Victor's Orthophonic Credenza - the King of Machines?

Credenza from Voice of the Victor

The above "Credenza" is from the cover of The Voice of the Victor (February 1927). Notice that it has four doors. The earliest Credenzas to be shipped from the factory had only two doors.

Orthophonic Victrola Guide from 1926--a booklet of 16 pages. Over 20 visuals covering the unique "re-enterant horn," proper lubrication (an oiling diagram!), the lid support knob (with air vent), inserting the needle into the Orthophonic soundbox, lowering the soundbox, lifting the motor out, the swing tube, adjusting the tube, mounting the turntable. It explains how the automatic brake is triggered by eccentric groove discs. It explains how to take care of records. A section covers the tungs-tone stylus or needle. A section discusses how to loosen lock nuts to prevent lids closing with a bumping sound. It explains how to insert a small wire into the lid support's air vent to remove dirt that may be clogging the vent. It explains how to wind the motor down a few times after lubrication "to assure free working of all parts and re-distribution of lubricant." It talks about mounting the soundbox in the correct manner onto the soundbox crook.

In late 1925, the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, introduced to the phonograph market four Orthophonic models. The Credenza, Colony, Consolette, and Granada--these were revolutionary! The largest was the Credenza, renamed the 8-30 within a year. It became Victor's "flagship" model during the so-called Orthophonic era, from late 1925 to 1929 or so, which are the early years of electric recording. Only Victor used the term "Orthophonic." Other major companies coined their own words for their own "electric" models. By "electric," I don't mean that the motors were run by electricity. Rather, records were finally being made in studios by the Western Electric microphone process, resulting in a richer and fuller sound. New machines were needed to play these records. The Credenza--or 8-30--is among the finest quality Victrolas. It is an amazing machine.

In England, interest in acoustic phonographs endured longer than in America. Some collectors claim that models made by the English Gramophone Company and the E. M.Ginn Company are the best-sounding. However, no American company produced a finer machine than the Credenza.

The Orthophonic Credenza was introduced to the buying and listening public on "Victor Day," which was November 2, 1925. Days ahead of time, newspaper and magazine advertisements throughout the country urged music lovers to go to their local Victor dealers on November 2 to hear the new electrically recorded records on a new Orthophonic machine. On this date, each Victrola dealer in America was supposed to have in his store at least one Orthophonic machine for display and demonstration purposes. Could customers take home new machines as early as November 2? Probably not. Victor workers must have struggled to place one demonstration model into each dealer's shop by the November 2 deadline. Customers had to place orders, and many of the new Orthophonic machines were sold by December (whether they were in homes by Christmas is unknown), allowing Victor in 1926 to declare excellent sales for the year 1925. What a contrast! The year 1924 had been terrible for the company. The revolution in the industry caused by the microphone may have saved the Victor company. It meant new machines, new records. Profits were excellent in the late 1920s.

Electrically recorded discs had actually been issued by Victor as early as May 1925 but the record-buying public was not told that these were "electric." It was kept a secret. After all, the new machines were not ready so early, so why inform the public about a new product that could not be played properly? When played on the new machines, electric records had more impressive volume than the old acoustic-made records as well as expanded fidelity. In comparison, old acoustic records played on old Victrolas sounded thin indeed.

Again, the new records had been made with a microphone in the studio. Microphones replaced the old recording horns that had been used for past decades during sessions. An electric process was used only for the making of a record in a studio. Playback--playing the record in the home--was another matter. The new Victor machines did not reproduce the music electrically, not at first. Instead, the machines used acoustic principles to achieve impressive sound. Steel needles were still used--no electric pick-ups, no diamond styli. The new mechanical, or acoustic, Victrolas had specially designed sound boxes and internal horns. Whereas all earlier Victrola models had sound boxes with thin mica sheets as the vibrating diaphragms to generate the sound, the new Orthophonic Victrola sound boxes had a special thin aluminum diaphragm (I use the term "sound box"--sometimes "Sound-Box"--because that is how Victor literature refers to this part of the machine; Victor engineers did not use the term "reproducer").  The large internal horn of the Orthophonic Victrola had a special "re-entrant" design based on the ideal logarithmic horn, but folded back upon itself.  Its design permits the passage of the large bass sound waves.

An air-tight design was developed from the small vibrating diaphragm to the large open end of the internal horn.  A restored Orthophonic Victrola can have amazing sound reproduction. It is an impressive sound even by today's standards.

The arrival of Orthophonic models meant that earlier acoustic phonographs were obsolete.  You may play the newer records on the older machines, but the crude mica diaphragms do not adequately reproduce the higher fidelity and volume residing in the electrically made records. You will not hear a rich sound. Likewise, you may play the old records on the new machines, but there is no advantage to this. The heavy sound box might harm the old records. So if you own both types of Victrolas--one from before 1925, and one from the Orthophonic era--you might as well play the older records on the old-type Victrola. Play the electric records made from 1925 to 1930 on Orthophonic machines.

The earliest Credenza model had only two doors in front, but in less than a year this was replaced by a four-door model.  Why the change in door design? We can only speculate since no documents have surfaced that explain why the change was made. But it must have been awkward to have to open the two huge doors to have access to the storage space in the machines. Sometimes a person wants access to the storage space without playing music, and it is obviously easier to open little doors than to swing open huge doors. Also, with the two door model, the storage space is exposed whenever you play records. This might have been distracting to some serious listeners of music. Here is another change: whereas in early machines the turntable sits in the middle of the machine, in later machines the turntable is off-center.. By moving the turntable a few inches over, engineers created a space for stacking records. Some of these late machines even have "lifters" that hold the records an inch or so above the motor board, making it easy to pick up records.

The earliest models have sound box shells made of brass (these have 7 tear-drop openings in the shell) but Victor soon replaced these with pot metal shells, not because they were cheaper, but because they were found to be more sound neutral.  The later shells all have 9 tear-drop openings.  Within a year, Victor dealers also stopped referring to the Credenza model by that name and used the Model 8-30 designation as there were other Credenza-type models also being produced by Victor.  The other numbers on the small metal identification plate are the serial numbers for your actual machine.  The earliest models sold for $275 but by the time the last models were made in late 1928, the price had risen to $405. Cabinets came in a choice of mahogany or walnut veneer and the design was based on Italian Renaissance style.  The finish was a smooth satin lacquer which was applied as fine sprays of stained lacquer in a closed room.

Victor files cited in Robert W. Baumbach's Look for the Dog indicate 47,922 Credenza models were made, all with spring motors.  Some 58,662 model 8-30 Victrolas were produced with spring motors, and 8,847 were made with electric turntable motors.  Two types of electric motors were available as options for spinning a turntable.  One was a simple AC induction motor, the other a complex AC/DC universal motor (not all homes had AC power by the mid-1920s).  The double air-dashpots lowered the lid gently and quietly, making the Credenza a pleasure to use.

By the late 1920s Victor was also producing all-electric phonographs. These used an electric pickup which held a permanent horseshoe magnet. The needle was installed into a frame held in place by rubber gaskets. The mechanical vibrations from the needle caused the magnet to produce electric currents, which were then converted into sound by the phonograph's amplifier unit and speaker, very similar to radio amplifiers of this era.  It was not until the late 1930s that crystal pickups were made.  These had two advantages. First, they were light-weight and thus easy on the records. Second, they were cheap to make and install.

If you rarely play your Credenza, an unrestored sound box may be adequate for your needs.  Having an expert restore yours will probably be expensive. The cost is high because it is difficult work. In fact, not all Victrola repairmen are willing or able to work with Orthophonic sound boxes, which have diaphragms made of a metal called duralumin.  Orthophonic sound boxes are not as easy to restore as the earlier Exhibition and Victrola No. 2 sound boxes, which have mica diaphragms. As for the two types of Orthophonic sound boxes, the ones made of brass are much easier to work on than the ones made of pot metal. About half of the time you find the back plates of pot metal sound boxes to be cracked. If you remove the backs on these types of back plates, they may shatter.

The Orthophonic sound boxes do not have screws for the back plate. Instead, grooves are held in place by a threaded ring. There are screws to hold the small plates in front of the magnetized ball bearings, and many sound boxes have a screw to dampen the stylus bar.  The suitcase portable models also have screws to hold the screen or felt in place over the front of the shell.  The late Bob Waltrip reported to me that a number of Orthophonic owners had sent to him their sound boxes to be restored but what they actually sent was one of the suitcase portable sound boxes, which someone at some point had moved from a portable machine to the big machine.  The owners had no idea that the sound box they had been using on their Credenza model was not original with the machine!

In both the brass and pot metal sound boxes, the tiny ball bearings for the stylus bar mount are often found rusted and frozen.  The diaphragms are sometimes found with holes, or one or more of the spider legs have come loose.

Waltrip was the only person I knew who could repair or restore badly cracked and warped Orthophonic sound boxes. He had amazing skills.  He designed his own tools for installing the tiny magnetized ball bearings and had new ball bearings of the correct size specially made.   He even had new back plates made.  Jeff Lutton, who now has Waltrip's spare parts as well as some of his tools, hopes to be able to learn to work with these "Orthoboxes." It may be worth the expense if you can find someone who really knows how to service one of these delicate sound boxes. If you intend to play your machine just about daily, have the reproducer inspected and repaired.

You might want to restore moisture to the large internal horn. With time, especially in warm and dry climates (such as where I live, in Northern California), the old horn, which is made of cheap gumwood, tends to dry, which is bad for sound transmission. Restoring moisture to the Credenza's internal gumwood horn is a bit involved and messy since the horn can't be removed from the cabinet. Again, it may not even be necessary if you live in a moist climate.  First, remove the grille. You do this by removing the small finishing screws around the grille's edge. The cloth is delicate, so do this slowly. You might have to remove the motor board ahead of time since the grille on most models will only lift up. On such models, the grille does not come out near the floor but instead comes up and out. Be careful. It may be reluctant to come out.

After the grille is removed, you can see the inside horn.  Remove dust and other debris on the horn, perhaps by wiping with a damp cloth. It is essential that the horn be air tight, so if you see any major cracks in the joints of the horn, seal these with good quality wood sealant.  To detect cracks, try using a flashlight when the room is dark. Stand with a bright light at the back of the machine after the backing itself has been removed. If anyone can see light while standing in front of the machine, you may have cracks that need to be sealed. The models I have examined have always been intact.

From a drug store, purchase two pints of glycerol (also called glycerine) and two pints of methyl alcohol (also called methanol).  Mix glycerol and alcohol 1:1 in a tub or can.  Using a new long fibre brush, paint the internal horn.  Slather on the mixture thickly. The old dry gumwood horn will absorb a lot of liquid.  Be sure to slap on the mixture way around the back portions of the folded horn. You may need to "crawl" inside a bit.  Do not let the mixture run down onto the outside finish, so keep soft absorbing towels handy.  Let stand overnight.

The Orhtophonic Victrola

The above is the 8-35, which sold for $300. Only 5,000 were made. Around 60,000 Credenzas were made.

The next day, if you have the strength, turn the Credenza over, or upside-down (remove the turntable and sound box first, perhaps also the motor board and motor), and repeat the process.  The alcohol evaporates, of course, but permits the glycerol to penetrate.  Let the horn "dry" for a day or two before returning the grille.

I learned to do this from Orthophonic expert Tom Rhodes and Bob Waltrip. Doing this on my Credenza made a marked difference in sound quality. It now has a much more forward, strong sound.  The old gumwood horn seems to provide an almost ideal filter and now permits a more natural passage of sound waves. In my machine collection, I have an Orthophonic Victrola with an all-metal internal horn, but the sound quality is not nearly as good as that from the Credenza.

As for cleaning the cabinet, lemon oil should be fine.  There is a never-ending controversy between those who use oil polishes and those who prefer wax polishes.  The oil is perhaps better for the cabinet finish but also tends to attract dust and dirt which in time can gradually form a layer.  The finish is easier to clean if you use wax. For more information, see the article by David Spanovich on cleaning and polishing cabinets. Much of the original finish can be brought out by a good cleaning and polishing.

Do you hear "thunder" as the 4-spring motor unwinds? The springs are dry. Instead of running down smoothly, they run down in hard jumps.  Working with the large phonograph springs is tricky and a little dangerous. If suddenly released from its casing, a large phonograph spring can sling black grease in all directions, occupy half a room, and possibly cause bad cuts.  I can send to you the names of repairmen who sell parts and make sound box and motor repairs. They have special large "C" clamps for working with large springs. Keep the spring motor and all articulating joints well lubricated.  Use only high quality grease and oil.

These phonograph parts dealers also sell new loud and soft volume steel needles if you need them, usually in packets of 100 needles.  Be sure to change the needle after playing only one or two record sides.  As a needle travels through the record grooves, a flat area gradually forms at the tip of the needle.  As the flat area grows larger, it can begin to act as a cutting edge and carve away the sides of the record grooves.  Used needles are meant to be dropped into the small metal holder (gold- or nickel-plated) with the hole in the center of the lid. This is the same as tossing them away. You don't want these needles accidentally used again since they will harm records.  Unused needles found in old packets (paper envelopes) or tins are still good to use today.

In January 1929 the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought the Victor Talking Machine Company. Orthophonic models were discontinued in favor of newer all-electric models.  Your Credenza will play electrically recorded records from the 1930s and 1940s but will not reproduce all the fidelity recorded into these discs since they are meant to be played with an electric pickup, amplifier, and speaker.  If you do play these later records I recommend you use thin soft volume steel needles, which are easier on records--better, use fibre needles!  How do you know when your records were made? That's a subject for another article though I'll point out that labels on RCA Victor records made as late as 1945 say "Victor" in big letters, not "RCA Victor"! Beginning in 1946, labels finally used the term "RCA Victor" above the spindle hole.

R. J. Wakeman lives in Davis, California.

NOTE BY TIM GRACYK: Page 18 of the October 1925 issue of the trade journal Talking Machine World announced Victor's new machines to the talking machine industry. The article is titled "First Public Demonstration of Orthophonic Victrola is Received With Enthusiasm." It tells of a demonstration held on October 6, 1925, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Members of the press and other invited guests were the first to hear the new Credenza. The "new" records featured such artists as Fritz Kreisler, the Happiness Boys, and even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir! In the article, photographs are included of the four new Orthophonic models: the two-door Credenza (the largest model), Colony, Granada, and Consolette.