analogue

Video and Technologies of Consciousness: An Interview with Peter Sachs Collopy

We first encountered the work of Media Historian Peter Sachs Collopy during research for a previous blog article about video synthesizers.

His work was so interesting we invited Peter to do a short interview for the blog. Thanks Peter for taking time to respond, you can read the answers below!

We were really struck by your description of early video as a technology of consciousness. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea? Did early users of portable video technology use video in order to witness events?

Absolutely! Technology of consciousness is a term I found in communications scholar Fred Turner’s work, particularly his essay on the composer Paul DeMarinis (“The Pygmy Gamelan as Technology of Consciousness,” in Paul DeMarinis: Buried in Noise, ed. Ingrid Beirer, Sabine Himmelsbach, and Carsten Seiffarth [Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2010], 23–27). Every technology affects how we think and experience the world, but I use this phrase specifically to refer to technologies whose users understood that they were doing so. The quintessential examples are psychedelic drugs, which people use specifically in order to alter their consciousness. For many videographers in the 1960s and 1970, video was like a drug in that it helped a person see the world in new ways; a cartoon in the magazine Radical Software proclaimed, for example, that “Video is as powerful as LSD” (Edwin Varney, Radical Software 1, no. 3 [Spring 1971]: 6). Part of all of this was that following Aldous Huxley, people believed that psychedelics made it possible to break down the barriers of the individual and share consciousness, and following media theorist Marshall McLuhan and theologian/paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, they believed that new electronic media had the same effects. In my research, I trace these ways of thinking about technologies of consciousness back to the influence of philosopher Henri Bergson at the turn of the century. So yes, people were using video to witness events, but just as importantly they were using video to witness—and to reinterpret, and even to constitute—themselves and their communities.

Video is powerful as LSDAs specialists in the transfer of video tapes we often notice the different aesthetic qualities of porta-pak videouMatic, VHS and DVCAM, to name a few examples. How does ‘the look’ of a video image shape its role as a technology of consciousness? Is it more important how these technologies were used?

It’s striking how little discussion of aesthetics and the visual there was in venues like Radical Software, though of course art critics started writing about video in these terms in the late 1960s. People were often more interested in what differentiated the process of shooting video from film and other media, in its ability to be played back immediately or in its continuity as an electronic technology with the powerful media of television and computing. Sony’s first half-inch videotape recorders, using the CV format, had only half the vertical resolution of conventional television. CV decks could still be hooked up to ordinary television sets for playback, though, so they still became a way for users to make their own TV.

What’s your favourite piece of video equipment you have encountered in your research and why?

I have several Sony AV-3400 portapaks that I’ve bought on eBay, none of them quite in working order. Those were the standard tool for people experimenting with video in the early 1970s, so I’ve learned a lot from the tactile experience of using them. I also have a Sony CMA-4 camera adaptor which provides video out from an AVC-3400 portapak camera without using a deck at all; I’ve used that, along with digital equipment, to make my own brief video about some of my research, “The Revolution Will Be Videotaped: Making a Technology of Consciousness in the Long 1960s (see below).”

In your research you discuss how there has been a continuity of hybrid analogue/ digital systems in video art since the 1970s. Given that so much of contemporary society is organised via digital infrastructures, do you think analogue technologies will be reclaimed more widely as a tool for variability in the future, i.e., that there will be a backlash against what can be perceived as the calculating properties of the digital?

I’m not sure a reclaiming of analog technologies will ever take the form of an explicit social movement, but I think this process is already happening in more subtle ways. It’s most apparent in music, where vinyl records and analog synthesizers have both become markers of authenticity and a kind of retro cool. In the process, though, analog has shifted from a description of machines that worked by analogy—usually between a natural phenomenon such as luminance and an electrical voltage—to an umbrella term for everything that isn’t digital. In the context of moving images, this means that film has become an analog technology as the definition of analog has shifted—even though analog and digital video are still more technically similar, and have at times been more culturally related, than film and analog video. So yes, I think there’s a backlash against precision, particularly among some artistic communities, but I think it’s embedded in a more complex reclassification of technologies into these now dominant categories of analog and digital.

Posted by debra in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

Red Beat: U-matic Low Band Transfer and Video Synthesizers

The latest eclectic piece of music history to be processed in the Greatbear Studio is a U-matic Low Band video of ‘Dream/Dream Dub’ by Red Beat, a post-punk band that was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite emitting a strong wax crayon-like odour that is often a sure sign of a degraded U-matic tape, there were no issues with the transfer.

Red Beat formed in High Wycombe in 1978. After building up in solid fan base in the Home Counties they moved to London to pursue their musical ambitions. In London they recorded an EP that was released on Indie label Malicious Damage and did what most do it yourself punk bands would have killed to do: record a John Peel session. They also supported bands such as U2, Killing Joke, Thompson Twins and Aswad.

Originally inspired by New Wave acts such as Blondie and XTC, their later sound was more experimental, influenced by bands like PiL, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Killing Joke.

Roy Jones, singer and driving force behind getting Red Beat’s archive digitised explains that ‘we wrote together by jamming for hours till something sparked.’ Later evolutions of the band had more of a ‘pop orientation’ underscored by ‘a dark sound that fused Punk and Reggae and Tribal Beats.’ Songs by the band include the sci-fi inspired ‘Visit to Earth’ , ‘Ritual Sacrifice,’ a lamentation on the futility of war and ‘Searching for Change’, which explores the need for personal, spiritual and political transformation.

Video Synthesizers

In 1982 Red Beat formed their own indie label, Manic Machine Products, and released two further singles ‘See/Survival’ and ‘Dream/Dream Dub’, both distributed by Rough Trade.

The video of ‘Dream/ Dream Dub’ is the only existing video footage of the band at the time.

Roy’s motivation for sending it to Greatbear was to get the best quality transfer that he will then remaster, add a clean sound track to and upload to the Red Beat youtube playlist.

Of particular interest is ‘Dream/ Dream Dub’s use of video synthesizer footage which was, Roy tells me, ‘quite unique at the time. This footage was then edited with two tape analogue technology which is slow and not as accurate as modern editing.’

As Tom DeWitt explains ‘technically, the video synthesizer is more complex than its audio cousin. Video signals cover a frequency spectrum 100 times greater than audio and must be constructed according to a precise timing synchronization which does not exist in the one dimensional audio signal.’

In the early 1960s and 1970s, synthesizing video images was an emergent form of video art. Artists Shuya Abe and Nam June Paik created one of the first ‘video devices intended to distort and transform the conventional video image.’ [1] Part of their aim was to challenge the complacent viewer’s trans-fixation on the TV screen.

In the 1970s the artistic palette of the video synthesizer evolved. Bill Hearn was instrumental in developing ‘colorisation’ in 1972, and in 1975, Peter Sachs Collopy tells us, he incorporated this tool into ‘a full-featured synthesizer, the Videolab, which also produced effects like switching, fades, dissolves, wipes, and chromakey.’ [2]

‘Colourisation’ is a big feature of the Red Beat video. It refers to the ability to change the appearance of colours by mixing either the red, blue and green elements or the video colour parameters: luminance, chrominance and hue. In ‘Dream/ Dream Dub’ the red, green and blue colourisation is applied, accentuating the primary colours to give the image a garish, radioactive and extra-terrestrial quality.

Want more Red Beat?

If this article has sparked your curiosity about Red Beat you can buy their albums Endless Waiting Game and The Wheel from itunes.

The final word about the band must go to Roy: ‘We were part of a vibrant music scene. Other people enjoyed more success than us but we had a great time and created some great memories. I don’t think many people would remember our music but there are a few who buy our albums and remember seeing us live. We created our own bit of rock’n roll history and it’s worth documenting.’ [3]

Notes

[1] Chris Meigh-Andrews, A History of Video Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 136.

[2] Peter Sachs Collopy ‘Video Synthesizers: From Analog Computing to Digital Art,’ IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 2014, 74-86, 79.

[2] Thank you to Roy for generously sharing his memories of Red Beat and to Peter Sachs Collopy for sharing his research.

Posted by debra in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments
Type IV Metal Cassettes and Robert Chenciner’s Daghestan Collection

Type IV Metal Cassettes and Robert Chenciner’s Daghestan Collection

We recently received a fascinating collection of tapes from the archive of Robert Chenciner, an ethnographer with over thirty years experience studying the cultures, human rights and current affairs of Daghestan.

Daghestan is located in the north Caucasus region, its neighbouring countries are Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Georgia, while its eastern border is flanked by the Caspian Sea.

In the early 1980s Robert had unique access to Daghestan and other parts of the Soviet Caucasus in the twilight years of the USSR.

During visits Robert made recordings of Daghestan’s rich culture. This included music, documenting ethnic instruments such as the Chagana, as well as singing and dancing.

Although Robert believes that claims to authenticity must be treated with suspicion, he nonetheless told me that these recordings document the traditional folk culture that was practiced in the villages of Daghestan.

These tapes also document the 31 mutually unintelligible languages spoken in Daghestan such as Avar which is spoken by 900,000 people.

Listen to excerpt of a tape from the collection. The tape had experienced mould growth and had snapped. It therefore needed to be repaired prior to transfer. Robert explains: ‘The recording was made in Untsukul c.March 1990. You can hear Russian being spoken with a heavy accent, some Kumyk and some Avar. It was joking and talk about who was I and where from.’

Type IV metal cassette with shell open. Visible thin layer of dust on the surface.

Type IV Metal Cassettes

When Robert travelled to Daghestan he was keen to get the most professional recordings he could. For this reason he used type IV metal audio cassette tapes, a tape formula that had been introduced in the late 1970s to offer better quality recordings.

By the mid 1980s, the tape tardis explains, these tapes

‘had been adopted by a lot of enthusiasts. They remained too expensive to be bought in bulk by the average consumer, but if you wanted to record something special – and particularly if you produced music yourself – you’d probably be highly attracted by the exceptional recording quality of a good metal cassette.’

The science behind the type IV cassette, according to the Museum of Obsolete Media, was to use ‘pure metal particles instead of metal oxides. This created a hard-wearing tape with superior frequency response and greater dynamic range.’

Since completing the recordings in the mid 1980s, as with so many of the tapes we receive at Greatbear, they have been tucked away in a drawer and out of circulation.

Due to being stored in poor conditions some of the tapes were displaying signs of mould growth.

Another problem some tapes exhibited was the degradation of the foam pressure pad. This had ‘stuck’ onto the tape and stopped it it from playing. In one case the tape had snapped as a result from a previous attempt at playback. Melted foam pressure pad on a type IV metal tape

Fortunately this issue did not effect our ability to do the transfer. We use Nakamichi tape decks to do optimal audio cassette transfers. The transport design within Nakamichi machines doesn’t use the tape pressure pad to play back the tapes. This is because, Wikipedia tells us,

‘Nakamichi found that this pad provided uneven and fairly inaccurate pressure and was therefore inadequate for reliable tape/head contact. Furthermore, Nakamichi found that the pressure pad was a source of audible noise, particularly scrape flutter (the tape bouncing across the head, a result of uneven pressure), and also contributed to premature head wear. Nakamichi’s dual-capstan tape decks provide such accurate and precise tape tension that, unlike other decks, the cassette’s pressure pad is not needed at all.’

Head pad lifter on a Nakamichi tape machine

The insides of a Nakamichi machine that has no need of a pressure pad to play back tapes.

Re-publication plans

Recent interest from musicologist Stefan Williamson-Fa, the driving force behind getting the tapes transferred to digital files with Great Bear, will enable these unique recordings to be heard by new audiences.

These include what Robert believes to be the only recording of an Andi Zikr ritual. Banned by the Tsar and later the Soviets, the Zikr ritual proved to be a resilient part of Daghestan’s Sufi culture. Zikr involves a group rotating in a circle, stamping the ground and grunting in order to create a mystical and ecstatic experience.

Stefan and Robert have plans to make the transferred digital files available online.

Robert reflected that when he was collecting the tapes in the 1980s his imagined audience for the recordings was pretty small. With the possibility of online publication this audience has substantially increased.

Furthermore, through people uploading material to sites such as YouTube the amount of Daghestan’s culture that can be accessed on the internet continues to grow. Robert’s links with the academic community in Daghestan also means the recordings will gain exposure there as well.

It is no doubt that those interested in the cultural history of Daghestan will await the publication of these recordings with much excitement. When the website is available we will of course let you know!

***Many thanks to Robert Chenciner for talking to us about his collection, and to Stefan for putting us in touch***

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, 0 comments

Analogue to analogue – the Courtyard Music Group

Greatbear were recently approached by the Courtyard Music Group to help them complete the 100% analogue re-issue of their 1974 acid-folk album Just Our Way of Saying Hello.

Among Britfolk enthusiasts, news of the Courtyard Music Group’s plans to re-issue their album has been greeted with excitement and anticipation.

Just Our Way of Saying Hello was created when ‘an idealistic young teacher cut a lo-fi folk-rock record with a bunch of teenagers in the Utopian rural setting of Kilquhanity School in the Scottish borders.’

100 copies of the album were made in a private pressing, originally intended for family and friends.

Yet this was not the end of the story, as the record went on to become ‘one of the most obscure albums in Britfolk history is now an ultra-rare collector’s item, with copies trading online for over £1000.’

After a hugely successful pledge music campaign, the band are pushing ahead with their re-issue project that will produce a limited pressing of the mono vinyl, a remastered audio CD with outtakes and a 48 page booklet with interviews, photos and drawings. These will all be available in the summer of 2015.

Great Bear’s role in the project was twofold: first to restore the physical condition of tapes in order to achieve the best quality transfer. Second to produce analogue copies of the original master tapes. These second generation masters, originally recorded at a speed of 7½ inches per second, were transferred at the speed of 15 ips in our studio.

These copies were then sent to Timmion Records in Finland to complete the final, analogue only cutting of the re-issue. Even amid the much discussed ‘vinyl revival‘ there are currently no UK-based studios that do pure analogue reproductions. The risk of losing precious cargo in transit to Finland was too great, hence our involvement at the copying stage.

original master tapes - Courtyard Music Group

The original master tapes

Analogue only

Why was it so important to members of the Courtyard Music Group to have an analogue only release? Digital techniques began creeping into the production of audio recordings from the late 1970s onwards, to the situation today where most studios and music makers work in an exclusively digital environment.

Can anyone really tell the difference between an analogue and digital recording, or even a recording that has been subject to a tiny bit of ‘digital interference’?

Frank Swales, member of the Courtyard Music Group, explains how remaining true to analogue was primarily a preference for authenticity.

‘I think in this case it’s really about the JOURNEY that this particular product has had, and the measures taken to keep it as close to the original product as possible. So, I’m not sure anyone can, in a listening context, perceive any real difference between digital and analogue, given that all of us humans are pretty much restricted to the frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz, if we’re lucky!’

While Richard Jones, also a member of Courtyard Music Group, revealed: ‘Our 1974 recording was made using a selection of microphones, some ribbon, a valve powered four channel mixer and an ancient Ferrograph tape recorder. I cannot claim these decisions about the analogue reissue are soundly based on principles of Acoustics/physics. They are decisions to produce an authentic product. That is, attempting to eliminate the introduction of “colours” into the sound which were not there in 1974.’

The ability to create exact copies is perilously difficult to achieve in an analogue context. Even in the most controlled circumstances analogue transfers are always different from their ‘original.’ The tape might distort at high frequencies for example, or subtle noise will be created as the tape moves through the transport mechanism.

Yet the desire for analogue authenticity is not the same as wanting a replica. It is about preserving historically specific sound production process whose audible traces are becoming far less discernible.

After all, if authenticity was correlated with exact replication, the Courtyard Music Group would not have asked us to make the copies at a higher recording speed than the originals. Yet, Frank explains, ‘the difference in sound quality – the tracks especially having been recorded onto tape travelling at 15ips – will likely be negligible, but it must be said that this was a decision not lightly taken.’

By preserving the historical authenticity of analogue reproduction, the Courtyard Music Group re-issue project converges with the archival concern to maintain the provenance of archival objects. This refers to when the ‘significance of archival materials is heavily dependent on the context of their creation, and that the arrangement and description of these materials should be directly related to their original purpose and function.’

For a range of audiovisual objects made in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, such fidelity to the recording and its context will be increasingly difficult to realise.

As appropriate playback machines and recordable media become increasingly difficult to source, an acceptance of hybridity over purity may well be necessary if a whole range of recordings are to be heard at all.

We are not yet at that stage, thankfully, and Greatbear are delighted to have played a part in helping spread the analogue purity just that little bit further.

***Thanks to Courtyard Music Group members for answering questions for this article.***

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

IASA – Resources and Research

There are an astonishing amount of online resources relating to the preservation and re-formatting of magnetic tape collections.

Whether you need help identifying and assessing your collection, getting to grips with the latest video codec saga or trying to uncover esoteric technical information relating to particular formats, the internet turns up trumps 95% of the time.

Marvel at the people who put together the U-Matic web resource, for example, which has been online since 1999, a comprehensive outline of the different models in the U-Matic ‘family.’ The site also hosts ‘chat pages’ relating to Betamax, Betacam, U-Matic and V2000, which are still very much active, with archives dating back to 1999. For video tape nerds willing to trawl the depths of these forums, nuggets of machine maintenance wisdom await you.

 International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives

Sometimes you need to turn to rigorous, peer-reviewed research in order to learn from AV archive specialists.

Fortunately such material exists, and a good amount of it is collected and published by the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA).

Three IASA journals laid out on the floor

‘Established in 1969 in Amsterdam to function as a medium for international co-operation between archives that preserve recorded sound and audiovisual documents’, IASA holds expertise relating to the many different and specialist issues attached to the care of AV archives.

Comprised of several committees dealing with issues such as standards and best practices; National Archive policies; Broadcast archives; Technical Issues; Research Archives; Training and Education, IASA reflects the diverse communities of practice involved in this professional field.

As well as hosting a yearly international conference (check out this post on The Signal for a review of the 2014 meeting), IASA publish a bi-annual journal and many in-depth specialist reports.

Their Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects (2nd edition, 2009), written by the IASA Technical Committee, is available as a web resource, and provides advice on key issues such as small scale approaches to digital storage systems, metadata and signal extraction from original carriers, to name a few.

Most of the key IASA publications are accessible to members only, and therefore remain behind a paywall. It is definitely worth taking the plunge though, because there are comparably few specialist resources relating to AV archives written with an interdisciplinary—and international—audience in mind.

Examples of issues covered in member-only publications include Selection in Sound Archives, Decay of Polymers, Deterioration of Polymers and Ethical Principles for Sound and Audiovisual Archives.

The latest publication from the IASA Technical Committee, Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers (2014) or TC05, provides detailed outlines of types of recording carriers, physical and chemical stability, environmental factors and ‘passive preservation,’ storage facilities and disaster planning.

The report comes with this important caveat:

 ‘TC 05 is not a catalogue of mere Dos and Don’ts. Optimal preservation measures are always a compromise between many, often conflicting parameters, superimposed by the individual situation of a collection in terms of climatic conditions, the available premises, personnel, and the financial situation. No meaningful advice can be given for all possible situations. TC 05 explains the principal problems and provides a basis for the archivist to take a responsible decision in accordance with a specific situation […] A general “Code of Practice” […] would hardly fit the diversity of structures, contents, tasks, environmental and financial circumstances of collections’ (6).

Member benefits

Being an IASA member gives Greatbear access to research and practitioner communities that enable us to understand, and respond to, the different needs of our customers.

Typically we work with a range of people such as individuals whose collections have complex preservation needs, large institutions, small-to-medium sized archives or those working in the broadcast industry.

Our main concern is reformatting the tapes you send us, and delivering high quality digital files that are appropriate for your plans to manage and re-use the data in the future.

If you have a collection that needs to be reformatted to digital files, do contact us to discuss how we can help.

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

1″ Type A Video Tape – The Old Grey Whistle Test

Sometimes genuine rarities turn up at the Greatbear studio. Our recent acquisition of four reels of ‘missing, believed wiped’ test recordings of cult BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test is one such example.Old Grey Whistle Test Ampex reel

It is not only the content of these recordings that are interesting, but their form too, because they were made on 1” Type A videotape.

The Ampex Corporation introduced 1” Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) type A videotape in 1965.

The 1″ Type A was ‘one of the first standardised reel-to-reel magnetic tape formats in the 1 inch (25 mm) width.’ In the US it had greatest success as an institutional and industrial format. It was not widely adopted in the broadcast world because it did not meet Federal Communications Commission (FCC) specifications for broadcast videotape formats—it was capable of 350 lines, while the NTSC standard was 525, PAL and SECAM were 625. (Note: upcoming conference ‘Standards, Disruptions and Values in Digital Culture and Communication‘ taking place November 2015).

According the VT Old Boys website, created by ex-BBC engineers in order to document the history of videotape used at the organisation, 2″ Quadruplex tape remained very much the norm for production until the end of the 1970s.

Yet the very existence of the Old Grey Whistle Test tapes suggests type A videotape was being used in some capacity in the broadcast world. Perhaps ADAPT, a project researching British television production technology from 1960-present, could help us solve this mystery?

Old Grey Whistle Test ReelFrom Type A, to Type B….

As these things go, type A was followed by Type B, with this model developed by the German company Bosch. Introduced in 1976, Type B was widely adopted in continental Europe, but not in UK and USA which gravitated toward the type C model, introduced by SONY/ Ampex, also in 1976. Type C then became the professional broadcast standard and was still being used well into the 1990s. It was able to record high quality composite video, and therefore had an advantage over component videos such as Betacam and MII that were ‘notoriously fussy and trouble-prone.‘ Type C also had fancy functions like still, shuttle, variable-speed playback and slow motion.

From a preservation assessment point of view, ‘one-inch open reel is especially susceptible to risks associated with age, hardware, and equipment obsolescence. It is also prone to risks common to other types of magnetic media, such as mould, binder deterioration, physical damage, and signal drop-outs.’

1" Type A Machine

The Preservation Self-Assessment Programme advise that ‘this format is especially vulnerable, and, based on content assessment, it should be a priority for reformatting.’

AMPEX made over 30 SMPTE type A models, the majority of which are listed here. Yet the number of working machines we have access to today is few and far between.

In years to come it will be common for people to say ‘it takes four 1” Type A tape recorders to make a working one’, but remember where you heard the truism first.

Harvesting several of these hulking, table-top machines for spares and working parts is exactly how we are finding a way to transfer these rare tapes—further evidence that we need to take the threat of equipment obsolescence very seriously.

Posted by debra in video tape, 1 comment

Digitising small audiovisual collections: making decisions and taking action

Deciding when to digitise your magnetic tape collections can be daunting.

The Presto Centre, an advocacy organisation working to help ‘keep audiovisual content alive,’ have a graphic on their website which asks: ‘how digital are our members?’

They chart the different stages of ‘uncertainty,’ ‘awakening’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘certainty’ that organisations move through as they appraise their collections and decide when to re-format to digital files.

Similarly, the folks at AV Preserve offer their opinion on the ‘Cost of Inaction‘ (COI), arguing that ‘incorporating the COI model and analyses into the decision making process around digitization of legacy physical audiovisual media helps organizations understand the implications and make well-informed decisions.’

They have even developed a COI calculator tool that organisations can use to analyse their collections. Their message is clear: ‘the cost of digitization may be great, but the cost of inaction may be greater.’

Digitising small-medium audiovisual collections

For small to medium size archives, digitising collections may provoke worries about a lack of specialist support or technical infrastructure. It may be felt that resources could be better used elsewhere in the organisation. Yet as we, and many other people working with audiovisual archives often stress, the decision to transfer material stored on magnetic tape has to be made sooner or later. With smaller archives, where funding is limited, the question of ‘later’ is not really a practical option.

Furthermore, the financial cost of re-formatting audiovisual archives is likely to increase significantly in the next five-ten years; machine obsolescence will become an aggravated problem and it is likely to take longer to restore tapes prior to transfer if the condition of carriers has dramatically deteriorated. The question has to be asked: can you afford not to take action now?

If this describes your situation, you might want to hear about other small to medium sized archives facing similar problems. We asked one of our customers who recently sent in a comparatively small collection of magnetic tapes to share their experience of deciding to take the digital plunge.

We are extremely grateful for Annaig from the Medical Mission Sisters for answering the questions below. We hope that it will be useful for other archives with similar issues.

threadimg-eiaj-half-inch-video-tape1. First off, please tell us a little bit about the Medical Mission Sisters Archive, what kind of materials are in the collection?

The Medical Mission Sisters General Archives include the central archives of the congregation. They gather all the documents relating to the foundation and history of the congregation and also documents relating to the life of the foundress, Anna Dengel. The documents are mainly paper but there is a good collection of photographs, slides, films and audio documents. Some born digital documents are starting to enter the archives but they are still few.

2. As an archive with a modest collection of magnetic tapes, why did you decide to get the materials digitised now? Was it a question of resources, preservation concerns, access request (or a mixture of all these things!)

The main reason was accessibility. The documents on video tapes or audio tapes were the only usable ones because we still had machines to read them but all the older ones, or those with specific formats,  where lost to the archives as there was no way to read them and know what was really on the tapes. Plus the Medical Mission Sisters is a congregation where Sisters are spread out on 5 continents and most of the time readers don’t come to the archives but send me queries by emails where I have to respond with scanned documents or digital files. Plus it was obvious that some of the tapes were degrading as that we’d better have the digitisation sooner than later if we wanted to still be able to read what was on them. Space and preservation was another issue. With a small collection but varied in formats, I had no resources to properly preserve every tape and some of the older formats had huge boxes and were consuming a lot of space on the shelves. Now, we have a reasonably sized collection of CDs and DVDs, which is easy to store in good conditions and is accessible everywhere as we can read them on computer here and I can send them to readers via email.

3. Digital preservation is a notoriously complex, and rapidly evolving field. As a small archive, how do you plan to manage your digital assets in the long term? What kinds of support, services and systems are your drawing on to design a system which is robust and resilient?

At the moment the digital collection is so small that it cannot justify any support service or system. So I have to build up my own home made system. I am using the archives management software (CALM) to enter data relating to the conservation of the CDs or DVDs, dates of creation, dates to check them and I plan to have regular checks on them and migrations or copies made when it will prove necessary.

4. Aside from the preservation issue, what are your plans to use the digitised material that Greatbear recently transferred?

It all depends on the content of the tapes. But I’ve already spotted a few documents of interest, and I haven’t been through everything yet. My main concern now is to make the documents known and used for their content. I was already able to deliver a file to one of the Sisters who was working on a person related to the foundation of the congregation, the most important document on her was an audio file that I had just received from Greatbear, I was able to send it to her. The document would have been unusable a few weeks before. I’ve come across small treasures, like a film, probably made by the foundress herself, which nobody was aware of. The Sisters are celebrating this year the 90th anniversary of their foundation. I plan to use as many audio or video documents as I can to support the events the archives are going to be involved into.

***

What is illuminating about Annaig’s answers is that her archive has no high tech plan in place to manage the collection – her solutions for managing the material very much draw on non-digital information management practices.

The main issues driving the decision to migrate the materials are fairly common to all archives: limited storage space and accessibility for the user-community.

What lesson can be learnt from this? Largely, that if you are trained as an archivist, you are likely to already have the skills you need to manage your digital collection.

So don’t let the more bewildering aspects of digital preservation put you off. But do take note of the changing conditions for playing back and accessing material stored on magnetic tape. There will come a time when it will be too costly to preserve recordings on a wide variety of formats – many of such formats we can help you with today.

If you want to discuss how Greatbear can help you re-format your audiovisual collections, get in touch and we can explore the options.

If you are a small-medium size archive and want to share your experiences of deciding to digitise, please do so in the comment box below.

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Save our Sounds – 2030 and the threat of audiovisual extinction

At the beginning of 2015, the British Library launched the landmark Save Our Sounds project.

The press release explained:

‘The nation’s sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation and as the means of playing them disappear from production. Archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.’

dvw-a510-digital-betacam-loading-gearYes you have read that correctly dear reader: by 2030 it is likely that we simply will not be able to play many, if not all of the tape formats we currently support at Greatbear. A combination of machine obsolescence, tape deterioration and, crucially, the widespread loss of skills necessary to repair, service and maintain playback machines are responsible for this astounding situation. They will make it ‘costly, difficult and, in many cases, impossible’ to preserve our recorded audio heritage beyond the proposed cut-off date.

While such news might (understandably) usher in a culture of utter panic, and, let’s face it, you’d have to have a strong disposition if you were charged with managing the Save Our Sounds project, the British Library are responding with stoic pragmatism. They are currently undertaking a national audit to map the conditions of sound archives which your organisation can contribute to.

Yet whatever way you look at it, there is need to take action to migrate any collections currently stored on obsolete media, particular if you are part of a small organisation with limited resources. The reality is it will become more expensive to transfer material as we move closer to 2030. The British Library project relates particularly to audio heritage, but the same principles apply to audiovisual collections too.

Yes that rumbling you can hear is the sound of archivists the world over engaged in flurry of selection and appraisal activities….

Extinction

One of the most interesting things about discussions of obsolete media is that the question of operability is often framed as a matter of life or death.

Formats are graded according to their ‘endangered statuses’ in more or less explicit terms, as demonstrated on this Video Preservation website which offers the following ‘obsolescence ratings’:

‘Extinct: Only one or two playback machines may exist at specialist laboratories. The tape itself is more than 20 years old.

Critically endangered: There is a small population of ageing playback machinery, with no or little engineering or manufacturing support. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are fewer working machine-hours than total population of tapes. Tapes may range in age from 40 years to 10 years.

Endangered: The machine population may be robust, but the manufacture of the machinery has stopped. Manufacturing support for the machines and the tapes becomes unavailable. The tapes are often less expensive, and more vulnerable to deterioration.

Threatened: The playback machines are available; however, either the tape format itself is unstable or has less integrity than other available formats, or it is known that a more popular or updated format will be replacing this one in a short period of time.

Vulnerable: This is a current but highly proprietary format.

Lower risk: This format will be in use over the next five years (1998-2002).’

The ratings on the video preservation website were made over ten years ago. A more comprehensive and regularly updated resource to consult is the Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP), ‘a free online tool that helps collection managers prioritize efforts to improve conditions of collections. Through guided evaluation of materials, storage/exhibit environments, and institutional policies, the PSAP produces reports on the factors that impact the health of cultural heritage materials, and defines the points from which to begin care.’ As well as audiovisual media, the resource covers photo and image material, paper and book preservation. It also has advice about disaster planning, metadata, access and a comprehensive bibliography.

The good news is that fantastic resources do exist to help archivists make informed decisions about reformatting collections.

dcc-backview

A Digital Compact Cassette

The bad news, of course, is that the problem faced by audiovisual archivists is a time-limited one, exacerbated no doubt by the fact that digital preservation practices on the ‘output end’ are far from stable. Finding machines to playback your Digital Compact Cassette collection, in other words, will only be a small part of the preservation puzzle. A life of file migrations in yet to be designed wrappers and content-management systems awaits all kinds of reformatted audiovisual media in their life-to-come as a digital archival object.

Depending on the ‘content value’ of any collection stored on obsolete media, vexed decisions will need to be made about what to keep and what to throw away at this clinical moment in the history of recorded sound.

Sounding the fifteen-year warning

At such a juncture, when the fifteen year warning has been sounded, perhaps we can pause for a second to reflect on the potential extinction of large swathes of audio visual memory.

If we accept that any kind of recording both contains memory (of a particular historical event, or performance) and helps us to remember as an aide-mémoire, what are the consequences when memory storage devices which are, according to UNESCO, ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries’, can no longer be played back?

These questions are of course profound, and emerge in response to what are consequential historical circumstances. They are questions that we will continue to ponder on the blog as we reflect on our own work transferring obsolete media, and maintaining the machines that play them back. There are no easy answers!

As the 2030 deadline looms, our audiovisual context is a sobering retort to critics who framed the widespread availability of digitisation technologies in the first decade of the 21st century as indicative of cultural malaise—evidence of a culture infatuated with its ‘past’, rather than concerned with inventing the ‘future’.

Perhaps we will come to understand the 00s as a point of audiovisual transition, when mechanical operators still functioned and tape was still in fairly good shape. When it was an easy, almost throw away decision to make a digital copy, rather than an immense preservation conundrum. So where once there was a glut of archival data—and the potential to produce it—is now the threat of abrupt and irreversible dropout.

Play those tapes back while you can!

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

1/2″ EIAJ video tape – aesthetic glitches

In an article on the BBC website Temple reflected on the recordings: ‘we affectionately called the format “Glorious Bogroll Vision” but really it was murksville. Today monochrome footage would be perfectly graded with high-contrast effects. But the 1970s format has a dropout-ridden, glitchy feel which I enjoy now.’ 

Note the visible drop out in the image

Note the visible drop out in the image

The glitches of 1/2″ video were perfect for Temple’s film, which aimed to capture the apocalyptic feeling of Britain on the eve of 1977. Indeed, Temple reveals that ‘we cut in a couple of extra glitches we liked them so much.

Does the cutting in of additional imperfection signal a kind-of fetishisation of the analogue video, a form of wanton nostalgia that enables only a self-referential wallowing on a time when things were gloriously a lot worse than they are now?

Perhaps the corrupted image interrupts the enhanced definition and clarity of contemporary digital video.

Indeed, Temple’s film demonstrates how visual perception is always produced by the transmission devices that playback moving images, sound and images, whether that be the 1/2″ video tape or the super HD television.

It is reminder, in other words, that there are always other ways of seeing, and underlines how punk, as a mode of aesthetic address in this case, maintains its capacity to intervene into the business-as-usual ordering of reality.

What to do with your 1/2″ video tapes?

hitachi_reel_to_reel_eiaj_vtr1

While Temple’s film was made to look worse than it could have been, EIAJ 1/2″ video tapes are most definitely a vulnerable format and action therefore needs to be taken if they are to be preserved effectively.

In a week where the British Library launched their Save Our Sounds campaign, which stated that ‘archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost,’ the same timeframes should be applied to magnetic tape-based video collections.

So if your 1/2″ tapes are rotting in your shed as Temple’s Clash footage was, you know that you need to get in there, fish them out, and send them to us pronto!

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

World Day for Audiovisual Heritage – digitisation and digital preservation policy and research

Today, October 27, has been declared World Day for Audiovisual Heritage by UNESCO. We also blogged about it last year.

Since 2005, UNESCO have used the landmark to highlight the importance of audiovisual archives to ‘our common heritage’ which  contain ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries.’ Increasingly, however, the day is used to highlight how audio and moving image archives are particularly threatened with by ‘neglect, natural decay to technological obsolescence, as well as deliberate destruction’.

Indeed, the theme for 2014 is ‘Archives at Risk: Much More to Do.’ The Swiss National Sound Archives have made this rather dramatic short film to promote awareness of the imminent threat to audiovisual formats, which is echoed by UNESCO’s insistence that ‘all of the world’s audiovisual heritage is endangered.’

As it is World Audiovisual Heritage Day, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of the recent research and policy that has been collected and published relating to digitisation and digital preservation.

While the UNESCO anniversary is useful for raising awareness of the fragility of audiovisual mediums, what is the situation for organisations and institutions grappling with these challenges in practice?

Recent published research – NDSA

The first to consider are preliminary results from a survey published by the US-based NDSA Standards and Practices Working Group, full details can be accessed here.

The survey asked a range of organisations, institutions and collections to rank issues that are critical for the preservation of video collections. Respondents ‘identified the top three stumbling blocks in preserving video as:

  • Getting funding and other resources to start preserving video (18%)
  • Supporting appropriate digital storage to accommodate large and complex video files (14%)
  • Locating trustworthy technical guidance on video file formats including standards and best practices (11%)’

Interestingly in relation to the work we do at Great Bear, which often reveal the fragilities of digital recordings made on magnetic tape, ‘respondents report that analog/physical media is the most challenging type of video (73%) followed by born digital (42%) and digital on physical media (34%).’

It may well be that there is simply more video on analogue/ physical media than other mediums which can account for the higher response, and that archives are yet to grapple with the archival problem of digital video stored on physical mediums such as DVD and in particular, consumer grade DVD-Rs. Full details will be published on The Signal, the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation blog, in due course.

Recent research – Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC)

Another piece of preliminary research published recently was the user consultation for the 2nd edition of the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Digital Preservation Handbook. The first edition of the Handbook was published in 2000 but was regularly updated throughout the 00s. The consultation precedes what will be a fairly substantial overhaul of the resource.

Many respondents to the consultation welcomed that a new edition would be published, stating that much content is now ‘somewhat outdated’ given the rapid change that characterises digital preservation as a technological and professional field.

Survey respondents ranked storage and preservation (1), standards and best practices (2) and metadata and documentation (3) as the biggest challenges involved in digital preservation, and therefore converge with the NDSA findings. It must be stressed, however, that there wasn’t a massive difference across all the categories that included issues such as compression and encryption, access and creating digital materials.

Some of the responses ranged from the pragmatic…

‘digital preservation training etc tend to focus on technical solutions, tools and standards. The wider issues need to be stressed – the business case, the risks, significant properties’ (16)

‘increasingly archives are being approached by community archive groups looking for ways in which to create a digital archive. Some guidance on how archive services can respond effectively and the issues and challenges that must be considered in doing so would be very welcome’ (16)

…to the dramatic…

‘The Cloud is a lethal method of storing anything other than in Lo Res for Access, and the legality of Government access to items stored on The Cloud should make Curators very scared of it. Most digital curators have very little comprehension of the effect of solar flares on digital collections if they were hit by one. In the same way that presently part of the new method of “warfare” is economic hacking and attacks on financial institutions, the risks of cyber attacks on a country’s cultural heritage should be something of massive concern, as little could demoralise a population more rapidly. Large archives seem aware of this, but not many smaller ones that lack the skill to protect themselves’ (17)

…Others stressed legal issues related to rights management…

‘recording the rights to use digital content and ownership of digital content throughout its history/ life is critical. Because of the efforts to share bits of data and the ease of doing so (linked data, Europeana, commercial deals, the poaching of lines of code to be used in various tools/ services/ products etc.) this is increasingly important.’ (17)

It will be fascinating to see how the consultation are further contextualised and placed next to examples of best practice, case studies and innovative technological approaches within the fully revised 2nd edition of the Handbook.

European Parliament Policy on Film Heritage

Our final example relates to the European Parliament and Council Recommendation on Film Heritage. The Recommendation was first decreed in 2005. It invited Member States to offer progress reports every two years about the protection of and access to European film heritage. The 4th implementation report was published on 2 October 2014 and can be read in full here.

The language of the recommendation very much echoes the rationale laid out by UNESCO for establishing World Audiovisual Heritage Day, discussed above:

‘Cinematography is an art form contained on a fragile medium, which therefore requires positive action from the public authorities to ensure its preservation. Cinematographic works are an essential component of our cultural heritage and therefore merit full protection.’

Although the recommendation relates to preservation of cinematic works specifically, the implementation report offers wide ranging insight into the uneven ways ‘the digital revolution’ has affected different countries, at the level of film production/ consumption, archiving and preservation.

The report gravely states that ‘European film heritage risks missing the digital train,‘ a phrase that welcomes a bit more explanation. One way to understand is that it describes how countries, but also Europe as a geo-political space, is currently failing to capitalise on what digital technologies can offer culturally, but also economically.

The report reveals that the theoretical promise of interoperable digital technologies-smooth trading, transmission and distribution across economic, technical and cultural borders-was hindered in practice due to costly and complex copyright laws that make the cross border availability of film heritage, re-use (or ‘mash-up’) and online access difficult to implement. This means that EU member states are not able to monetise their assets or share their cultural worth. Furthermore, this is further emphasised by the fact that ‘85% of Europe’s film heritage is estimated to be out-of-commerce, and therefore, invisible for the European citizen’ (37).

In an age of biting austerity, the report makes very clear that there simply aren’t enough funds to implement robust digitization and digital preservation plans: ‘Financial and human resources devoted to film heritage have generally remained at the same level or have been reduced. The economic situation has indeed pushed Member States to change their priorities’ (38).

There is also the issue of preserving analogue expertise: ‘many private analogue laboratories have closed down following the definitive switch of the industry to digital. This raises the question on how to maintain technology and know-how related to analogue film’ (13).

Production Heritage Budget EUThe report gestures toward what is likely to be a splitting archival-headache-to-come for custodians of born digital films: ‘resources devoted to film heritage […] continue to represent a very small fraction of resources allocated to funding of new film productions by all Member States’ (38). Or, to put it in numerical terms, for every €97 invested by the public sector in the creation of new films, only €3 go to the preservation and digitisation of these films. Some countries, namely Greece and Ireland, are yet to make plans to collect contemporary digital cinema (see opposite infographic).

Keeping up to date

It is extremely useful to have access to the research featured in this article. Consulting these different resources helps us to understand the nuts and bolts of technical practices, but also how different parts of the world are unevenly responding to digitisation. If the clock is ticking to preserve audiovisual heritage in the abrupt manner presented in the Swiss National Archives Film, the EU research in particular indicates that it may well be too late already to preserve a significant proportion of audiovisual archives that we can currently listen to and watch.

As we have explored at other places in this blog, wanting to preserve everything is in many ways unrealistic; making clinical selection decisions is a necessary part of the archival process. The situation facing analogue audiovisual heritage is however both novel and unprecedented in archival history: the threat of catastrophic drop out in ten-fifteen years time looms large and ominous.

All that is left to say is: enjoy the Day for World Audiovisual Heritage! Treasure whatever endangered media species flash past your eyes and ears. Be sure to consider any practical steps you can take to ensure the films and audio recordings that are important to you remain operable for many years to come.

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn for Four Voices 3″ 1/4 inch reel to reel tape transfer

We have recently transferred a previously unpublished 3” ¼ inch tape recording of British 20th century composer Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn for Four Voices. The tape is a 2-track stereo recording made at 7.5 inches per second (in/s) at the Purcell Room in London’s Southbank Centre in 1975, and was broadcast on 16 September 1976.

When migrating magnetic tape recordings to digital files there are several factors that can be considered to assess the quality of recording even before we play back the tape. One of these is the speed at which the tape was originally recorded.

Diagramme of track widths on magnetic tape, and the relative thicknesses of 1, 2 and 4 track recordings

Generally speaking, the faster the speed the better the reproduction quality when making the digital transfer. This is because higher tape speeds spread the recorded signal longitudinally over more tape area, therefore reducing the effects of dropouts and tape noise. The number of tracks recorded on the tape also has an impact on how good it sounds today. Simply put, the more information stored on the tape due to recording speed or track width, the better the transfer will sound.

The tape of Nocturn for Four Voices was however suffering from binder hydrolysis and therefore needed to be baked prior to play back. EMI tape doesn’t normally do this but as the tape was EMI professional it may well have used Ampex stock and / or have been back coated, thus making the binder more susceptible to such problems.

Remembering Phyllis Tate

Nocturn for Four Voices is an example of how Tate ‘composed for unusual combinations of instruments and voice.’ The composition includes ‘Bass Clarinet, Celeste, String Quartet and Double Bass’, music scholar Jane Ballantyne explains.

The tape was brought into us by Tate’s daughter, Celia Frank, who is currently putting the finishing touches to a web archive that, she hopes, will help contemporary audiences (re)discover her mother’s work.

Like many women musicians and artists, Phyllis Tate, who trained at the Royal Academy of Music, remains fairly obscure to the popular cultural ear.

This is not to say, of course, that her work did not receive critical acclaim from her contemporaries or posthumously. Indeed, it is fair to say that she had a very successful composing career. Both the BBC and the Royal Academy of Music, among others, commissioned compositions from Tate, and her work is available to hire or buy from esteemed music publishers Oxford University Press (OUP).

Edmund Whitehouse, who wrote a short biography of the composer, described her as ‘one of the outstanding British composers of her generation, she was truly her own person whose independent creative qualities produced a wide range of music which defy categorisation.’

Her music often comprised of contrasting emotional registers, lyrical sections and unexpected changes of direction. As a writer of operattas and choral music, with a penchant for setting poetry to music, her work is described by the OUP as the product of ‘an unusual imagination and an original approach to conventional musical forms or subjects, but never to the extent of being described as “avant-garde”.’

Tate’s music was very much a hit with iconic suffrage composer Ethel Smyth who, upon hearing Tate’s compositions, reputedly declared: ‘at last, I have heard a real woman composer.’ Such praise was downplayed by Tate, who tended to point to Smyth’s increased loss of hearing in later life as the cause of her enjoyment: ‘My Cello Concerto was performed soon afterwards at Bournemouth with Dame Ethel sitting in the front row banging her umbrella to what she thought was the rhythm of the music.’Open reel tape and box

While the dismissal of Smyth’s appreciation is tender and good humoured, the fact that Tate destroyed significant proportions of her work does suggest that at times she could have doubted her own abilities as a composer. Towards the end of her life she revealed: ‘I must admit to having a sneaking hope that some of my creations may prove to be better than they appear. One can only surmise and it’s not for the composer to judge. All I can vouch is this: writing music can be hell; torture in the extreme; but there’s one thing worse; and that is not writing it.’ As a woman composing in an overwhelmingly male environment, such hesitancies are perhaps an understandable expression of what literary scholars Gilbert and Gubar called ‘the anxiety of authorship.’

Tate’s work is a varied and untapped resource for those interested in twentieth century composition and the wider history of women composers. We wish Celia the best of luck in getting the website up and running, and hope that many more people will be introduced to her mother’s work as a consequence.

Thanks to Jane Ballantyne and Celia Frank for their help in writing this article.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Obsolete technologies and contemporary sound art

At the recent Supernormal experimental arts and music festival held at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, a number of artists were using analogue technologies to explore concepts that dovetail nicely with the work we do at Greatbear collecting, servicing and repairing obsolete tape machines.

Hacker Farm, for example, keep ‘obsolete tech and discarded, post-consumerist debris’ alive using ‘salvaged and the hand-soldered’ DIY electronics. Their performance was a kind-of technological haunting, the sound made when older machines are turned on and re-purposed in different eras. Eerie, decayed, pointless and mournful, the conceptual impetus behind Hacker Farm raises many questions that emerge from the rather simple desire to keep old technologies working. Such actions soon become strange and aesthetically challenging in the contemporary technological context, which actively reproduces obsolescence in the endless search for the new, fostering continuous wastefulness at the centre of industrial production.

Music by the Metre

Another performance at the festival which engaged with analogue technologies was Graham Dunning’s Music by the Metre. The piece pays homage to Situationist Pinot-Gallizio‘s method of ‘Industrial Painting’ (1957-1959), in which the Italian artist created a 145 metre hand and spray painted canvas that was subsequently cut up and sold by the metre. The action, which attempted to destroy the perception of the sacrilegious art-object and transform it into something which could be mass-quantified and sold, aimed to challenge ‘the mental disease of banalisation’ inherent to what Guy Debord termed ‘the society of the spectacle.’

In Dunning’s contemporary piece he used spools of open reel tape to record a series of automated machines comprised of looping record players, synth drone, live environmental sound and tape loops. This tape is then cut by the artist in metre long segments, placed in see-through plastic bags and ‘sold’ on his temporary market stall used to record and present the work.

Dunning’s work exists in interesting tension with the ideas of Pinot-Gallizio, largely because of the different technological and aesthetic contexts the artists are responding to.

Pinot-Gallizio’s industrial painting aimed to challenge the role of art within a consumer society by accelerating its commodity status (mass-produced, uniform, quantified, art as redundant, art as part of the wall paper). Within Dunning’s piece, such a process of acceleration is not so readily available, particularly given the deep obsolescence of consumer-grade open reel tape in 2014, and, furthermore, its looming archival obsolescence (often cited at ’10-20 years‘ by archivists).

Within the contemporary context, open reel analogue tapes have become ornate and aestheticised in themselves because they have lost their function as an everyday, recordable mass blank media. When media lose their operating context they are transformed into objects of fascination and desire, as Claire Bishop pithily states in her Art Forum essay, ‘The Digital Divide’: ‘Today, no exhibition is complete without some form of bulky, obsolete technology—the gently clucking carousel of the slide-projector, or the whirring of an 8mm or 16mm film reel […] the sumptuous texture of indexical media is unquestionably seductive, but its desirability also arises from the impression that it is scarce, rare and precious.’

In reality, the impression of open reel to reel analogue tape’s rarity is however well justified, as manufacturers and distributors of magnetic tape are increasingly hard to find. Might there be something more complex and contradictory be going on in Dunning’s homage to Pinot-Gallizio? Could we understand it as a neat inversion of the mass-metred-object, doubly cut adrift from its historical (1950s-1970s) and technological operating context (the open reel tape recorder), the bag of tape is decelerated, existing as nothing other than art object. Stuffed messily in a plastic bag and displayed ready to be sold (if only by donation), the tape is both ugly and useless given its original and intended use. It is here Dunning’s and Pinot-Gallizio’s work converge, situated at different historical and temporal poles from which critique of the consumer society can be mounted: accelerated plenitude and decelerated exhaustion.

onexmetres

Analogue attachments

As a company that works with obsolete magnetic tape-based media, Great Bear has a vested interest in ensuring tapes and playback machines remain operational. Although our studio, with its stacks of long-forgotten machines, may look like a curious art installation to some, the tapes we migrate to digital files are not quite art objects…yet. Like Hacker Farm, we help to keep old media alive through careful processes of maintenance and repair.

From looking at how contemporary sound artists are engaging with analogue technologies, it is clear that the medium remains very much part of the message, as Marshall McLuhan would say, and that meaning becomes amplified, contorted or transformed depending on historical context, and media norms present within it.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Irene Brown’s reel to reel recordings of folk and Gaelic culture

Two reel-to-reel tapes and boxesWe are currently migrating a collection of tapes made by Irene Brown who, in the late 1960s, was a school teacher living in Inverness. Irene was a member of the Inverness Folk Club and had a strong interest in singing, playing guitar and collecting the musical heritage of folk and Gaelic culture.

The tapes, that were sent by her niece Mrs. Linda Baublys, are documents of her Auntie’s passion, and include recordings Irene made of folk music sung in a mixture of Gaelic and English at the Gellions pub, Inverness, in the late 1960s.

The tapes also include recordings of her family singing together. Linda remembered fondly childhood visits to her ‘Granny’s house that was always filled with music,’ and how her Auntie used to ‘roar and sing.’

Perhaps most illustriously, the tapes include a prize-winning performance at the annual An Comunn Gaidhealach/ The National Mòd (now Royal National Mòd). The festival, which has taken place annually at different sites across Scotland since it was founded in 1892 is modelled on the Welsh Eisteddfod and acts ‘as a vehicle for the preservation and development of the Gaelic language. It actively encourages the teaching, learning and use of the Gaelic language and the study and cultivation of Gaelic literature, history, music and art.’ Mòd festivals also help to keep Gaelic culture alive among diasporic Scottish communities, as demonstrated by the US Mòd that has taken place annually since 2008.

If you want to find out more about Gaelic music visit the Year of the Song website run by BBC Alba where you can access a selection of songs from the BBC’s Gaelic archive. If you prefer doing research in archives and libraries take a visit to the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Based at the University of Edinburgh, the collection comprises a significant sound archive containing thousands of recordings of songs, instrumental music, tales, verse, customs, beliefs, place-names biographical information and local history, encompassing a range of dialects and accents in Gaelic, Scots and English.

As well as learning some of the songs recorded on the tape to play herself, Linda plans to eventually deposit the digitised transfers with the School of Scottish Studies Archives. She will also pass the recordings on to a local school that has a strong engagement with traditional Gaelic music.

Digitising and country lanes

Linda told us it was a ‘long slog’ to get the tapes. After Irene died at the age of 42 it was too upsetting for her mother, and Linda’s Granny, to listen to them. The tapes were then passed onto Linda’s mother who also never played the tapes, so when she passed away Linda, who had been asking for the tapes for nearly 20 years, took responsibility to get them digitised.

Open reel in a box

The tapes were in fairly good condition and minimal problems arose in the transfer process. One of the tapes was however suffering from ‘country-laning’. This is when the shape of the tape has become bendy (like a country lane), most probably because it had been stored in fluctuating temperatures which cause the tape to shrink and grow. It is more common in acetate-backed tape, although Linda’s tapes were polymer-backed. Playing a tape suffering from country-laning often results in problems with the azimuth because the angle between tape head and tape are dis-aligned. A signal can still be discerned, because analogue recordings rarely drop out entirely (unlike digital tape), but the recording may waver or otherwise be less audible. When the tape has been deformed in this way it is very difficult to totally reverse the process. Consequently there has to be some compromise in the quality of the transfer.

We hope you will enjoy this excerpt from the tapes, which Linda has kindly given us permission to include in this article.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Seeing tracks: viewing magnetic information as an aid for tape digitisation

Magnetic viewer pressed up against a tape displaying the magnetic information

The magnetic viewer makes the mysterious tracks recorded onto the tape visible

We use a Sigma Hi-Chemical MV-95 magnetic viewer  in order to aid our digitisation work. By pressing the viewer against the tape we are able to read the magnetic information recorded on it. The reader helps us to visually identify the position of the recorded tracks on the tape, and enables accurate playback during digitisation. Magnetic readers can also help us to identify potential problems with the tape, for example if a track has been partially erased, because it will show up on the viewer.

We receive tapes that are in varying states of repair and disrepair. Sometimes the person who made the recording kept the tapes in impeccable, temperature controlled conditions. Inscribed on the boxes are dates and lists of who performed, and what instrument they played. The tapes often feature detailed notes about the number of tracks recorded, whether they are in stereo or mono and if they used noise reduction technology. Digitisation, in such cases, does not usually pose great challenges.

At the other extreme are tapes recorded by people who never wrote anything down about how they made their recording. This means the people doing the digitising can be left to do a lot of guess work (particularly if that person has since died, and can’t tell you anything about the recording). A lack of informative metadata about the tape does not necessarily create migration difficulties: recordings can be very straightforward like, for example, a ½ track stereo recording of a single voice.

Multi-track tape machine

It is essential that the appropriate head is used to read the magnetic information recorded onto the tape.

Problems can however arise when recordings have been made in an idiosyncratic (and inconsistent) manner. For example (and in exceptional circumstances) we receive single magnetic tapes that have a mixture of track formats on them which include four track multi-track, ½ and ¼ track mono and ½ and ¼ track stereo.

In such cases it can be hard to discern the precise nature of the recordings using the ears alone. Often such recordings don’t sound ‘quite right’, even if it is not exactly clear what the problem is.

Rather than relying on speculation, using the magnetic reader gives 100% confirmation about where tracks are recorded on the tape, and therefore helps us to replay the tape using the appropriate playback heads, and therefore digitise it accurately.

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Climate Change, Tape Mould and Digital Preservation

The summer of 2008 saw a spate of articles in the media focusing on a new threat to magnetic tapes.

The reason: the warm, wet weather was reported as a watershed moment in magnetic tape degradation, with climate change responsible for the march of mould consuming archival memories, from personal to institutional collections.

The connection between climate change and tape mould is not one made frequently by commentators, even in the digital preservation world, so what are the links? It is certainly true that increased heat and moisture are prime conditions for the germination of the mould spores that populate the air we breathe. These spores, the British Library tell us

‘can stay dormant for long periods of time, but when the conditions are right they will germinate. The necessary conditions for germination are generally:

• temperatures of 10-35ºC with optima of 20ºC and above

• relative humidities greater than 70%’

The biggest threat to the integrity of magnetic tape is fluctuations in environmental temperatures. This means that tape collections that are not stored in controlled settings, such as a loft, cupboard, shed or basement, are probably most at risk.

While climate change has not always been taking as seriously as it should be by governments and media commentators, the release today of the UN’s report, which stated in no uncertain terms that climate change is ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible’, should be a wake up call to all the disbelievers.

Water damaged tape box

To explore the links between climate change and tape degradation further we asked Peter Specs from US-based disaster recovery specialists the Specs Brothers if he had noticed any increase in the number of mouldy tapes they had received for restoration. In his very generous reply he told us:

‘The volume of mouldy tapes treated seems about the same as before from areas that have not experienced disasters but has significantly increased from disaster areas. The reason for the increase in mould infected tapes from disaster areas seems to be three-fold. First, many areas have recently been experiencing severe weather that is not usual for the area and are not prepared to deal with the consequences. Second, a number of recent disasters have affected large areas and this delays remedial action. Third, after a number of disasters, monies for recovery seem to have been significantly delayed. We do a large amount of disaster recovery work and, when we get the tapes in for processing fairly quickly, are generally able to restore tapes from floods before mould can develop. In recent times, however, we are getting more and more mouldy tapes in because individuals delayed having them treated before mould could develop. Some were unaware that lower levels of their buildings had suffered water damage. In other areas the damage was so severe that the necessities of life totally eclipsed any consideration of trying to recover “non-essential” items such as tape recordings. Finally, in many instances, money for recovery was unavailable and individuals/companies were unwilling to commit to recovery costs without knowing if or when the government or insurance money would arrive.’

Nigel Bewley, soon to be retired senior sound engineer at the British Library, also told us there had been no significant increase in the number of mouldy tapes they had received for treatment. Yet reading between the lines here, and thinking about what Pete Specs told us, in an age of austerity and increased natural disasters, restoring tape collections may slip down the priority list of what needs to be saved for many people and institutions.

Mould: Prevention Trumps the Cure

Climate change aside, what can be done to prevent your tape collections from becoming mouldy? Keeping the tapes stored in a temperature controlled environment is very important – ’15 + 3° C and 40% maximum relative humidity (RH) are safe practical storage conditions,’ recommend the National Technology Alliance. It is also crucial that storage environments retain a stable temperature, because significant changes in the storage climate risk heating or cooling the tape pack, making the tension in the tape pack increase or decrease which is not good for the tape.

Because mould spores settle in very still air, it is vital to ensure a constant flow of air and prevent moist conditions. If all this is too late and your tape collections are already mouldy, all is not lost – even the most infected tape can be treated carefully and salvaged and we can help you do this.

If you are wondering how mould attacks magnetic tape, it is attracted to the binder or adhesive that attaches the layers of the tape together. If you can see the mould on the tape edges it usually means the mould has infected the whole tape.

Optical media can also be affected by mould. Miriam B. Kahn writes in Disaster Response and Planning for Libraries

‘Optical discs are susceptible to water, mould and mildew. If the polycarbonate surface is damaged or not sealed appropriately, moisture can become trapped and begin to corrode the metal encoding surface. If moisture or mould is invasive enough, it will make the disc unreadable’ (85).

Prevention, it seems, is better than having to find the cure.  So turn on the lights, keep the air flowing and make the RH level stable.

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

2″ Quad Video Tape Transfers – new service offered

We are pleased to announce that we are now able to support the transfer of 2″ Quadruplex Video Tape (PAL, SECAM & NTSC) to digital formats.

Quadruplex Scanning Diagram

2” Quad was a popular broadcast analogue video tape format whose halcyon period ran from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The first quad video tape recorder made by AMPEX in 1956 cost a modest $45,000 (that’s $386,993.38 in today’s money).

2” Quad revolutionized TV broadcasting which previously had been reliant on film-based formats, known in the industry as ‘kinescope‘ recordings. Kinescope film required significant amounts of skilled labour as well as time to develop, and within the USA, which has six different time zones, it was difficult to transport the film in a timely fashion to ensure broadcasts were aired on schedule.

To counter these problems, broadcasters sought to develop magnetic recording methods, that had proved so successful for audio, for use in the television industry.

The first experiments directly adapted the longitudinal recording method used to record analogue audio. This however was not successful because video recordings require more bandwidth than audio. Recording a video signal with stationary tape heads (as they are in the longitudinal method), meant that the tape had to be recorded at a very high speed in order accommodate sufficient bandwidth to reproduce a good quality video image. A lot of tape was used!

Ampex, who at the time owned the trademark marketing name for ‘videotape’, then developed a method where the tape heads moved quickly across the tape, rather than the other way round. On the 2” quad machine, four magnetic record/reproduce heads are mounted on a headwheel spinning transversely (width-wise) across the tape, striking the tape at a 90° angle. The recording method was not without problems because, the Toshiba Science Museum write, it ‘combined the signal segments from these four heads into a single video image’ which meant that ‘some colour distortion arose from the characteristics of the individual heads, and joints were visible between signal segments.’

Quad scanning

The limitations of Quadruplex recording influenced the development of the helical scan method, that was invented in Japan by Dr. Kenichi Sawazaki of the Mazda Research Laboratory, Toshiba, in 1954. Helical scanning records each segment of the signal as a diagonal stripe across the tape. ‘By forming a single diagonal, long track on two-inch-wide tape, it was possible to record a video signal on one tape using one head, with no joints’, resulting in a smoother signal. Helical scanning was later widely adopted as a recording method in broadcast and domestic markets due to its simplicity, flexibility, reliability and economical use of tape.

This brief history charting the development of 2″ Quad recording technologies reveals that efficiency and cost-effectiveness, alongside media quality, were key factors driving the innovation of video tape recording in the 1950s.

 

Posted by debra in video tape, 2 comments

reel to reel audio tape restoration and digitising of Manchester Oi! band State Victims

Often the tapes we receive to digitise are ‘forgotten’ recordings. Buried under a pile of stuff in a dark, cold room, their owners think they are lost forever. Then, one day, a reel of the mysterious tape emerges from the shadows generating feelings of excitement and anticipation. What is stored on tape? Is the material in a playable condition? What will happen to the tape once it is in a digital format?

All of these things happened recently when Paul Travis sent us a ¼ inch AMPEX tape of the band he played in with his brother, the Salford Oi! punk outfit State Victims.  The impetus for forming State Victims emerged when the two brothers ‘split from Salford bands, Terrorist Guitars and the Bouncing Czechs respectively, and were looking for a new musical vessel to express and reassert their DIY music ethic, but in a more vital and relevant way, searching for a new form of “working-class protest.”‘

The tape had been in the wilderness for the past 30 years, residing quietly in a shed in rural Cambridgeshire. It was in fairly good condition, displaying no signs of damage such as mould on the tape or spool. Like many of the AMPEX tapes we receive it did need some baking treatment because it was suffering from binder hydrolysis (a.k.a. Sticky Shed Syndrome). The baking, conducted at 49 Celsius for 8 hours in our customised oven, was successful and the transfer was completed without any problems. We created a high resolution stereo 24 bit/ 96 kHz WAV file which is recommended for archived audio, as well as a MP3 access copy that can be easily shared online.

Image of tape post-transfer. When it arrived the tape was not wound on neatly and there was no leder tape on it.

Image of tape post-transfer. When it arrived the tape was not wound on neatly and there was no leder tape on it.

Finding old tapes and sending them to be digitised can be a process of discovery. Originally Paul thought the tape was of a 1983 session recorded at the Out of the Blue Studios in Ancoats, Manchester, but it became apparent that the tape was of an earlier recording. Soon after we digitised the first recording we received a message from Paul saying another State Victims tape had ‘popped up in an attic’, so it is amazing what you find when you start digging around!

Like many other bands connected to the Manchester area, the digital artefacts of State Victims are stored on the Manchester District Music Archive (MDMA), a user-led online archive established in 2003 in order to celebrate Greater Manchester music and its history. The MDMA is part of a wider trend of do it yourself archival activity that exploded in the 21st century due to the availability of cheap digital technologies. In what is arguably a unique archival moment, digital technologies have enabled marginal, subcultural and non/ anti-commercial music to widely circulate alongside the more conventional, commercial artefacts of popular music. This is reflected in the MDMA where the artefacts of famous Manchester bands such as The Smiths, The Fall, Oasis and Joy Division sit alongside the significantly less famous archives of the Manchester Musicians Collective, The Paranoids, Something Shady and many others.

Within the community-curated space of the MDMA all of the artefacts acquire a similar value, derived from their ability to illuminate the social history of the area told through its music. Much lip service has been paid to the potential of Web 2.0 technologies and social media to enable new forms of collaboration and ‘user-participation’, but involving people in the construction of web-based content is not always an automatic process. If you build it, people do not always come. As a user-led resource, however, the MDMA seems pretty effective. It is inviting to use, well organised and a wide range of people are clearly contributing, which is reflected in the vibrancy of its content. It is exciting that such an online depository exists, providing a new home for the errant tape, freshly digitised, that is part of Manchester’s music history.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 4 comments

Digital Preservation – Establishing Standards and Challenges for 2014

2014 will no doubt present a year of new challenges for those involved in digital preservation. A key issue remains the sustainability of digitisation practices within a world yet to establish firm standards and guidelines. Creating lasting procedures capable of working across varied and international institutions would bring some much needed stability to a profession often characterized by permanent change and innovation.

In 1969 The EIAJ-1 video tape was developed by the Electronic Industries Association of Japan. It was the first standardized format for industrial/non-broadcast video tape recording. Once implemented it enabled video tapes to be played on machines made by different manufacturers and it helped to make video use cheaper and more widespread, particularly within a domestic context.

Close up of tape machine on the 'play', 'stop', 'rewind' button

The introduction of standards in the digitisation world would of course have very little impact on the widespread use of digital technologies which are, in the west, largely ubiquitous. It would however make the business of digital preservation economically more efficient, simply because organisations would not be constantly adapting to change. For example, think of the costs involved in keeping up with rapid waves of technological transformation: updating equipment, migrating data and ensuring file integrity and operability are maintained are a few costly and time consuming examples of what this would entail.

Although increasingly sophisticated digital forensic technology can help to manage some of these processes, highly trained (real life!) people will still be needed to oversee any large-scale preservation project. Within such a context resource allocation will always have to account for these processes of adaptation. It has to be asked then: could this money, time and energy be practically harnessed in other, more efficient ways? The costs of non-standardisation becomes ever more pressing when we consider the amount of the digital data preserved by large institutions such as the British Library, whose digital collection is estimated to amass up to 5 petabytes (5000 terabytes) by 2020. This is not a simple case of updating your iphone to the next model, but an extremely complex and risky venture where the stakes are high. Do we really want to jeopardise rich forms cultural heritage in the name of technological progress?

The US-based National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) National Agenda for Digital Stewardship 2014 echoes such a sentiment. They argue that ‘the need for integration, interoperability, portability, and related standards and protocols stands out as a theme across all of these areas of infrastructure development’ (3). The executive summary also stresses the negative impact rapid technological change can create, and the need to ‘coordinate to develop comprehensive coverage on critical standards bodies, and promote systematic community monitoring of technology changes relevant to digital preservation.’ (2)

File Format Action Plans

One step on the way to more secure standards is the establishment of File Format Action Plans, a practice which is being increasingly recommended by US institutions. The idea behind developing a file format action plan is to create a directory of file types that are in regular use by people in their day to day lives and by institutions. Getting it all down on paper can help us track what may be described as the implicit user-standards of digital culture. This is the basic idea behind Parsimonious Preservation, discussed on the blog last year: that through observing trends in file use we may come to the conclusion that the best preservation policy is to leave data well alone since in practice files don’t seem to change that much, rather than risk the integrity of information via constant intervention.

As Lee Nilsson, who is currently working as a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the US Library of Congress writes, ‘specific file format action plans are not very common’, and when created are often subject to constant revision. Nevertheless he argues that devising action plans can ‘be more than just an “analysis of risk.” It could contain actionable information about software and formats which could be a major resource for the busy data manager.’

Other Preservation Challenges

Analogue to Digital Converter close upWhat are the other main challenges facing ‘digital stewards’ in 2014? In a world of exponential information growth, making decisions about what we keep and what we don’t becomes ever more pressing. When whole collections cannot be preserved digital curators are increasingly called upon to select material deemed representative and relevant. How is it possible to know now what material needs to be preserve for posterity? What values inform our decision making?

To take an example from our work at Great Bear: we often receive tapes from artists who have achieved little or no commercial success in their life times, but whose work is often of great quality and can tell us volumes about a particular community or musical style. How does such work stand up against commercially successful recordings? Which one is more valuable? The music that millions of people bought and enjoyed or the music that no one has ever heard?

Ultimately these questions will come to occupy a central concern for digital stewards of audio data, particularly with the explosion of born-digital music cultures which have enabled communities of informal and often non-commercial music makers to proliferate. How is it possible to know in advance what material will be valuable for people 20, 50 or 100 years from now? These are very difficult, if not impossible questions for large institutions to grapple with, and take responsibility for. Which is why, as members of a digital information management society, it is necessary to empower ourselves with relevant information so we can make considered decisions about our own personal archives.

A final point to stress is that among the ‘areas of concern’ for digital preservation cited by the NDSA, moving image and recorded sound figure highly, alongside other born-digital content such as electronic records, web and social media. Magnetic tape collections remain high risk and it is highly recommended that you migrate this content to a digital format as soon as possible. While digitisation certainly creates many problems as detailed above, magnetic tape is also threatened by physical deterioration and its own obsolescence challenges, in particular finding working machines to play back tape on. The simple truth is, if you want to access material in your tape collections it needs now to be stored in a resilient digital format. We can help, and offer other advice relating to digital information management, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

End of year thank yous to our customers

What a year it has been in the life of Greatbear Analogue and Digital Media. As always the material customers have sent us to digitise has been fascinating and diverse, both in terms of the recordings themselves and the technical challenges presented in the transfer process. At the end of a busy year we want to take this opportunity to thank our customers for sending us their valuable tape collections, which over the course of 2013 has amounted to a whopping 900 hours of digitised material.

We feel very honoured to play a part in preserving personal and institutional archives that are often incredibly rare, unique and, more often than not, very entertaining. It is a fairly regular occurrence in the Great Bear Studio to have radio jingles from the 60s, oral histories of war veterans, recordings of family get-togethers and video documentation of avant-garde 1970s art experiments simultaneously migrating in a vibrant melee of digitisation.

Throughout the year we have been transported to a breathtaking array of places and situations via the ‘mysterious little reddish-brown ribbon.’ Spoken word has featured heavily, with highlights including Brian Pimm-Smith‘s recordings of his drive across the Sahara desert, Pilot Officer Edwin Aldridge ‘Finn’ Haddock’s memories of World-War Two, and poet Paul Roche reading his translation of Sophocles’ Antigone.

We have also received a large amount of rare or ‘lost’ audio recordings through which we have encountered unique moments in popular music history. These include live recordings from the Couriers Folk Club in Leicester, demo tapes from artists who achieved niche success like 80s John Peel favourites BOB, and large archives of prolific but unknown songwriters such as the late Jack Hollingshead, who was briefly signed to the Beatles’ Apple label in the 1960s. We always have a steady stream of tapes from Bristol Archive Records, who continue to acquire rare recordings from bands active in the UK’s reggae and post-punk scenes.  We have also migrated VHS footage of local band Meet Your Feet from the early 1990s.

Rack of three digital multi-track machines On our blog we have delved into the wonderful world of digital preservation and information management, discussing issues such as ‘parsimonious preservation‘ which is advocated by the National Archives, as well as processes such as migration, normalisation and emulation. Our research suggests that there is still no ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy in place for digital information management, and we will continue to monitor the debates and emerging practices in this field in the coming year. Migrating analogue and digital tapes to digital files remains strongly recommended for access and preservation reasons, with some experts bookmarking 15 April 2023 as the date when obsolescence for many formats will come into full effect.

We have been developing the blog into a source of information and advice for our customers, particularly relating to issues such as copyright and compression/ digital format delivery. We hope you have found it useful!

While the world is facing a growing electronic waste crisis, Great Bear is doing its bit to buck the trend by recycling old domestic and professional tape machines. In 2013 we have acquired over 20 ‘new’ old analogue and digital video machines. This has included early ’70s video cassette domestic machines such as the N1502, up to the most recent obsolete formats such as Digital Betacam. We are always looking for old machines, both working and not working, so do get in touch if your spring clean involves ridding yourself of obsolete tape machines!

Our collection of test equipment is also growing as we acquire more wave form monitors, rare time-based correctors and vectorscopes. In audio preservation we’ve invested heavily in early digital audio machines such as multi-track DTRS and ADAT machines which are rapidly becoming obsolete.

We are very much looking forward to new challenges in 2014 as we help more people migrate their tape-based collections to digital formats. We are particularly keen to develop our work with larger archives and memory institutions, and can offer consultation on technical issues that arise from planning and delivering a large-scale digitisation project, so please do get in touch if you want to benefit from our knowledge and experience.

Once again a big thank you from us at Greatbear, and we hope to hear from you in the new year.

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Paul Roche recordings & preservation challenges with acetate reel-to-reel magnetic tape

We were recently sent a very interesting collection of recordings of the late poet, novelist and acclaimed translator Paul Roche. During his colourful and creative life Roche published two novels, O Pale Gallellean and Vessel of Dishonour, and several poetry collections, and brushed shoulders with some of the 20th century’s most captivating avant-garde artistic and literary figures. His faculty colleague when he worked at Smith College, MA in the late 1950s was none other than Sylvia Plath, who pithily described Roche’s ‘professional dewy blue-eyed look and his commercially gilded and curled blond hair on his erect, dainty bored aristocratic head’.

His intense 30 year friendship with painter Duncan Grant was immortalised in the book With Duncan Grant in Southern Turkey, which documented a holiday the friends took together shortly before Grant’s death. The relationship with Grant has often eclipsed Roche’s own achievements, and he is often mistakenly identified as a member of the Bloomsbury group. Roche also achieved success beyond the literary and scholarly world when his translation of Oedipus the King became the screenplay for the 1968 film starring Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles.

The recordings we were sent were made between 1960-1967 when Roche worked at universities in America. Roche experienced greater professional success in America, and his translations of Ancient Greek are still used in US schools and universities. His son Martin, who sent us the tapes, is planning to use the digitised recordings on a commemorative website that will introduce contemporary audiences to his father’s creative legacy.

The Great Bear Studio has been pleasantly awash today with the sound of Roche reading poetry and his dramatic renditions of Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus the King’, ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ and ‘Antigone’. The readings communicate his emphatic pleasure performing language via the spoken word, and an unique talent to immerse listeners in images, rhythm and phrases.

Listen to Paul Roche reading his translation of ‘Antigone’.

Our own pleasure listening to the recordings has however been disrupted because of frequent snaps in the tape. The tapes are covered in splices, which suggests they had been edited previously. Over time the adhesive glue has dried out, breaking the tape as it moves through the transport. The collection of tapes as a whole are fairly brittle because the base film, which forms the structural integrity of the tape, is made of acetate.

Canadian-based digitisation expert Richard Hess explains that

‘Acetate was the first widely used base film, with Scotch 111 being in production from 1948 through 1972/73, a total of 24-25 years. Acetate tape is generally robust and has the advantage of breaking cleanly rather than stretching substantially prior to breaking when overstressed. Acetate tapes residing in collections are over 30-years-old, with the oldest being over 60-years-old.’

The big downside to acetate is that when it degrades it loses its flexibility and becomes a bit like an extended tape measure. This means it is harder to pass the tape consistently through the tape transport. This is colloquially known in the digitisation world as ‘country-laning’, when the tape changes shape in all dimensions and becomes wiggly, like a country lane. To extend the metaphor, a well functioning tape should be flat, like, one supposes, a motorway.

Paul Roche's Tape BoxWhen a tape is ‘country-laning’ it means tracks of recorded material are moving slightly so they shift in and out of phase, dis-aligning the angle between the tape head(s) and tape, or azimuth. This has a detrimental effect on the quality of the playback because the machine reading the recorded material on the tape is at odds with surface area from which the information is being read.

If you are reading this and wondering if the base film in your tape is made of acetate, or is made of another substance such as paper or polyester, you can perform a simple test. If you hold the tape against the light and it appears translucent then the tape is acetate. There may also be a slightly odd, vinegar smell coming from the tape. If so, this is bad news for you because the tape is probably suffering from ‘Vinegar Syndrome’. Richard Hess explains that

‘Vinegar syndrome occurs as acetate decomposes and forms acetic acid. This is a well-known degradation mode for acetate film. High temperature and humidity levels, the presence of iron oxide, and the lack of ventilation all accelerate the process. Once it has started it can only be slowed down, not reversed.’

Acetate tape is also particularly vulnerable to excessive heat exposure, which makes it shrink in size. This is why you should never bake acetate tape! When acetate tape is exposed to heat it reaches what is known as the liquid-glass transition phase, the temperature where the material composition starts to change shape from a hard and relatively brittle state into a molten or rubber-like state. Although glass transition is reversible, it certainly is destructive. In other words, you can change the tape back from molten to a hard substance again but the tape would be unplayable.

While acetate backed tape has certain advantages over polyester tape in the migration process, namely it is easier to cleanly splice together tape that has broken as it has moved through the transport, unfortunately acetate tape is more fragile, and can get extremely stiff which makes it difficult to play back the tape at all. Even if you can pass the tape through the machine it may snap regularly, and will therefore require a lot of treatment in the transfer process. So if you have a valuable tape collection stored predominantly on acetate tape, we strongly recommend getting it migrated to digital format as soon as possible due to the fragility of the format. And if that whiff of vinegar is present, you need to move even more quickly!

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Digitising Shedding Magnetic Multi-track Tape & the history of John Peel favourites BOB

An important part of digitisation work we do is tape restoration. Often customers send us tape that have been stored in less than ideal conditions that are either too hot, cold or damp, which can lead to degradation.

In the excellent Council on Library and Information Sources’ report on Magnetic Storage and Handling (1995), they set the ideal archival storage conditions for magnetic tape at ‘significantly lower than room ambient (as low as 5 centrigade)’, with no less than 4 degrees variation in temperature at 20% room humidity. They suggest that ‘the conditions are specifically designed to reduce the rate of media deterioration through a lowering of the temperature and humidity content of the media.’

8 Track Headshot 1

Of course most people do not have access to such temperature controlled environments, or are necessarily thinking about the future when they store their tape at home. Sometimes manufacturers recommended to store tape in a ‘cool, dark place’, but often tape is not adorned with any such advice. This leads to us receiving a lot of damaged tape!

As we are keen to emphasise to customers, it is possible to salvage most recordings made on magnetic analogue tape that appear to be seriously damaged, it just requires a lot more time and attention.

For example, we were recently sent a collection of 3” multi-track tapes that had been stored in fairly bad conditions. Nearly all the tapes were degraded and needed to be treated. A significant number of these tapes were AMPEX so were suffering from binder hydrolysis, a.k.a. sticky shed syndrome in the digitisation world. This is a chemical process where binder polymers used in magnetic tape constructions become fragmented because the tape has absorbed water from its immediate environment. When this happens tapes become sticky and sheds when it is played back.

Baking the AMPEX tapes is a temporary treatment for binder hydrolysis, and after baking they need to be migrated to digital format as soon as possible (no more than two weeks is recommended). Baking is by no means a universal treatment for all tapes – sticky shed occurs due to the specific chemicals AMPEX used in their magnetic tape.

Cleaning shedding tape

Other problems occur that require different kinds of treatment. For example, some of the 3” collection weren’t suffering from sticky shed syndrome but were still shedding. We were forewarned by notes on the box:

Shedder

The tapes recorded on TDK were particularly bad, largely because of poor storage conditions. There was so much loose binder on these tapes that they needed cleaning 5 or 6 times before we could get a good playback.

We use an adapted Studer A80 solely for cleaning purposes. Tape is carefully wound and rewound and interlining curtain fabric is used to clean each section of the tape. The photo below demonstrates the extent of the tape shedding, both by the dirty marks on fabric, and the amount we have used to clean the collection.

Studer A 80

You might think rigorous cleaning risks severely damaging the quality of the tape, but it is surprising how clear all the tapes have sounded on playback. The simple truth is, the only way to deal with dry shedding is to apply such treatment because it simply won’t be able to playback clearly through the machine if it is dirty.

Loss of lubricant

Another problem we have dealt with has been the loss of lubricant in the tape binder. Tape binder is made up of a number of chemicals that include lubricant reservoirs, polymers and magnetic particles.

Dirty Cloth

Lubricants are normally added to the binder to reduce the friction of the magnetic topcoat layer of the tape. Over time, the level of the lubricant decreases because it is worn down every time the tape is played, potentially leading to tape seizures in the transport device due to high friction.

In such circumstances it is necessary to carefully re-lubricate the tape to ensure that it can run smoothly past the tape heads and play back. Lubrication must be done sparingly because the tape needs to be moist enough to function effectively, but not too wet so it exacerbates clogging in the tape head mechanism.

Restoration work can be very time consuming. Even though each 3″ tape plays for around 20 minutes, the preparation of tapes can take a lot longer.

Another thing to consider is these are multi-track recordings: eight tracks are being squeezed onto a 1/4″ tape. This means that it only takes  a small amount of debris to come off, block the tape heads, dull the high frequencies and ultimately compromise the transfer quality.

It is important, therefore, to ensure tapes are baked, lubricated or cleaned, and heads are clear on the playback mechanism so the clarity of the recording can realised in the transfer process.

Now we’ve explored the technical life of the tape in detail, what about the content? If you are a regular visitor to this blog you will know we get a lot of really interesting tape to transfer that often has a great story behind it. We contacted Richard Blackborow, who sent the tapes, to tell us more. We were taken back to the world of late 80s indie-pop, John Peel Sessions, do it yourself record labels and a loving relationship with an 8 track recorder.

A Short History of BOB by Richard Blackborow

Richard adjusts the levels on the 8 track mixer in the Banwell Studio. He is smoking a cigarette and wearing ripped jeansBack in 1983 I was a 17 year old aspiring drummer, still at school in North London and in an amateur band. Happily for me, at that time, my eldest brother, also a keen musician, bought a small cottage in a village called Banwell, which is 20 or so miles outside of Bristol, near Weston Super Mare. He moved there to be near his work. The cottage had a big attic room and he installed a modest 8-track studio into it so that he could record his own music during his spare time. The studio was based around a new Fostex A8 reel-to-reel machine and the little mixing desk that came with it.

The equipment fascinated me and I was a regular visitor to his place to learn how to use it and to start recording my own music when he wasn’t using it.

Skip forward a couple of years and I am now 19, out of school, deferring my place at university and in a new band with an old friend, Simon Armstrong. My brother’s work now takes him increasingly abroad, so the studio is just sitting there doing nothing. Simon and I begin to write songs with the express intention of going to Banwell every time we had a decent number of tunes to record. Over the next ten years it becomes part of the routine of our lives! We formed a band called BOB in 1986, and although we still lived in London, we spent a lot of time in that small studio in Banwell – writing, recording demos, having wild parties! By this time my brother had moved to the US, leaving me with open access to his little studio.

The band BOB had modest success. John Peel was a keen fan and a great supporter, we toured loads around the UK and Europe and made lots of singles and an album or two, as well as recording 5 BBC sessions.

To cut a long story short, we loved that little studio and wrote and recorded some 300 songs over the ensuing 10 years…the studio gear finally dying in about 1995. Most recordings were for/by BOB, but I also recorded bands called The Siddeleys and Reserve (amongst others).

The tapes we recorded have been lying around for years, waiting to be saved!

Four men (BOB) stand outside the cottage in Banwell

Recent interest in BOB has resulted in plans to release two double CDs. The first contains a re-issued album, all the BBC sessions and a few rarities. The second CD, planned for next year, will contain all of the BOB singles, plus a whole CD of the best of those demos we recorded. It was for this reason that all of those old tapes were sent to Adrian to be transferred to digital. I now have a studio near my home in West Cornwall, close to Land’s End, where I will be mixing all the material that Great Bear have been working on. The demos map our progression from pretty rubbish schoolboy aspirants to reasonably accomplished songwriters. Some of the material is just embarrassing, but a good chunk is work I am still proud of. We were very prolific and the sheer number of reels that Adrian has transferred is testament to that. There is enough material there for a number of CDs, and only time will tell how much is finally released.

Listen to the recently transferred Convenience demo

This is a bit of a rarity! It’s the demo (recorded on the little 8-track machine in Banwell) for a BOB single that came out in 1989. It’s called Convenience and I wrote and sang it. This early version is on one of the tapes that Adrian has transferred, so, like many of the rest of the songs, it will be re-mixed this winter for digital formats and released next year.

This is a link to the video we made for the song back in 1989 in a freezing warehouse in Hull! It appeared on Kats Karavan – The History of John Peel on the Radio compilation that was released in 2009.

***

If you want the latest news from BOB you can follow them on twitter. You can also pre-order the expanded edition of their 1991 album Leave the Straight Life Behind from Rough Trade. It will be available from the end of January 2014. A big thank you to Richard for sending us the photos, his writing and letting us include the recording too!

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Jack Hollingshead’s lost Apple recordings on reel-to-reel tape

Digital technologies have helped to salvage all manner of ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ recordings. Whole record labels, from the recently featured Bristol Archive Records to institutional collections like Smithsonian Folkways, are based on the principle of making ‘hard to access’ recordings available in digital form.

A box crammed with dusty reel-to-reel tapes of different sizes

Occasionally we get such rare recordings in the Greatbear studio, and we are happy to turn the signal from analogue to digital so the music can be heard by new audiences. Last week we were sent a particularly interesting collection of tapes: a box of nearly 40 3”-10.5” reel to reel tapes from the songwriter and artist Jack Hollingshead, who sadly passed away in March 2013. The tapes are in good condition, although the spools are pretty dirty, most probably from being stored under the bed or at the back of a cupboard, as these things often are! Jack’s tape came to our attention after a phone call from the writer Stefan Granados, who wanted to arrange for a few songs to be digitised for a research project he is doing focused around the Beatles’ Apple Records company.

The Beatles set up Apple Records in 1968 as an outlet for their own and emerging artists’ recordings. Well known performers who were signed to Apple included Mary Hopkin, Ravi Shankar, James Taylor and many others. But there were also a number of artists who recorded sessions with Apple, but for one reason or another, their music was never released on the label. This is what happened to Jack’s music. Jack’s Apple sessions are psychedelic pop-folk songs with striking melodies, song cousins of drowsy Beatles hits like ‘Across the Universe’. He recorded seven songs in total, which we received on magnetic tape and acetate disc, the test cut of the recording that would have been printed on vinyl. We digitised from the magnetic tape because the disc was in fairly poor condition and we didn’t know how many times the disc had been played.

Listen to ‘Vote for ME’ by Jack Hollingshead

Jack Hollingshead_Acetate_Angle

 

It wasn’t the first time that Jack’s work had aroused record company interest. When he was 16 he signed a contract with Aberbach publishers. Like his experience with Apple a few years later, nothing came of the sessions, and because the companies owned the recordings, he was not able to release them independently.

Jack soon became very frustrated by the record industry in the late 1960s and decided he would do it himself. This was ten years before home recording became widely accessible, so it was not easy, either financially or technically.

In the 1970s a series of serious accidents, and a spell in prison, proved to be disruptive for his musical career. Jack’s prison sentence, received for growing marijuana he was using for medical pain relief purposes, was however fairly positive. It gave him time to focus on playing guitar and he wrote his best songs while incarcerated.

Jack Hollingshead_acetate_back

The back of a test acetate is grooveless

He continued to write and record music throughout his life, and there is a significant amount of material that Trina Grygiel, who is responsible for managing Jack’s estate, is determined to organise and release in his memory.

Jack was also prodigiously talented artist in other mediums, and turned his hand to puppet making, wax painting, gardening and property restoration. His obituary described him as a ‘perfectionist, in all his artistic, creative and practical endeavours he would settle for nothing less.’

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Digitise VHS Tapes – Bristol’s Meet Your Feet

We recently digitised some VHS tapes from when Bristol-based band Meet Your Feet performed on HTV in 1990. Meet Your Feet

‘formed in 1988 as a result of three of the women getting together to start a women’s music workshop, Meet Your Feet played its first gig in June 1988, when asked to get a set together for a Benefit Gig against section 28. This gig was so successful that the band decided to stay together and gradually the original line-up of the early years of the band evolved: Carol Thomas, vocals; Diana Milstein, founder member, bass and lyricist; Diggy, percussion; Heie Gelhaus, founder member, keyboards and songwriter; Julie Lockhart, vocals; Karen Keen, sax; Sue Hewitt, founder member, drums and songwriter; Vicki Burke, sax’ (taken from the  Women’s Liberation Music Archive).

During the 80s the band achieved great success and performed at prestigious festivals such as Glastonbury and WOMAD, as well as appearing on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. They played together until 1992 before disbanding, reformed in 2010 and continue to play shows in Bristol and beyond. Meet Your Feet’s style, which draws from Latin, Jazz and Soul influences, interspersed with passionate, upbeat political lyrics, align them with other ‘women’s music’ bands from the 1980s, such as The Guest Stars and Hi-Jinx.

Meet Your Feet from Adrian Finn on Vimeo.

The video clip we digitised is interesting because it indicates how novel women’s bands were in 1990.

After the band finish performing their new single, they take part in a short interview where they are asked:

‘Its an obvious question, but I am going to ask it, why all women?’

Julie Lockhart, one of the singers, responds wittily, but not without a tinge of bewilderment, ‘Um, we were born that way!’

Can you imagine an all male group being asked a similar question in a television interview, either now or in the early 1990s?! It just wouldn’t happen because no one notices if all the members of a group are male, it just seems completely normal.

The interview goes on to emphasise gender issues, rather than focus on other aspects, such as themes in their music or that it is a large group (there are nine people in the band after all, which is a lot!)

This is not a criticism of the interviewer’s questions as such. Yet the fact it was necessary to asks them about their gender speaks volumes about how surprising it was to see women playing music together. The interview continues as follows:

Presenter: Are there any real advantages to being an all female group?

Sue Hewitt: We listen to each other more, and spin ideas of each other a lot more easily

Julie Lockhart: We giggle a lot more

Presenter: Do you row a lot because you are on the road, its a hard life isn’t it, very intense?

Julie Lockhart: No, that’s the obvious difference we never row!

Presenter: Do you find it hard to be taken seriously by men who come to see an all girl band?

Sue Hewitt: Well no, not all the time. I think initially some men take the view of ‘oh well, its just a bunch of girls on stage’ but when we get up there and start playing they think, ohhh [they can play as well]

It is frustrating that such questions had to be asked, and maybe they wouldn’t be now – although it is still often the case that in music, as in other areas of cultural life, women’s gender is marked, while male gender is not. We have all heard, for example, the phrase ‘female-fronted band’. When do we ever hear of bands that are ‘male-fronted’?

It is really valuable to have access to recordings such as those of Meet Your Feet, not only as a documentation of their performances, but also to demonstrate the attitudes and assumptions that women faced when they participated in a male dominated cultural field.

It is also good to know that Meet Your Feet are still performing and undoubtedly upsetting a few stereotypes and expectations along the way, so make sure you catch them at a show soon!

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

1/2 inch EIAJ skipfield reel to reel videos transferred for Stephen Bell

We recently digitised a collection of 1/2 inch EIAJ skipfield reel to reel videos for Dr Stephen Bell, Lecturer in Computer Animation at Bournemouth University.

CLEWS SB 01 from Stephen Bell on Vimeo.

Stephen wrote about the piece:

‘The participatory art installation that I called “Clews” took place in “The White Room”, a bookable studio space at the Slade School of Art, over three days in 1979. People entering the space found that the room had been divided in half by a wooden wall that they could not see beyond, but they could enter the part nearest the entrance. In that half of the room there was a video monitor on a table with a camera above it pointing in the direction of anyone viewing the screen. There was also some seating so that they could comfortably view the monitor. Pinned to the wall next to the monitor was a notice including cryptic instructions that referred to part of a maze that could be seen on the screen. Participants could instruct the person with the video camera to change the view by giving simple verbal instructions, such as ‘up’, “down”, “left”, “right”, “stop”, etc. until they found a symbol that indicated an “exit”.’

My plan was to edit the video recordings of the event into a separate, dual screen piece but it was too technically challenging for me at the time. I kept the tapes though, with the intention of completing the piece when time and resources became available. This eventually happened in 2012 when, researching ways to get the tapes digitized, I discovered Greatbear in Bristol. They have done a great job of digitizing the material and this is the first version of piece I envisaged all those years ago.’

Nice to have a satisfied customer!

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Paper-backed Soundmirror ‘magnetic ribbon’ – early domestic magnetic tape recorders

The oldest tape we have received at the Greatbear is a spool of paper backed magnetic tape, c.1948-1950. It’s pretty rare to be sent paper-backed tape, and we have been on a bit of adventure trying to find more about its history. On our trail we found a tale of war, economics, industry and invention as we chased the story of the ‘magnetic ribbon’.

Paper Backed Magnetic Tape

The first thing to recount is how the development of magnetic tape in the 1930s and 1940s is enmeshed with events in the Second World War. The Germans were pioneers of magnetic tape, and in 1935 AEG demonstrated the Magnetophon, the first ever tape recorder. The Germans continued to develop magnetic tape, but as the 1930s wore on and war declared, the fruits of technological invention were not widely shared – establishing sophisticated telecommunication systems was essential for the ‘war effort’ on both sides.

Towards the end of the war when the Allies liberated the towns and cities of Europe, they liberated its magnetic tape recording equipment too. Don Rushin writes in ‘The Magic of Magnetic Tape.’

‘By late 1944, the World War II Allies were aware of the magnetic recorder developed by German engineers, a recorder that used an iron-powder-coated paper tape, which achieved much better sound quality that was possible with phonograph discs. A young Signal Corps technician, Jack Mullin, became part of a scavenging team assigned to follow the retreating German army and to pick up items of electronic interest. He found parts of recorders used in the field, two working tape recorders and a library of tapes in the studios of Radio Frankfurt in Bad Nauheim.’

In the United States in WW2, significant resources were used to develop magnetic tape. ‘With money no object and the necessity of adequate recording devices for the military, developments moved at a brisker pace’, writes Mark Mooney.

Soundmirror advert

This where our paper tape comes into the equation, courtesy of Polish-born inventor Semi J. Begun. Begun began working for the Brush Development Company in 1938, who were one of the companies contracted to develop magnetic tape for the US Navy during the war. In his position at Brush Begun invented the ‘Sound Mirror.’ Developed in 1939-1940 but released on the market in 1946, it was the first magnetic tape recorder to be sold commercially in the US post WW2.

As the post-war rush to capitalise on an emerging consumer market gathered apace, companies such as 3M developed their own magnetic tapes. Paper backed magnetic tape was superseded toward the end of the 1940s by plastic tape, making a short but significant appearance in the history of recording media.

This however is a story of magnetic tape in the US, and our tape was recorded in England, so the mystery of the paper tape has not been solved. Around the rim of the rusted spool it states that it is ‘Licensed by the Brush Development Co U.S.A’, ‘Made in England’, ‘Patents Pending’ and ‘Thermionic Products Ltd.’

Thermionic were the British company who acquired the license to build the Soundmirror in 1948. Barry M Jones, who has collected a wider history of the British tape recorder, home studio and studio recording industries writes, ‘[Soundmirror] was the first British-built domestic tape-recorder, whereas the first British built-and-designed tape recorder was the Wright & Weaire, which appeared a few weeks later. Production began in autumn 1948 but the quality of the paper tape meant it shedded oxide too readily and clogged the heads!’

Production of the Soundmirrors continued to late 1954 so it is possible to date the tape as being recorded some time between 1948 and 1958. The weight of the spool and the tape is surprisingly heavy, the tape incredibly fragile, marking its passage through time with signs of corrosion and wear. It is a beautiful object, as many of the tapes we get are, that is entwined with the social histories of media, invention, economy and everyday life.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 6 comments

Digitisation strategies – back up, bit rot, decay and long term preservation

In a blog post a few weeks ago we reflected on several practical and ethical questions emerging from our digitisation work. To explore these issues further we decided to take an in-depth look at the British Library’s Digital Preservation Strategy 2013-2016 that was launched in March 2013. The British Library is an interesting case study because they were an ‘early adopter’ of digital technology (2002), and are also committed to ensuring their digital archives are accessible in the long term.

Making sure the UK’s digital archives are available for subsequent generations seems like an obvious aim for an institution like the British Library. That’s what they should be doing, right? Yet it is clear from reading the strategy report that digital preservation is an unsettled and complex field, one that is certainly ‘not straightforward. It requires action and intervention throughout the lifecycle, far earlier and more frequently than does our physical collection (3).’

The British Library’s collection is huge and therefore requires coherent systems capable of managing its vast quantities of information.

‘In all, we estimate we already have over 280 terabytes of collection content – or over 11,500,000 million items – stored in our long term digital library system, with more awaiting ingest. The onset of non-print legal deposit legislation will significantly increase our annual digital acquisitions: 4.8 million websites, 120,000 e-journal articles and 12,000 e-books will be collected in the first year alone (FY 13/14). We expect that the total size of our collection will increase massively in future years to around 5 petabytes [that’s 5000 terabytes] by 2020.’

All that data needs to be backed up as well. In some cases valuable digital collections are backed up in different locations/ servers seven times (amounting to 35 petabytes/ 3500 terabytes). So imagine it is 2020, and you walk into a large room crammed full of rack upon rack of hard drives bursting with digital information. The data files – which include everything from a BWAV audio file of a speech by Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party after her election victory in 2015, to 3-D data files of cunieform scripts from Mesopotamia, are constantly being monitored by algorithms designed to maintain the integrity of data objects. The algorithms measure bit rot and data decay and produce further volumes of metadata as each wave of file validation is initiated. The back up systems consume large amounts of energy and are costly, but in beholding them you stand in the same room as the memory of the world, automatically checked, corrected and repaired in monthly cycles.

Such a scenario is gestured toward in the British Library’s long term preservation strategy, but it is clear that it remains a work in progress, largely because the field of digital preservation is always changing. While the British Library has well-established procedures in place to manage their physical collections, they have not yet achieved this with their digital ones. Not surprisingly ‘technological obsolescence is often regarded as the greatest technical threat to preserving digital material: as technology changes, it becomes increasingly difficult to reliably access content created on and intended to be accessed on older computing platforms.’ An article from The Economist in 2012 reflected on this problem too: ‘The stakes are high. Mistakes 30 years ago mean that much of the early digital age is already a closed book (or no book at all) to historians.’

Destroyed Hard Drive

There are also shorter term digital preservation challenges, which encompass ‘everything from media integrity and bit rot to digital rights management and metadata.’ Bit rot is one of those terms capable of inducing widespread panic. It refers to how storage media, in particular optical media like CDs and DVDs, decay over time often because they have not been stored correctly. When bit rot occurs, a small electric charge of a ‘bit’ in memory disperses, possibly altering program code or stored data, making the media difficult to read and at worst, unreadable. Higher level software systems used by large institutional archives mitigate the risk of such underlying failures by implementing integrity checking and self-repairing algorithms (as imagined in the 2020 digital archive fantasy above). These technological processes help maintain ‘integrity and fixity checking, content stabilisation, format validation and file characterisation.’

Archival Gold Disc

300 years, are you sure?

Preservation differences between analogue and digital media

The British Library isolate three main areas where digital technologies differ from their analogue counterparts. Firstly there is the issue of ‘proactive lifestyle management‘. This refers to how preservation interventions for digital data need to happen earlier, and be reviewed more frequently, than analogue data. Secondly there is the issue of file ‘integrity and validation.’ This refers to how it is far easier to make changes to a digital file without noticing, while with a physical object it is usually clear if it has decayed or a bit has fallen off. This means there are greater risks to the authenticity and integrity of digital objects, and any changes need to be carefully managed and recorded properly in metadata.

Finally, and perhaps most worrying, is the ‘fragility of storage media‘. Here the British Library explain:

‘The media upon which digital materials are stored is often unstable and its reliability diminishes over time. This can be exacerbated by unsuitable storage conditions and handling. The resulting bit rot can prevent files from rendering correctly if at all; this can happen with no notice and within just a few years, sometimes less, of the media being produced’.

A holistic approach to digital preservation involves taking and assessing significant risks, as well as adapting to vast technological change. ‘The strategies we implement must be regularly re-assessed: technologies and technical infrastructures will continue to evolve, so preservation solutions may themselves become obsolete if not regularly re-validated in each new technological environment.’

Establishing best practice for digital preservation remains a bit of an experiment, and different strategies such as migration, emulation and normalisation are tested to find out what model best helps counter the real threats of inaccessibility and obsolescence we may face in 5-10 years from now. What is encouraging about the British Library’s strategic vision is they are committed to ensuring digital archives are accessible for years to come despite the very clear challenges they face.

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Measuring signals – challenges for the digitisation of sound and video

In a 2012 report entitled ‘Preserving Sound and Moving Pictures’ for the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Technology Watch Report series, Richard Wright outlines the unique challenges involved in digitising audio and audiovisual material. ‘Preserving the quality of the digitized signal’ across a range of migration processes that can negotiate ‘cycles of lossy encoding, decoding and reformatting is one major digital preservation challenge for audiovisual files’ (1).

Wright highlights a key issue: understanding how data changes as it is played back, or moved from location to location, is important for thinking about digitisation as a long term project. When data is encoded, decoded or reformatted it alters shape, therefore potentially leading to a compromise in quality. This is a technical way of describing how elements of a data object are added to, taken away or otherwise transformed when they are played back across a range of systems and software that are different from the original data object.

Time-Based-Corrector

To think about this in terms which will be familiar to people today, imagine converting an uncompressed WAV into an MP3 file. You then burn your MP3s onto a CD as a WAV file so it will play back on your friend’s CD player. The WAV file you started off with is not the same as the WAV file you end up with – its been squished and squashed, and in terms of data storage, is far smaller. While smaller file size may be a bonus, the loss of quality isn’t. But this is what happens when files are encoded, decoded and reformatted.

Subjecting data to multiple layers of encoding and decoding does not only apply to digital data. Take Betacam video for instance, a component analogue video format introduced by SONY in 1982. If your video was played back using composite output, the circuity within the Betacam video machine would have needed to encode it. The difference may have looked subtle, and you may not have even noticed any change, but the structure of the signal would be altered in a ‘lossy’ way and can not be recovered to it’s original form. The encoding of a component signal, which is split into two or more channels, to a composite signal, which essentially squashes the channels together, is comparable to the lossy compression applied to digital formats such as mp3 audio, mpeg2 video, etc.

UMatic-Time-Based-Corrector

A central part of the work we do at Greatbear is to understand the changes that may have occurred to the signal over time, and try to minimise further losses in the digitisation process. We use a range of specialist equipment so we can carefully measure the quality of the analogue signal, including external time based correctors and wave form monitors. We also make educated decisions about which machine to play back tapes in line with what we expect the original recording was made on.

If we take for granted that any kind of data file, whether analogue or digital, will have been altered in its lifetime in some way, either through changes to the signal, file structure or because of poor storage, an important question arises from an archival point of view. What do we do with the quality of the data customers send us to digitise? If the signal of a video tape is fuzzy, should we try to stabilise the image? If there is hiss and other forms of noise on tape, should we reduce it? Should we apply the same conservation values to audio and film as we do to historic buildings, such as ruins, or great works of art? Should we practice minimal intervention, use appropriate materials and methods that aim to be reversible, while ensuring that full documentation of all work undertaken is made, creating a trail of endless metadata as we go along?

Do we need to preserve the ways magnetic tape, optical media and digital files degrade and deteriorate over time, or are the rules different for media objects that store information which is not necessarily exclusive to them (the same recording can be played back on a vinyl record, a cassette tape, a CD player, an 8 track cartridge or a MP3 file, for example)? Or should we ensure that we can hear and see clearly, and risk altering the original recording so we can watch a digitised VHS on a flat screen HD television, in line with our current expectations of media quality?

Time-Based-Correctors

Richard Wright suggests it is the data, rather than operating facility, which is the important thing about the digital preservation of audio and audiovisual media.

‘These patterns (for film) and signals (for video and audio) are more like data than like artefacts. The preservation requirement is not to keep the original recording media, but to keep the data, the information, recovered from that media’ (3).

Yet it is not always easy to understand what parts of the data should be discarded, and which parts should kept. Audiovisual and audio data are a production of both form and content, and it is worth taking care over the practices we use to preserve our collections in case we overlook the significance of this point and lose something valuable – culturally, historically and technologically.

Posted by debra in audio tape, digitisation expertise, video tape, 0 comments

Magnetic Reel to Reel Tape and New Transfer Machines – Pictures from the Greatbear Studio

The Greatbear studio always has a wealth of interesting material in it, that somehow have survived the test of time.

EMI and Scotch Magnetic Recording tape

From racks stacked full of obsolete audio and video tape machines, to the infinite varieties of reel-to-reel tape that were produced by companies such as Scotch, E.M.I. and Irish Recording Tape.

As objects in themselves they are fascinating, instilled with the dual qualities of fragility and resilience, the boxes worn at the edges and sometimes marked with stamps, identificatory stickers or scrawled, handwritten notes.

A selection of ‘audio letters’ sent to us by a customer

 

The latest addition to the Great Bear Studio – the Fostex Model 80 8 Track Recorder

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

The Magnetist – Audio Cassettes in Contemporary Culture

As lovers of magnetic tape and obsolete media, we keep our eyes open for people who remain attached to the formats most have forgot.

A recent film posted on Vimeo features the creative life of part time chef, noise musician and tape DJ Micke, also known as ‘The Magnetist’.

The film follows the Stockholm-based artist through his life as a ‘tapeologist.’ From demagnetising tape in order to create soundscapes, to running a club night comprised of tapes scavenged from wherever he can find them, Micke demonstrates how the audio cassette remains a source of inspiration within counter culture.

The Magnetist from Filibuster on Vimeo.

The wider resurgence of cassettes is evident from the forthcoming Cassette Store Day, an event that will be marked in record stores in the UK, USA, Europe and South America.

New tape labels are popping up all the time. Tapes are now often preferred to CD-Rs for short run albums in do it yourself punk culture, as releases blur the line between art object and collector item.

So what’s behind the sub-cultural obsession with the audio cassette tape? Perhaps it is no more complex than novelty value and nostalgia. It may however be evidence of the persistence of analogue technologies in an era where digital technologies appear to have colonised our relationship to sound and vision.

Is there a yearning to resist the ways digital media shapes how we listen to music, both at the level of sound quality, and the promiscuous skipping through mp3 files?

You simply can’t do that with tape. You have to rewind, fast forward or listen the whole way through. Its a mechanical process, often shrouded in hiss.

What is certain, fashion or no fashion, the wheels on the Great Bear tape machines will keep turning.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Sony V62 EIAJ reel to reel video tape transfer for Barrie Hesketh

We have recently been sent a Sony V62 high density video tape by Barrie Hesketh. Barrie has had an active career in theatre and in 1966 he set up the Mull Little Theatre on the Isle of Mull off the West Coast of Scotland with his late wife Marianne Hesketh. Specialising in what Barrie calls the ‘imaginative use of nothing’ they toured the UK, Germany and Holland and gained a lot of publicity world wide in the process. Both Marianne and Barrie were awarded MBEs for their services to Scottish Theatre.

You can read a more detailed history of the Mull Little Theatre in this book written by Barrie.

Panasonic VTR NV-8030 transferring a tape

Panasonic VTR NV-8030 EIAJ ½” reel to reel video recorder

The video tape Barrie sent us came from when he and Marianne were working as actors in residence at Churchill College at Cambridge University. Barrie and Marianne had what Barrie described as ‘academic leanings,’ gained from their time as students at the Central College of Speech and Drama in London.

In a letter Barrie sent with the tape he wrote:

‘I own a copy of a video tape recording made for me by the University of Cambridge video unit in 1979. I was researching audience/actors responses and the recording shows the audience on the top half of the picture, and the actors on the bottom half – I have not seen the stuff for years, but have recently been asked about it.’

While audience research is a fairly common practice now in the Creative Arts, in 1979 Barrie’s work was pioneering. Barrie was very aware of audience’s interests when he performed, and was keen to identify what he calls ‘the cool part’ of the audience, and find out ways to ‘warm them up.’

Recording audience responses was a means to sharpen the attention of actors. He was particularly interested in the research to identify ‘includers’. These were individuals who influenced the wider audience by picking up intentions of the performers and clearly responding. The movement of this individual (who would look around from time to time to see if other people ‘got it’), would be picked up in the peripheral vision of other audience members and an awareness gradually trickled throughout. Seeing such behaviour helped Barrie to understand how to engage audiences in his subsequent work.

Screenshot of the Audience Reactions

Barrie’s tape would have been recorded on one of the later reel-to-reel tape machines that conformed to the EIAJ Standard.

The EIAJ-1 was developed in 1969 by the Electronic Industries Association of Japan. It was the first standardized format for industrial/non-broadcast video tape recording. Once implemented it enabled video tapes to be played on machines made by different manufacturers.

Prior to the introduction of the standard, tapes could not be interchanged between comparable models made by different manufacturers. The EIAJ standard changed all this, and certainly makes the job of transferring tapes easier for us today! Imagine the difficulties we would face if we had to get exactly the right machine for each tape transfer. It would probably magnify the problem of tape and machine obsolescence effecting magnetic tape collections.

In the Greatbear Studio we have the National Panasonic Time Lapse VTR NV-8030 and Hitachi SV-640.

Diagram of a Panasonic VTR NV-8030

Like Ampex tapes, all the Sony EIAJ tape tend to suffer from sticky shed syndrome caused by absorption of moisture into the binder of the tape. Tapes need to be dehydrated and cleaned before being played back, as we did with Barrie’s tape.

The tape is now being transferred and Barrie intends to give copies to his sons. It will also be used by Dr Richard Trim in an academic research project. In both cases it is gratifying to give the these video tapes a new lease of life through digitisation. No doubt they will be of real interest to Barrie’s family and the wider research community.

Posted by debra in video tape, 2 comments

What is the future of analogue media?

In a recent blog article on the Presto Centre website, Richard Wright argues that ‘the audiovisual collections of the 20th century were analogue, and we are now at a critical time for considering the digital future of that analogue content.’ He goes on to say, emphatically:

‘All analogue audio and video formats are obsolete. Digital content walks through walls, travels at the speed of light, can be in many places at the same time, and can (with care) be perfectly copied, again and again. So digitisation has become the solution to the obsolescence of all analogue audio and video formats.’

Although careful not to make too clinical a statement, he bookmarks 15 April 2023 as the date when analogue obsolescence really kicks in.

Two reel to reel plastic spools and tape box

We have written extensively on this blog about the problem of obsolescence, and how we collect machines and learn the skills to fix them.

A major problem is finding spare parts for machines after manufacturers stop producing them. Many components were made according to very precise specifications that are hard to make from scratch. When machines and their parts wear out it will therefore be difficult, if not impossible, to keep them working.

This means that the cost of transfers will rise due to machine scarcity. At an institutional level this may lead to selective decisions about what gets digitised and what doesn’t.

Inside of U matic tape machine with label 'do not touch the tape inside'

There is one analogue format that has flourished in the 21st century: vinyl.

Writing for music magazine The Wire, Numero Group’s Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley describe how ‘vinyl’s violent sales spike has been a lonely bright spot in what has been a 14 year deterioration in sales of recorded music’.

Yet the resilience of vinyl and other contemporary fringe uses of analogue media, such as the cassette tape and floppy disk, is not enough to stop the march of digitisation. For experts like Wright the digital future for the majority of people is inevitable, irresistible even, given how it enables collections to be open, replicable and accessible.

Yet committing to digital technologies as a preservation and access strategy does not solve our information problems, as we have been keen to stress on this blog. There is also a worrying lack of long term strategy for managing digital information, a problem which is ever more pronounced in film preservation where analogue tape is still marked as the original from which digital copies are made.

leads and cables

It is clear that the information we create, store and use is in transition. It probably always has been. The emergence of digital technologies has just made this a pressing issue, not only for large institutions, but for people as we go about our day to day lives.

‘Digitise now!!’ is Richard Wright’s advice – and of course we agree.

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Digitising Audio Tape – Process, Time & Cost

Last week we wrote about the person time involved in transferring magnetic tape to digital files, and we want to tell you more about the processes involved in digitisation work.

While in theory the work of migrating media from one format to another can be simple, even the humble domestic cassette can take a substantial amount of time to transfer effectively.

Doing transfers quickly would potentially keep the costs of our work down, but there are substantial risks involved in mass migrations of tape-based material.

Problems with digital transfers can occur at two points: the quality of the playback machine and the quality of the tape.

Let’s focus on the playback machine.

Each time a cassette is transferred we have to ensure that the cassette deck is calibrated to the technical specification appropriate to that machine. Calibration is a testing procedure where a standard test tape is used to set the levels for tape to be digitised. The calibration process allows us to check tapes are played back at the correct speed and audio levels, that wow and flutter levels are set and the azimuth is aligned.

Azimuth refers to the angle between the tape head(s) and tape. Differences in Azimuth alignment arise from the azimuth of the original recording. You cannot know this information from just looking at a tape and you will get a sub-optimal transfer unless you adjust your machine’s azimuth to match the original recording.

sony-apr-5003-headblock-azimuth

Regularly checking the Wow and Flutter on the tape machine is also very important for doing quality transfers. Wow and flutter refer to fluctuations in speed on the playback mechanism, flutter being a higher rate version of wow. If you have listened to a tape you will probably be familiar with the sound of warped and woozy tape – this is the presence of wow. All tape machines have wow and flutter, but as components in the mechanisms stretch there is the potential for wow and flutter to increase. It is therefore essential to know what level the wow and flutter are set on your tape deck –less than 0.08% Weighted Peak on our Nakamichi 680 machines – to ensure optimal transfer quality.

Not all cassette machines were made equal either, and the quality of playback is absolutely dependent on the type of machine you have. There is a massive difference between the cheap domestic cassette machines made by Amstrad, to the cassette decks we use at Great Bear. Nakamichi machines were designed to squeeze the most out of the cassette, and their performance is way above the standard ‘two head’ cheap domestic machines.

Even with a Nakamichi deck, however, they have to be regularly checked because they are fragile electromagnetic machines that will drift out of specification over time. When machines drift they slip out of alignment, therefore effecting their operating capacity. This can occur through subtle knocks, everyday wear and tear and general ageing of mechanical and electrical components. For example, with extended use the grease in the components dries up and goes hard, and therefore affects the movement of the mechanisms.

Wow-and-flutter-monitor

Problems can also arise with the tapes themselves.

Most issues arise from tapes not being played back in well calibrated machines.

With audio cassettes the potential for azimuth error is increased because the speed the tape moves pasts the head is very slow. The tape therefore needs to be assessed to see if it is in a playable condition. It is played back in mono because it is easier to hear if there are problems with the azimuth, and then the azimuth is manually adjusted on the machine.

Migrating tape is unquestionably a ‘real time’ process. You need to listen and monitor what’s on the tape and the digitised version to ensure that problems with the transfer are detected as it is happening. It is a very hands on activity, that cannot be done without time, care and attention.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 2 comments

From digital files back to analogue tape

The bread and butter work of Greatbear Analogue and Digital Media is to migrate analogue and digital magnetic tape to digital files, but recently we were asked by a customer to transfer a digital file to ¼ analogue tape.

The customer was concerned about the longevity of electronic digital formats, and wanted to transfer his most valued recordings to a tangible format he knew and trust. Transferring from digital to analogue was certainly more expensive: the blank tape media cost over £50 alone.

In a world where digital technology seems pervasive, remaining so attached to analogue media may appear surprising. Yet the resilience of tape as a recorded medium is far greater than is widely understood.

Take this collection of old tapes that are in the back yard of the Greatbear office. Fear not customers, this is not what happens to your tapes when you send them to us! They are a collection of test tapes that live outside all year round without shelter from the elements. We use them to test ways of treating degraded tapes because we don’t want to take unnecessary risks with our customers’ material.

audio-cassette-tapes-left-outside-for-years

Despite being subject to pretty harsh conditions, the majority of material on these tapes is recoverable to some degree.

Would digital data stored on a hard drive survive if it had to endure similar conditions? It is far less likely.

Due to its electronic composition digital data is fragile in comparison with analogue magnetic tape. This is also the ironic conclusion of Side by Side (2012), the documentary film narrated by Keanu Reeves which explores the impact of digital technology on the film industry.

Requests for digital to analogue transfers are fairly rare at Great Bear, but we are happy to do them should the need arise!

And don’t forget to back up your digital files in at least three different locations to ensure it is safe.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Digitising Ampex U-matic KCS-20 Video Tapes

We are currently digitising a collection of U-matic Ampex KCS-20 video tapes for Keith Barnfather, the founder of Reeltime Pictures.

Reeltime Pictures are most well-known for their production of documentaries about the BBC series Doctor Who. They also made Doctor Who spin-off films, a kind of film equivalent of fan fiction, that revived old and often marginal characters from the popular TV series.

The tapes we were sent were Ampex’s U-matic video tapes. For those of you out there that have recorded material on Ampex tape be it audio or video, we have bad news for you. While much magnetic tape is more robust than most people imagine, this is not true of tape made by Ampex in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nearly all Ampex tape degrades disgracefully with age. A common outcome is ‘sticky shed syndrome,‘ a condition created by the deterioration of the binders in a magnetic tape which hold the iron oxide magnetic coating to its plastic carrier. So common was this problem with Ampex tape that the company patented the process of baking the tape (to be done strictly at the temperature 54 Centrigade, for a period of 16 hours), that would enable the tape to be played back.

ampex-umatic-tapes-dehydrating

In order to migrate the Ampex video tapes to a digital format they have, therefore, to be dehydrated in our incubator. This is careful process where we remove the tape from its outer shell to minimise ‘outgassing‘. Outgassing refers to the release of a gas that has become dissolved, trapped, frozen or absorbed in material. This can have significant effects if the released gas collects in a closed environment where air is stagnant or recirculated. The smell of new cars is a good example of outgassing that most people are familiar with.

When baking a tape in an enclosed incubator, it can therefore be vulnerable to the potential release of gasses from the shell, as well as the tape and its constituent material parts. Removing the shell primarily minimises danger to the tape, as it is difficult to know in advance what chemicals will be released when baking occurs.

It is important to stress that tape dehydration needs to be done in a controlled manner within a specifically designed lab incubator. This enables the temperature to be carefully regulated to the degree. Such precision cannot of course be achieved with domestic ovens (which are designed to cook things!), nor even food dehydrators, because there is very little temperature control.

So if you do have Ampex tapes, whether audio or video, we recommend that you treat them with extreme care, and if what is recorded on them is important to you, migrate them to a digital format before they almost certainly deteriorate.

Posted by debra in video tape, 2 comments