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GENIUS! #20: Stefan Kudelski and the world’s first professional-quality portable tape recorder

The reel-to-reel Nagra 1 was approximately the size of a shoebox

While a couple of people on our list of Genius!es have become household names, there are many more who have still yet to receive their due mainstream recognition. One of this number is Stefan Kudelski, whose 1951 patent ushered in both the first portable recording device and the company that continues to bear his name – the Kudelski Group.

Born in Poland but educated in engineering in Switzerland, Kudelski was at university when he patented the Nagra 1. Generally regarded as the first portable recording device, the Nagra 1 (pictured below) was a compact (approximately the size of a shoebox) reel-to-reel tape recorder. Word of its quality and portability soon spread, with radio stations in Switzerland among his earliest customers.

But it was the Nagra 3 – which emerged in 1958 – that arguably had the greatest impact of Kudelski’s designs. Able to synchronise sound with the frames on a reel of film, the Nagra 3 can be claimed to have changed the entire dynamic of film production for the ensuing generation. The mechanics of capturing high quality sound had previously meant that many films were effectively studio-bound; alongside the then-emerging 16-millimetre camera, the Nagra 3helped to pave the way for a new era of filmmaking in which much more shoots would take place on location.

Directors to adopt the Nagra 3 in its early years included DA Pennebaker, who used the recorder during production of Don’t Look Back – his 1967 Bob Dylan tour film that arguably counts as the first classic music documentary.

Kudelski and his firm continued to innovate in the field of miniature recording. Increasingly, security and surveillance became critical markets for the firm, with the early SN Serie Noire machine reportedly adopted by the American secret services.

Today, Kudelski Group is under the leadership of Stefan’s son, André. Stefan himself passed away aged 83 in 2013.

Hail to the boffins! Genius! is all about celebrating those clever people whose inventions have transformed the world of professional audio. Mailed out with the February print edition of PSNEurope, the 36-page supplement is also available to read in handy digital-edition form. Read it online, or download as a PDF, at