Deaf School 1/2″ open reel video tape transfer

January 25th, 2016

At the end of 2015 Steve Lindsey, founding member of Liverpool art rock trailblazers Deaf School, stumbled upon two 1/2″ open reel video tape recordings of the band, tucked away in a previously unknown nook of his Dublin home.

Deaf-School-Screenshot2016 is the 40th anniversary of Deaf School’s first album 2nd Honeymoon.

With the landmark approaching, Steve felt it was an ideal time to get the tapes digitised. The video transfers done in the Great Bear studio will contribute to the growing amount of documentation online celebrating the band’s antics.

Betwen 1976-1978 Deaf School were signed to Warner Brothers, releasing three albums.

Deaf School are described by music journalist Dave Simpson as ‘a catalyst band‘ ‘whose influence was great – who might even have changed pop history in their own way – but who never made the leap into the music history books.’

Deaf School nonetheless remain legendary figures to the people who loved, and were profoundly transformed by, their music.

Holly Johnson, who went on the achieve great success with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, described Deaf School as ‘the benchmark that had to be transcended. Someone had to make a bigger splash. After the “big bang” of the 1960s, they were the touchstone that inspired a wave of creative rebellion and musical ambition that revived Liverpool’s music scene for a generation.’

deaf-school-screenshotCamp and Chaotic

Deaf School’s performances were a celebratory spectacle of the camp and chaotic.

The band took their lead from art music projects such as the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra comprised of non musicians which anyone could join, regardless of ability, knowledge or experience.

‘Everyone who wanted to be part of Deaf School was welcomed and no one turned away. The music was diverse and varied, drawing on rock and roll, Brecht and cabaret,’ Steve told us.

Rare Footage

The ½” porta-pak video tapes feature rare footage of Deaf School performing on 1st December 1975 at the Everyman Theatre, one of Liverpool’s many iconic venues.*

The show was organised for Warner Brothers employees who had taken the train from London to Liverpool to see Deaf School perform.

Porta-pak open reel video was revolutionary for its time: It was the first format to enable people outside the professional broadcast industry to make (often documentary) moving images.

deaf-school-screenshotFor this reason material captured on ½” videotape is often fairly eclectic and its edgy, glitchy aesthetic celebrated by contemporary documentary makers.

The Great Bear studio has certainly received several interesting ½” video tapes from artists and performers active in the 1970s. We also did an interview with researcher Peter Sachs Collopy who discusses how porta-pak video technology was perceived by artists of that era as a ‘technology of consciousness’.

Non-professional video tape recordings made in the 1970s are, nevertheless, fairly rare. At that time it was still expensive to acquire equipment. Even if videos were made, once they had served their purpose there is a strong possibility the tape would be re-used, wiping whatever was recorded on there.

With this in mind, we are in a lucky position to be able to watch the Deaf School videos, which have managed to survive the rough cuts of history.

Preserving 1/2 ” open reel video tape

The video of the Everyman Theatre performance was cleaned prior to transfer because it was emitting a small amount of loose binder. It was recorded onto Scotch-branded ½” video tape which, in our experience, pose very few problems in the transfer process.

The other tape Steve sent us was recorded onto a SONY-branded ½” video tape. In comparison, these tapes always need to be ‘baked’ in a customised-incubator in order to temporarily restore them to playable condition.

The preservation message to take away here is this: if you have ½” video tape on SONY branded stock, make them your digitisation priority!

Deaf School NowDeaf-School-transfer-screenshot

Steve told me that members of Deaf School ‘always kept in touch and remained friends’.

Over the past 10 years they have reformed and performed a number of gigs in the UK and Tokyo.

In 2015 they released a new album, Launderette, on Japanese label Hayabusa Landings.

In 2016 they are planning to go to the U.S., reaching out to ‘the pockets of people all over the world who know about Deaf School.’

Ultimately though Liverpool will always be the band’s ‘spiritual home.’

When they return to Liverpool the gigs are always sold out and they have great fun, which is surely what being in a band is all about.

* The Everyman archive is stored in Special Collections at Liverpool John Moores University. This archive listing describes how the Everyman ‘is widely recognised as a pivotal influence and innovative key player in regional theatre. A model of innovative practice and a centre of experimental theatre and new writing, it has thrived as a nurturing ground for a new breed of directors, actors, writers and designers, and a leading force in young people’s theatre.’

Many thanks to Steve Lindsey for talking to us about his tapes!

Digitised Found Video Clips

January 25th, 2016

Check out this selection of analogue video clips from problem tape sources such as VHS, Betamax, CV2100, Low Band umatic, PCM audio.

The video was compiled by Joe Johnson, who works in the Great Bear Studio.

digitised-analogue-found-video-clips from Adrian Finn on Vimeo.

Dr Spira and the Human Beings – BASF LGR 50 tape on AEG DIN Hubs

January 11th, 2016

The latest in a long line of esoteric musical recordings moving through the tape transports in the Great Bear studio is a collection belonging to Dušan Mihajlović.

Dušan was the main song writer in Yugoslavian new wave band Dr Spira and the Human Beings / Doktor Spira i Ljudska Bića.

Dr Spira have a cult status in Yugoslavia’s new wave history. They produced two albums, Dijagnoza (1981) (translated as ‘Diagnosis’) and Design for the Real World (1987), both of which, due to peculiar quirks of fate, have never received widespread distribution.

Yet this may all change soon: 2016 is the 35th anniversary of Dijagnoza, a milestone marked by a vinyl re-issue containing transfers made, we are proud to say, in the Great Bear studio.

Dijagnoza was previously re-issued on CD in 2007 by Serbia-based record label Multimedia Records. The Great Bear transfer, that uses a 24 bit / 96 kHz sampling rates, provides a clearer rendering of the analogue originals.

In 2016 Design for the Real World will receive its first ever vinyl pressing. The name of the album was inspired by a UN project that aimed to create low financed, locally maintained technologies from recycled materials. It was previously only available on the CD compilation Archaeological Artefacts of the Technophile Civilisations of the Yesteryears (or Science Fiction as a Genre in the Second Part of the Twentieth Century).

AEG DIN Hubs

AEG-DIN-HubsThe tapes Dušan sent us were wound onto AEG DIN hubs (a hub being the round shape around which the open reel tape is wrapped). DIN hubs were used in studios in Germany and mainland Europe.

Compared with NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) hubs that were used in the UK/ US, they have a wider diameter (99mm/ 70mm respectively).

In a preservation context playing tapes wound on AEG DIN hubs is unnecessarily awkward. To digitise the material our first step was to re-spool Dušan’s tapes onto NAB hubs. This enabled us to manage the movement of the tape through the transport mechanism in a careful and controlled way.

Another problem we faced was that the BASF LGR 50 tape was ‘dry shedding’ a lot and needed to be cleaned extensively.

When tape dry sheds it clogs the tape heads. This prevents a clear reading of the recorded signal and risks seriously damaging both tape and machine if playback continues.

Apart from these issues, which are fairly common with older tape, the tapes played back well. The final transferred files reflect the crisp clarity of the original masters.

4 AEG DIN hubs stacked on top of each other next to an empty tape reel boxNew Wave Music in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

In the late 1970s Dušan was captivated by the emergence of New Wave music in Yugoslavia, which he described as bringing ‘big musical changes.’

Alongside Enco Lesić, who owned an innovative commercial studio in Belgrade, Dušan helped to produce and record music from the burgeoning new wave scene. One of these projects was the compilation album Paket Aranžman / Package Tour. The album gained cult status at the time and continues to be popular today.

In the same studio Dr Spira and the Human Beings recorded Dijagnoza. Dušan’s technical role in the studio meant his band could take their time with the recording process. This is evident in the finished work which contain a number of energetic, committed performances.

The music is equally captivating: inventive rhythmical detours and absurd vocal expressions populate a polyphony of musical styles and surprises, conjuring the avant-rock histrionics of Rock in Opposition acts such as Etron Fou Leloublan and Univers Zero.

Listen to Dr Spira – ‘Kraj avanture otimača izgubljenog kovčega na Peščanoj Planeti’ / ‘The end of misadventure of the Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Dune’ – the lyrics sung by the women are ‘Stop digging and get out of the hole, the sand will collapse on us! The sand! The sand!

The master copies for Dijagnoza were cut in Trident studios, London, overseen by Dušan. During his visit to London he made 50, hand-numbered white label copies of the album. For a period of time these were the only copies of Dijagnoza available.

The grand plan was to recoup the costs of recording Dijagnoza through the commercial release of the album, but this never happened. The record company refused to pay any money because, from their perspective, the money had already been spent and the recordings already existed.

They did however agree to release the album two years later, by this time Dijagnoza and Dr Spira had already claimed a small corner of Yugoslavia’s new wave folklore.

Cultural Influences

In the 1960s and 1970s Yugoslavia was part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM emerged during the Cold War as ‘vehicle for developing countries to assert their independence from the competing claims of the two superpowers’, USSR and USA. The NAM still exists today, albeit in a very different form.

As a musician in Yugoslavia in the early 1980s Dušan told us he was ‘exposed to all kinds of music: East, West and everything else. We did not follow one mainstream and picked up things from all over the place.’ He described it as an ‘open world with dynamic communication and a different outlook.’

The musical world of Dr Spira is inspired by the ironic social awareness of artists such as Frank Zappa, Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s fascination with the grotesque and the paranoid social commentary of Czech author Franz Kafka. Like many post-punk and new wave acts of the early 1980s, Dr Spira were concerned with how popular culture, language, myth and the media conditioned ‘reality’.

photograph box with label made in yugoslavia and handwritten text dr spira

The song ‘Tight Rope’ dancer, for example, creates a fantastical world of Russian Roulette, as a blind- folded Tight Rope walker muses on life as a meaningless game constricted by the inevitable limits of individual perception:

‘It’s my turn to die- said the Violinist
I ain’t so sure about it- the Singer replied
What difference does it make- said the Ballerina
For all the Numbers destiny’s the same.’

These lyrics, presented here in translation, are examples of the satirical and often surreal humour used by Dr Spira which aimed to make the familiar seem strange so that it could be experienced by listeners in a completely different way.

Memory studies scholar Martin Pogačar explains that ‘the whole new-wave “project,” especially being a youth subculture, was meant to be fun and an accidental social revolt, in the end it turned out to be a seminal landmark in the (musical) history of Yugoslavia. This inherently variegated and far from one-dimensional genre, loud in sounds and sophisticated in texts, decisively redefined the boundaries of Yu-rock music.’ [1]

With the re-issue of Dijagnoza and Design for the Real World, the legacy of this movement, and the contribution of Dr Spira and the Human Beings in particular, will continue to resound. [2]

Notes

[1] Martin Pogačar (2008) ‘Yu-Rock in the 1980s: Between Urban and Rural, Nationalities Papers’, 36:5, 815-832, 829. DOI: 10.1080/00905990802373504.

[2] Huge thanks to Dušan for talking to us about his life and work.

 

 

 

Video Tape Preservation – The Final Frontier

December 14th, 2015

The UK’s audio collections have Save Our Sounds.

The BFI recently launched Film is Fragile to support film preservation in the UK.

Yet something is missing from these impassioned calls to preserve audiovisual heritage.

As 2015 draws to a close, there is no comparable public campaign focused on the preservation of videotape.

For James Patterson, from Media Archive for Central England (MACE), this is a ‘real issue and one we need to address as a sector much more widely.’

The UK is unique in this regard. In Australia, for example, the approach to audiovisual preservation appears more integrated (if no less fraught!)

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia make no distinction between audio and video tape in their Deadline 2025: Collections at Risk position paper. It is the endangered status of all magnetic tape collections that are deemed a preservation priority.

umatic-betacam-sp-in-great-bear-studioPreservation Specifics

From experience we know that the preservation of videotape brings with it specific challenges.

It cannot be subsumed into a remit to preserve moving image archives in general.

A key point to consider, outlined by the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Preservation Strategy, is that videotape preservation must account for the mutability of the medium.

‘Film formats have changed little in the last 50 years. Videotape, however, has seen many changes and various formats have come and gone. Videotape formats are in a constant cycle of change, driven largely by the market interests of the manufacturers of the hardware. Any preservation strategy for archival materials must be prepared to embrace a culture of format migration as the commercial market develops and new formats become the industry standard. The only variable is when, not if, collections require to be transferred.’

Machine Provision

It is worth reiterating what public campaigns to preserve audio and film heritage make patently clear: recordings on magnetic tape have a finite lifespan, and the end of that lifespan is alarmingly near.

Many archivists cite a 10-15 year window after which obsolete media must be transferred if recordings are to remain accessible.

In years to come, one of the biggest challenge for the preservation of video tape in particular will be sourcing working machines for all the different formats.

In a recent hardware inventory conducted in the Great Bear studio, we noted that video tape machines outnumbered audio tape machines by 40%. This might be comforting to hear, and rest assured, we are well stocked to manage the range of possible video tape transfers that come our way. Yet this number becomes less impressive when you consider there are over 32 different video tape formats (compared with 16 audio), with very little degree (if any) of interoperability between them.

In comparison with audio tape, and in particular open reel formats which can be played back on a range of different machines, video tape offers significantly less flexibility.

The mechanical circuitry of video tape machines can be immensely complex. Due to the vast market turnover of video formats, these machines often used ‘immature’ technology.

To put it bluntly: proportionally there are less videotape machines, and those machines were not built to last.

Viewed in this light, the status of video tape archives, even compared with audio tape, seem very precarious indeed.

The cultural value of video tapeSony-BVW-75P-maintenance-manual

Why, then, has video tape been persistently overlooked?

Why have we not received calls to ‘save’ video tape, or confront its undeniable ‘fragility’?

Patterson believes that videotape, in comparison to film, has historically been perceived as a ‘broadcast thing,’ or used predominantly in amateur/ domestic settings.

The perception of videotape’s cultural value affects both the acquisition and preservation of the medium.

Patterson explains: ‘Public film archives rely on people depositing things because there is no money for acquisition. If people find rolls of film they have the sense that it might be interesting. Videotape, especially video cassettes, don’t make people think in the same way. If people have a box of VHS cassettes, they are less likely to see it as important. Even at the point when home move making became more democratised, the medium they were using seemed more throwaway.’

The relatively small amounts of video tape collections being deposited in regional film archives is, James believes, a ‘public awareness issue.’ This means they ‘don’t see nearly enough or as much videotape’ as they want. This is a pity because amateur collections may hold the key to building a varied, everyday picture of regional histories uniquely captured by accessible videotape technologies.

single-rack-of-seven-video-tape-machinesDespite comparatively uneven acquisition, ‘most regional archives have significant quantities of videotape.’ In MACE these are ‘mostly broadcast’, deposited by ITV Midlands, on formats such as Beta SP, 1”C, uMatic, VHS and smaller quantities of digital video tape. MACE’s material is migrated to digital files on an order-by-order basis—there is no systematic plan in place to transfer this material or place them in a secure digital repository post-transfer.

Technical capacities

Film and Moving Images archives are regionally dispersed across the UK, and responsibility for caring for these memory resources, on a day-to-day basis, is currently devolved to these locations.

This has implications for the preservation of challenging mediums, such as videotape, which require specialised technical infrastructure and skills, not to mention the people power necessary to manage large amounts of real-time transfers.

There is also the comparative difficulty, until recently, of video digitisation, as Dave Rice explains:

‘Archival communities that focus on formats such as documents, still images, and audio have had longer experience with digitisation workflows, whereas the digitisation of video (hampered by storage sizes, bandwidth, and expenses) has only recently become more approachable. While digitisation practices for documents, still images, and audio include more community consensus regarding best practices and specifications, there is much greater technical diversity regarding the workflows, specifications, and even objectives for digitising archival video.’

This point was echoed by Megan McCooley, moving image archivist at the Yorkshire Film Archive. She told me that preserving film stock is relatively manageable through careful control of storage environments, but preserving video is more challenging because of the lack of firm ‘protocols in place’ to guide best practices. It is not the case that videotape digitisation is simply ‘off the radar’ and not seen as an issue among moving image archivists. Rather the complexity of the process makes systematic video digitisation ‘harder for regional archives to undertake’ because they are smaller, lack specialised technical video facilities, and are often dependent on project-based funding. Patterson also commented that within regional archives there is a ‘technological knowledge gap’ when it comes to videotape.

Are the times a-changing?

There is the sense, from talking to Megan and James, that attention is beginning to turn to video preservation, but until now other projects have taken precedence.  This is the case for the BFI’s national Unlocking Film Heritage project where the main stipulation for digitisation funding is that nominated titles must originate on film.

Yet the BFI, as strategic leader in the field of moving images heritage, is currently planning a consultation on what needs to happen after the end of Digitisation Fund Phase Three: Unlocking Film Heritage 2013-2017.

For James there is no question that there is a ‘serious case that needs to made for videotape.’

Given the complex technological and cultural issues shaping the fate of videotape, it is clear there is no time to waste.

*** Many thanks to James Patterson from MACE and Megan McCooley at Yorkshire Film Archive for sharing their perspectives for this article***

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

November 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies Audio Cassette Transfer

October 19th, 2015

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is widely heralded as a classic of 20th century English literature. The book adorns English Literature syllabuses throughout the UK, its provocative events continue to inspire debate about the nature of humanity and ‘civilisation.’

We recently transferred an audio cassette recording of the Nobel-prize winning author reading his famous novel.

The recordings were made, Golding’s daughter Judy Carver tells us, in ‘the space of a few days during September 1976. He went up to London and stayed for a few nights, spending the whole of each day reading the novel aloud in a studio. He found it very hard work, and was extremely tired by the time he’d finished. We all remember the date for a particular reason. He went to Waterloo to catch the train home, phoned my mother, and she greeted him with “Hello, Grandpa!” My eldest son, their first grandchild, had been born that morning.’william-golding.co.uk

Excerpts from the transferred tapes will be uploaded to the commemorative and educational website www.william-golding.co.uk, helping to meet the ‘steady demand’ for Golding-related material from documentary makers.

Judy is currently organising the Golding family archive which ‘holds a great deal of material in written, audio and visual form.’ A large amount of the written archive will be lent to the University of Exeter, building on the landmark deposit of the handwritten draft of Lord of the Flies that was made in 2014. ‘We are giving some thought as to how to archive family photos and other items.’

As with organising any archive, Judy admits, ‘there are many and various tasks and problems, but it is a fascinating job and I am lucky to have it.’

***

Many thanks to Judy for answering questions about the recordings for this article.

Red Beat: uMatic Low Band Transfer and Video Synthesizers

October 15th, 2015

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

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

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

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

Video Synthesizers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want more Red Beat?

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

ADAT digital multi-track recorders

October 6th, 2015

The Alesis ADAT digital multi-track tape recorder is an iconic piece of early 1990s audio recording equipment.

ADATs used consumer S-VHS video tape to record up to 8 tracks of digital audio.

They were modular, meaning that each machine could be synched with up to 15 other ADAADAT type II machineT machines. It was therefore possible, in theory, to create a home recording studio with capacity to simultaneously record 128 tracks of audio, a process known as ‘mega-tracking’.

Similar to other early digital audio technology such as PCM 7030 and DAT, ADAT utilised recording methods originally developed for analogue video tape.

In analogue video the use of helical scanning and rotating recording/ playback heads was the means to produce the larger bandwidth necessary to capture the analogue video signal.

Helical scanning was logically re-purposed for recording digital audio because it similarly requires substantial bandwidth (the original ADAT recorded at a sampling rate of 48 kHz/ 16 bits).

Recording revolution

According to George Petersen ‘the Alesis ADAT changed the entire recording industry, beginning a revolution of affordable recording tools. Overnight, the cost of digital studio recording plummeted from a sizeable $150,000 for the Sony PCM-3324 24-track to a relatively modest $12,000 for three ADATs at their original $3,995.’

Figures from the Audio Engineering Society suggest that ‘20,000 were sold in its first year from October 1992 to November 1993 and 80,000 sold by 1998.’

Sound studies scholar Jonathan Sterne argues that ‘ADATs were symbolic of the democratization of audio recordings and changes in the audio industry,’ facilitating ‘the rise of amateur recording and a whole “semi-professional” realm of small studios, often located in homes or other less-than-optimal acoustic spaces.’

ADAT at Great Bear

At Great Bear we receive relatively few ADAT recordings in comparison with analogue multi-track formats.

This may be because ADAT is ‘recently obsolescent,’ and for everyday reasons users of this technology have not got around to migrating their archive to digital files.

Like all early digital audio formats recorded on tape, however, ADAT raise specific preservation concerns.

As we have stressed before, tape-based digital recordings do not degrade gracefully. They are subject to catastrophic rather than moderate signal loss. If the original recording has errors that prevent the ‘smooth’ playback of the tape (e.g., from clogged heads or the presence of dust), or there is any kind of damage to the tape surface (scratches or mould), this will create irreversible drop outs within the preservation copy.

As an emergent format used by people with a range of technical expertise, it seems reasonable to expect ADAT recording practices to be a little unsettled and experimental. The physical strain on both tape and transport in a heavy production environment must also be considered (the shuttling back and forth of the tape mechanism), as this would have shaped the quality of the original recording.

In the Great Bear studio we have several ADAT machines (the M20 and ADAT XT) ready to transfer your tapes.

We deliver transferred files as individual, synchronised track ‘stems’ and use ADAT ‘sync’ and optical cables to ensure an authentic born digital workflow.

Perhaps now is the time to remix that early digital multi-track masterpiece…

Audio Cassette Parallel Ingests

July 27th, 2015

The scale of digitisation jobs we do at Great Bear often varies. We are asked by our customers to reformat single items to large quantities of tape and everything else inbetween.

Reformatting magnetic tape-based media always takes time and care.

Transfers have to be done in real time; if you want a good quality recording there is no way to reformat tape-based media quickly.

Some jobs are so big, however, that you need to find ways of speeding up the process. This is known as a parallel ingest – when you transfer a batch of tapes at the same time.

Realistically, parallel ingest is not possible with all formats.

An obvious issue is machine scarcity. To playback tapes at the same time you need multiple playback machines that are in fairly good condition. This becomes difficult with rarer formats like early digital video tape, such as D1 or D2, where you are extremely lucky if you have two machines working at any given time.

Audio Cassettes

Audio cassette tapes are one of few formats where archival standard parallel ingest is possible if tapes are in good condition and the equipment is working well.

Stack of professional tape machines, including Marantz PMD 502 and Tascam 322

Great Bear Parallel Ingest Stack

We were recently approached by Jim Shields of the Zion, Sovereign Grace Baptists Church in Glasgow to do a large scale transfer of 5000 audio cassettes and over 100 open reels.

Jim explains that these ‘tapes represent the ministry of Pastor Jack Glass, who was the founder of Zion, Sovereign Grace Baptists Church, located at Calder St.Polmadie, Glasgow. The church was founded in 1965. All early recordings are on reel but the audio tapes represent his ministry dating from the beginning of 1977 through to the end of 2003. The Pastor passed away on the 24th Feb 2004 [you can read obituaries here and here]. It is estimated there are in the region of 5,000 ministry tapes varying in length from 60 mins to 120 mins, with many of the sermons being across 2 tapes as the Pastor’s messages tended to be in the region of 90 minutes plus.’

Sermons were recorded using ‘semi domestic to professional cassette decks. From late Sept 1990 a TEAC X-2000 reel recorder was used [to make master copies] on 10 inch reels then transposed onto various length cassettes [when ordered by people]’ chief recordist Mike Hawkins explains.

Although audio cassettes were a common consumer format it is still possible to get high quality digital transfers from them, even when transferred en masse. Recordings of speech, particularly of male voices which have a lower frequency range, are easier to manage.

Hugh Robjohns, writing in 1997 for the audio technology magazine Sound on Sound, explains that lower frequency recordings are mechanically more compatible with the chemical composition of magnetic tape: ‘high-frequency signals tend to be retained by the top surface of the magnetic layer, whilst lower-frequency components tend to be recorded throughout its full depth. This has a bearing on the requirements of the recording heads and the longevity of recordings.'[1]

Preparation

In order to manage a large scale job we had to increase our operational capacity.

We acquired several professional quality cassette machines with auto reverse functions, such as the Marantz PMD 502 and the Tascam 322.

Although these were the high end audio cassette recorders of their time, we found that important components, such as the tape transport which is ‘critical to the performance of the entire tape recorder'[2], were in poor shape across all the models. Pitch and timing errors, or wow (low speed variations) and flutter (high speed variations), were frequently evident during test playbacks.

Because of irregular machine specifications, a lot of time was spent going through all the tape decks ensuring they were working in a standardised manner.

In some cases it was necessary to rebuild the tape transport using spares or even buying a new tape transport. Both of these restoration methods will become increasingly difficult in years to come as parts become more and more scarce.

Assessing the options

There are certainly good reasons to do parallel ingests if you have a large collection of tapes. Nevertheless it is important to go into large scale transfers with your eyes open.

There is no quick fix and there are only so many hours in the working day to do the transfers, even if you do have eight tapes playing back simultaneously.

To assess the viability of a large scale parallel ingest you may want to consider the following issues: condition of tapes, how they were originally recorded and the material stored on them.

It may well be that parts of your collection can be reformatted via parallel ingest, but other elements need to be selected for more specialist attention.

As ever we can help with discussing the options so do contact us if you want some specific advice.

Notes

[1] The gendered implications of this statement are briefly worth reflecting on here. Robjohns suggests that voices which command the higher frequencies, i.e., female or feminine voices, are apparently incompatible with the chemical composition of magnetic tape. If higher frequencies are retained by the top layer of magnetic tape only, but do not penetrate its full depth, does this make high frequencies more vulnerable in a preservation context because they never were never substantially captured in the first place? What does this say about how technical conditions, whose design has often been authored by people with low frequency voices (i.e., men), privilege the transmission of particular frequencies over others, at least in terms of ‘depth’?

[2] Hugh Robjohns ‘Analogue Tape Recorders: Exploration’ Sound on Sound, May 1997. Available: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/may97/analysinganalogue.html.

*** Many thanks to Jim Shields, Martyn Glass and Mike Hawkins for sharing their tape stories***

British Stand Up Comedy Archive’s audiovisual collections

July 13th, 2015

Great Bear have recently worked with the British Stand Up Comedy Archive (BSUCA) to reformat a number of Digital Audio Tapes (DATs) and U-Matic video tapes from their collection.

Established in 2013 and based at the University of Kent’s Special Collections, the BSUCA aims ‘to celebrate, preserve, and provide access to the archives and records of British stand-up comedy and stand-up comedians.’

A hand holding a microphine superimposed on a red circle

In 2014 the BSUCA became one of the University of Kent’s 50th anniversary ‘Beacon Projects‘.

Beacon Project funding will support work to ‘catalogue, preserve, digitise, and make accessible the existing collections, and identify new relevant collections.’

They will also hold a number of events which engage comedians ‘in conversation’ about their archives, excerpts from these events are documented here.

We are honoured that project archivist Elspeth Millar took time out of her busy archiving schedule to tell us a bit more about the BSUCA.

She told us:

‘I’m really enjoying the variety of material that I get to work on, including printed material (posters, flyers, letters, notebooks), audio-visual material on a range of formats (audio cassettes, VHS, DAT, MiniDisc, U-matic), and also born-digital records held on obsolete formats (such as 3.5” floppy disks).

In addition the content of the material is, of course, really interesting, and I feel that I am learning a lot from our collections, including about the history of stand-up comedy (from the alternative cabaret movement, to alternative comedy, to the comedy ‘industry’ today) but also political and social topics (for example Mark Thomas’ collection includes a lot of material on the arms trade and large corporations). We are also holding events with some fantastic comedians (Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, Mark Thomas, and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Jo Brand, Alexei Sayle, Susan Calman) so it is wonderful to hear comedians themselves reflecting on their work and on material that they have deposited with the archive.’

You can keep up to date with the latest news from the BSUCA archive on twitter and view images from their collections on flickr.

Read on for more from Elspeth. Her answers cover issues such as selection and appraisal decisions, metadata and dissemination plans for the BSUCA.

They also provide useful insight into the digital preservation tools BSUCA use to manage their digitised and born-digital assets.

Once again, massive thanks to her for responding to our questions and best of luck to BSUCA in the future.

 BSCUA Responses to Great Bear Questions

1. What motivated you to get the tapes you sent to us re-formatted now? i.e., what kinds of selection and appraisal processes were behind the decision?

The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive has AV material on a number of audio and moving image formats, magnetic and optical, including audio compact cassettes, MiniDiscs, DATs (Digital Audio Tapes), VHS, DVCams, Audio CD and U-matic tapes. None of these formats are suitable for archival storage and all material will need to be digitised or transferred from their original carrier to digital files. We can carry out the digitisation (or digital transfer) of some audio in-house and we have started our project by transferring material originally captured or stored on MiniDiscs, Audio CDs, and audio compact cassettes1. After assessing all the formats we currently have it was decided to outsource the digitisation of DATs and U-matic tapes. Both of these are priority formats for transfer from a preservation perspective2 and after some research I learnt that DATs can be problematic to transfer due to ‘DAT compatibility’ and dropout problems3. In addition, we have neither a DAT machine or U-matic machine already within Special Collections or within the University, and with the number of recordings on these formats currently limited, it was felt that it would not make sense to purchase already obsolete equipment, which would then need to be professionally maintained.

The other important reason for transferring the tapes of course was for accessibility, so that we can make the recordings accessible to researchers. In addition, our funding is currently only for one year4, so it is vital to ensure that audio-visual material on obsolete formats are transferred during this first phase of the project.

2. Can you tell us how metadata helps you to describe, preserve and aid discovery of the Stand Up Comedy archive.

Providing information about our audiovisual items (and resulting digital items) is incredibly important from both an access and preservation perspective. Metadata about analogue items (and subsequent digital files) and born-digital files will be included in the cataloguing collections management system used by the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive (which is part of the University of Kent’s Special Collections & Archives). The catalogue records will include descriptive metadata and administrative metadata. Metadata which comes under the ‘descriptive metadata’ heading describes the item/file and includes a summary of the contents of the recording, all of which helps to make recordings discoverable for researchers. This metadata is also vital from a preservation perspective as it allows archivists to retrieve and identify files. Metadata which comes under the ‘administrative metadata’ heading provides information to help manage the file(s)/recordings, and includes information related to Intellectual Property Rights (including copyright) and preservation information such as the file format and the digitisation/digital transfer. Researchers will be interested in some of these issues (e.g. copyright, as this determines how archived recordings can be used) but from a digital preservation perspective this metadata is extremely important as it records information about the format of the digital file, information about the original carrier, as well as fixity information, to measure whether the file has changed over time.

This metadata will be recorded in our catalogue and will be searchable via the University of Kent’s website and in the future some archive aggregators. However, we are also experimenting with different processes and tools for embedding metadata in files, and researching different metadata standards for this. The benefits of embedding some metadata within the file include the removal of the risk of losing the link between the metadata and the digital file that it is describing. In addition, metadata embedded in born-digital master and digitised master files can also be transferred to ‘access’ copies (generated at a lower specification/resolution) which will also assist in user accessibility. Embedded metadata has its limitations and it is not that flexible, which is why we are using a dual approach of embedding some metadata, but also keeping this information externally in our catalogue.Two cassettes from 1982 and 1982

3. How do you manage, and plan to manage digital audio and audio visual materials in the Stand Up Archive? What digital preservation tools do you use?

The first process in managing digital AV materials in the BSUCA is to think about the file formats that we will use for long-term preservation and access. For audio material we are digitising as LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation) in a Wave format (.wav) wrapper. The addition of embedding metadata into these wave files extends the file to become BWF .wav files, the standard recommended by the International Association of Audiovisual Archives (IASA).5

Deciding upon a file format for digitising moving image has been trickier, as the Greatbear team have already written about on this blog; we hope to get underway with digitisation of VHS in September and we are looking at using the FFv1 codec (an open-source lossless compressed codec) wrapped as either AVI or Matroska (MKV).

We are also experimenting with a number of digital preservation tools; one directory that has proved great for discovering such tools is the COPTR wiki (Community Owned digital Preservation Tool Registry), a really useful collated list of various digital preservation tools . One aspect of our digital preservation planning is the creation of checksums as early in the lifecycle of the digital file as possible. We are using a tool called Blackbush, which is a checksum tool6 which generates MD5 hash files which was developed for the British Library’s Sound Archive. To embed metadata into .wav files we are using the BWF MetaEdit tool, a free open-source tool developed by AV Preserve and the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative. When our archival master is a compressed format (such as an mp3 on a data or audio CD which has been deposited), we are using tools such as Adobe Bridge to embed metadata in the ID3 format (or Adobe Audition’s metadata tools as we transfer audio). The advantage of BWF MetaEdit for wav files is that it is a free open-source tool, which also has other functions such as batch editing (we can edit multiple wav files at once) and batch import and export functions, which will be useful for when we catalogue this material to item level.

Other tools that we have found useful include DROID (Digital Record Object Identification), developed by The National Archives, and, for other digital material we are using forensic imaging tools such as FTK Imager and ImDisk to mount virtual images of disk images.

4. How do you think the material will be used by future researchers? As a Stand Up Archive I imagine you get a lot of requests for material from broadcasters. How do you manage requests and expectations from different user communities?

The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive is still in its infancy; although we have had material since 2013, it has only been since the beginning of this year that we have been funded to digitise and preserve the material already deposited, start to catalogue it, make it accessible, and publicise what we have and what we are aiming to do.

But two of our core purposes are to ensure access (that these archives are universally discoverable and accessible), and to ensure that the archives are used, and used in a variety of ways (popular culture, academic research, teaching, journalism, general enjoyment). Our main user group at the moment is actually students studying stand-up and popular performance at the University of Kent (at BA and MA level) who have used AV material as part of their course, and we also have a number volunteering with the project, doing summaries of recorded interviews and stand-up performances.

Notes

[1] We have purchased an audio cassette deck (Denon DN-790R) and are using a MiniDisc deck on loan from colleagues within the University, and have also purchased an external audio capture card/A-D converter.

[2] https://psap.library.illinois.edu/format-id-guide/audiotape#dat and https://psap.library.illinois.edu/format-id-guide/videotape#umatic.

[3] https://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/digitalAudioTapesPreservation2010_0.pdf (page 5-8) and http://www.thegreatbear.net/audio-tape/transferring-dats-to-digital-files/.

[4] The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive is part of the University of Kent’s Special Collections and Archives, but it currently has specific funding for one year (as a Beacon Project) to digitise and make accessible its current holdings; more about the Beacon projects can be found at http://www.kent.ac.uk/beacon/about.html.

[5] Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects, IASA-TC 04, 2.8.2

[6] A checksum is ‘an algorithmically-computed numeric value for a file or a set of files used to validate the state and content of the file for the purpose of detecting accidental errors that may have been introduced during its transmission or storage. The integrity of the data can be checked at any later time by recomputing the checksum and comparing it with the stored one. If the checksums match, the data was almost certainly not altered’. National Digital Stewardship Alliance Glossary, http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/ndsa/ndsa-glossary.html.

Save Our Sounds’ £9.5 million boost

July 7th, 2015

british-library-sound-archivesThis article is a bit late to break this news, but it is worth highlighting again in case you missed it first time round.

In May 2015 the British Library were awarded over £9.5 million pounds by the Heritage Lottery Fund to help them deliver their hugely important Save Our Sounds project.

We told you about Save Our Sounds earlier in the year.

As stated in a press release, ‘the funding will enable the British Library to digitise and make available 500,000 rare, unique and at-risk sound recordings from its own archive and other key collections around the country over 5 years (2017-2022).’

Funding will also help ‘develop a national preservation network via ten regional centres of archival excellence which will digitise, preserve and share the unique audio heritage found in their local area.’

Living Knowledge

Also worth a read is the recently published Living Knowledge: The British Library 2015-2023, which sets out the strategic priorities of the organisation in its 50th anniversary year.

The short text outlines ‘what it means to be a national library in a digital age and what the British Library’s role is as one of the UK’s great public assets.’

These are set out in ‘a framework of six purposes which explain, as simply and clearly as we can, the enduring ways in which the public funding we receive helps to deliver tangible public value – in custodianship, research, business, culture, learning and international partnership.’

Within the strategy digitising ‘the 42 different physical formats which hold our 6.5 million audio items’ is highlighted as ‘the next great preservation challenge’ for the British Library.

As ever, we will keep you up to date with updates from the British Library’s Save Our Sounds project as it evolves.

Phil Johnson’s the Wild Bunch VHS video

June 24th, 2015
wildbunch-arnolfini-screen-grab-dancing

Screen shots from the Wild Bunch film

As a business situated in the heart of Bristol, Great Bear is often called upon by Bristol’s artists to re-format their magnetic tape collections.

Previously we have transferred documentaries about the St. Paul’s Carnival and films from the Bristol-based Women in Moving Pictures archive. We also regularly digitise tapes for Bristol Archive Records.

We were recently approached by author Phil Johnson to transfer a unique VHS recording.

As Bristol countercultural folklore goes, the video tape is a bit of a gem: it documents the Wild Bunch performing at Arnolfini in 1985.

For the uninitiated, the Wild Bunch were the genesis of what became internationally known as trip-hop, a.k.a. ‘the Bristol-sound.’

Members went on to form Massive Attack, while Tricky and producer Nellee Hooper continue to have successful careers in the music industry. And that’s just the short-hand version of events.

Want to know more? This documentary from 1996 is a good place to become acquainted.

 wildbunch-arnolfini-vhs-screen-grabThe newly transferred video will be screened at B-Boys, B-Girls, Breakdancers, Wannabees and Posers: ‘Graffiti Art in Bristol 30th Anniversary Party’, a free event taking place on Sunday 19 July 2015, 14:00 to 23:00 at Arnolfini.

We are delighted to feature a guest blog from Phil Johnson, author of Straight Outta Bristol: Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and the Roots of Trip-Hop, who filmed the event.

Below he beautifully evokes the social and technical stories behind why the video was made. Many thanks Phil for putting this together.

***

In 1985 I was a lecturer in Film and Communications at Filton College with an added responsibility for running the Audio Visual Studio, a recording room and edit suite/office that had dropped from the sky as part of a new library and resources building. There was also kit of variable quality and vintage, some new, some inherited. I remember a Sony edit suite for big, chunky u-matic videos and another JVC one for VHS tapes, with a beige plasticky mixer that went in the middle by the edit controller. This also allowed you to do grandiose wipes from one camera to another, although we rarely used the camera set-up in the studio because you really needed to know what you wanted to do in advance, and no one ever did. What students liked using were the portable cameras and recorders, JVC VHS jobs that together with the fancy carry cases and padded camera boxes, plus regulation heavy pivoting tripod, weighed each prospective al fresco film-maker down with the baggage-equivalent of several large suitcases. I remember one aspiring Stanley Kubrick from Foundation Art&Design setting off to get the bus into town carrying everything himself, and returning sweatily later that day, close to collapse. He was wearing a heavy greatcoat, obviously.

We had a ‘professional’ u-matic portable recorder too, and that was seriously heavy, but we didn’t have the requisite three-tube camera to get the quality it was capable of, never entirely understanding the principle of garbage in-garbage out, with the inevitable result that almost everything anyone did was doomed to remain at least as shoddy as the original dodgy signal it depended upon. But hey, this was education: it was the process we were interested in, not the product.

wildbunch-vhs-screen-grab
It was a JVC portable VHS recorder I was using on the night of the Wild Bunch jam at the Arnolfini on Friday 19 July 1985, the case slung over my shoulder while I held a crap Hitachi single-tube camera with a misted-over viewfinder whose murky B&W picture meant you were never entirely sure whether it was on manual or auto focus. There was no tripod, and no lighting; just me and a Foundation student, Jo Evans, helping out. The original camera tape, which I recently found after presuming it lost, is a Scotch 3M 60-minuter and the video document of the event, such as it is, lasts only until the single tape runs out, which is just about the time the Wild Bunch’s rappers, Claude and 3D, are getting started.
The image quality is terrible but when there’s some light in the room – the Arnolfini’s downstairs gallery – you can just about make out what’s happening. When it’s dark – and it generally is – the image is so thin it’s barely an image at all. As this is the camera tape – unimportant in itself, and usually only considered as the raw material for a later edit – the significance of what is shown is very provisional. What I meant to focus on, and what was only being picked up because it was easier to keep recording than it was to switch to ‘pause’, is impossible to say. But what the tape does show – when, of course, there’s enough information there to make out anything at all – is now the stuff of history: a Mitchell and Kenyon type document of the yet-to-emerge ‘Bristol Sound’, and a weirdly innocent time that existed before the camera phone. And there it all is: graffiti on the walls, funk, electro and rap on the muffled boominess of the mono soundtrack, with dancers breaking acrobatically on the floor as rockabilly quiffed boys, big-haired girls and lots and lots of very young kiddies look on. As to why I filmed the event in the first place: it was partly for my master’s dissertation (Black Music, the Arts and Education’ – classic lefty teacher getting down with the kids) and partly for the Arnolfini’s new video library.
If you go down and see it on Sunday July 19: enjoy.

Type IV Metal Cassettes and Robert Chenciner’s Daghestan Collection

June 19th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Type IV Metal Cassettes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head pad lifter on a Nakamichi tape machine

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

Re-publication plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-animating archives: Action Space’s V30H / V60H EIAJ 1/2″ video tapes

May 20th, 2015

One of the most interesting aspects of digitising magnetic tapes is what happens to them after they leave the Great Bear studio.

Often transfers are done for private or personal interest, such as listening to the recording of loved ones, or for straightforward archival reasons.

Yet in some cases material is re-used in a new creative project, thereby translating recordings within a different technical and historical context.

Walter Benjamin described such acts as the ‘afterlife’ of translation: ‘a translation issues from the original not so much for its life as from its afterlife […] translation marks their stage of continued life.’ [1]

A child stands on top of an inflatable structure, black and white image.

Stills from the Action Space tapes

So it was with a collection of ½ inch EIAJ SONY V30H and V60H video tapes that recently landed in the Great Bear studio which documented the antics of Action Space.

Part of the vanguard movement of radical arts organisations that emerged in the late 1960s, Action Space described themselves as ‘necessarily experimental, devious, ambiguous, and always changing in order to find a new situation. In the short term the objectives are to continually question and demonstrate through the actions of all kinds new relationships between artists and public, teachers and taught, drop-outs and society, performers and audiences, and to question current attitudes of the possibility of creativity for everyone.’ [2]

Such creative shape-shifting, which took its impulsive artistic action in a range of public spaces can so often be the enemy of documentation.

Yet Ken Turner, who founded Action Space alongside Mary Turner and Alan Nisbet, told me that ‘Super Eight film and transparency slides were our main documentation tools, so we were aware of recording events and their importance.’

Introduced in 1969, EIAJ 1/2″ was the first format to make video tape recording accessible to people outside the professional broadcast industry.

Action Space were part of this wave of audiovisual adoption (minor of course by today’s standards!)

After ‘accidentally’ inheriting a portapak recorder from the Marquis of Bath, Ken explained, Action Space ‘took the portapak in our stride into events and dramas of the community festivals and neighbourhood gatherings, and adventure playgrounds. We did not have an editing deck; as far as I can remember played back footage through a TV, but even then it had white noise, if that’s the term, probably it was dirty recording heads. We were not to know.’

Preservation issues

Yes those dirty recording heads make things more difficult when it comes to re-formatting the material.

While some of the recordings replay almost perfectly, some have odd tracking problems and emit noise, which are evidence of a faulty recorder and/or dirty tape path or heads. Because such imperfections were embedded at the time of recording, there is little that can be done to ‘clean up’ the signal.

Other problems with the Action Space collection arise from the chemical composition of the tapes. The recordings are mainly on Sony branded V30H and high density V60H tape which always suffer from binder hydrolysis. The tapes therefore needed ‘baking’ treatment prior to transfer usually (we have found) in a more controlled and longer way from Ampex branded tapes.

And that old foe of magnetic tape strikes again: mould. Due to being stored in an inappropriate environment over a prolonged period, many of the tapes have mould growth that has damaged the binder.

Despite these imperfections, or even because of them, Ken appreciates the unique value of these recordings: ‘the footage I have now of the community use reminds me of the rawness of the events, the people and the atmosphere of noise and constant movement. I am extremely glad to have these tapes transposed into digital footage as they vividly remind me of earlier times. I think this is essential to understanding the history and past experiences that might otherwise escape the memories of events.’

People sliding down an inflatable structure, joyful expressions on their faces.Historical translation

While the footage of Action Space is in itself a valuable historical document, the recordings will be subject a further act of translation, courtesy of Ken’s film maker son, Huw Wahl.

Fresh from the success of his film about anarchist art critic and poet Herbert Read, Huw is using the digitised tapes as inspiration for a new work.

This new film will reflect on the legacies of Action Space, examing how the group’s interventions can speak to our current historical context.

Huw told me he wants to re-animate Action Space’s ethos of free play, education and art in order ‘to question what actions could shape a democratic and creative society. In terms of the rhetoric of creativity we hear now from the arts council and artistic institutions, it’s important to look at where that developed from. Once we see how radical those beginnings really were, maybe we will see more clearly where we are heading if we continue to look at creativity as a commodity, rather than a potent force for a different kind of society.’

Inflatable action

Part of such re-animation will entail re-visiting Action Space’s work with large inflatable structures, or what Ken prefers to call ‘air or pneumatic structures.’

Huw intends to make a new inflatable structure that will act as the container for a range of artistic, academic, musical and nostalgic responses to Action Space’s history. The finished film will then be screened inside the inflatable, creating what promises to be an unruly and unpredictable spectacle.

Ken spoke fondly about the video footage which recorded ‘the urgency of “performance” of the people who are responding to the inflatables. Today inflatable making and use is more controlled, in the 60s control was only minimally observed, to prevent injuries. But in all our activities over 10 years of air structure events, we had only one fractured limb.’Young people sliding down the side of an inflatable structure - Action Space archive

Great Bear cameo!

Another great thing about the film is that the Great Bear Studio will have an important cameo role.

Huw came to visit us to shoot footage of the transfers. He explains his reasons:

‘I’d like viewers to see the set up for the capturing of the footage used in the film. Personally it’s very different seeing the reel played on a deck rather than scanning through a quicktime file. You pay a different kind of attention to it. I don’t want to be too nostalgic about a format I have never shot with, yet there seems to be an amateur quality inherent to the portapak which I assume is because the reels could be re-recorded over. Seeing material shot by children is something the super 8mm footage just doesn’t have, it would have been too expensive. Whereas watching children grabbing a portapack camera and running about with it is pretty exciting. Seeing the reels and machines for playing it all brings me closer to the experience of using the actual portapak cameras. Hopefully this will inform the filming and editing process of this film.’

We wish Huw the very best for his work on this project and look forward to seeing the results!

***Big thanks to Ken Turner and Huw Wahl for answering questions for this article.***

Notes

[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator,’ Selected Writings: 1913-1926, Volume 1, Harvard University Press, 2006, 253-264, 254.

[2] Action Space Annual Report, 1972, accessed http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/action-space/action-space-annual-report-extract/.

Analogue to analogue – the Courtyard Music Group

May 18th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

original master tapes - Courtyard Music Group

The original master tapes

Analogue only

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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