The Nagra SN - Peak Cold War Spy Technology


My SN midway through repairs

     I have always been a fan of beautiful engineering.  That is one of the primary things that drives me to do the things I do, from writing and typewriter repair to photography.  I have dived deeply into those last two things in this blog, primarily my work with typewriter repair.  For as long as I can remember, there has always been this undying curiosity to see how things work.  To get an inside look, to examine all these carefully created parts and understand their purpose, and to appreciate the mind that conceived them.  Sometimes there are certain objects out there that encapsulate this appreciation so extremely; they demonstrate humanity's ability to dream of something brilliant and to execute it in total perfection.  I have always been a lover of "form follows function," in that there is an innate beauty that a crafted object achieves from it's utilitarian simplicity.  Much of that stems from an additional appreciation of subtle attention to detail and careful design work.  Most of the objects we see and use in our daily lives are cheaply created.  They boast something unique on a well designed outside that houses nothing more than cheap generic components.  I like seeing the machines and items where everything is planned and carefully designed, down to the heads of the screws.

    It is for these reasons I wrote a book about the Williams Typewriter, and the inventor John Newton Williams.  A beautiful and simplistic machine created out of superbly well designed components.  The same can be said about the Hammond Typewriter, the brainchild of James B. Hammond; and the IBM Selectric.  On the camera end of things it's the Hasselblad V system, created by Victor Hasselblad out of his love and passion for avian photography.  A beautifully crafted machine down to the delicacy of the springs inside.  The passion for creating such a well designed object is plainly visible in the finished product.  Nothing that doesn't need to be there is present, and the design is both uniquely personal to the creator, and conceptually brilliant to the beholder.

    However, one of the things I have not discussed here before is my passion for analog tape, particularly reel to reel.  

My first rape recorder, which we got rid of many years ago

    My journey in tape began in the early 2000s by stealing compact cassettes out of my dad's car to record over them with random child-noises.  After that, the interest sort of died for a number of years.  Cassettes were just a tool growing up.  My brother used them to record drum practice sessions, and occasionally I'd listen to nature soundtracks as I went to sleep.  The interest renewed around 7th grade or so in cassettes, and gradually grew.  I still had my Sony boombox at that point and listened to both CDs and cassettes regularly, but it wasn't until after I graduated high-school that I actually bought one myself.  It was a small Toshiba with a huge viewing window.

My Toshiba, also sold

That was enough to get me more hooked on the design of the unit itself, and eventually lead me down to acquiring a Sony TC-D5 and a Nakamichi 670.  Cassettes are cool and all that, but my interest began to lean heavily towards reel to reel, as marked by the cassette I'm using in the above photo.  I don't remember exactly where the idea to get a reel to reel came from, and if I think back I do remember seeing them in old movies, as well as an episode of Supernatural and this Amazon Prime film called "The Vast of Night."  The first reel to reel I actually picked up was some old Sony that was falling apart.  I used it for a couple years and was continually surprised at the sound quality despite the fact that I had to bridge broken circuit boards with paperclips, and the power cable was off an old smith corona 5te.  My obsession with reel to reel tape took a full dive when I first saw a Nagra.

    Up until this point, I was used to seeing these units as these kind of old dated looking appliances that made you more worried about fire hazards than sound quality.  I happened to come across a video on Instagram of a Nagra 4.2 and was immediately shocked by both the size of the machine and the cleanliness of the design.  I knew I had to discover more.

    I learned a lot in a short amount of time.  Nagra's reputation as the industry leader in audio recording stemmed from their development of a small portable reel to reel.  Specifically Stefan Kudelski, a polish audio engineer who's initial path started out in robotics, with reel to reels designed to store programming information.  He showed off his hand built Nagra 1 at a convention in 1951, a small clockwork recorder with stunning audio quality.  The name "Nagra" was Polish for "will record."  He later sold two to a local radio station.  After that he decided to pursue audio recorders and opened a small factory in Switzerland where he produced the Nagra II, also clockwork but with more precision components.  In 1958, he released the Nagra III, a fully electronic recorder powered by D cell batteries.  It immediately became the gold standard for audio recording around the world.  The first of it's kind in terms of sound quality and size.  At this point, everything he was making was being done in house, from the printing of the circuits to the machining of the screws.  Each machine was a work of art in both detail and engineering.

    The first unit I picked up was a Nagra IS.  A somewhat rare machine that was created for journalists and broadcasting.  I may do a later write up on it as there is a lot to say.  It is sometimes regarded as on
of the most perfect all-round recorders ever made.  It only records a mono signal, and is limited to small 5 inch reels, but it features an advanced transport system, ridiculously easy to use controls, and superbly accurate sound.  My unit was made in 1977 and had been used in a Swedish radio station.  It arrived a little battered with some missing parts, but immediately worked no problem the second I got it.

A truly beautiful machine

One of my first attempts at clean background shots with film

A shot I took for a short video trailer regarding a podcast
I'm making with some friends

Again, I risk talking about this machine far too much.  I have used it extensively for everything I could think of, from voiceover work for social media and YouTube, as well as video audio and lately a podcast.  I've also taken it around for environmental recordings as well as used it as a microphone passthrough for zoom during the pandemic.  

    I also picked up a Nagra IV-L, an early variation of the 4 series recorders.  These also came as a stereo unit which is highly coveted to this day in the pro-audio world.  That machine won the company two Oscars for sound.  I figured mono was good enough for my purposes, but I eventually sold the 4 as it didn't do me any good.  The IS was technically superior and the 4 became my designated mic pre-amp for zoom and I felt bad.  I sold it and bought a Pioneer 4 track machine and never looked back.

my IV-L

    I suppose all of this is leading me up to the one recorder I have wanted since I knew of their existence.  The holy grail of tape machines.  The Nagra SN.  This machine was developed in the 1960s for covert operations.  It is the smallest open reel tape deck ever made, and boasts the same amazing sound quality as it's larger counterparts.  Pardon my language, it's fucking hard to get.  It took me four years of searching, the sale of my Williams 3, and a LOT of stress to finally find a unit I could afford.  And you know what?  It was absolutely worth it.  Simply put, the Nagra SN is one of the most beautifully engineered objects I have ever seen in my life.

    There are several different versions of the SN.  The SNN, a full track mono machine with speeds of 3.75 inches per second and 1 7/8ths, or cassette speed.  It also uses 1/8th inch cassette tape.  The SNS was a half track machine that also ran half the speed for up to four times the recording length.  That, along with the SNS, a stereo machine, was favored by law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world.  In fact, for a long time in the US the SNST, or the stereo model, held IOC status (interception of communications) which made it illegal to own or use for any reason, including education.  The SNN became popular in the movie industry as a way to get sound off actors without a lot of wires.  It was also used in sound effect recording, and for data logging such as within black boxes on aircraft.

    The SN is a very simplistic machine.  The entire device can be easily operated via a single leaver, and has two proprietary inputs.  One for sound, and one for a remote.  It also features a 3.5mm output jack.  The machine runs on two AA batteries which I appreciate, standard batteries make me happy, and has a working life of around 7 hours.  Rewind is accomplished with a carefully geared hand crank, and can rewind an entire reel in just a couple minutes.  Maybe faster if you were under more pressure.  The rest of the device is controlled automatically without the use of any computer chips or programming.  And that to me is some sort of strange black magic because I have no idea how it works.  I have used automatic level settings on the Sony TCD5 for a video I did on a teletype machine.  It was absolutely awful.  Somehow the SN manages to do it in a smaller package, with simpler technology, and with incredible results.  You'd never even know.  In addition to that, this tiny thing can also put out 50v power for powered microphones, as well as accept dynamic mics through an impressively powerful internal pre-amp.  It drives my Shure PGA 48 Mic no problem, a feat the Sony can't do at all.  The SN includes a meter which only serves to show (on mine) compression applied and battery life.  It is interesting to note that the Russians captured one and made an identical clone called the Yacht 1 that is exceptionally close save for the LED light instead of the meter.  They couldn't figure out meters, but Kudelski was a master of them.

    The SN is significantly more intricate on the inside, featuring complex systems of gears and pulleys that control reel tension breaks and transport mechanisms.  It is incredibly precise, and that precision can be felt and heard plainly.  Adam Savage likens it to a fine watch, and he has touted his SN as one of his favorite possessions.  I am inclined to feel the same way.

    The unit arrived to me with a couple issues.  The meter was stuck, the left break needed some work, and it had the unfortunate issue of just...not working every now and then.  I ended up taking apart almost the entire machine.  The wonderful thing about the internals on this, is that nearly all the boards are connected with gold quick-release pins that allow you to remove things easily.  The internal components are also incredibly high quality so the likelihood of electronic failure is relatively low.  Turns out there was a battery leak that completely destroyed the entire ground wire, so I had to lay two new wires inside the machine.  The meter also needed a small rubber stopper removed that had become gummy, as well as gratuitous cleaning of the battery test button.


New ground wire

Dead ground wire 2

After that, I carefully soldered some prototype input adapters thanks to the helpful diagrams printed inside the body shell.  

my adapter for line in

Then I proceeded with my first recording test.  Several people have told me the audio quality for music playback wasn't good, but I was absolutely blown away.  It was incredible.  A machine this small and this old has no right working as fabulously as it does, and that only adds to my appreciation with this impressive device.  It was truly ahead of it's time, and influenced history more than we thought.  It's diminutive size allowed it to go unnoticed even on the surface of the moon.  Yes, that is correct, the SN recorded audio on the Apollo 11 mission.

That white box under his visor?  That's the SN
Funnily enough, the photo was taken with a Hasselblad,
the only camera ever taken to the moon.  I seem to have 
a thing for moon tech.

    Now that I have finally been able to acquire a working unit, you may be wondering what I intend to use it for.  Primarily I want to use it for audio capture with video work.  It's a lot more manageable to move around than either the Sony TCD5 or the Nagra IS, so for video work that requires me to be moving around, a machine like the SN is invaluable.  I have also been in the process of creating a podcast with friends that will be around 10-15 hours of run time when all is said and done.   Though the IS is going to be the main unit used to record that, I will be using the SN for audition recordings and sound effects.

I set up my machine with two blue aluminum reels.  I love
metal reels on any deck.  For the SN, the reels are color coded for
recording time.  Duration is controlled by varrying the thickness
of the tape to fit more onto the reels.  Cassette tape thickness is
about 18 micrometres, the thickness of the blue reel tape is 9.

    All in all, the Nagra SN is an absolutely gorgeous machine.  When I first saw this machine, I thought it was a rendering or an art project, it didn't seem like something like this could be real.  
What stuns me the most is that it doesn't look old at all.  The raw anodized aluminum body is very reminescent of a variety of modern devices, and the simplicity of the function and precision of the components looks almost futuristic.  If it weren't for the medium it uses, I doubt anyone would guess it's nearly 60 years old.  It has heft too, the entire thing is machined out of a single block of aluminum with two aluminum case lids.  There isn't even a single screw that doesn't feel extremely high quality.  The manufacturing process required to make a device this devoid of defects is something that still rivals many consumer products today.

The portable size coupled with shocking audio quality
(50khz-15khz and 0.05% wow and flutter)
make this thing almost impossible not to use.

    I do intend to create a full and comprehensive video about this machine, so keep an eye out for that in the coming month.  I did create a very short video posted to Instagram that I'll share now for the curious.  I'm still learning how to make clean audio tracks for voice, but I think I'm slowly getting there.


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