Archive for the ‘Audio Tape’ Category

8mm / Hi8 video tape digitising of The Upright Electric Guitar

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

We recently helped in the digitising and creation of an online video for the following project by Nelson Johnson:

 

Is it a piano? Is it an electric guitar? Neither, it’s a hybrid! Keys, “action”, dampers from an upright piano, wood planks, electric guitar strings, and long pickup coils.

Watch and listen to a YouTube video of this instrument: https://youtu.be/pXIzCWyw8d4

Inception, designing and building

I first had the idea for the upright electric guitar in late 1986. At that time I had been scraping together a living for around 2 years, by hauling a 450-pound upright piano around to the shopping precincts in England, playing it as a street entertainer – and in my spare time I dreamt of having a keyboard instrument that would allow working with the sound of a “solid body” electric guitar. I especially liked the guitar sound of Angus Young from AC/DC, that of a Gibson SG. It had a lot of warmth in the tone, and whenever I heard any of their music, I kept thinking of all the things I might be able to do with that sound if it was available on a keyboard, such as developing new playing techniques. I had visions of taking rock music in new directions, touring, recording, and all the usual sorts of things an aspiring musician has on their mind.

Digital sampling was the latest development in keyboard technology back then, but I had found that samples of electric guitar did not sound authentic enough, even just in terms of their pure tone quality. Eventually all this led to one of those “eureka” moments in which it became clear that one way to get what I was after, would be to take a more “physical” approach by using a set of piano keys and the “action” and “dampering” mechanism that normally comes with them, and then, using planks of wood to mount on, swop out piano strings for those from an electric guitar, add guitar pickups, wiring and switches, and so on – and finally, to send the result of all this into a Marshall stack.

I spent much of the next 12 years working on some form of this idea, except for a brief interlude for a couple of years in the early 1990s, during which I collaborated with a firm based in Devon, Musicom Ltd, whose use of additive synthesis technology had led them to come up with the best artificially produced sounds of pipe organs that were available anywhere in the world. Musicom had also made some simple attempts to create other instrument sounds including acoustic piano, and the first time I heard one of these, in 1990, I was very impressed – it clearly had a great deal of the natural “warmth” of a real piano, warmth that was missing from any digital samples I had ever heard. After that first introduction to their technology and to the work that Musicom were doing, I put aside my idea for the physical version of the upright electric guitar for a time, and became involved with helping them with the initial analysis of electric guitar sounds.

Unfortunately, due to economic pressures, there came a point in 1992 when Musicom had to discontinue their research into other instrument sounds and focus fully on their existing lines of development and their market for the pipe organ sounds. It was at that stage that I resumed work on the upright electric guitar as a physical hybrid of an electric guitar and an upright piano.

I came to describe the overall phases of this project as “approaches”, and in this sense, all work done before I joined forces with Musicom was part of “Approach 1”, the research at Musicom was “Approach 2”, and the resumption of my original idea after that was “Approach 3”.

During the early work on Approach 1, my first design attempts at this new instrument included a tremolo or “whammy bar” to allow some form of note / chord bending. I made detailed 3-view drawings of the initial design, on large A2 sheets. These were quite complicated and looked like they might prove to be very expensive to make, and sure enough, when I showed them a light engineering firm, they reckoned it would cost around £5,000.00 for them to produce to those specifications. Aside from the cost, even on paper this design looked a bit impractical – it seemed like it might never stay in tune, for one thing.

Despite the apparent design drawbacks, I was able to buy in some parts during Approach 1, and have other work done, which would eventually be usable for Approach 3. These included getting the wood to be used for the planks, designing and having the engineering done on variations of “fret” pieces for all the notes the new instrument would need above the top “open E” string on an electric guitar, and buying a Marshall valve amp with a separate 4×12 speaker cabinet.

While collaborating with Musicom on the electronic additive synthesis method of Approach 2, I kept hold of most of the work and items from Approach 1, but by then I had already lost some of the original design drawings from that period. This is a shame, as some of them were done in multiple colours, and they were practically works of art in their own right. As it turned out, the lost drawings included features that I would eventually leave out of the design that resulted from a fresh evaluation taken to begin Approach 3, and so this loss did not stop the project moving forward.

The work on Approach 3 began in 1992, and it first involved sourcing the keys and action/dampering of an upright piano. I wanted to buy something new and “off the shelf”, and eventually I found a company based in London, Herrberger Brooks, who sold me one of their “Rippen R02/80” piano actions and key sets, still boxed up as it would be if sent to any company that manufactures upright pianos.

These piano keys and action came with a large A1 blueprint drawing that included their various measurements, and this turned out to be invaluable for the design work that had to be done next. The basic idea was to make everything to do with the planks of wood, its strings, pickups, tuning mechanism, frets, “nut”, machine heads and so on, fit together with, and “onto”, the existing dimensions of the piano keys and action – and to then use a frame to suspend the planks vertically, to add a strong but relatively thin “key bed” under the keys, legs under the key bed to go down to ground level and onto a “base”, and so on.

To begin work on designing how the planks would hold the strings, how those would be tuned, where the pickup coils would go and so on, I first reduced down this big blueprint, then added further measurements of my own, to the original ones. For the simplest design, the distance between each of the piano action’s felt “hammers” and the next adjacent hammer was best kept intact, and this determined how far apart the strings would have to be, how wide the planks needed to be, and how many strings would fit onto each plank. It looked like 3 planks would be required.

While working on new drawings of the planks, I also investigated what gauge of electric guitar string should be used for each note, how far down it would be possible to go for lower notes, and things related to this. With a large number of strings likely to be included, I decided it would be a good idea to aim for a similar tension in each one, so that the stresses on the planks and other parts of the instrument would, at least in theory, be relatively uniform. Some enquiries at the University of Bristol led me to a Dr F. Gibbs, who had already retired from the Department of Physics but was still interested in the behaviour and physics of musical instruments. He assisted with the equations for calculating the tension of a string, based on its length, diameter, and the pitch of the note produced on it. Plugging all the key factors into this equation resulted in a range of electric guitar string gauges that made sense for the upright electric guitar, and for the 6 open string notes found on a normal electric guitar, the gauges resulting from my calculations were similar to the ones your average electric guitarist might choose.

Other practicalities also determined how many more notes it would theoretically be possible to include below the bottom “open E” string on an electric guitar, for the new instrument. For the lowest note to be made available, by going all the way down to a 0.060 gauge wound string – the largest available at that time as an electric guitar string – it was possible to add several more notes below the usual open bottom E string. I considered using bass strings for notes below this, but decided not to include them and instead, to let this extra range be the lower limit on strings and notes to be used. Rather than a bass guitar tone, I wanted a consistent sort of electric guitar tone, even for these extra lower notes.

For the upper notes, everything above the open top E on a normal guitar would have a single fret at the relevant distance away from the “bridge” area for that string, and all those notes would use the same string gauge as each other.

The result of all the above was that the instrument would accommodate a total of 81 notes / strings, with an octave of extra notes below the usual guitar’s open bottom E string, and just under 2 octaves of extra notes above the last available fret from the top E string of a Gibson SG, that last fretted note on an SG being the “D” just under 2 octaves above the open top E note itself. For the technically minded reader, this range of notes went from “E0” to “C7”.

Having worked all this out, I made scale drawings of the 3 planks, with their strings, frets, pickup coils, and a simple fine-tuning mechanism included. It was then possible to manipulate a copy of the piano action blueprint drawing – with measurements removed, reduced in size, and reversed as needed – so it could be superimposed onto the planks’ scale drawings, to the correct relational size and so on. I did this without the aid of any computer software, partly because in those days, CAD apps were relatively expensive, and also because it was difficult to find any of this software that looked like I could learn to use it quickly. Since I had already drawn this to scale in the traditional way – using draftsman’s tools and a drawing board – it made sense to work with those drawings, so instead of CAD, I used photocopies done at a local printing shop, and reduced / reversed etc, as needed.

Key drawing of 3 planks, strings, frets, fine tuning mechanism and pickup coils, combined with upright piano action

 

It was only really at this point, once the image of the piano action’s schematic was married up to the scale drawings of the 3 planks, that I began to fully understand where this work was heading, in terms of design. But from then on, it was relatively easily to come up with the rest of the concepts and to draw something for them, so that work could proceed on the frame to hold up the planks, the key bed, legs, and a base at ground level.

Around this time, I came across an old retired light engineer, Reg Huddy, who had a host of engineer’s machines – drill presses, a lathe, milling machine, and so on – set up in his home. He liked to make small steam engines and things of that nature, and when I first went to see him, we hit it off immediately. In the end he helped me make a lot of the metal parts that were needed for the instrument, and to machine in various holes and the pickup coil routing sections on the wood planks. He was very interested in the project, and as I was not very well off, he insisted in charging minimal fees for his work. Reg also had a better idea for the fine tuning mechanism than the one I had come up with, and we went with his version, as soon as he showed it to me.

If I am honest, I don’t think I would ever have finished the work on this project without all the help that Reg contributed. I would buy in raw materials if he didn’t already have them, and we turned out various parts as needed, based either on 3-view drawings I had previously come up with, or for other parts we realised would be required as the project progressed, from drawings I worked up as we went along. Reg sometimes taught me to use his engineering machinery, and although I was a bit hesitant at times, after a while I was working on these machines to a very basic standard.

I took the wood already bought for the instrument during the work on Approach 1, to Jonny Kinkead of Kinkade Guitars, and he did the cutting, gluing up and shaping to the required sizes and thicknesses for the 3 planks. The aim was to go with roughly the length of a Gibson SG neck and body, to make the planks the same thickness as an SG body, and to include an angled bit as usual at the end where an SG or any other guitar is tuned up, the “machine head” end. Jonny is an excellent craftsman and was able to do this work to a very high standard, based on measurements I provided him with.

As well as getting everything made up for putting onto the planks, the piano action itself needed various modifications. The highest notes had string lengths that were so short that the existing dampers had to be extended so they were in the correct place, as otherwise they would not have been positioned over those strings at all. Extra fine adjustments were needed for each damper, so that instead of having to physically bend the metal rod holding a given damper in place – an inexact science at the best of times – it was possible to turn a “grub screw” to accomplish the same thing, but with a much greater degree of precision. And finally, especially important for the action, the usual felt piano “hammers” were to be replaced by smaller versions made of stiff wire shaped into a triangle. For these, I tried a few design mock-ups to find the best material for the wire itself, and to get an idea of what shape to use. Eventually, once this was worked out, I made up a “jig” around which it was possible to wrap the stiff wire so as to produce a uniformly shaped “striking triangle” for each note. This was then used to make 81 original hammers that were as similar to each other as possible. Although using the jig in this way was a really fiddly job, the results were better than I had expected, and they were good enough.

 

Close-up of a few hammers, dampers and strings

While this was all underway, I got in touch with an electric guitar pickup maker, Kent Armstrong of Rainbow Pickups. When the project first started, I had almost no knowledge of solid body electric guitar physics at all, and I certainly had no idea how pickup coils worked. Kent patiently explained this to me, and once he understood what I was doing, we worked out as practical a design for long humbucker coils as possible. A given coil was to go all the way across one of the 3 planks, “picking up” from around 27 strings in total – but for the rightmost plank, the upper strings were so short that there was not enough room to do this and still have both a “bridge” and a “neck” pickup, so the top octave of notes would had to have these two sets of coils stacked one on top of the other, using deeper routed areas in the wood than elsewhere.

For the signal to send to the amplifier, we aimed for the same overall pickup coil resistance (Ω) as on a normal electric guitar. By using larger gauge wire and less windings than normal, and by wiring up the long coils from each of the 3 planks in the right way, we got fairly close to this, for both an “overall bridge” and an “overall neck” pickup. Using a 3-way switch that was also similar to what’s found on a normal electric guitar, it was then possible to have either of these 2 “overall” pickups – bridge or neck – on by itself, or both at once. Having these two coil sets positioned a similar distance away from the “bridge end” of the strings as on a normal guitar, resulted in just the sort of sound difference between the bridge and neck pickups, as we intended. Because, as explained above, we had to stack bridge and neck coils on top of each other for the topmost octave of notes, those very high notes – much higher than on most electric guitars – did not sound all that different with the overall “pickup switch” position set to “bridge”, “neck”, or both at once. That was OK though, as those notes were not expected to get much use.

Some electric guitar pickups allow the player to adjust the volume of each string using a screw or “grub screw” etc. For the upright electric guitar I added 2 grub screws for every string and for each of the bridge and neck coils, and this means we had over 300 of these that had to be adjusted. Once the coils were ready, and after they were covered in copper sheeting to screen out any unwanted interference and they were then mounted up onto the planks, some early adjustments made to a few of these grub screws, and tests of the volumes of those notes, enabled working up a graph to calculate how much to adjust the height of each of the 300+ grub screws, for all 81 strings. This seemed to work quite well in the end, and there was a uniform change to volume from one end of the available notes to the other, one which was comparable to a typical electric guitar.

Unlike a normal electric guitar, fine tuning on this instrument was done at the “ball end” / “bridge end” of each string, not the “machine heads end” / “nut end”. The mechanism for this involved having a very strong, short piece of round rod put through the string’s “ball”, positioning one end of this rod into a fixed groove, and turning a screw using an allen key near the other end of the rod, to change the tension in the string. It did take a while to get this thing into tune, but I have always had a good ear, and over the years I had taught myself how to tune a normal piano, which is much more difficult than doing this fine tuning of the upright electric guitar instrument.

fine tuning mechanisms for each string (in the upper right part of the photo)

hammers, dampers, strings, pickup coils and their grub screws, and fine tuning mechanisms

 

A frame made of aluminium was designed to support the 3 planks vertically. They were quite heavy on their own, and much more so with all the extra metal hardware added on, so the frame had to be really strong. Triangle shapes gave it extra rigidity. To offset the string tensions, truss rods were added on the back of the 3 planks, 4 per plank at equal intervals. When hung vertically, the 3 planks each had an “upper” end where the fine tuning mechanisms were found and near where the pickup coils were embedded and the strings were struck, and a “lower” end where the usual “nut” and “machine heads” would be found. I used short aluminium bars clamping each of 2 adjacent strings together in place of a nut, and zither pins in place of machine heads. The “upper” and “lower” ends of the planks were each fastened onto their own hefty piece of angle iron, which was then nestled into the triangular aluminium support frame. The result of this design was that the planks would not budge by even a tiny amount, once everything was put together. This was over-engineering on a grand scale, making it very heavy – but to my thinking at that time, this could not be helped.

The piano keys themselves also had to have good support underneath. As well as preventing sagging in the middle keys and any other potential key slippage, the “key bed” had to be a thin as possible, as I have long legs and have always struggled with having enough room for them under the keys of any normal piano. These 2 requirements – both thin and strong – led me to have some pieces of aluminium bar heat treated for extra strength. Lengths of this reinforced aluminium bar were then added “left to right”, just under the keys themselves, having already mounted the keys’ standard wooden supports – included in what came with the piano action – onto a thin sheet of aluminium that formed the basis of the key bed for the instrument. There was enough height between the keys and the bottom of these wooden supports, to allow a reasonable thickness of aluminium to be used for these left-to-right bars. For strength in the other direction of the key bed – “front to back” – 4 steel bars were added, positioned so that, as I sat at the piano keyboard, they were underneath but still out of the way. Legs made of square steel tubing were then added to the correct height to take this key bed down to a “base” platform, onto which everything was mounted. Although this key bed ended up being quite heavy in its own right, with the legs added it was as solid as a rock, so the over-engineering did at least work in that respect.

If you have ever looked inside an upright piano, you might have noticed that the “action” mechanism usually has 2 or 3 large round nuts you can unscrew, after which it is possible to lift the whole mechanism up and out of the piano and away from the keys themselves. On this instrument, I used the same general approach to do the final “marrying up” – of piano keys and action, to the 3 planks of wood suspended vertically. The existing action layout already had “forks” that are used for this, so everything on the 3 planks was designed to allow room for hefty sized bolts fastened down tightly in just the right spots, in relation to where the forks would go when the action was presented up to the planks. The bottom of a normal upright piano action fits into “cups” on the key bed, and I also used these in my design. Once the planks and the key bed were fastened down to the aluminium frame and to the base during assembly, then in much the same way as on an upright piano, the action was simply “dropped down” into the cups, then bolted through the forks and onto, in this case, the 3 planks.

It’s usually possible to do fine adjustments to the height of these cups on an upright piano, and it’s worth noting that even a tiny change to this will make any piano action behave differently. This is why it was so important to have both very precise tolerances in the design of the upright electric guitar’s overall structure, together with as much strength and rigidity as possible for the frame and other parts.

With a normal upright piano action, when you press a given key on the piano keyboard, it moves the damper for that single note away from the strings, and the damper returns when you let go of that key. In addition to this, a typical upright piano action includes a mechanism for using a “sustain pedal” with the right foot, so that when you press the pedal, the dampers are pushed away from all the strings at the same time, and when you release the pedal, the dampers are returned back onto all the strings. The upright piano action bought for this instrument did include all this, and I especially wanted to take advantage of the various dampering and sustain possibilities. Early study, drawing and calculations of forces, fulcrums and so on, eventually enabled use of a standard piano sustain foot pedal – bought off the shelf from that same firm, Herrberger Brooks – together with a hefty spring, some square hollow aluminium tube for the horizontal part of the “foot to dampers transfer” function, and a wooden dowel for the vertical part of the transfer. Adjustment had to be made to the position of the fulcrum, as the first attempt led to the foot pedal needing too much force, which made it hard to operate without my leg quickly getting tired. This was eventually fixed, and then it worked perfectly.

At ground level I designed a simple “base” of aluminium sheeting, with “positioners” fastened down in just the right places so that the legs of the key bed, the triangular frame holding up the 3 planks, and the legs of the piano stool to sit on, always ended up in the correct places in relation to each other. This base was also where the right foot sustain pedal and its accompanying mechanism were mounted up. To make it more transportable, the base was done in 3 sections that could fairly easily be fastened together and disassembled.

After building – further tests and possible modifications

When all this design was finished, all the parts were made and adjusted as needed, and it could finally be assembled and tried out, the first time I put the instrument together, added the wiring leads, plugged it into the Marshall stack, and then tuned it all up, it was a real thrill to finally be able to sit and play it. But even with plenty of distortion on the amp, it didn’t really sound right – it was immediately obvious that there was too much high frequency in the tone. It had wonderful amounts of sustain, but the price being paid for this was that the sound was some distance away from what I was really after. In short, the instrument worked, but instead of sounding like a Gibson SG – or any other electric guitar for that matter – it sounded a bit sh***y.

When I had first started working on this project, my “ear” for what kind of guitar sound I wanted, was in what I would describe as an “early stage of development”. Mock-up tests done during Approach 1, before 1990, had sounded kind of right at that time. But once I was able to sit and play the finished instrument, and to hear it as it was being played, with hindsight I realised that my “acceptable” evaluation of the original mock-up was more because, at that point, I had not yet learned to identify the specific tone qualities I was after. It was only later as the work neared completion, that my “ear” for the sound I wanted became more fully developed, as I began to better understand how a solid body electric guitar behaves, what contributes to the tone qualities you hear from a specific instrument, and so on.

I began asking some of the other people who had been involved in the project, for their views on why it didn’t sound right. Two things quickly emerged from this – it was too heavy, and the strings were being struck, instead of plucking them.

Kent Armstrong, who made the pickups for the upright electric guitar, told me a story about how he once did a simple experiment which, in relation to my instrument, demonstrated what happens if you take the “it’s too heavy” issue to the extreme. He told me about how he had once “made an electric guitar out of a brick wall”, by fastening an electric guitar string to the wall at both ends of the string, adding a pickup coil underneath, tuning the string up, sending the result into an amp, and then plucking the string. He said that this seemed to have “infinite sustain” – the sound just went on and on. His explanation for this was that because the brick wall had so much mass, it could not absorb any of the vibration from the string, and so all of its harmonics just stayed in the string itself.

Although this was a funny and quite ludicrous example, I like this kind of thing, and the lesson was not lost on me at the time. We discussed the principles further, and Kent told me that in his opinion, a solid body electric guitar needs somewhere around 10 to 13 pounds of wood mass, in order for it to properly absorb the strings’ high harmonics in the way that gives you that recognisable tone quality we would then call “an electric guitar sound”. In essence, he was saying that the high frequencies have to “come out”, and then it’s the “warmer” lower harmonics which remain in the strings, that makes an electric guitar sound the way it does. This perfectly fit with my own experience of the tones I liked so much, in a guitar sound I would describe as “desirable”. Also, it did seem to explain why my instrument, which had a lot more “body mass” than 10 to 13 pounds – with its much larger wood planks, a great deal of extra hardware mounted onto them, and so on – did not sound like that.

As for striking rather than plucking the strings, I felt that more trials and study would be needed on this. I had opted to use hammers to strike the strings, partly as this is much simpler to design for – the modifications needed to the upright piano action bought off the shelf, were much less complicated than those that would have been required for plucking them. But there was now a concern that the physics of plucking and striking might be a lot different to each other, and if so there might be no way of getting around this, except to pluck them.

I decided that in order to work out what sorts of changes would best be made to the design of this instrument to make it sound better, among other things to do as a next step, I needed first-hand experience of the differences in tone quality between various sizes of guitar body. In short, I decided to make it my business to learn as much as I could about the physics of the solid body electric guitar, and if necessary, to learn more than perhaps anyone else out there might already know. I also prepared for the possibility that a mechanism to pluck the strings might be needed.

At that time, in the mid 1990s, there had been some excellent research carried out on the behaviour of acoustic guitars, most notably by a Dr Stephen Richardson at the University of Cardiff. I got in touch with him, and he kindly sent me details on some of this work. But he admitted that the physics of the acoustic guitar – where a resonating chamber of air inside the instrument plays a key part in the kinds of sounds and tones that the instrument can make – is fundamentally different to that of a solid body electric guitar.

I trawled about some more, but no one seemed to have really studied solid body guitar physics – or if they had, nothing had been published on it. Kent Armstrong’s father Dan appeared on the scene at one point, as I was looking into all this. Dan Armstrong was the inventor of the Perspex bass guitar in the 1960s. When he, Kent and I all sat down together to have a chat about my project, it seemed to me that Dan might in fact know more than anyone else in the world, about what is going on when the strings vibrate on a solid body guitar. It was very useful to hear what he had to say on this.

I came away from all these searches for more knowledge, with further determination to improve the sound of the upright electric guitar. I kept an eye out for a cheap Gibson SG, and as luck would have it, one appeared online for just £400.00 – for any guitar enthusiasts out there, you will know that even in the 1990s, that was dirt cheap. I suspected there might be something wrong with it, but decided to take a risk and buy it anyway. It turned out to have a relatively correct SG sound, and was cheap because it had been made in the mid 1970s, at a time when Gibson were using inferior quality wood for the bodies of this model. While it clearly did not sound as good as, say, a vintage SG, it was indeed a Gibson original rather than an SG copy, and it did have a “workable” SG sound that I could compare against.

I also had a friend with a great old Gibson SG Firebrand, one that sounded wonderful. He offered to let me borrow it for making comparative sound recordings and doing other tests. I was grateful for this, and I did eventually take him up on the offer.

One thing that I was keen to do at this stage, was to look at various ways to measure – and quantify – the differences in tone quality between either of these two Gibson SGs and the upright electric guitar. I was advised to go to the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol, who were very helpful. Over the Easter break of 1997, they arranged for me to bring in my friend’s SG Firebrand and one of my 3 planks – with its strings all attached and working – so that one of their professors, Brian Day, could conduct “frequency sweep” tests on them. Brian had been suffering from early onset of Parkinson’s disease and so had curtailed his normal university activities, but once he heard about this project, he was very keen to get involved. Frequency sweep tests are done by exposing the “subject” instrument to an artificially created sound whose frequency is gradually increased, while measuring the effect this has on the instrument’s behaviour. Brian and his colleagues carried out the tests while a friend and I assisted. Although the results did not quite have the sorts of quantifiable measurements I was looking for, they did begin to point me in the right direction.

After this testing, someone else recommended I get in touch with a Peter Dobbins, who at that time worked at British Aerospace in Bristol and had access to spectral analysis equipment at their labs, which he had sometimes used to study the physics of the hurdy gurdy, his own personal favourite musical instrument. Peter was also very helpful, and eventually he ran spectral analysis of cassette recordings made of plucking, with a plectrum, the SG Firebrand, the completed but “toppy-sounding” upright electric guitar, and a new mock-up I had just made at that point, one that was the same length as the 3 planks, but only around 4 inches wide. This new mock-up was an attempt to see whether using around 12 or 13 much narrower planks in place of the 3 wider ones, might give a sound that was closer to what I was after.

 

Mock-up of possible alternative to 3 planks – would 12 or 13 of these sound better instead? Shown on its own (with a long test coil), and mounted up to the keys and action setup so that plucking tests could make use of the dampers to stop strings moving between recordings of single notes

As it turned out, the new mock-up did not sound that much different to the completed upright electric guitar itself, when the same note was plucked on each of them. It was looking like there was indeed a “range” of solid guitar body mass / weight of wood that gave the right kind of tone, and that even though the exact reasons for the behaviour of “too much” or “too little” mass might be different to each other, any amount of wood mass / weight on either side of that range, just couldn’t absorb enough of the high harmonics out of the strings. Despite the disappointing result of the new mock-up sounding fairly similar to the completed instrument, I went ahead and gave Peter the cassette recordings of it, of the completed instrument, and of my friend’s SG Firebrand, and he stayed late one evening at work and ran the spectral analysis tests on all of these.

Peter’s spectral results were just the kind of thing I had been after. He produced 3D graphs that clearly showed the various harmonics being excited when a given string was plucked, how loud each one was, and how long they went on for. This was a pictorial, quantitative representation of the difference in tone quality between my friend’s borrowed SG Firebrand, and both the completed instrument and the new mock-up. The graphs gave proper “shape” and “measure” to these differences. By this time, my “ear” for the sort of tone quality I was looking for, was so highly developed that I could distinguish between these recordings immediately, when hearing any of them. And what I could hear, was reflected precisely on these 3D graphs.

 

Spectral analysis graphs in 3D, of Gibson SG Firebrand “open bottom E” note plucked, and the same note plucked on the upright electric guitar. Frequency in Hz is on the x axis and time on the y axis, with time starting at the “back” and moving to the “front” on the y axis. Harmonics are left-to-right on each graph – leftmost is the “fundamental”, then 1st harmonic etc. Note how many more higher harmonics are found on the right graph of the upright electric guitar, and how they persist for a long time. I pencilled in frequencies for these various harmonics on the graph on the right, while studying it to understand what was taking place on the string.

While this was all underway, I also mocked up a few different alternative types of hammers and carried out further sound tests to see what sort of a difference you would get in tone, from using different materials for these, but always still striking the string. Even though I was more or less decided on moving to a plucking mechanism, for completeness and full understanding, I wanted to see if any significant changes might show up from using different sorts of hammers. For these experiments, I tried some very lightweight versions in plastic, the usual felt upright piano hammers, and a couple of others that were much heavier, in wood. Not only was there almost no difference whatsoever between the tone quality that each of these widely varied types of hammers seemed to produce, it also made next to no difference where, along the string, you actually struck it.

Other hammer designs tried – there was little variation in the sound each of these produced

These experiments, and some further discussions with a guitar maker who had helped out on the project, brought more clarification to my understanding of hammers vs plucking. Plucking a string seems to make its lower harmonics get moving right away, and they then start out with more volume compared to that of the higher harmonics. The plucking motion will always do this, partly because there is so much energy being transferred by the plectrum or the player’s finger – and this naturally tends to drive the lower harmonics more effectively. When you hit a string with any sort of hammer though, the effect is more like creating a sharp “shock wave” on the string, but one with much less energy. This sets off the higher harmonics more, and the lower ones just don’t get going properly.

In a nutshell, all of this testing and research confirmed the limitations of hammers, and the fact that there are indeed fundamental differences between striking and plucking an electric guitar string. Hammers were definitely “out”.

To summarise the sound characteristic of the upright electric guitar, its heavy structure and thereby the inability of its wood planks to absorb enough high frequencies out of the strings, made it naturally produce a tone with too many high harmonics and not enough low ones – and hitting its strings with a hammer instead of plucking, had the effect of “reinforcing” this tonal behaviour even more, and in the same direction.

The end?

By this point in the work on the project, as 1998 arrived and we got into spring and summer of that year, I had gotten into some financial difficulties, partly because this inventing business is expensive. Despite having built a working version of the upright electric guitar, even aside from the fact that the instrument was very heavy and took some time to assemble and take apart – making it impractical for taking on tour for example – the unacceptable sound quality alone, meant that it was not usable. Mocked-up attempts to modify the design so that there would be many planks, each quite narrow, had not improved the potential of the sound to any appreciable degree, either.

I realised that I was probably reaching the end of what I could achieve on this project, off my own back financially. To fully confirm some of the test results, and my understanding of what it is that makes a solid body electric guitar sound the way it does, I decided to perform a fairly brutal final test. To this end, I first made recordings of plucking the 6 open strings on the cheap SG I had bought online for £400.00. Then I had the “wings” of this poor instrument neatly sawn off, leaving the same 4-inch width of its body remaining, as the new mock-up had. This remaining width of 4 inches was enough that the neck was unaffected by the surgery, which reduced the overall mass of wood left on the guitar, and its shape, down to something quite similar to that of the new mock-up.

I did not really want to carry out this horrible act, but I knew that it would fully confirm all the indications regarding the principles, behaviours and sounds I had observed in both the 3 planks of the completed upright electric guitar, in the new mock-up, and in other, “proper” SG guitars that, to my ear, sounded right. If, by doing nothing else except taking these lumps of wood mass away from the sides of the cheap SG, its sound went from “fairly good” to “unacceptably toppy”, it could only be due to that change in wood mass.

After carrying out this crime against guitars by chopping the “wings” off, I repeated the recordings of plucking the 6 open strings. Comparison to the “before” recordings of it, confirmed my suspicions – exactly as I had feared and expected, the “after” sound had many more high frequencies in it. In effect I had “killed” the warmth of the instrument, just by taking off those wings.

In September 1998, with no more money to spend on this invention, and now clear that the completed instrument was a kind of “design dead end”, I made the difficult decision to pull the plug on the project. I took everything apart, recycled as many of the metal parts as I could (Reg Huddy was happy to have many of these), gave the wood planks to Jonny Kinkead for him to use to make a “proper” electric guitar with as he saw fit, and then went through reams of handwritten notes, sketches and drawings from 12 years of work, keeping some key notes and drawings which I still have today, but having a big bonfire one evening at my neighbour’s place, with all the rest.

Some “video 8” film of the instrument remained, and I recently decided to finally go through all of that, and all the notes and drawings kept, and make up a YouTube video from it. This is what Greatbear Analogue & Digital Media has assisted with. I am very pleased with the results, and am grateful to them. Here is a link to that video: https://youtu.be/pXIzCWyw8d4

As for the future of the upright electric guitar, in the 20 years since ceasing work on the project, I have had a couple of ideas for how it could be redesigned to sound better and, for some of those ideas, to also be more practical.

One of these new designs involves using similar narrow 4-inch planks as on the final mockup described above, but adding the missing wood mass back onto this as “wings” sticking out the back – where they would not be in the way of string plucking etc – positioning the wings at a 90-degree angle to the usual plane of the body. This would probably be big and heavy, but it would be likely to sound a lot closer to what I have always been after.

Another design avenue might be to use 3 or 4 normal SGs and add robotic plucking and fretting mechanisms, driven by electronic sensors hooked up to another typical upright piano action and set of keys, with some programmed software to make the fast decisions needed to work out which string and fret to use on which SG guitar for each note played on the keyboard, and so on. While this would not give the same level of intimacy between the player and the instrument itself as even the original upright electric guitar had, the tone of the instrument would definitely sound more or less right, allowing for loss of “player feeling” from how humans usually pluck the strings, hold down the frets, and so on. This approach would most likely be really expensive, as quite a lot of robotics would probably be needed.

An even more distant possibility in relation to the original upright electric guitar, might be to explore additive synthesis further, the technology that the firm Musicom Ltd – with whom I collaborated during Approach 2 in the early 1990s – continue to use even today, for their pipe organ sounds. I have a few ideas on how to go about such additive synthesis exploration, but will leave them out of this text here.

As for my own involvement, I would like nothing better than to work on this project again, in some form. But these days, there are the usual bills to pay, so unless there is a wealthy patron or perhaps a sponsoring firm out there who can afford to both pay me enough salary to keep my current financial commitments, and to also bankroll the research and development that would need to be undertaken to get this invention moving again, the current situation is that it’s very unlikely I can do it myself.

Although that seems a bit of a shame, I am at least completely satisfied that, in my younger days, I had a proper go at this. It was an unforgettable experience, to say the least!

Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording – interview with Martin Theophilus

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

We recently spoke to Martin Theophilus, Executive Director of the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording based in Austin, Texas.

While the Great Bear studio is a kind of museum – it is full of old machines that we maintain and preserve – we wanted to know more about this ‘proper’ Magnetic Sound Recording Museum.

How did the collection get started, what kind of equipment does it collect and what do they think the future holds for magnetic tape?

Many thanks to Martin for taking time to respond to our questions. If you want to support the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording’s aim to establish a permanent storage facility you can make a donation here.

Enjoy!

GB: When and how did the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording get started?

M: The Museum was created in an effort to preserve our vintage recording collection that was initiated in 1998 with the web site Reel2ReelTexas.com. My audio recording began professionally in 1964. Our production switched to video in the early 1990’s. In 1998, the collection began with a gift of an Edison cylinder player from my wife Chris. I missed having the tape recorders around, so we began acquiring the recorders I’d worked with and then several historically significant recorders were secured. One included the first professional magnetic tape recorder built in the US. It is the 1948 Ampex 200A #33 reel to reel tape recorder belonging to Capitol Records. We also have Willie first T-26 Dynavox tape recorder

We have many very first recording devices from: Ampex, Berlant, Brush, Magnecord, Pioneer, Sony, Studer and Teac/Tascam. While there are not many large multi-track recorders, the intent was to display those recording devices that assisted musicians in creating their music. There are now around 225 tape recorders and 100 + vintage classic microphones. in 2012 we decided the collection was of significance and needed to be preserved and made available to the public in a permanent secure facility. We founded the non-profit and acquired a dedicated Board with all original members staying the course with us.

GB: How are you funded and how can people view the collection?

M: Presently the Museum is funded by private donations. At this time we are functioning with volunteers and the collection is available to view on line. By appointment we provide private tours in our Studio/Museum.

GB: What is your favourite piece of (working) equipment and why?

That’s difficult, however it is the Studer A807. It is in excellent condition and is one of the top Studer machines produced. Incidentally they had a wonderful museum saving their history. It disappeared after Harmon took Studer over.


A tour of the Studer tape recorder and mixer ‘museum’ and a company history, recorded in Switzerland before the museum relocated to the Soundcraft Studer HQ in the UK.

GB:What is your favourite piece of (non-working) equipment and why?

M: There has to be two. 1) One would be the Ampex 200A #33 mentioned above. It just needs motor capacitors and will be operating soon. The 200A was overbuilt and weighed 240 lbs. While it originally belonged to Capitol Records, it eventually ended up with the San Francisco engineer/producer Leo De Gar Kulka.  2) The second is the Sony TC-772 half track 15 ips portable location recorder. It too needs motor capacitors. It was able to complete long high quality remote recordings and provided audio limiters, vari-speed and XLR connections. Beautiful design.

GB: What are the challenges of preserving magnetic sound recording? Is there a tension between keeping the machines working, and preserving their appearance as museum exhibits? Do you also seek to preserve the context surrounding the machines, i.e., marketing materials and so forth?

M: We strive to acquire the most complete and working examples of the items in the collection. Several, including another favourite – the Technics RS-1700, was traded up six times before we acquired a showroom quality recorder. The same was true for its dust cover and now both are “as new.” The working units need to be exercised regularly, oiled, heads cleaned and aligned and kept as clean as possible. I can go around the collection one day and everything is working well. The next day there may be a tour and some will always be finicky. The Swiffer duster is a valuable tool to keep the items clean. They are all in air conditioned rooms, but it is Texas and there will be dust.

The things we believe set our collection apart from others are: 1) most units work, are connected to sound systems and can be demonstrated, and 2) for each unit we have acquired and display not only manuals, but also ads, brochures, reviews and posters. All of these are scanned loaded to the web site.

Currently, we have over 1,000 images that are waiting to be processed and added to the site. Additionally, the Museum has most of the radio catalogs (Allied, Burstein Applebee, Lafayette, Olsen, Radio Shack, and more) and magazines (AES Journals, Engineer Producer, Db, Modern Recording, Tape Recorder, etc.) that advertised tape recorders from the 1930’s until they quit publishing. The recorder and microphone sections have also been scanned and added to the website.

GB: What kind of people come to the museum tours? What response do they have the material?

M: Most of the tours we provide are: folks who have been active in the recording industry; professional musicians; other collectors; radio and TV related folks; persons who have viewed the web site and are visiting in the Austin area; students; teachers; and people who are making a donation of a piece of equipment.

The responses have been overwhelming. As are visits to the web site.  We maintain an ongoing web site survey asking if folks support the creation of our permanent public facility.

GB:Do you ever work with audio visual archivists to offer advice about preservation?

M: In the Spring of 2015, University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture’s Third Year Interior Design Class completed 11 interior designs for our Museum. One of the students won a $30,000 scholarship with her museum design. In that process, the UT School of Architecture provided significant information regarding preservation practices. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum’s Deputy Director, Margaret Koch, has been a supporter and mentor for our museum and provided many recommendations for preservation as we move forward. Just in the past couple of weeks, Peter Hammer, curator of the Ampex Museum prior to its donation to Stanford University, has agreed to provide our museum with preservation practices. Peter also envisions our re-creating the original Ampex Museum within our Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording. While we maintain the collection in a climate controlled studio, we will be more able to adhere to preservation practices when we have a permanent public facility.

GB:What do you see as the future of magnetic sound recording?

M: Magnetic sound recording will hopefully always be preserved and new discoveries integrated into the current knowledge. Magnetic cassettes have recently gained new attention (vinyl too). Maybe reel tape recorders will make a comeback. On our home page we show a new Revox A77 reel tape recorder being built by Akai. Otari still custom produces their classic MX-5050 reel tape recorder.

More importantly, professional recording studios around the globe are finding that many musicians love analogue recordings, so they are retaining, or acquiring analogue recorders. The evolutionary period of magnetic recording beginning in Germany in 1934 to the dawn of digital around 1982, spans an almost fifty year period. While the recording quality of vinyl had evolved and many still consider it of top reproduction quality, the advent of magnetic tape with the ability to edit and reproduce multiple copies was an incredible breakthrough.

GB:Your website is full of amazing information. What is the relationship between the online site and the physical museum?

M: Interesting question, because our intent has always been to provide as much web information as possible (far beyond the physical collection). In our recent conversations with Peter Hammer, the Ampex Museum curator, it is his belief that our preservation work: saving and scanning manuals, ads, catalogs, letters and all the supporting documentation, will actually be more significant than the actual machines themselves. 

Peter states “When I say to people,“Digits last longer than molecules”, that tends to make them think twice about the extreme impermanence of physical collections, especially after I tell them horror stories like the Ampex Museum, the Anna Amalia Library fire in Weimar in 2004, the Cologne City Museum collapse in 2009, and now a new one for me, the sad demise of the Studer collection. Physical collections simply cannot withstand the vagaries of governmental agencies, corporations, private owners, the weather, or seismic stability!”

However, I am still passionate about creating a safe permanent public facility for the collection. There is much to be said for folks being able to actually view and operate a vintage recorder and view the process of making a recording.

GB: Anything else you want to say?

M: We have come to realize that to implement our vision, we will require a major donor who would enable the museum in the long term. We also found that preserving recording technology cannot compete with the museums that are preserving the musicians and their music. The Bob Bullock Texas History Museum considered displaying some of our magnetic recording items when they expanded their Texas music section. However they determined that folks were more likely to visit displays about Texas music. For that reason they went with the history of the Austin City Limits and items from music collections from the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammy Museum.
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In closing, I thank you for this opportunity you’ve given me to reflect on what our goals are. We have responded to many promising opportunities, received significant verbal support, but have yet to bring the permanent facility to fruition. Due to last year’s heavy production schedule and some folks who did not follow through, I was discouraged. So last October I told our Board that maybe the museum had run its course. However, they would have none of that and encouraged us to push forward. Shortly after that we received a nice donation and I met Peter Hammer who has become an excellent resource who will be providing valuable Ampex documents and preservation consultation. So I feel very positive about our mission and will be happy to keep you posted as we progress.

Pre-Figurative Digital Preservation

Monday, January 16th, 2017

How do you start preserving digital objects if your institution or organisation has little or no capacity to do so?

Digital preservation can at first be bit-part and modular. You can build your capacity one step at a time. Once you’ve taken a few steps you can then put them together, making a ‘system’.

It’s always good to start from first principles, so make sure your artefacts are adequately described, with consistent file-naming and detailed contextual information.

You might want to introduce tools such as Fixity into your workflow, which can help you keep track of file integrity. For audio visual content get familiar with MediaInfo, MediaConch, QC Tools or Exactly.

Think of this approach as pre-figurative digital preservation. It’s the kind of digital preservation you can do even if you don’t (yet) have a large scale digital repository. Pre-figurative digital preservation is when you organise and regularly assess the condition of your collections as if it is managed in a large repository.

So when that day comes and you get the digital content management system you deserve, those precious zeros and ones can be ingested with relative ease, ready to be managed through automated processes. Pre-figurative digital preservation is an upgrade on the attitude that preserving files to make them accessible, often using lossy compression, is ‘good enough’ (we all know that’s not good enough!!)

Pre-figurative digital preservation can help you build an information system that fits your needs and capacities. It is a way to do something rather than avoid the digital preservation ‘problem’ because it seems too big and technically complex.

Learning New Skills

The challenge of managing digitised and born-digital material means archivists will inevitably have to learn new skills. This can feel daunting and time as an archivist we have recently worked with told us:

‘I would love to acquire new skills but realistically there’s going to be a limit to how much I can learn of the technical stuff. This is partly because I have very small brain but also partly because we have to stretch our resources very thin to cover all the things we have to do as well as digital preservation.’

Last year the Society of American Archivists launched the Try5 for Ongoing Growth initiative. It offers a framework for archivists who want to develop their technological knowledge. The idea is you learn 5 new technical skills, share your experience (using #Try5SAA) and then help someone else on the basis of what you’ve learnt.

Bertram Lyons from AV Preserve outlined 5 things the under-confident but competence hungry (audiovisual) archivist could learn to boost their skill set.

These include getting familiar with your computer’s Command Line Interface (CLI), creating and running Checksums, Digital File Packaging, Embedding and Extracting Metadata and understanding Digital Video. Lyons provides links to tutorials and resources that are well worth exploring.

Expanding, bit by bit

If your digital collections are expanding bit by bit and you are yet to tackle the digital elephant in the room, it may well be time to try pre-figurative digital preservation.

We’d love to hear more from archivists whose digital preservation system has evolved in a modular fashion. Let us know in the comments what approaches and tools you have found useful.

 

Revealing Histories: North Staffordshire

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Great Bear are delighted to be working with the Potteries Heritage Society to digitise a unique collection of tape recordings made in the 1970s and 80s by radio producer, jazz musician and canals enthusiast Arthur Wood, who died in 2005.

The project, funded by a £51,300 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), will digitise and make available hundreds of archive recordings that tell the people’s history of the North Staffordshire area. There will be a series of events based on the recordings, culminating in an exhibition in 2018.

The recordings were originally made for broadcast on BBC Radio Stoke, where Arthur Wood was education producer in the 1970s and 80s. They feature local history, oral history, schools broadcasts, programmes on industrial heritage, canals, railways, dialect, and many other topics of local interest.

There are spontaneous memoirs and voxpop interviews as well as full-blown scripted programmes such as the ‘Ranter Preachers of Biddulph Moor’ and ‘The “D”-Day of 3 Men of the Potteries’ and ‘Millicent: Lady of Compassion’, a programme about 19th century social reformer Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland.

Arthur Wood: Educational Visionary

In an obituary published in The Guardian, David Harding described Wood as ‘a visionary. He believed radio belonged to the audience, and that people could use it to find their own voice and record their history. He taught recording and editing to many of his contributors – miners, canal, steel and rail workers, potters, children, artists, historians and storytellers alike.’

The tapes Great Bear will be digitising reflect what Wood managed to retain from his career at the BBC.

Before BBC Radio Stoke moved premises in 2002, Wood picked up as many tapes as he could and stored them away. His plan was to transfer them to a more future proof format (which at the time was mini disc!) but was sadly unable to do this before he passed away.arthur-wood-tapes-revealing-voices-great-bear

‘About 2 years ago’ Arthur’s daughter Jane explains, ‘I thought I’d go and have a look at what we actually had. I was surprised there were quite so many tapes (about 700 in all), and that they weren’t mainly schools programmes, as I had expected.

I listened to a few of them on our old Revox open reel tape machine, and soon realised that a lot of the material should be in the city (and possibly national) archives, where people could hear it, not in a private loft. The rest of the family agreed, so I set about researching how to find funding for it.’

50th anniversary of BBC Local Radio

The Revealing Voices project coincides with an important cultural milestone: the 50th anniversary of BBC local radio. Between 1967 and 1968 the BBC was granted license to set up a number of local radio stations in Durham, Sheffield, Brighton, Leicester, Merseyside, Nottingham, Leeds and Stoke-on-Trent.

Education was central to how the social role of local radio was imagined at the time:

‘Education has been a major preoccupation of BBC Local Radio from the outset. Indeed, in one sense, the entire social purpose of local radio, as conceived by the BBC, may be described as educational. As it is a central concern of every civilised community, so too must any agency serving the aims of such a community treat it as an area of human activity demanding special regard and support. It has been so with us. Every one of our stations has an educationist on its production staff and allocates air-time for local educational purposes’ (Education and BBC Local Radio: A Combined Operation by Hal Bethell, 1972, 3).

Within his role as education producer Wood had a remit to produce education programmes in the broadest sense – for local schools, and also for the general local audience. Arthur ‘was essentially a teacher and an enthusiast, and he sought to share local knowledge and stimulate reflective interest in the local culture mainly by creating engaging programmes with carefully chosen contributors,’ Jane reflected.

Revealing Voices and Connecting Histories

Listening to old recordings of speech, like gazing at old photograph, can be very arresting. Sound recordings often contain an ‘element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’, akin to Roland Barthes might have called a sonic punctum.

The potency of recorded speech, especially in analogue form, arises from its indexicality—or what we might call ‘presence’. This ‘presence’ is accentuated by sound’s relational qualities, the fact that the person speaking was undeniably there in time, but when played back is heard but also felt here.

When Jane dropped off the tapes in the Great Bear studio she talked of the immediate impact of listening again to her father’s tape collection. The first tape she played back was a recording of a woman born in 1879, recalling, among other things, attending a bonfire to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee.

Hearing the voice gave her a distinct sense of being connected to a woman’s life across three different centuries. This profound and unique experience was made possible by the recordings her father captured in the 1970s, unwinding slowly on magnetic tape.

The Revealing Voices project hope that other people, across north Staffordshire and beyond, will have a similar experiences of recognition and connection when they listen to the transferred tapes. It would be a fitting tribute to Arthur Wood’s life-work, who, Jane reflects, would be ‘glad that a solution has been found to preserve the tapes so that future generations can enjoy them.’

***

If you live in the North Staffordshire area and want to volunteer on the Revealing Voices project please contact Andy Perkin, Project Officer, on andy at revealing-voices dot org dot uk.

Many thanks to Jane Wood for her feedback and support during research for this article.

Happy World Day for Audio Visual Heritage 2016!

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

Happy World Day for Audio Visual Heritage!

World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, which is sponsored by UNESCO and takes place every year on 27 October, is an occasion to celebrate how audio, video and film contribute to the ‘memory of the world.’

The theme for 2016 – ‘It’s your story, don’t lose it!’ – conveys the urgency of audio visual preservation and the important role sound, film and video heritage performs in the construction of cultural identities and heritage.

Great Bear make an important contribution to the preservation of audiovisual heritage.

On one level we offer practical support to institutions and individuals by transferring recordings from old formats to new.

The wider context of Great Bear’s work, however, is preservation: in our Bristol-based studio we maintain old technologies and keep ‘obsolete’ knowledge and skills alive. Our commitment to preservation happens every time we transfer a recording from one format to another.

We work hard to make sure the ‘memory’ of old techniques remain active, and are always happy to share what we learn with the wider audiovisual archiving community.

Skills and Technology

Ray Edmondson points out in Audio Visual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles (2016) that preserving technology and skills is integral to audiovisual archiving:

‘The story of the audiovisual media is told partly through its technology, and it is incumbent on archives to preserve enough of it – or to preserve sufficient documentation about it – to ensure that the story can be told to new generations. Allied to this is the practical need, which will vary from archive to archive, to maintain old technology and the associated skills in a workable state. The experience of (for example) listening to an acoustic phonograph or gramophone, or watching the projection of a film print instead of a digital surrogate, is a valid aspect of public access.’close up of an edit button on a studer tape machine-great-bear-analogue-digital-media

Edmondson articulates the shifting perceptions within the field of audiovisual archiving, especially in relation to the question of ‘artefact value.’

‘Carriers once thought of and managed as replaceable and disposable consumables’, he writes, ‘are now perceived as artefacts requiring very different understanding and handling.’

Viewing or listening to media in their original form, he suggests, will come to be seen as a ‘specialist archival experience,’ impossible to access without working machines.

Through the maintenance of obsolete equipment the Great Bear studio offers a bridge to such diverse audio visual heritage experiences.

These intangible cultural heritages, released through the playback of media theorist Wolfgang Ernst has called ‘Sonic Time Machines’, are part of our every day working lives.

We rarely ponder their gravity because we remain focused on day to day work: transferring, repairing, collecting and preserving the rich patina of audio visual heritage sent in by our customers.

Enjoy World Day for Audio Visual Heritage 2016!

Spoking – Treating and Assessing Magnetic Tape

Monday, October 17th, 2016

Assessment and treatment is an important part of Great Bear’s audiovisual preservation work.

open reel tape displaying signs of spoking, where the insides of the tape pack buckle and deformEven before a tape is played back we need to ensure it is in optimum condition.

Sometimes it is possible to make a diagnosis through visual assessment alone.

A tape we received recently, for example, clearly displayed signs of ‘spoking.’

Spoking is a term used in the AV preservation world to describe the deformation of the tape pack due to improper winding, storage or a badly set up machine.

The National Archives describe it as a ‘condition of magnetic tape and motion picture film where excessive pressure caused by shrinkage or too much winding tension eventually causes deformation.’

In our experience ‘spoking’ predominantly occurs with domestic open reel tapes. We have rarely seen problems of this nature with recordings made in professional settings.

Compared with professional grade tape, domestic open reel tape was often thinner, making it cheaper to produce and buy.

‘Spoking’ in domestic tape recordings can also be explained by the significant differences in how tape was used in professional and domestic environments.

Domestic tape use was more likely to have an ‘amateur’ flavour. This does not mean that your average consumer did not know what they were doing. Nor were they careless with the media they bought and made. It cannot be denied, however, that your average domestic tape machine would never match the wind-quality of their professional counterparts.

In contrast, the only concern of recording professionals was to make a quality recording using the best tape and equipment. Furthermore, recording practices would be done in a conscientious and standardised manner, according to best industry practice.

Combined these factors result in a greater number of domestic tapes with winding errors such as cinching, pack-slip and windowing.

Treating Spoking

The majority of ‘spoking’ cases we have seen are in acetate-backed tape which tends to become inflexible – a bit like an extended tape measure – as it ages.

The good news is that it is relatively easy to treat tapes suffering from ‘spoking’ through careful – and slow – re-winding.

Slowly winding the tape at a controlled tension, colloquially known as ‘library wind’, helps relieve stress present in the pack. The end result is often a flatter and even wound tape pack, suitable for making a preservation transfer.

The Containers – late 70s new wave lives again

Monday, September 26th, 2016

It might be a familiar story to some people. At one point, say the late 1970s, you were in your early 20s and the main songwriter in a post-punk/ new wave band. You tried really hard to get it off the ground: moved to London, met the right people, played several memorable gigs. You worked with talented artists, some went on to become successful pop stars.

Audio cassette with case, songs listed in hand written textYou were also pretty organised. You managed to record your music in a professional recording studio. But the band faltered due to commercial reasons, personality differences etc, etc.

The dream of a pop music career faded but, undeterred, you started a new solo project. You built your sound on cutting edge technology – the reliable pulses of the drum machine.

Modest success followed, including an album release on one of the early 1980s’s many DIY record labels. You secured high profile support slots for big acts, such as the Thompson Twins, and wowed spectators with an idiosyncratic musical style.

Yet it was not possible to make music your profession, and you drifted away from the industry.

The only evidence you ever existed, in a musical sense, was that a friend—Robyn Hitchcock of the Soft Boys—covered your songs from time to time.

Re-discovery

30 years later you start scratching around the internet and realise that the album you made in 1980 is now highly collectable. It’s selling for silly prices on ebay. It seems that all this time you’ve had a cult following on college radio in the US.

This kick starts a self-archiving project, powered by the publishing power of youtube. You start to upload your back catalogue without a shred of wishfulness over what might have been. What the hell, at least people can hear the music now.

Soon you get an email from Manufactured Recordings, an independent record label in Brooklyn who specialise in re-issues. They love you! And want to release and listen to absolutely everything you have done.

A tape reel of the Containers in a boxThe immediate priority is a fresh pressing of your cult DIY album: The Beach Bullies’ We Rule the Universe, warmly re-appraised in 2015 as an ‘excellent slice of obscurist he-said/she-said bedsit pop.’

Then, in 2017, the entire back catalogue of The Containers, your band that never quite made it, will be released. The compilation carries the title Self-Contained.

The material on this album, like so many re-issues available today, were expertly transferred in the Great Bear studio!

Finally the world will be able to hear The Containers’ ‘lost album’, that was recorded in 1979 at Spaceward studio, Cambridge.

Spaceward had a reputation for making ‘no-nonsense, quality recordings that successfully captured the essence of the late seventies style of music.’ Artists such as The Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Gary Numan, The Mekons and many others laid down tracks there.

At the helm was Mike Kemp, a supportive and inventive engineer who, James remembered, checked the final mix through a transistor radio whose battery had half expired.

What can we expect to hear when the The Containers’ music is finally released into the world? The band, James explained, combined ‘literate songwriting with the energy of the period.’ ‘We weren’t afraid of using more than three chords. We wanted to write great songs, with witty, biting lyrics.’

Re-issuing music culture

Audio cassette in a tape boxThe status of ‘old’ recordings has changed a lot in recent times. James believes his work is no longer old as in ‘not new’ and therefore ‘forgettable,’ but old as in ‘cult, hidden or classic’.

The contemporary ‘re-issue market’ is built upon the desirability of ‘some mislaid masterwork, tugged from obscurity, relieved of dust, and repackaged for rediscovery.’

While ‘re-issue’ culture can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century, widespread digitisation has clearly fuelled the eruption of pop music’s archival imaginary in the 21st century. Different categories of recorded sound – including more messy or unfinished works – can be decoded as ‘valuable’ or ‘interesting’.

James’ new label, Manufactured Records, for example, wanted to publish demos, rough bedroom recordings and other works in progress as well as the The Containers’ studio recordings.

Such recordings, James believes, have novelty value because they provide unique insight into ‘mindset of the artist’ when they were writing a piece of music. They may also capture the acoustic textures of everyday sound environments, a factor which sets them apart from the flat polished surfaces of (less authentic) studio recordings.

Uncontained

Containers

The Containers (l-r) James A Smith – gtr. vocals, Adrian ‘Hots’ Foster – bass gtr, Alan Bearham – drums, Josephine Buchan – vocals

The timely recognition of the Containers and the Beach Bullies should warm the hearts of anyone who has felt that their music careers happened within a bell jar.

It is clear, from speaking with James, the immense pleasure and excitement he feels in being rediscovered after many years.

What’s more, the future appears bright for his musical endeavours: to celebrate the release of the album next year The Containers will go on tour again, featuring the original drummer and bassist.

The moment has come for this ‘music out of time’, that was only played live on a few occasions in the early 1980s, to live again.

***

Many thanks to James A Smith for sharing his memories with us.

 

Monstrous Regiment – Audio Cassette Digitisation

Monday, August 1st, 2016

Monstrous Regiment were one of many trailblazing feminist theatre companies active in the 1970s-1990s. They were established as a collective very much built around performers, both (professional) actors such as Mary McCusker and (professional) musicians such as Helen Glavin.

Between 1975-1993 Monstrous Regiment produced a significant number of plays and cabarets. These included Scum: Death, Destruction and Dirty Laundry, Vinegar Tom, Floorshow, Kiss and Kill, Dialogue Between a Prostitute and One of Her Clients, Origin of the Species, My Sister in This House, Medea and many others.

Monstrous Regiment’s plays were not always received positively be feminists. A performance of Time Gentlemen Please (1978), for example, was controversially shut down in Leeds when some audience members stormed the stage. The play was, according to some commentators, seen to promote a ‘glossy, middle-class view of sexual liberation.’ [1]

As with any historical event there are many different accounts of what happened that evening. Mary McCusker and Gillian Hanna have discussed their perspective, as performers, in an interview conducted with Unfinished Histories: Recording the History of Alternative Theatre.

A detailed biography of the company can be also found on the Unfinished Histories website, which has loads more information about Women’s, Black, Gay and Lesbian Theatre companies active at the same time as Monstrous Regiment. Check it out!

An Archival Legacy

Monstrous Regiment still exist on paper, but ceased producing in 1993 after the Arts Council withdrew the company’s revenue funding.

To ensure a legacy for Monstrous Regiment’s work the company archive was deposited in the Women’s Library (then Fawcett Library).

Due to a large cataloguing backlog at the Women’s Library, however, the Monstrous Regiment collection was never made publicly available.

Co-founder Mary McCusker explains her frustration with this situation:

‘We were always keen to create a body of work that would be accessible to future practitioners that the work would not be hidden from history, but alas unknown to us it was not catalogued so available to no one. Script were meant to be performed, some of the unpublished plays have not been available for such a long time. I/we do want the ideas the energy of those times the talent and wonderful creativity to be there after we are gone. That goes for the plays’ readings we did as well as the performances.’

‘I admire writers immensely and even if some plays didn’t get the critical response hoped for I believe all the work deserves a space, somewhere to be discovered anew. I would also hope the idea a group of actors started this and kept going, took control over their work conditions and wanted their beliefs to inform what was written and how they worked with other creative beings would still resonate in the future.’

Monstrous Moves

Two women sing in a theatrical manner into a microphoneTo address the access problem the Monstrous Regiment archive was recently moved to a new home, the theatre collection at the V & A, where it will soon be catalogued.

The decision to relocate is part of a new effort to organise and publicly interpret the Monstrous Regiment archive.

Plans are in place to construct a new archival website that will tell the Monstrous Regiment Story. It will include photographs, fliers, scripts, ephemera and – yes – audiovisual material.

Russell Keat, a semi-retired academic and partner of Mary McCusker, has begun the process of looking through the collection at the V & A, selecting items for digitisation and contacting people who performed with Monstrous Regiment to ask for new material.

Russell has also been exploring McCusker’s personal audio cassette collection for traces of Monstrous Regiment. The fruits of this labour were sent to Great Bear for digitisation.

The recordings we transferred include performances of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Floorshow, a radio broadcast of Mourning Pictures, a spoken voice audio guide of the play The Colony Comes a Cropper for Visually Challenged Audiences, a tape made by a composer for Mary to rehearse with, songs from Vinegar Tom and Kiss and Kill recorded in a rehearsal studio and a sound tape for Love Story of a Century, comprising piano and rain effects.

The (live) Monstrous Regiment Archive

Making audiovisual documentation was an exceptional rather than everyday activity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. ‘We had a few things filmed; not whole plays but maybe snippets. Music taped. Radio interviews and magazine interviews were one way of spreading the word,’ Mary told us.

As a documentary form, the audiovisual recording exists in tension with the theatrical ideal of live performance: ‘It’s very difficult for a film to capture the experience of live theatre because of course you rehearse and produce the play to be experienced live. BUT naturally if that performance has gone and all you have is a script then any filmed documentation gives the reader/viewer all the visual clues about what a character is feeling when they speak but also the bigger picture about how they feel about what other characters are saying,’ Mary reflected.

Live and later recorded music performed a key role in Monstrous Regiment’s work. Unlike other theatre groups such as the Sadista SistersSpare Tyre and Gay Sweatshop, Monstrous Regiment never released an album of the music they performed. The tapes Great Bear have transferred will therefore help future researchers understand the musical dimension of the company’s work in a more nuanced way.

Mary explains that ‘from the very start we wanted live music to be part of the shows we produced and encouraged writers to write not only for the company of actors but also to put music as an integral part of the play; to have it as a theatrical force in a central position, not a scene change background filler.

This was true in all our early work and of course in the two cabarets. I think the songs in Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill still provoke much discussion. I know I loved singing them. Later as our musicians moved on and also money got tighter we had musicians like Lindsay Cooper and Joanna MacGregor write and perform scores for plays that were recorded and became used rather as you would in cinema.’

***

We are hugely grateful to Mary and Russell for taking time to respond to our questions for this article.

We wish them the best of luck for their archive project, and will post links to the new website when it hits the servers.

Notes

[1] Aleks Sierz (2014) In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, London: Faber and Faber.

Deacon Blue Live – Betamax PCM recordings

Monday, July 25th, 2016

Great Bear exist to make obsolete tape recordings accessible in the digital age.

We often work with artists and record labels who use our services to digitise back catalogues and previously unreleased material.

We regularly work with Bristol Archive Records, for example, who keep the memory of Bristol’s post punk and reggae history alive, one release at a time.

Other ‘archival’ releases recently transferred include cult Yugoslav New Wave band Doktor Spira i Ljudska Bića’s Dijagnoza (available late 2016), John Peel favourites Bob and legendary acid-folk act The Courtyard Music Group.

Great Bear can deliver your files as high resolution stereo recordings or, if available, individual ‘stems’ ready for the new remix.

A stack of Betamax PCM recordings of a Deacon Blue tour in 1988Deacon Blue Live – PCM Betamax transfer

We recently transferred several live concerts by Scottish pop sensations Deacon Blue.

Recorded in 1988, the concerts capture Deacon Blue in their prime.

The energetic performances feature many of their well-known hits, such as ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Fergus Sings the Blues.’

As Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM) digital recordings on Betamax tape transferred at 24 bit/ 44 kHz, the recordings capture the technical proficiency of the band with exceptional clarity.

Introduced in the late 1970s, PCM digital audio harnessed the larger bandwidth of videotape technology to record digital audio signals.

‘A PCM adaptor has the analogue audio (stereo) signal as its input, and translates it into a series of binary digits, which, in turn, is coded and modulated into a monochrome (black and white) video signal, appearing as a vibrating checkerboard pattern, modulated with the audio, which can then be recorded as a video signal.’

PCM digital audio was widely used until the introduction of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) in 1987. Despite its portability and ability to record at different sampling rates, DAT was not immediately or widely adopted. Given that the Deacon Blue recordings were made on PCM/Betamax in 1988 is evidence of this. It also indicates a telling preference for digital over analogue formats in the late 1980s.

Deacon Blue Live at the Dominion Theatre, London, 26th October 1988 will be available to download as part of Deacon Blue’s new album Believers, released 30th September 2016.

According to singer and main songwriter Ricky Ross, the new Deacon Blue album aims to conjure a sense of hope: ‘it’s our statement to the fact that belief in the possibilities of hope and a better tomorrow is the side we choose to come down on.’

Deacon Blue are touring the UK in Nov/ Dec, visiting Bristol’s Colston Hall on 18 November.

 

The Genesis Archive – 1/4″ open reel tapes transferred

Monday, May 9th, 2016

The early 21st century has been witness to numerous projects that document and interpret popular music histories. Whether dedicated to regional histories, such as the Manchester District Music Archive and Birmingham Music Archive, or genre specific, like the National Jazz archive or the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s ‘Full English’, digitsation has helped curators organise and publish material in new and exciting ways.

Tape box for Phil Collins interview on Radio Trent with John Shaw

A significant amount of archive material that exists on the web has been collected by dedicated amateurs, and a recent transfer in the Great Bear studio is an example of such endeavour.

The Genesis archive is powered by the passion of Mark Kenyon who spearheads a small team of Genesis enthusiasts. Together they have created a detailed, unofficial fan-resource dedicated to one of England’s most successful rock bands, and the solo careers of its members.

The Genesis archive is not the only fan site dedicated to Genesis, a band that commands serious adoration from their followers.

Mark’s site is unique, however, for its focus on artifacts, and his drive to share a range of ephemeral and well known material with other fans across the world.

The site is ‘constantly expanding’, and the aim is to continue ‘adding and improving the site like a giant wiki.’ As well as receiving donations of material from fans of the group, Mark buys many of the items featured on the website and he always welcomes paypal donations to fund the quest for more archival material.

Mark told me he had ‘various headaches’ with website design, before he settled on a template that would allow him to showcase the wide range of material he has collected, and continues to collect.

Of particular note is the timeline function, which enables the user to browse each subsection of the site chronologically. This helps break down the content into digestible bits, while presenting items in a manner that is visually appealing.

The transfers

Mark contacted Great Bear because he had acquired two open reel tapes of rare Genesis-related material. Both tapes were in perfect playable condition and are the first reel to reel tapes to grace the Genesis archive.

The first reel was an interview between John Shaw, who died in 2013 , and Phil Collins, recorded on Radio Trent on 27th January 1981. This interview captures Collins as his debut album, Face Value, is climbing the charts.

Mark acquired the tapes for a reasonable price from ebay, after a friend of Shaw had put them up for auction early this year.

Mark and his team have uploaded this interview to the archive website, and you can listen to it here.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway recordings

The second reel we transferred was picked up at a Flea Market in Brick Lane, London, in the early 1980s. It contains semi-finished versions of Genesis’s iconic 1974 album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

The material on the tape demonstrate how Genesis used recording technology to write an album that commentators claim was fraught with difficulty because of financial pressures from their record label, Charisma, and the creative tensions between Gabriel and the rest of the band.

The tape includes guide and out of tune vocals, different time signatures and guitars are placed high in the mix. Michael, who helps Mark to run the archive, ran an A/B comparison with the original vinyl version. He found that vocals ran ahead or were missing in places, and Phil Collins’ drum fills differed significantly to the finished versions.

The lack of vocals can perhaps be explained by Kevin Holm-Hudson’s claim that Gabriel was ‘still writing and revising lyrics a month after the backing tracks had been finished’.

Tape box with track listings written on the backAnother interesting point about the tapes is that work-in-progress titles are written on the box. ‘Sex Song’ for example, became ‘Counting Out Time’, ‘Countryman’ refers to ‘Chamber Of 32 Doors’ and ‘Broadway’ is used to refer to the title track.

There is also a discrepancy between the titles written on the box and the material on the transferred tape which includes the following songs: ‘Counting Out Time’, ‘The Supernatural Anesthetist’, ‘Back In NYC’, ‘Hairless Heart (Instrumental)’.

Mark cannot be 100% certain about the origin of the tape. It is equally likely they are from sessions recorded at the farm in Glaspant Wales, where Genesis used the Island mobile studio to record material for the album, or from sessions at Island studios in Basing Street, London. He has, however, seen photographic evidence of the sessions which indicate that around 10-15 tapes similar tapes were recorded.

Many of these tapes, of course, ended up in a skip once the final version had been ‘laid down.’ These tapes were never destined to be ‘the final copy’ of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. They may even be a source of embarrassment for the artists because they document their raw, unfinished moments of music making. Nonetheless, such tapes provide a fascinating insight into how ‘classic’ albums are recorded and written. For fans such recordings are gold dust. They help them to get closer to the moments when a magical piece of music was invented, or present evidence that it could have sounded very different.

The tapes also make clear that the recording itself can function as an instrument, integral to—rather than a one-dimensional document of—the writing process. Holm-Hudson wrote that ‘occasionally, Gabriel would record over vocals over passages that some band members…thought would be instrumental.’ Gabriel was using the recording, in other words, as a platform for vocal creativity, often against the creative vision of other band members.

It is no doubt that the Genesis archive will continue to evolve and grow in the future. The site Mark and his team have created is a resource for Genesis obsessives and popular music archivists.

It also more than that: an open, public site where visitors can learn about a range of popular music histories that intersect with the Genesis story. These include progressive rock and the concept album, ‘World Music’, the changing nature of both the music industry and its aesthetic expressions from the 60s-90s, to name a few examples.

***

Many thanks to Mark for discussing his archival work with us.

Going CD-R-less – digital file-based delivery at Great Bear

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Often customers ask us to deliver their transferred files onto a CD, yet we only have capacity to produce a CD-R of the transfer.

Although these recordings can still be high resolution there remains a world of difference—in an archival sense—between a CD-R, burnt on a computer drive, and CD recordings made in the context of the professional music industry.

The CD format is far from ‘obsolete,‘ and recent history has shown us repeatedly that formats deemed ‘dead’, such as vinyl or the audio cassette, can become fashionable again.

Yet when it comes to the preservation of your audio and video archives, it is a good idea to think about this material differently. It is one thing to listen to your favourite artist on CD, in other words, but that precious family recording of your Grandfather discussing his life history on a burnt CD-R is different.

Because of this, we believe that supplying customers with digital files, on hard drive on USB stick is, in 2016 and beyond, a much better option. Holding a recording in physical form in the palm of your hand can be reassuring. Yet if you’ve transferred valuable recordings to ensure you can listen to them once…

Why risk having to do it again?

CD-Rs are, quite simply, not a reliable archival medium. Even optical media that claims spectacular longevity, such as the 1000 year proof M-Disc, are unlikely to survive the warp and weft of technological progress.

Exposure to sunlight can render CD-Rs and DVDs unreadable. If the surface of a CD-R becomes scratched, its readability is severely compromised.

There is also the issue of compatibility between burners and readers, as pointed out in the ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation:

There are standards for CD-R discs to facilitate the interchange of discs between burners and readers. However, there are no standards covering the burners or readers themselves, and the disc standards do not take preservation or longevity into consideration. Several different burning and reading speeds were developed, and earlier discs or burners are not compatible with later, faster speeds. As a result, there is considerable variability in whether any given disc can be read by any given reader (30).

Furthermore, disc drives on computers are becoming less common. It would therefore be unwise to exclusively store valuable recordings on this medium if you want them to have the best chance of long time survival.

In short, the CD-R is just another obsolete format (and an unreliable one at that). Of course, once you have the digital files there is nothing stopping you from making access copies on CD-R for friends and family. Having the digital files as source format gives you greater flexibility to share, store and duplicate your archival material.

File-based preservation

The threat of obsolescence haunts all digital media, to a degree. There is no one easy, catchall solution to preserve the media we produce now which is, almost exclusively, digital.

Yet given the reality of the situation, and the desire people harbour to return to recordings that are important to them, it makes sense that non-experts gain a basic understanding of what digital preservation may entail for them.

There are a growing amount of online resources for people who want to get familiar with the rudiments of personal digital archiving. It would be very difficult to cover all the issues below, so comments are limited to a few observations.

It is true that managing a digital collection requires a different kind of attitude – and skill set – to analogue archiving that is far less labour intensive. You cannot simply transfer your digital files onto a hard drive, put it on the shelf and forget about it for ten-fifteen years. If you were to do this, there is a very real possibility the file could not be opened when you return to it.

taking-good-care-of-personal-archive-dpc-2015

Screenshot taken from the DPC guide to Personal Digital Archiving

As Gabriela Redwine explains in the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Technology Watch Report on Personal Digital Archiving, ‘the reality of ageing hardware and software requires us to be actively attuned to the age and condition of the digital items in our care.’ The emerging personal digital archivist therefore needs to learn how to practice actively engaging with their collections if their digital files are to survive in the long term.

Getting to grips with digital preservation, even at a basic level, will undoubtedly involve learning a variety of new skills, terms and techniques. Yet there are some simple, and fairly non-technical, things you can do to get started.

The first point to emphasise is the importance of saving files in more than one location. This is probably the most basic principle of digital preservation.

The good news about digital files is they can be moved, copied and shared with family and friends all over the world with comparable ease. So if there is a fire in one location, or a computer fails in another, it is likely that the file will still be safe in the other place where it is stored.

Employing consistent and clear file naming is also very important, as this enables files to be searched for and found easily.

Beyond this, things get a little more complicated and a whole lot more computer-based. We move into the more specialist area of digital preservation with its heady language of metadatachecksums and emulation, among other terms.

The need for knowledge and competencies

At present it can feel like there is a chasm between the world of private digital archiving, where people rely on third party solutions such as Google or Amazon to store and manage their files, and the professional field of digital preservation, which is populated by tech-specialists and archival whizz-kids.

The reality is that as we move deeper into the digital, file-based future, ordinary people will need to adopt existing preservation tools if they are to learn how to manage their digital collections in a more direct and informed way.

Take, for example, the often cited recommendation for people to migrate or back up their collections on different media at annual or bi-annual intervals. While this advice may be sound, should people be doing this without profiling the file integrity of their collections first? What’s the point in migrating a collection of files, in other words, if half of those files are already corrupted?

In such instances as these, the everyday person may wish to familiarise themselves with existing software tools that can be used to assess and identify potential problems with their personal collections.

DROID (Digital Record Object IDentification), for example, a software tool developed by the UK National Archives, profiles files in your collection in order to facilitate ‘digital continuity’, ‘the ability to use digital information in the way that you need, for as long as you need.’

The open source software can identify over 200 of the most common document, image, audio and video files. It can help tell you what versions you have, their age and size, and when they were last changed. It can also help you find duplicates, and manage your file space more efficiently. DROID can be used to scan individual files or directories, and produces this information in a summary report. If you have never assessed your files before it may prove particularly useful, as it can give a detailed overview.

A big draw back of DROID is that it requires programming knowledge to install, so is not immediately accessible to those without such specialist skills. Fixity is a more user-friendly open source software tool that can enable people to monitor their files, tracking file changes or corruptions. Tools like Fixity and DROID do not ensure that digital files are preserved on their own; they help people to identify and manage problems within their collections. A list of other digital preservation software tools can be found here.

For customers of Great Bear, who are more than likely to be interested in preserving audiovisual archives, AV Preserve have collated a fantastic list of tools that can help people both manage and practice audiovisual preservation. For those interested in the different scales of digital preservation that can be employed, the NDSA (National Digital Stewardship Alliance) Levels of Preservation offers a good overview of how a large national institution envisions best practice.

Tipping Points

We are, perhaps, at a tipping point for how we play back and manage our digital data. The 21st century has been characterised by the proliferation of digital artefacts and memories. The archive, as the fundamental shaper of individual and community identities, has taken central stage in our lives.

With this unparalleled situation, new competencies and confidences certainly need to be gained if the personal archiving of digital files is to become an everyday reality at a far more granular and empowered level than is currently the norm.

Maybe, one day, checking the file integrity of one’s digital collection will be seen as comparable to other annual or bi-annual activities, such as going to the dentist or taking the car for its MOT.

We are not quite there yet, that much is certain. This is largely because companies such as Google make it easy for us to store and efficiently organise personal information in ways that feel secure and manageable. These services stand in stark contrast to the relative complexity of digital preservation software, and the computational knowledge required to install and maintain it (not to mention the amount of time it could take to manage one’s digital records, if you really dedicated yourself to it).

Growing public knowledge about digital archiving, the desire for knowledge and new competencies, as well as the pragmatic fact that digital archives are easier to manage in file-based systems, may encourage the gap between professional digital preservation practices and the interests of everyday, digital citizens, to gradually close over time. Dialogue and greater understanding is most certainly needed if we are to move forward from the current context.

Great Bear want to be part of this process by helping customers have confidence in file-based delivery, rather than rely on formats that are obsolete, of poorer quality and counter-intuitive to the long term preservation of audio visual archives.

We are, as ever, happy to explain the issues in more detail, so please do contact us if there are issues you want to discuss.

Refurbishment of Magnetic Recording Heads – Terry Summer

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Below is a guest post written by Terry Summers from Summertone Ltd. We first encountered Terry because of his expertise refurbishing analogue magnetic tape heads.

As one of the few, if not only, specialist UK-based company working in this area, we wanted to know more about Terry’s work. We were keen to understand the secrets of magnetic tape refurbishment, and whether Terry accepted that obsolescence for analogue media was imminent, as many audiovisual archivists claim. Many thanks Terry for taking the time to write the article, we hope you enjoy it.

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Before I opened Summertone Ltd. I was for very many years, the Managing Director and magnetic head designer for the head manufacturing company Branch & Appleby. This was a specialist company serving the audio recording industry with magnetic heads as a supplier to Original Equipment Manufacturers in the analogue tape and film industry and for replacement heads for other types. B & A was particularly strong in the magnetic head supply for recording on perforated film for the synchronisation and editing of film sound, being the supplier of heads to many OEM studio film equipment manufacturers. The range of analogue heads designed and made by B & A was legion, ranging from 32 track 2 inch to 8mm film heads. B & A also supplied heads for other purposes, magnetic card readers and bank note verifiers being examples.

To be able to refurbish a magnetic head, it is essential to understand the working, the manufacturing principals and the materials used in it’s manufacture.

That expertise is with Summertone and is the reason for it’s success. The various magnetic materials used (mumetals of various grades, vitrovacs, ferrites etc.) each require specialist equipment and methods of surface finish to obtain intimate contact with the recording medium. A fact that is frequently overlooked is that a refurbished magnetic head has a performance that is superior to when it was new! The reason is that the magnetic losses due to the gap depth are less. So refurbishment not only restores the head’s ability to contact the magnetic material correctly, having removed the uneven wear caused by the abrasive recording medium, but also gives the head an improved performance, essential for the reproduction of archive, sometimes damaged material.

a gap inspection being carried out on an Ampex, half inch, two track, stereo replay head.

Digital Changes

The audio industry has of course changed with the coming of the digital age, some say for the better, but others disagree. We refurbish analogue heads for studios and individuals that are dedicated to the recording and reproduction of sound with the full complement of all the harmonics that are lost with a digital frequency cut off. We cannot hear them, but they colour the overall sound picture that we hear. That is the reason for the continuation of the use and restoration of the abundance of analogue machines by our studio customers (and some private users also).

The magnetic head is the vital link with the medium and is essential that it is kept in tip-top condition.

There are also many archival organisations that require the services of head specialists. The British Film Institute for instance, prides itself with the fact that the preserved sound it achieves is in many cases superior to the original public performances. This is due to their keeping their magnetic/optical sound pickups in excellent order and then, after transfer, using modern digital techniques to manipulate and store the results. Summertone receives heads from all over the world for refurbishment and is proud and pleased to say that the percentage of heads that it receives for refurbishment that are not able to receive suitable treatment, is very small indeed.

The scarcity of machines can be a problem, but as the number of studios using analogue machines diminishes they tend to pass to dedicated companies and individuals who appreciate their importance and who go to great lengths to ensure they are kept in a working condition or used for spares, not thrown in the skip. We appreciate that this cannot go on for ever, but the indications at the present time are that there are many who have the expertise to help in the specialist areas needed to keep archive machines in good working order.

It is a fact that the older analogue machines seem to be so well designed and built that they have very few faults that cannot be rectified easily. For instance, last week we switched on a 1960s valve recorder that had not been run for very many years. It performed perfectly. Another just needed a simple capacitor replacement for it to also perform. The point we are making is that the older technology was, and still is, reliable and understandable, unlike many modern machines.

It is possible to build new tape head blocks from scratch, but that is really not economical due to cost. We can, and do, still have replacement heads made to my designs but only if it is justified to keep a valuable, scarce, rare format, machines functioning. There are heads around, both new and second hand that can be refurbished. These can be obtained by combining two machines both for mechanical parts and heads. Summertone also has a small stock of heads.

Obsolescence

I do not agree with the archivists who say that there is a 10-15 year span left to transfer material. Magnetic tape and film has stood the test of longevity without deterioration which is why it is still being used for digital archiving. More modern archive methods have been failing. With good maintenance, analogue machines have a good life left and spares are still able to be obtained and manufactured as they are understandable to good engineers. I am sorry to say that when Summertone closes, our expertise for magnetic heads will be lost as it has not been possible to transfer a lifetime of analogue experience to another, due partly to the lack of financial incentive.

Grundig C 100 and the early history of the Compact Cassette

Monday, March 7th, 2016

The recent arrival of a Grundig C 100 cassette in the Great Bear studio has been an occasion to explore the early history of the compact cassette.

grundig-c100-cassette-tape

The compact cassette has gained counter-cultural kudos in recent times, and more about that later, but once upon a time the format was the new kid on the block.

The audio cassette was revolutionary for several reasons, an important one being its compact size. The compact cassette, introduced by Dutch company Philips in 1963 could be held in the palm of your hand, while its closest neighbour in media history, the RCA Sound Tape cartridge (1958-1964), needed to be held with two.

The compact cassette also offered a more user-friendly experience for the consumer.

Whereas reel-to-reel tape had to be threaded manually through the tape transport, all the user of a compact cassette tape machine had to do was insert a tape in a machine and press play.

Format Wars

One of the less-emphasised histories of the compact cassette is the alternative cassette standards that were vying for market domination alongside Philips in the early 1960s.

One alternative was the DC International system developed by the German company Grundig who at that time were a leading manufacturer of tape, radio and Hi-Fi systems.

In 1965 Grundig introduced its first cassette recorder, the C 100, which used the Double Cassette (DC) International system. The DC International used two-reels within the cassette shell similar to the Compact-System promoted by Philips. There were, however, important differences between the two standards.

The DC International standard used a larger cassette shell (120x77x12mm) with a ¼” tape width and recorded at 2” per second. The Compact-System was smaller all around: 0.15” tape width and recorded at 1⅞ in/s.

audio-cassette-grundig-c100-comparisonFervent global competition shaped audio cassette production in the mid-1960s.

Grundig’s DC International was effectively (and rapidly) ousted from the market by Philips’ ‘open’ licensing strategy.

Eric D. Daniel and C. Denis Mee explain that

‘From the beginning Philips pursued a strategy of licensing its design as widely as possible. According to Frederik Philips, president of the firm at the time, this policy was the brainchild of Mr. Hartong, a member of the board of management. Hartong believed that Philips should allow other manufacturers access to the design, turning the compact cassette into a world product….Despite initial plans to charge a fee, Phillips eventually decided to offer the license for free to any firm willing to produce the design. Several firms adopted the compact cassette almost immediately, including many Japanese manufacturers.’ [1]

The outcome of this licensing strategy was a widespread, international adoption of Philips’ compact cassette standard.

In Billboard on 16 September 1967 it was reported: ‘Philips has scored a critical victory on the German market for its “Compact-System”, which now seems certain to have uncontested leadership. Teldec has switched from the DC-International system to the Philips system, and Grundig, the major manufacturer of the DC-International system, announced that it will also start manufacturing cassette players for the Philips system.’

Cassettes today

The portable, user-friendly compact cassette has proved to be a resilient format. Despite falling foul to the digital march of progress in the early 1990s, the past couple of years have been defined by claims that cassettes are back and (almost) cool again.

Although the Recording Industry Association of America have denied reports they are tracking cassette sales again, it is clear that ‘a small, but engaged niche audience… is steadily growing’ for tape-based releases.

Whether that audience is gorging on tapes from do it yourself tape labels or sampling the delights of Justin Bieber’s latest album, cassettes are a hit for low-budget music-makers and status-bearers alike.

Compact Cassette Preservation

Amid this cassette fervour, Great Bear remains embroiled with the old wave of cassettes.

Cassettes from the 1960s and early 1970s carry specific preservation concerns.

Loss of lubricant is a common problem. You will know if your tape is suffering lubricant loss if you hear a horrible squealing sound during play back. This is known as ‘stick slip,’ which describes the way friction between magnetic tape and tape heads stick and slip as they move antagonistically through the tape transport.

This squealing poses big problems because it can intrude into the signal path and become part of the digital transfer. Tapes displaying such problems therefore require careful re-lubrication to ensure the recording can be transferred in its optimum – and squeal free – state.

Early compact cassettes also have problems that characterise much ‘new media.’

As Eric D. Daniel et al elaborate: ‘during the compact cassette’s first few years, sound quality was mediocre, marred by background noise, wow and flutter, and a limited frequency range. While ideal for voice recording applications like dictation, the compact cassette was marginal for musical recording.’ [2]

The resurgence in compact cassette culture may lull people into a false sense that recordings stored on cassettes are not high risk and do not need to be transferred in the immediate future.

It is worth remembering, however, that although playback machines will continue to be produced in years to come, not all tape machines are of equal, archival quality.

The last professional grade audio cassette machines were produced in the late 1990s and even the best of this batch lag far behind the tape machine to end all tape machines – the Nakamichi Dragon with its Automatic Azimuth Correction technology – that was discontinued in 1993.

To ensure the best quality transfers it is advisable to play back tapes using professional-grade machines. This enables greater control of problems that can arise with azimuth, wow and flutter which often need to be checked and if necessary adjusted prior to playback, a process that is not possible on cheaper, domestic machines.

As ever, if you have any specific concerns or enquiries regarding your audio cassette collections, please contact us to discuss it. 

Notes

[1] Eric D. Daniel et al, eds. (2009) Magnetic Recording: The First 100 Years. Piscataway: IEEE Press Marketing, 103-104.

[2] Eric D. Daniel et al, eds, Magnetic Recording, 104.

Great Bear 2016 Infomercial

Monday, February 29th, 2016

Great Bear have just produced our 2016 ‘infomercial’.

The 4-page document includes details of our work and all the formats we digitise.

great-bear-infomercial-front-back

greatbear-infomercial-pages-2-3

We are in the process of sending printed copies to relevant organisations.

Please contact us to request a copy and we will pop one in the post for you.

You can also download a PDF of the document here.

 

Hands On History Conference

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Media scholars, tinkerers and ‘thinkerers’ gathered in London last week for ADAPT TV‘s Hands on History Conference.

ADAPT is a five-year research project based at Royal Holloway, University of London that aims to capture and analyse the complex histories of TV production from the 1950s to the present.

A core part of the project methodology is the creation of simulated media environments that re-unite TV production crews with the specific machines they used in order to trigger sensory, practical and emotional memories.

Such embodied insights are largely absent from traditional historical research which is invested in maintaining a conceptual distance from ‘the past’.

This ‘hands-on’ approach can bring alternative historical perspectives alive by activating old machinery and the cultural practices attached to their use.

Tinkering

Andreas Fickers described these methodologies in his keynote as ‘experimental media archaeology.’

Tinkering and ‘playing’ with media technologies were presented as alternative techniques that can ‘re-sensitise’ researchers to the lost dimensions of media experience.

Such knowledge, which may resound as feelings of shock, disorientation or novelty, quickly become lost when media are normalised through everyday use.

Playing with old media as if they were new may offer crucial insights into what technologies enable us to do or think. Such activities are even valuable when a media tool breaks down.

Practicing Engagement

Practicing engagement was very much the defining feature of the conference.

The Projection Project based at Warwick University for example, explores the social and technical histories of cinema projection in the transition from analogue to the digital.

Lori Emerson discussed her work at the Media Archaeology Lab and Jason Papadimas, Sebastian Doring, and Jose Munoz tinkered with children’s toys and circuit boards to explore how cultural logics are socialised through the use of tools.

Many presentations focused on archiving software, video games and computational culture. Laine Nooney and Kevin Driscoll‘s presented their work on Softalk, an Apple II enthusiast magazine that circulated 1980–84, and Christian Hviid Mortensen from the Danish Media Museum discussed the challenges of curating video game culture.

Tape splices

Of most interest to Great Bear, because of its focus on magnetic tape, was Jessica Borge’s presentation on ‘The Secret Psychosexual Counselling Tapes of Dr Joan Malleson.’

Jessica recounted her research on a collection of clandestine recordings made by Dr Joan Malleson shortly before her suicide in 1956. During the course of her research Jessica realised that recordings were made without patients’ consent. This meant she could not write about the recorded content due to data protection issues.

Her focus then turned to the materiality of the tapes which enabled a close reconstruction of the scenarios in which the recordings were made.

Jessica’s presentation clearly speaks to the question of whether tape stock should be kept or destroyed post-digitisation. As a historian it was vital for her to see the original materials. Viewing the reels them enabled her to draw nuanced conclusions that would not have been possible if she had consulted access copies alone.

Yet keeping such artefacts, particularly when they cannot be played back in 10-15 years from now, will seem counter-intuitive and impractical for many archives, who are often have limited storage space available.

One way to ensure that the materiality of historical artefacts is recorded will of course lie in detailed metadata description. Jessica’s experience makes it clear the extent to which descriptive practices must go if the materiality of artefact is to be sufficiently captured in digital form. It is common place for extraneous information, such as writing on the tape box to be recorded in metadata records. Arguably the condition of the tape must also be recorded, including details such as splice marks or evidence of deterioration. These marks tell us crucial things about the environmental life of the tape and helps to place the object in its historical context, animating how it was used.

The Hands On History conference was a valuable opportunity for scholars and practitioners to meet and learn about these emerging historical methodologies.

The Network for Experimental Media Archaeology will continue to build on the connections made at the conference, and will act as a support hub for research, teaching and curatorial activities in this area. This is something Great Bear look forward to participating in, as preserving magnetic tape involves a lot of tinkering and a lot of learning.


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