The tape features performances from The Couriers (Jack Harris and Rex Brisland), George and Thadeus Kaye, Bill Pickering, Mark Newman and Mick Odam.
Jack Harris, who alongside Rex Brisland ran the club, describes how ‘traditional singers like Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and Pete Seeger, Bob Davenport were regular visitors together with ageing ploughboys, miners and fishermen who were often so infirm or unlikely to make their own way to Leicester they had to be fetched by car.’
As well as supporting grassroots folk music from the local area, well known performers such as musical superstar Barbara Dickson, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell graced the stage.
The tape recordings we received span five years. The first recording was made on 6 August 1966, then 3 September 1966, 8 February 1970 and finally 9 April 1971.
Each performance was recorded on a separate track in mono. This means that the 7” long spool contains 8 hours of music!
Like today’s MP3 digital files, the quality of the recorded sound is compromised because so much information is squeezed into a smaller space on the tape. A better quality recording would have been made if all four channels were used for a single performance, rather than one track for each performance.
The speed at which recordings were made also effects the quality of the recordings, simply because you can record more information per second at a faster rate. The tapes we were sent were recorded at 7 ½ per second on what is likely to have been a domestic tape recorder such as the Sony TC-263D. Ed’s letter to us speaks volumes about the conditions in which the recordings were made:
‘I was present at the Couriers Folk Club in Leicester when they were recorded so I can say that the recording quality is not good. The Sony recorder was used as an amplifier and on some occasions (if someone remembered) a tape was recorded.’
While the recordings certainly would have benefited from less haphazard recording conditions, the quality of the transfer is surprisingly crisp, as you can hear from this excerpt.
Excerpt from the digitised recordings of the Couriers folk club
The tape was in good condition, as Philips magnetic reel-to-reel tape often survives well over time, which aided a good transfer. One thing we were especially attentive to in the transfer process was carefully adjusting the azimuth, because of the slow speed of the original recording and the narrow track width.
The bread and butter work of Great Bear Analogue and Digital Media is to migrate analogue and digital magnetic tape to digital files, but recently we were asked by a customer to transfer a digital file to ¼ analogue tape.
The customer was concerned about the longevity of electronic digital formats, and wanted to transfer his most valued recordings to a tangible format he knew and trust. Transferring from digital to analogue was certainly more expensive: the blank tape media cost over £50 alone.
In a world where digital technology seems pervasive, remaining so attached to analogue media may appear surprising. Yet the resilience of tape as a recorded medium is far greater than is widely understood.
Take this collection of old tapes that are in the back yard of the Great Bear office. Fear not customers, this is not what happens to your tapes when you send them to us! They are a collection of test tapes that live outside all year round without shelter from the elements. We use them to test ways of treating degraded tapes because we don’t want to take unnecessary risks with our customer’s material.
Despite being subject to pretty harsh conditions, the majority of material on these tapes is recoverable to some degree.
Would digital data stored on a hard drive survive if it had to endure similar conditions? It is far less likely.
Due to its electronic composition digital data is fragile in comparison with analogue magnetic tape. This is also the ironic conclusion of Side by Side (2012), the documentary film narrated by Keanu Reeves which explores the impact of digital technology on the film industry.
Requests for digital to analogue transfers are fairly rare at Great Bear, but we are happy to do them should the need arise!
And don’t forget to back up your digital files in at least three different locations to ensure it is safe.
In today’s digital society most people have an archive. On personal computers, tablets and mobile devices we store, create and share vast amounts of information. We use archives to tell others about our lives, and the things that are important to us.
Gone are the days when archives were dusty, dark places where experts went to research esoteric knowledge. Archives are everywhere. They are dynamic, digital and personal, as well as being institutional, historical, corporate and civic.
The creation of personal archives is of course nothing new, but the digital age forces us to have a far more intimate relationship with information, and its organisation. Put simply, there is loads more information, and if it isn’t collected in a systematic way you may well drown in a sea of your own, not to mention everybody else’s, data. Maybe this is happening to you right now! If so, you need to embrace the archival moment and get your own collections in shape.
Part of this everyday information management is migrating archives stored on obsolete formats, such as the many different types of analogue and digital magnetic tape we work with at Great Bear. Digitising tape gives it new life, allowing it to be easily circulated, shared and used with today’s technologies.
A significant amount of the Great Bear’s work involves digitising the diverse collections people produce in their everyday working, creative and social lives.
Here are two recent digitisation projects which are a good example of our work.
Swansea Sound 1976
We were sent a number of ¼ inch reel to reel Scotch 3M tape ‘made for the BBC’ tape, recorded at the rate of 7 ½ inches per second from local radio station Swansea Sound in 1976. The tapes were all in good condition, although the boxes had some evidence of water damage. Over time the tension in the tape pack had also changed, so they required careful re-spooling before being played.
The recordings were fascinating to digitise because they communicated how little the format of radio programmes have changed since the late 1970s. Jingles, news reports, chat and music were all part of the show, and anyone familiar with BBC Radio 2 would certainly enjoy the recordings, that still seem to be played every Saturday morning!
Brian Pimm-Smith’s recording diaries and tape letters
A collection of Brian’s 1/4 inch tapes
Another collection was sent to us from Brian Pimm-Smith. Brian enthusiastically documented his life and work activities using a Uher open reel portable tape recorder which he acquired in 1963. The box included many ¼ inch tapes that could record up to 10 minutes at 3 and ¾ inches per second. These tapes could also record up to 4 mono tracks at 10 minutes each, allowing for storage of up to forty minutes at a time. The main bulk of the collection is a series of spoken letters sent to and from Pimm-Smith and his parents, who between them lived in Britain, Pakistan, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Japan and Saudi-Arabia, but it also includes recordings of when Brian worked taking weather measurements for the British Antarctic Survey.
Some of the 1/4 inch tapes were marketed by companies such as Scotch and EMI specifically to be used as ‘voice letters’ that ‘links absent friends’. Despite this Pimm-Smith said that making such recordings was pretty rare, something ‘quite out there’ for most people. Brian’s mother nonetheless embraced the activity, as they shared correspondence back and forth between wherever they lived at the time.
The 1/4 inch tape boxes in themselves are a colourful record of international postage in the late 1960s. Sent from Pakistan, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Saudi Arabia, Australia and Japan, the small boxes are plastered with stamps. The boxes were reinforced with sellotape to ensure the contents didn’t fall out (which is still stuck fast to the boxes, by the way, clearly demonstrating the surprising longevity of some forms of sticky tape). Pimm-Smith’s tapes are fascinating objects in themselves that bear the marks of travel through space in the form of postal stamp marks, and time, as they sit on the desk now in the Great Bear Studio.
Perhaps the most exciting and unique recording Brian has kept is the audio diary of his trip through the Sahara desert. For the trip Brian drove an early 70s Range Rover which had a cassette player-recorder, a technological device only available in Africa which used audio cassette tapes. This enabled him to document his impressions as he drove along. Brian describes how he had taken a portable typewriter with the intention of keeping a written diary, but he used the tape recorder because it was more ‘immediate.’ On hearing the digitised tapes Brian was amazed at how clear the recordings sound today, particularly because he was driving at the same time and there was likely to be background noise. You can hear the hum of the car engine in the extract below, but the voice is still clearly very audible.
Listen to Brian talk about problems with his tyre as he drove across the Sahara Desert in 1976
The stories Swansea Sound radio and Pimm-Smith’s collection tell are part of wider social histories. They tell us about communities and places, as well as the continuities of style in broadcast radio. They tell us how people used analogue tape recordings to document personal adventures and communicate with families who lived in different countries.
Both tapes are examples of the sheer diversity of personal, magnetic tape based archives that people have been keeping for years, and which we digitise at the Great Bear. Brian Pimm-Smith contacted Great Bear because he wanted to make his tapes accessible, and preserve them for future use. He is hoping one day to write a book from his many adventures and these recordings can now remind him not only of what he did, but how he felt in the moment he made them.
At Great Bear we work on a range of digitising projects. Today we received a ¼ inch open reel polyester and acetate based tape from Carmarthen based teacher Richard Lewis. The tapes are a good example of the types of personal material we are entrusted to digitise. The tapes are rare and valuable recordings of a choir performance in Hereford Cathedral in the mid-1960s.
Richard sang in Hereford Cathedral Choir from when he was 10-14 as a soprano and his father, Albert Lewis, played the church organ. Richard thinks there may be recordings of his Great Aunt on the tape, but isn’t sure because he hasn’t been able to listen to it for years. He says ‘he is fascinated to know to what is on the tape’ and is looking forward to hearing the digitised results.
Like much late 1970’s and 80’s studio recordings, this was recorded on Ampex branded tape that suffers badly from binder hydrolysis or ‘sticky shed syndrome’ that must be addressed before the tape can be successfully played and digitised. This was in addition to the mould growth that was evident on the tape pack edges, and cardboard box. Storage in damp conditions and high humidity causes this type of mould and increases the breakdown of magnetic tape generally, sometimes to the point where de-lamination occurs, that is, the binder breaks away from the polyester structure of the tape. When this happens, which is luckily quite rarely, the magnetic information is damaged and mostly lost beyond repair.
Thankfully this tape, whilst it looked in poor condition was relatively straightforward to restore but time consuming. Careful hand winding, and mould cleaning is necessary as is awareness of the potential health effects of some mould spores so good ventilation and protective masks are necessary.
The capstan drive tape recorder is (or was) very common and was used in a huge range of cassette tape audio, video and open reel machines from cheap domestic to very expensive broadcast tape machines.
Occasionally we receive quarter inch tapes, always be on small 3 inch spools, that reproduce on our capstan drive machines with terrible speed variation. They start off very fast then gradually slow down over the duration of the recording to around normal speed.
These reels must have been recorded on rim drive machines. These type of open reel tape recorders didn’t use a capstan and pinch roller to save space and more often cost. As there is no capstan, as the supply reel gets smaller the tape recording speed increases. When replayed on a rim drive machine the speed, while not likely to be ‘Studer stable’ will be pretty stable and the recording sound OK.
It’s not feasible or desirable for us to own unlimited machines of all types due to the time to service and repair them, find parts and storage space therefore we use a small range of carefully picked high quality tape machines that with care can replay most tapes, speeds and track formats. This is the problem with rim drive recordings and an analogue or digital solution must be found.
The tapes we received were 15 reels of family recordings from the Welsh Valleys. Others apparently had tried to transfer these tapes but gave up finding no material. This was easily solved as the tapes were wound the opposite way to normal so the oxide was facing out not in. This is the same as in audio cassettes. The original tape machine must have had it’s heads in a similar position to a cassette machine.
One of our recent and ongoing jobs is a very large, over 2000, NAB 10.5 inch reel to reel archive of quarter inch professional tape recordings.
To fit into the budget but maintain quality we needed to find a way to streamline our workflow in converting the high resolution 24 bit 96 Khz master .wav files to CD quality (16 bit / 44 Khz) and MP3 (320 kbps) audio files.
Typically this would be done manually with 2 track audio software such as Audacity, Peak Audio Tools, Wavelab, etc with a Graphic User Interface (GUI). For such a large amount of individual files this is time consuming, expensive and unnecessary. While many audio editors have batch processing tools, Amadeus Pro being one of our favourites, they are still not as flexible as combining command line tools with a Bash script.
SoX is a powerful command line audio tool that can be used to edit, convert, process, record and play a wide range of digital audio files. It also has a very high quality resampling algorithm which we are using here.
Once the tape reels have been digitised they are split into individual .wav files which are then renamed with artist and track details using a php script that accesses a .csv file. These 24/96 resolution files are then converted to lower, CD resolution using SoX and to 320 kb/s MP3’s using LAME. The script also uses sed, the stream editor, to add the text _16_44.wav or _mp3.mp3 to the filename for ease of identification. The script finds all files with the suffix _24_96.wav in all the subdirectories of it’s working directory and processes these.
At the moment this script is running under Mac OS X 10.5.8 using the MacPorts project but will, in time, be moved to one of our Apple G4 servers running the PowerPC version of Debian GNU/Linux 5.05 ‘Lenny’.
We have two of these excellent machines in addition to our Sony APR 5003 and Studer A80’s. The Tascam BR-20 was Tascam’s last and top of the range 1/4 inch reel to reel tape machine and available in two track stereo and stereo with centre timecode option.
The capstan drive in the BR20 is belt driven by a wide belt. Both belts in our machines looked OK but we’ve replaced all roller bearings, belts and pinch rollers in both of our machines anyway as a matter of course. These parts are still available from Teac UK via Acoustic Services on 01-844-347600.
Below is a simple explanation of how to change the capstan belt.
Unplug machine from mains power and move to a strong stable base.
Remove cross head screws from the rear panel and lift plate off. Depending on the type of plug in your country you may not be able to remove it completely.
You’ll now be able to see the capstan motor and it’s control board attached to it.
Remove the 4 cross head screws and gently lift the analogue audio output board away from the machine as in the picture above.
We now need to remove the whole capstan motor assembly with the control board still attached. Remove the 4 cross head screws right at the front of the assembly, NOT the six nearest to you when looking at this image.
Carefully unclip the 4 cable connectors from the motor control board. The other connector cannot be removed from the board and must be removed where it connects to the other board.
The whole assembly can now be lifted out from the machine. Be careful to not snag any cables and remember to unclip the black cable ties.
You’ll now be able to unclip the control board from the assembly by carefully compressing the black clips with some needle nose pliers.
Now remove the six cross head screws holding the capstan motor assembly together. This is the only way to remove and refit the capstan belt. There’s not enough room to do it any other way!
Now you can remove the old belt and capstan shaft. It’s a good idea to clean the capstan with IPA where the old belt has run and reapply a little grease to the bearing end of the capstan.
Fit your new belt and reassembly is the reverse of dissasembly! Be careful though to not drop the screws into regions you can’t get them out of – luckily there aren’t that many on this machine but a long magnetic screwdriver is very useful.. just don’t get it anywhere near the headblock and heads!