More like an excercise in watchmaking than an audio recorder, the tiny and very collectable
Nagra SN is yet another delightfully tactile object from this famous Swiss company.
Tim Blackham's very early and un-legeneded example is shown above on the Left and my own
later full track mono* version is shown on the Right. These truly pocket sized reel-to-reel tape
recorders were in actual fact proper professional sound recorders in almost every respect, and
were a very far cry from every other similar sized audio tape recorder. While various 'toy'
pocket tape recorders of the 'Misson Impossible type' made in the 1960's and 1970's produced
results varying from excruciating to just plain poor, this little Nagra gave true Hi-Fi quality
recordings. Indeed, with built-in 50 Volt capacitor microphone powering and a sophisticated
capstan servo system, the Nagra SNN was quite capable of making in-the-field broadcast
quality recordings at the relatively low speed of 3 3/4 inches per second on 1/8 inch wide tape.
(Which was actually just re-reeled Compact Cassette tape - see below.)
Reputedly ordered by J.F.K. in the early 1960's for use by various branches of the F.B.I. and
C.I.A., and used by many organizations both legal and otherwise, the SN (Serie Noir - Black
Series) became very popular in the film world as a concealed location recorder before the
arrival of reliable radio microphones. Very simple and reliable in use; you just plugged the
microphone or line input lead into the machine and then pressed in the run lever. Presence of a
microphone or line plug (fitted with an internal link) put the machine into record mode. Remove
the plug and the machine would return to playback mode. Like most location recorders of the
time it didn't have fast forward (not actually needed), and rewind was done simply by pulling
out the run lever and then hand turning a miniature fold out crank 'starting handle' (seen in the
stowed position between the reels in the lower image). However, this rather quaint rewind
procedure proved to be perfectly usable in the field, and of course saved the batteries and extra
mechanism. Off-tape only monitoring was available via the headphone socket. The level meter
also measured the off-tape signal so you had a visual and audible indication that things were
OK. Battery condition was checked by pressing a small button near the meter.
My suspicion is that the un-marked versions as shown below were the early original 'spy'
machines, and the ones with threading diagrams and the variable AGC knob were the later
commercial film (or sound broadcast) recorders, but I could be wrong...
The Nagra SN Minature Audio Tape Recorder
Above is another view of Mr Blackham's unusual (ex-FBI/CIA?) Nagra SNN. As far as I can
see, apart from not having the various anodised legends on the deck plate, also absent are the
adjustable AGC threshold knob, various head adjustment features and the transport lock-out
'switch' next to the meter. The cover 'hinge' arrangement differs slightly from later machines, as
does the 'patina' of the anodised finish. A most interesting version, has anyone got another?
(Apparently yes, I have recently been advised - so there are a few in circulation.)
Click on either of the above images for more information.
* For those who are looking at the stereo versions of this recorder often to be found on 'Eday',
do beware, as It is unlikely that these will be the recent versions designed to record high quality
music. There are now apparently four versions of the Nagra 'SN':
Nagra SNN - full track recording at 3 3/4 and 1 7/8 i.p.s. - high quality recording in Mono
Nagra SNS - half track recording at 1 7/8 and 15/16 i.p.s. - surveillance quality recording in
Nagra SNST - Stereo recording at 1 7/8 and 15/16 i.p.s. - surveillance quality recording in
Nagra SNSTR (recent) - Stereo recording at 3 3/4 and 1 7/8 i.p.s. - high quality recording in
Apparently for covert surveillance use it was preferable to have two separate recording
channels to have some chance of capturing a muffled or distant conversations. So these older
stereo machines will therefore be optimized for speech recording only, and will also run at
low speed for maximum recording time and not fidelity. Actually Nagra made a special
playback loudspeaker system (25100 DSP) with built in equalization to compensate for the quite
limited frequency response of these recorders. A standard mono Nagra SNN running at 3 and
3/4, like the ones on this page are capable of truly Hi-Fi recording, but the slow speed SNS and
the SNST stereo versions are not. Perhaps it might be possible to convert these machines for
Hi-Fi use, but this would involve replacing most of the electronics.
Cheaper to buy a rather better stereo IV-S in the first place!
Tape for the Nagra SN
Some time ago I wrote:
I have been amazed at the prices people have been willing to pay on that wild west auction site
for the little reels of tape for this machine. When I first acquired my own SNN from the BBC
naturally I wanted to play with it and make some recordings. I knew that the tape it used was
basically just re-reeled cassette tape, so I approached a tape duplication house in the UK and
quite easily obtained a few part used 'pancakes'. These are the un-flanged bulk reels of 1/8th-
Inch tape (about 10" dia) that are automatically wound into pre-recorded cassette shells. I then
contacted Nagra UK (who are always helpful) and obtained for around £10 each several pairs of
empty plastic reels. It then was quite a simple matter to wind tape off the pancake and onto the
Nagra plastic reel (by using the hand crank on the machine).
Of course that was when cassettes were still in production, as was magnetic recording tape.
Since then, as many of us found out, there has been an almost complete and sudden shut down of
recording tape manufacture. So perhaps those 'wild west' prices were not so daft after all...