Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording – interview with Martin Theophilus

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.

Gregory Sams’s VegeBurger – Food Revolution

January 23rd, 2017

‘Watch out: the vegetarians are on the attack’ warned an article published in the April 1984 edition of the Meat Trades Journal.

The threat? A new product that would revolutionise the UK’s eating habits forever.

Gregory Sams’s VegeBurger invented a vernacular that is so ubiquitous now, you probably thought it’s always been here. While vegetarianism can be traced way back to 7th century BCE, ‘Veggie’, as in the food products and the people that consume them, dates back to the early 1980s.

VegeBurger was the first vegetarian food product to become available on a mass, affordable scale. It was sold in supermarkets rather than niche wholefood shops, and helped popularise the notion that a vegetarian diet was possible.

As the story of the VegeBurger goes, it helped ‘a whole lot of latent vegetarians came out of the closet.’

Whole Food Histories

Before inventing the VegeBurger, Sams opened Seed in 1967, London’s first macrobiotic whole food restaurant. Seed was regularly frequented by all the countercultural luminaries of the era, including John and Yoko.

Working with his brother Craig Sams he started Harmony Foods, a whole food distribution business (later Whole Earth), and published the pioneering Seed – the Journal of Organic Living. 

In 1982 Gregory went out on a limb to launch the VegeBurger. Colleagues in the whole food business (and the bank manager) expressed concern about how successful a single-product business could be. VegeBurger defied the doubters, however, and sales rocketed to 250,000 burgers per week as the 80s wore on.

The burgers may have sold well, but they also helped change hearts and minds. In 1983 his company Realeat commissioned Gallup to conduct a survey of public attitudes to meat consumption.

The survey results coincided with the release of the frozen VegeBurger, prompting substantial debate in the media about vegetarianism. ‘It was news, with more people moving away from red meat consumption than anybody had realized. VegeBurger was on television, radio and newspapers to such a degree that, when I wasn’t being interviewed or responding to a press query, all my time was spent keeping retailers stocked with the new hit’.

Food for Thought

Great Bear have just transferred the 1982 VegeBurger TV commercial that was recorded on the 1″ type C video format.

The advert, Gregory explains, ‘was produced for me by my dear friend Bonnie Molnar who used to work with a major advertising agency and got it all done for £5000, which was very cheap, even in 1982. We were banned from using the word “cowburger” in the original and had to take out the phrase “think about it” which contravened the Advertising Standards Authority’ stricture that adverts could not be thought provoking! I had also done the original narration, very well, but not being in the union that was disallowed. What a world, eh?’

Gregory’s story shows that it is possible to combine canny entrepreneurship and social activism. Want to know more about it? You can read the full VegeBurger story on Gregory’s website.

Thanks to Gregory for permission to reproduce the advert and for talking to us about his life.

Pre-Figurative Digital Preservation

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.

 

Developments in Digital Video Preservation – CELLAR

December 13th, 2016

We are living in interesting times for digital video preservation (we are living in interesting times for other reasons too, of course).

For many years digital video preservation has been a confusing area of audiovisual archiving. To date there is no settled standard that organisations, institutions and individuals can unilaterally adopt. As Peter Bubestinger-Steindl argues, ‘no matter whom you ask [about which format to use] you will get different answers. The answers might be correct, but they might not be the right solution for your use-cases.’

While it remains the case that there is still no one-size-fits-all solution for digital video preservation, recent progress made by the Codec Encoding for LossLess Archiving and Realtime transmission (CELLAR) working group should be on the radar of archivists in the field.

The aim of CELLAR is to standardise three lossless open-source audiovisual formats – Matroska, FFV1 and FLAC – for use in archival environments and transmission.

To date the evolution of video formats has largely been driven by broadcast, production and consumer markets. The development of video formats for long term archival use has been a secondary consideration.

The work on the Matroska container, FFV1 video codec and FLAC audio codec is therefore hugely significant because they have, essentially, been developed by audiovisual archivists for audiovisual archivists.

Other key points to note is that Matroska, FFV1 and FLAC are:

1. Open Source. This increases their resilience as a preservation format because the code’s development is widely documented.

And, importantly, they employ

2. Lossless compression. Simply put, lossless compression makes digital video files easier to store and transmit: file size is decreased without damaging integrity.

Managing large file sizes has been a major practical glitch that has held back digital video preservation in the past. The development of effective lossless compression for digital video is therefore a huge advance.

Archival focus

The archival-focus is evident in the capacities of Matroska container, as outlined by Dave Rice and Ashley Blewer in a paper presented at the ipres conference in 2016.

Here they explain that ‘the Matroska wrapper is organized into top-level sectional elements for the storage of attachments, chapter information, metadata and tags, indexes, track descriptions, and encoding audiovisual data.’

Each of these elements has a checksum associated with it, which means that each part of the file can be checked at a granular level. If there is an error in the track description, for example, this can be specifically dealt with. Matroska enables digital video preservation to become targeted and focused, a very useful thing given the complexity of video files.

screenshot-xml-schema-ebml-schema-digital-video-preservation

It is also possible to embed technical and descriptive metadata within the Matroska container, rather than alongside it in a sidecar document.

This will no doubt make Matroska attractive to archivists who dream of a container-format that can store additional technical and contextual information.

Yet as Peter B. Hermann Lewetz and Marion Jaks argue, ‘keeping everything in one video-file increases the required complexity of the container, the video-codec – or both. It might look “simpler” to have just one file, but the choice of tools available to handle the embedded data is, by design, greatly reduced. In practice this means it can be harder (or even impossible) to view or edit the embedded data. Especially, if the programs used to create the file were rare or proprietary.’

While it would seem that embedding metadata in the container file is currently not wholly practical, developing tools and systems that can handle such information must surely be a priority as we think about the long term preservation of video files.

FFV1 and FLAC are also designed with archival use in mind. FFV1, Rice and Blewer explain, uses lossless compression and contains ‘self-description, fixity, and error resilience mechanisms.’ ‘FLAC is a lossless audio codec that features embedded checksums per audio frame and can store embedded metadata in the source WAVE file.’

Milestones for Digital Video Preservation

By the end of 2016 the CELLAR working group will have submitted standard and information specifications to the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) for Matroska, FFV1, FLAC and EBML, the binary XML format the Matroska container is based on.

Outside of CELLAR’s activities there are further encouraging signs of adoption among the audio visual preservation community.

The Presto Centre’s AV Digitisation and Digital Preservation TechWatch Report #04 has highlighted the growing influence of open source, even within commercial audio visual archiving products.

Austrian-based media archive management company NOA, for example, ‘chose to provide FFV1 as a native option for encoding within its FrameLector products, as they see it has many benefits as a lossless, open source file format that is easy to use, has low computational overheads and is growing in adoption.’

We’ll be keeping an eye on how the standardisation of Matroska, FFV1 and FLAC unfolds in 2017. We will also share our experiences with the format, including whether there is increased demand and uptake among our customer base.

 

Revealing Histories: North Staffordshire

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.’

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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!

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

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

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.

 

Digital Video in Mixed-Content Archives

September 12th, 2016

On a recent trip to one of Britain’s most significant community archives, I was lucky enough to watch a rare piece of digitised video footage from the late 1970s.

As the footage played it raised many questions in my mind: who shot it originally? What format was it originally created on? How was it edited? How was it distributed? What was the ‘life’ of the artefact after it ceased to actively circulate within communities of interest/ use? How and who digitised it?

As someone familiar with the grain of video images, I could make an educated guess about the format. I also made other assumptions about the video. I imagined there was a limited amount of tape available to capture the live events, for example, because a number of still images were used to sustain the rolling audio footage. This was unlikely to be an aesthetic decision given that the aim of the video was to document a historic event. I could be wrong about this, of course.

When I asked the archivist the questions flitting through my mind she had no answers. She knew who the donor of the digital copy was, but nothing about the file’s significant properties. Nor was this important information included in the artefact’s record.

This struck me as a hugely significant problem with the status of digitised material – and especially perhaps video – in mixed-content archives where the specificities of AV content are not accounted for.

Due to the haphazard and hand-to-mouth way mixed-content archives have acquired digital items, it seems more than likely this situation is the rule rather than the exception: acquired bit by bit (no pun intended), maintaining access is often privileged over preserving the context and context of the digitised video artefact.

As a researcher I was able to access the video footage, and this of course is better than nothing.

Yet I was viewing the item in an ahistoric black hole. It was profoundly decontextualised; an artefact extracted to its most barest of essences.

Standard instabilities

This is not in any way a criticism of the archive in question. In fact, this situation is wholly understandable given that digital video are examples of ‘media formats that exist in crisis.’

Video digitisation remains a complex and unstable area of digital preservation. It is, as we have written elsewhere on this blog, the final frontier of audiovisual archiving. This seems particularly true within the UK context where there is currently no systematic plan to digitise video collections, unlike film and audio.

The challenge with digital video preservation remains the bewildering number of potential codec/ wrapper combinations that can be used to preserve video content.

There are signs, however, that file-format stabilities are emerging. The No Time to Wait: Standardizing FFV1 & Matroska for Preservation symposium (Berlin, July 2016) brought together software developers and archivists who want to make the shared dream of an open source lossless video standard, fit for archival purpose, a reality.

It seems like the very best minds are working together to solve this problem, so Great Bear are quietly optimistic that a workable, open source standard for video digital preservation is in reach in the not too distant future.

Metadata

Yet as my experience in the archive makes clear, the challenge of video digitisation is not about file format alone.

There is a pressing need to think very carefully about the kind of metadata and other contextual material that need to be preserved within and alongside the digitised file.

Due to limited funding and dwindling technical capacity, there is likely to be only one opportunity to transfer material currently recorded on magnetic tape. This means that in 2016 there really can be no dress rehearsal for your video digitisation plans.

As Joshua Ranger strongly emphasises:

‘Digitization is preservation…For audiovisual materials. And this bears repeating over and over because the anti-digitization voice is much stronger and generally doesn’t include any nuance in regards to media type because the assumption is towards paper. When we speak about digitization for audio and video, we now are not speaking about simple online access. We are speaking about the continued viability, about the persistence and the existence of the media content.’

What information will future generations need to understand the digitised archive materials we produce?

An important point to reckon with here is that not all media are the same. The affordances of particular technologies, within specific historical contexts, have enabled new forms of community and communicative practice to emerge. Media are also disruptive (if not deterministic) – they influence how we see the world and what we can do.

On this blog, for example, Peter Sachs Collopy discussed how porta-pak technology enabled video artists and activists in the late 1960s/ early 1970s to document and re-play events quickly.

Such use of video is also evident in the 1975 documentary Les prostituées de Lyon parlent (The prostitutes of Lyon speak).

Les prostituées documents a wave of church occupations by feminist activists in France.

The film demonstrates how women used emergent videotape technology to transmit footage recorded within the church onto TV screens positioned outside. Here videotape technology, and in particular its capacity to broadcast uni-directional messages, was used to protect and project the integrity of the group’s political statements. Video, in this sense, was an important tool that enabled the women – many of whom were prostitutes and therefore without a voice in French society – to ‘speak’.

Peter’s interview and Les prostituées de Lyon parlent are specific examples of how AV formats are concretely embedded within a social-historical and technical context. The signal captured – when reduced to bit stream alone – is simply not an adequate archival source. Without sufficient context too much historical substance is shed.

In this respect I disagree with Ranger’s claim that ‘all that really may be needed moving ahead [for videotape digitisation] is a note in the record for the new digital preservation master that documents the source.’ To really preserve the material, the metadata record needs to be rich enough for a future researcher to understand how a format was used, and what it enabled users to do.

‘Rich enough’ will always be down to subjective judgement, but such judgements can be usefully informed by understanding what makes AV archive material unique, especially within the context of mixed-content archives.

Moving Forward

So, to think about this practically. How could the archive item I discuss at the beginning of the article be contextualised in a way that was useful to me, as a researcher?

At the most basic level the description would need to include:

  • The format it was recorded on, including details of tape stock and machine used to record material
  • When it was digitised
  • Who digitised it (an individual, an institution)

In an ideal world the metadata would include:

  • Images of the original artefact – particularly important if digital version is now the only remaining copy
  • Storage history (of original and copy)
  • Accompanying information (e.g., production sheets, distribution history – anything that can illuminate the ‘life’ of artefact, how it was used)

This information could be embedded in the container file or be stored in associated metadata records.

matroska sample with embedded preservation metadataThese suggestions may seem obvious, but it is surprising the extent to which they are overlooked, especially when the most pressing concern during digitisation is access alone.

In every other area of archival life, preserving the context of item is deemed important. The difference with AV material is that the context of use is often complex, and in the case of video, is always changing.

As stressed earlier: in 2016 and beyond you will probably only get one chance to transfer collections stored on magnetic tape, so it is important to integrate rich descriptions as part of the transfer.

Capturing the content alone is not sufficient to preserve the integrity of the video artefact. Creating a richer metadata record will take more planning and time, but it will definitely be worth it, especially if we try to imagine how future researchers might want to view and understand the material.

Monstrous Regiment – Audio Cassette Digitisation

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.

VHS – more obsolescence threats

July 28th, 2016

S-VHS-Machine-Great-Bear-Analogue-Digital-MediaWe couldn’t let the news that ‘Japan’s Funai Electric has announced it will end production of home videocassette recorders in July’ go by unnoticed.

Earlier this month we wrote an article that re-appraised the question of VHS obsolescence.

Variability within the VHS format, such as recording speeds and the different playback capacities of domestic and professional machines, fundamentally challenge claims that VHS is immune from obsolescence threats which affect other, less ubiquitous formats.

The points we raised in this article and in others on the Great Bear tape blog are only heightened by news that domestic VHS manufacture is to be abandoned this month.

It is always worth being a bit wary of media rhetoric: this is not the first time VHS’s ‘death’ has been declared.

In 2008, for example, JVC announced they would no longer manufacture standalone VHS machines.

Yet Funai Electric’s announcement seems decidedly more grave, given that ‘declining sales, plus a difficulty in obtaining the necessary parts’ are the key reasons cited for their decision.

To be plain here: If manufacturers are struggling to find parts for obsolete machines this doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

The ‘death’ of a format is never immediate. In reality it is a stage by stage process, marked by significant milestones.

The announcement last week is certainly one milestone we should take notice of.

Especially when there are several other issues that compromise the possibility of effective VHS preservation in the immediate and long term future.

What needs to be done?

As ever, careful assessment of your tape collection is recommended. We are always on hand to talk through any questions you have.

Deacon Blue Live – Betamax PCM recordings

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.

 

VHS – Re-appraising Obsolescence

July 4th, 2016

VHS was a hugely successful video format from the late 1970s-late 1990s. It was adopted widely in domestic and professional contexts.

Due to its familiarity and apparent ubiquity you might imagine it is easy to preserve VHS.

Well, think again.

VHS is generally considered to be a low preservation risk because playback equipment is still (just about) available.

There is, however, a huge degree of variation within VHS. This is even before we consider improvements to the format, such as S-VHS (1987), which increased luminance bandwidth and picture quality.

Complicating the preservation picture

The biggest variation within VHS is of recording speed.

Recording speed affects the quality of the recording. It also dictates which machines you can use to play back VHS tapes.

Great-Bear-Analogue-Digital-Media-SONY SVO-500P-Panasonic AG-650Domestic VHS could record at three different speeds: Standard Play, which yielded the best quality recordings; Long Play, which doubled recording time but compromised the quality of the recording; Extended or Super Long Play, which trebled recording time but significantly reduced the recording quality. Extended/ Super Long Play was only available on the NTSC standard.

It is generally recognised that you should always use the best quality machines at your disposal to preserve magnetic media.

VHS machines built for domestic use, and the more robust, industrial models vary significantly in quality.

Richard Bennette in The Videomaker wrote (1995): ‘In more expensive VCRs, especially industrial models, the transports use thicker and heavier mounting plates, posts and gears. This helps maintain the ever-critical tape signal distances over many more hours of usage. An inexpensive transport can warp or bend, causing time base errors in the video signals’.

Yet better quality VHS machines, such as the SONY SVO-500P and Panasonic AG-650 that we use in the Great Bear Studio, cannot play back Long or Extended Play recordings. They only recorded—and therefore can only play back—Standard Play signals.

This means that recordings made at slower speeds can only be transferred using cheaper, domestic VHS machines.

Domestic VHS tape: significant problems to come

This poses two significant problems within a preservation context.

Firstly, there is concern about the availability of high-functioning domestic VHS machines in the immediate and long-term.

Domestic VHS machines were designed to be mass produced and affordable to the everyday consumer. Parts were made from cheaper materials. They simply were not built to last.

JVC stopped manufacturing standalone VHS machines in 2008.

Used VHS machines are still available. Given the comparative fragility of domestic machines, the ubiquity of the VHS format—especially in its domestic variation—is largely an illusion.

The second problem is the quality of the original Long or Extended Play recording.

Great-Bear-Analogue-Digital-Media-JVC-Super-VHS-ETOne reason for VHS’s victory over Betamax in the ‘videotape format wars’ was that VHS could record for three hours, compared with Betamax’s one.

As with all media recorded on magnetic tape, slower recording speeds produce poorer quality video and audio.

An Extended Play recording made on a domestic VHS is already in a compromised position, even before you put it in the tape machine and press ‘play.’

Which leads us to a further and significant problem: the ‘press play’ moment.

Interchangeability—the ability to play back a tape on a machine different to the one it was recorded on—is a massive problem with video tape machines in general.

The tape transport is a sensitive mechanism and can be easily knocked out of sync. If the initial recording was made with a mis-aligned machine it is not certain to play back on another, differently aligned machine. Slow recording complicates alignment further, as there is more room for error in the recording process.

The preservation of Long and Extended Play VHS recordings is therefore fraught with challenges that are not always immediately apparent.

(Re)appraising VHS

Aesthetically, VHS continues to be celebrated in art circles for its rendering of the ‘poor image’. The decaying, unstable appearance of the VHS signal is a direct result of extended recording times that threaten its practical ability to endure.

Variation of recording time is the key point of distinction within the VHS format. It dramatically affects the quality of the original recording and dictates the equipment a tape can be played back on. With this in mind, we need to distinguish between standard, long and extended play VHS recordings when appraising collections, rather than assuming ‘VHS’ covers everything.

One big stumbling block is that you cannot tell the recording speed by looking at the tape itself. There may be metadata that can indicate this, or help you make an educated guess, but this is not always available.

We recommend, therefore, to not assume VHS—and other formats that straddle the domestic/ professional divide such as DVCAM and 8mm video—is ‘safe’ from impending obsolescence. Despite the apparent availability and familiarity of VHS, the picture in reality is far more complex and nuanced.

***

As ever, Great Bear are more than happy to discuss specific issues affecting your collection.

Get in touch with us to explore how we can work together.

SONY’s U-matic video cassette

June 27th, 2016

Introduced by SONY in 1971 U-matic was, according to Jeff Martin, ‘the first truly successful videocassette format’.

Philips’ N-1500 video format dominated the domestic video tape market in the 1970s. By 1974 U-Matic was widely adopted in industrial and institutional settings. The format also performed a key role in the development of Electronic News Gathering. This was due to its portability, cost effectiveness and rapid integration into programme workflow. Compared with 16mm film U-matic had many strengths.mobile-news-gathering-u-matic

The design of the U-Matic case mimicked a hardback book. Mechanical properties were modelled on the audio cassette’s twin spool system.

Like the Philips compact audio cassette developed in the early 1960s, U-Matic was a self-contained video playback system. This required minimal technical skill and knowledge to operate.

There was no need to manually lace the video tape through the transport, or even rewind before ejection like SONY’s open reel video tape formats, EIAJ 1/2″ and 1″ Type C. Stopping and starting the tape was immediate, transferring different tapes quick and easy. U-Matic ushered in a new era of efficiency and precision in video tape technology.

Emphasising technical quality and user-friendliness was key to marketing U-Matic video tape.

As SONY’s product brochure states, ‘it is no use developing a TV system based on highly sophisticated knowledge if it requires equally sophisticated knowledge to be used.’

sony-u-matic-brochure-ease-operationThe ‘ease of operation’ is demonstrated in publicity brochures in a series of images. These guide the prospective user through tape machine interface. The human operator, insulated from the complex mechanical principles making the machine tick only needs to know a few things: how to feed content and direct pre-programmed functions such as play, record, fast forward, rewind and stop.

New Applications

Marketing material for audio visual technology often helps the potential buyer imagine possible applications. This is especially true when a technology is new.

For SONY’s U-Matic video tape it was the ‘very flexibility of the system’ that was emphasised. The brochure recounts a story of an oil tanker crew stationed in the middle of the Atlantic.

After they watch a football match the oil workers sit back and enjoy a new health and safety video. ‘More inclined to take the information from a television set,’ U-matic is presented as a novel way to combine leisure and work.

Ultimately ‘the obligation for the application of the SONY U-matic videocassette system lies with the user…the equipment literally speaks for itself.’

International Video Networks

Before the internet arrived, SONY believed video tape was the media to connect global businesses.

u-matic-video-tapes

‘Ford, ICI, Hambro Life, IBM, JCB…what do these companies have in common, apart from their obvious success? Each of these companies, together with many more, have accepted and installed a new degree of communications technology, the U-matic videocassette system. They need international communication capability. Training, information, product briefs, engineering techniques, sales plans…all can be communicated clearly, effectively by means of television’.

SONY heralded videotape’s capacity to reach ‘any part of the world…a world already revolutionised by television.’ Video tape distributed messages in ‘words and pictures’. It enabled simultaneous transmission and connected people in locations as ‘wide as the world’s postal networks.’ With appropriate equipment interoperability between different regional video standards – PAL, NTSC and SECAM – was possible.

Video was imagined as a powerful virtual presence serving international business communities. It was a practical money-saving device and effective way to foster inter-cultural communication: ‘Why bring 50 salesmen from the field into Head Office, losing valuable workingSony-u-matic-international-distribution time when their briefing could be sent through the post?’

Preserving U-Matic Video Tape

According the Preservation Self-Assessment Program, U-Matic video tape ‘should be considered at high preservation risk’ due to media and hardware obsolescence.

A lot of material was recorded on the U-matic format, especially in media and news-gathering contexts. In the long term there is likely to be more tape than working machines.

Despite these important concerns, at Great Bear we find U-Matic a comparatively resilient format. Part of the reason for this is the ¾” tape width and the presence of guard bands that are part of the U-matic video signal.

Guard bands were used on U-matic to prevent interference or ‘cross-talk’ between the recorded tracks.

In early video tape design guard bands were seen as a waste of tape. Slant azimuth technology, a technique which enabled stripes to be recorded next to each other, was integrated into later formats such as Betamax and VHS. As video tape evolved it became a whole lot thinner.

In a preservation context thinner tape can pose problems. If tape surface is damaged and there is limited tape it is harder to read a signal during playback. In the case of digital tape damaged tape on a smaller surface can result in catastrophic signal loss. Analogue formats often fare better, regardless of age.

Paradoxically it would seem that the presence of guard bands insulates the recorded signal from total degradation: because there is more tape there is a greater margin of error to transfer the recorded signal.

through-hole-example-studer-machine

Through Hole Technology

Like other formats, such as the SONY EIAJ, certain brands of U-Matic tape can pose problems. Early SONY, Ampex and Kodak branded tape need to dehydration treatment (‘baked’) to prevent shedding during playback. If your U-Matic tape smells of wax crayons this is a big indication there are issues. The wax crayon smell seems only to affect SONY branded tape.

Concerns about hardware obsolescence should of course be taken seriously. Early ‘top loading’ U-Matic machines are fairly unusable now.

Mechanical and electronic reliability for ‘front loading’ U-Matic machines such as the BVU-950 remains high. The durability of U-Matic machines becomes even more impressive when contrasted with newer machines such as the DVC Pro, Digicam and Digibeta. These tend to suffer relatively frequent capacitor failure.

Later digital video tape formats also use surface-mounted custom-integrated circuits. These are harder to repair at component level. Through-hole technology, used in the circuitry of U-Matic machines, make it easier to refurbish parts that are no longer working.

Transferring your U-Matic Collections

U-matic made video cassette a core part of many industries. Flexible and functional, its popularity endured until the 1980s.

Great Bear has a significant suite of working NTSC/ PAL/ SECAM U-matic machines and spare parts.

Get in touch by email or phone to discuss transferring your collection.

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

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.

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


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