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.


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.



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.


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.


[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.


‘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 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.


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

Motobirds uMatic NTSC transfer

April 18th, 2016

Motobirds, a 1970s all-girl motorbike stunt team from Leicester, have recently re-captured the public imagination.

The group re-united for an appearance on BBC One’s The One Show which aired on 1 April 2016. They hadn’t seen each other for forty years.

The Motobirds ‘travelled all over the UK and Europe, did shows with the Original American Hell Drivers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, etc. We were originally four, then six, then fourteen girls.

We performed motorbike stunts, car stunts and precision driving, and human cannon. We were eventually followed by the Auto Angels, an all girl group from Devon or Cornwall. I don’t know of any other all girl teams’, remembers founding member Mary Weston-Webb.

Motobirds were notoriously daring, and wore little or no protective clothing.

The BBC article offers this sobering assessment: ‘most of the women’s stunts would horrify modern health and safety experts’.

We were pretty overjoyed in the Great Bear studio when Mary Weston-Webb, the driving force behind the recent reunion, sent us a NTSC uMatic video tape to transfer.

The video, which was in a perfect, playable condition, is a document of Motobirds strutting their stuff in Japan.

As Mary explains:

‘We (Liz Hammersley and Mary Connors) went to Japan with Joe Weston-Webb (who I later married) who ran the Motobirds for a Japanese TV programme called Pink Shock, as it was very unusual at that time, mid seventies, for girls to ride motorbikes in Japan. It was filmed on an island and we rehearsed and should have been filmed on the beach, which gave us plenty of room for a run up to the jumps. The day of the shoot, there had been a storm and the beach was flooded and we moved onto the car park of a shopping mall. Run up was difficult, avoiding shoppers with trolleys, round the flower beds, down the kerb, and a short stopping distance before the main road.’

Enjoy these spectacular jumps!

Thank you Mary for telling us the story behind the tapes.

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

April 18th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Why risk having to do it again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

File-based preservation

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

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

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

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


Screenshot taken from the DPC guide to Personal Digital Archiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

The need for knowledge and competencies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tipping Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philips N-1502 TV Recorder

March 24th, 2016

The front page of the Philips N-1502 TV Recorder catalogue presents a man peering mournfully into a dark living room. A woman, most probably his wife, drags him reluctantly out for the evening. She wants to be social, distracted in human company.

Philips-N1502-marketing-catalogueThe N-1502 tape machine is superimposed on this unfamiliar scene, an image of a Grand Slam tennis match arises from it, like a speech bubble, communicating the machine’s power to capture the fleeting live event. The man’s stare into the domestic environment constructs desire in a way that feels entirely new in 1976: a masculinity that appropriates the private space of the home, now transformed as a location where media events are transmitted and videotaped.

The man’s gaze is confrontational. It invites those looking to participate in a seductive, shared message: videotape-in the home-will change your life forever.

In the 1970s Philips were leading figures in the development of domestic video tape technology. Between 1972 and 1979, the company produced seven models of the N-1500 video ‘TV recorder’. It was the first time video tape entered the domestic environment, and the format offered a number of innovations such as timed, unattended recording (‘busy people needn’t miss important programmes’), an easy loading mechanism, a built in TV tuner, a digital electronic time switch and stop motion bar.

The N-1500 converged upon several emergent markets for video tape. While SONY’s hulking uMatic format almost exclusively targeted institutional and industrial markets, the N-1500 presented itself as a more nimble alternative: ‘Compact and beautifully designed it can be used in schools, advertising agencies, sale demonstrations and just about everywhere else.’

Used alongside the Philips Video Camera, the N-1500 could capture black and white video, offering ‘a flexible, economic and reliable’ alternative to EIAJ/ porta-pak open reel video. Marketing also imagined uses for sports professionals: practices or competitive games could be watched in order to analyse and improve performance.

Philips N1502-marketing-brochureAlthough N-1500 tape machines were very expensive (£649 [1976]/ £4,868.38 [2016]), the primary market for the product was overwhelmingly domestic. In 2016 we are fairly used to media technologies disrupting our intimate, every day lives. We are also told regularly that this or that gadget will make our lives easier.

Such needs are often deliberately and imaginatively invented. The mid-1970s was a time when video tape was novel, and its social applications experimental. How could video tape be used in the home? How would it fit into existing social relationships? The marketing brochure for the Philips N-1502 offer compelling evidence of how video tape technology was presented to consumers in its early days.

One aspect highlighted how the machine gave the individual greater control of their media environment: ‘Escape from the Dictatorship of TV Timetables’!

The VCR could also help liberate busy people from the disappointment of missing their favourite TV programmes, ‘if visitors call at the moment of truth don’t despair. Turn the TV off and the VCR on.’

In the mid 1970s domestic media consumption was inescapably communal, and the N-1500 machine could help sooth ‘typical’ rifts within the home. ‘You want to see a sports programme but your wife’s favourite serial is on the other channel. The solution? Simple. Just switch on your Philips VCR.’

Owning the N-1500 meant there would be ‘no more arguments about which channel to select – you watch one while VCR makes a parallel recording from another.’ Such an admission tells us a lot about the fragility of marriages in the 1970s, as well as the central place TV-watching occupied as a family activity. More than anything, the brochure presents videotape technology as a vital tool that could help people take control over their leisure time and negotiate the competing tastes of family members.

N-1500 transfers

As the first domestic video tape technology, the Philips N-1500 ‘set a price structure and design standard that is still unshaken,’ wrote the New Scientist in 1983.

In a preservation context, however, these early machines are notoriously difficult to work with. Tapes heads are fragile and wear quickly because of a comparatively high running tape speed (11.26 ips). Interchange is often poor between machines, and the entry/ exit guides on the tape path often need to be adjusted to ensure the tapes track correctly.

Later models, the N-1700 onwards, used slant azimuth technology, a recording technique patented by Professor Shiro Okamura of the University of Electronic Communications, Tokyo in 1959. Slant azimuth was adopted by JVC, Philips and SONY in the mid-1970s, and this decision is heralded as a breakthrough moment in the evolution of domestic video tape technology. The technique offered several improvements to the initial N-1500 model, which used guard bands to prevent cross talk between tracks, and the Quadruplex technology developed by Ampex in the late 1950s. Slant azimuth meant more information could be recorded onto the tape without interference from adjacent tracks and, crucially, the tape could run at a slower speed, use less tape and record for longer.

In general, the design of the N-1500’s tape path and transport doesn’t lend itself to reliability.

As S P Bali explains:

‘One reason for the eventual failure of the Philips VCR formats was that the cassette used coaxial spools—in other words, spools stacked one on top of the other. This means that the tape had to run a skew path which made it much more difficult to control. The tape would jam, and even break, especially ageing cassettes.’ [1]

Such factors make the Philips N-1500 series an especially vulnerable video tape format. The carrier itself is prone to mechanical instability, and preservation worries are heightened by a lack of available spare parts that can be used to refurbish poorly functioning machines. If you have valuable material recorded on this format, be sure to earmark it as a preservation priority.


[1] S P Bali (2005) Consumer Electronics, Dehli: Pearson Education, 465.

Refurbishment of Magnetic Recording Heads – Terry Summer

March 21st, 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

Digital Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Grundig C 100 and the early history of the Compact Cassette

March 7th, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

Format Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric D. Daniel and C. Denis Mee explain that

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

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

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

Cassettes today

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

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

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

Compact Cassette Preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Great Bear 2016 Infomercial

February 29th, 2016

Great Bear have just produced our 2016 ‘infomercial’.

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



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

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

You can also download a PDF of the document here.


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