Stefan Kudelski, the inventor of the first professional-quality portable tape recorder, which revolutionized Hollywood moviemaking and vastly expanded the reach of documentarians, independent filmmakers and eavesdroppers on both sides in the Cold War, died Jan. 26 in Switzerland. He was 83.
His death was announced by the Kudelski Group, the Swiss electronics engineering firm he founded in 1951. No cause was given.
The Polish-born Kudelski was an engineering student at a Swiss university in 1951 when he patented his first portable recording device, the Nagra I, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, about the size of a shoe box and weighing 11 pounds, that produced sound as good as that of most studio recorders, which were phone-booth-size. Radio stations in Switzerland were his first customers.
The bigger breakthrough came seven years later, when Kudelski introduced a high-quality tape recorder that could synchronize sound with the frames on a reel of film. Kudelski’s 1958 recorder, the Nagra III, weighed about 14 pounds and freed a new generation of filmmakers from the conventions and high cost of studio production.
Along with the newly developed portable 16-millimeter camera, the Nagra recorder became an essential tool for the on-location, often improvisational techniques of New Wave directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and U.S. documentarians like D.A. Pennebaker, who used the Nagra to record the 1965 Bob Dylan tour featured in his classic film “Don’t Look Back," released in 1967.
In various interviews, Pennebaker, Godard and Truffaut have all credited Kudelski with helping to make possible the informality and journalistic realism of their work.
Kudelski received Academy Awards for his technical contributions to filmmaking in 1965, 1977, 1978 and 1990, and Emmy Awards in 1984 and 1986.
In the 1960s, Kudelski’s firm also began making miniature recorders for what its online catalog calls “surveillance and security" work. The first of these pocket-size machines was the SN “Serie Noire," which the company’s website boasts was “originally ordered by President JF Kennedy for the American secret services."
The collection of bugging devices on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington, includes a Nagra recorder obtained in the 1980s from the Stasi, the East German internal security agency.
The Nagra’s value to customers like those was generally classified. But it received acclaim by consensus from professionals in the radio, television and film industries. By the early 1960s, Nagras were the standard recording equipment in all three industries.
They remained dominant until the advent of digital audio recorders in the 1990s. The company now makes digital recorders, as well as some analog tape devices, but does not rule the market as it once did.
“There was virtually no film made from 1961 until the early ’90s that did not use the Nagra," Chris Newman, an Academy Award-winning sound engineer, said Wednesday. Newman used the machine in winning Oscars for “The Exorcist" (1973), “Amadeus" (1984) and “The English Patient" (1996). He also used one in making the celebrated 1971 action thriller, “The French Connection."
“We would not have the movies we have today without it," Newman said.
Stefan Kudelski was born on Feb. 27, 1929, in Warsaw. He escaped Poland with his family at the start of World War II and settled in Switzerland later. After earning a degree in physics and engineering, he began his company as an engineering design firm. It has since become a major Swiss manufacturer of media and security equipment.