THOM: The great things about the Nagra was that they were tough and you could drop them and they would still run. They would run in very cold weather. They'd run in the Amazon, humid conditions. You could take them just about anywhere and they would record sound for you.

CORNISH: The Nagras that you used recording for film, how long would the tape be that it would hold?

THOM: Well, it would depend on the speed at which you recorded. If you recorded at 7 and a half inches per second a reel of tape would last about 30 minutes.

CORNISH: And do you remember a moment when you were shooting when, ahh, the tape ran out just at a key moment?

THOM: Yes. You had to bring that up, didn't you? Well, I remember we were doing a pickup shoot on "Apocalypse Now" and a very long take in the middle of one very long take, the tape ran out and I heard that little fwap, fwap, fwap of the end of the tape inside the Nagra about five seconds before Mr. Sheen finished his performance.

CORNISH: Well, Randy Thom, thanks so much for talking with us.

THOM: Oh, you're welcome.

CORNISH: That's Randy Thom, director of sound design at Skywalker Sound. We were remembering Stefan Kudelski, the inventor of the Nagra professional tape recorder. Mr. Kudelski died over the weekend. He was 84. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.