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 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.
‘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.
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.
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.’
The insides of a Nakamichi machine that has no need of a pressure pad to play back tapes.
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***
Marvel at the people who put together the U-Matic web resource, for example, which has been online since 1999, a comprehensive outline of the different models in the U-Matic ‘family.’ The site also hosts ‘chat pages’ relating to Betamax, Betacam, U-Matic and V2000, which are still very much active, with archives dating back to 1999. For video tape nerds willing to trawl the depths of these forums, nuggets of machine maintenance wisdom await you.
International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives
Sometimes you need to turn to rigorous, peer-reviewed research in order to learn from AV archive specialists.
‘Established in 1969 in Amsterdam to function as a medium for international co-operation between archives that preserve recorded sound and audiovisual documents’, IASA holds expertise relating to the many different and specialist issues attached to the care of AV archives.
Comprised of several committees dealing with issues such as standards and best practices; National Archive policies; Broadcast archives; Technical Issues; Research Archives; Training and Education, IASA reflects the diverse communities of practice involved in this professional field.
Most of the key IASA publications are accessible to members only, and therefore remain behind a paywall. It is definitely worth taking the plunge though, because there are comparably few specialist resources relating to AV archives written with an interdisciplinary—and international—audience in mind.
Examples of issues covered in member-only publications include Selection in Sound Archives, Decay of Polymers, Deterioration of Polymers and Ethical Principles for Sound and Audiovisual Archives.
The latest publication from the IASA Technical Committee, Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers (2014) or TC05, provides detailed outlines of types of recording carriers, physical and chemical stability, environmental factors and ‘passive preservation,’ storage facilities and disaster planning.
The report comes with this important caveat:
‘TC 05 is not a catalogue of mere Dos and Don’ts. Optimal preservation measures are always a compromise between many, often conflicting parameters, superimposed by the individual situation of a collection in terms of climatic conditions, the available premises, personnel, and the financial situation. No meaningful advice can be given for all possible situations. TC 05 explains the principal problems and provides a basis for the archivist to take a responsible decision in accordance with a specific situation […] A general “Code of Practice” […] would hardly fit the diversity of structures, contents, tasks, environmental and financial circumstances of collections’ (6).
Being an IASA member gives Great Bear access to research and practitioner communities that enable us to understand, and respond to, the different needs of our customers.
Typically we work with a range of people such as individuals whose collections have complex preservation needs, large institutions, small-to-medium sized archives or those working in the broadcast industry.
Our main concern is reformatting the tapes you send us, and delivering high quality digital files that are appropriate for your plans to manage and re-use the data in the future.
If you have a collection that needs to be reformatted to digital files, do contact us to discuss how we can help.
Yet the very existence of the Old Grey Whistle Test tapes suggests type A videotape was being used in some capacity in the broadcast world. Perhaps ADAPT, a project researching British television production technology from 1960-present, could help us solve this mystery?
From type A, to type B….
As these things go, type A was followed by type B, with this model developed by the German company Bosch. Introduced in 1976, type B was widely adopted in continental Europe, but not in UK and USA which gravitated toward the type C model, introduced by SONY/ Ampex, also in 1976. Type C then became the professional broadcast standard and was still being used well into the 1990s. It was able to record high quality composite video, and therefore had an advantage over component videos such as Betacam and MII that were ‘notoriously fussy and trouble-prone.‘ Type C also had fancy functions like still, shuttle, variable-speed playback and slow motion.
From a preservation assessment point of view, ‘one-inch open reel is especially susceptible to risks associated with age, hardware, and equipment obsolescence. It is also prone to risks common to other types of magnetic media, such as mould, binder deterioration, physical damage, and signal drop-outs.’
The Preservation Self-Assessment Programme advise that ‘this format is especially vulnerable, and, based on content assessment, it should be a priority for reformatting.’
AMPEX made over 30 SMPTE type A models, the majority of which are listed here. Yet the number of working machines we have access to today is few and far between.
In years to come it will be common for people to say ‘it takes four 1” type A tape recorders to make a working one’, but remember where you heard the truism first.
Harvesting several of these hulking, table-top machines for spares and working parts is exactly how we are finding a way to transfer these rare tapes—further evidence that we need to take the threat of equipment obsolescence very seriously.
Deciding when to digitise your magnetic tape collections can be daunting.
The Presto Centre, an advocacy organisation working to help ‘keep audiovisual content alive,’ have a graphic on their website which asks: ‘how digital are our members?’
They chart the different stages of ‘uncertainty,’ ‘awakening’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘certainty’ that organisations move through as they appraise their collections and decide when to re-format to digital files.
Similarly, the folks at AV Preserve offer their opinion on the ‘Cost of Inaction‘ (COI), arguing that ‘incorporating the COI model and analyses into the decision making process around digitization of legacy physical audiovisual media helps organizations understand the implications and make well-informed decisions.’
They have even developed a COI calculator tool that organisations can use to analyse their collections. Their message is clear: ‘the cost of digitization may great, but the cost of inaction may be greater.’
Digitising small-medium audiovisual collections
For small to medium size archives, digitising collections may provoke worries about a lack of specialist support or technical infrastructure. It may be felt that resources could be better used elsewhere in the organisation. Yet as we, and many other people working with audiovisual archives often stress, the decision to transfer material stored on magnetic tape has to be made sooner or later. With smaller archives, where funding is limited, the question of ‘later’ is not really a practical option.
Furthermore, the financial cost of re-formatting audiovisual archives is likely to increase significantly in the next five-ten years; machine obsolescence will become an aggravated problem and it is likely to take longer to restore tapes prior to transfer if the condition of carriers has dramatically deteriorated. The question has to be asked: can you afford not to take action now?
If this describes your situation, you might want to hear about other small to medium sized archives facing similar problems. We asked one of our customers who recently sent in a comparatively small collection of magnetic tapes to share their experience of deciding to take the digital plunge.
We are extremely grateful for Annaig from the Medical Mission Sisters for answering the questions below. We hope that it will be useful for other archives with similar issues.
1. First off, please tell us a little bit about the Medical Mission Sisters Archive, what kind of materials are in the collection?
The Medical Mission Sisters General Archives include the central archives of the congregation. They gather all the documents relating to the foundation and history of the congregation and also documents relating to the life of the foundress, Anna Dengel. The documents are mainly paper but there is a good collection of photographs, slides, films and audio documents. Some born digital documents are starting to enter the archives but they are still few.
2. As an archive with a modest collection of magnetic tapes, why did you decide to get the materials digitised now? Was it a question of resources, preservation concerns, access request (or a mixture of all these things!)
The main reason was accessibility. The documents on video tapes or audio tapes were the only usable ones because we still had machines to read them but all the older ones, or those with specific formats, where lost to the archives as there was no way to read them and know what was really on the tapes. Plus the Medical Mission Sisters is a congregation where Sisters are spread out on 5 continents and most of the time readers don’t come to the archives but send me queries by emails where I have to respond with scanned documents or digital files. Plus it was obvious that some of the tapes were degrading as that we’d better have the digitisation sooner than later if we wanted to still be able to read what was on them. Space and preservation was another issue. With a small collection but varied in formats, I had no resources to properly preserve every tape and some of the older formats had huge boxes and were consuming a lot of space on the shelves. Now, we have a reasonably sized collection of CDs and DVDs, which is easy to store in good conditions and is accessible everywhere as we can read them on computer here and I can send them to readers via email.
3. Digital preservation is a notoriously complex, and rapidly evolving field. As a small archive, how do you plan to manage your digital assets in the long term? What kinds of support, services and systems are your drawing on to design a system which is robust and resilient?
At the moment the digital collection is so small that it cannot justify any support service or system. So I have to build up my own home made system. I am using the archives management software (CALM) to enter data relating to the conservation of the CDs or DVDs, dates of creation, dates to check them and I plan to have regular checks on them and migrations or copies made when it will prove necessary.
4. Aside from the preservation issue, what are your plans to use the digitised material that Great Bear recently transferred?
It all depends on the content of the tapes. But I’ve already spotted a few documents of interest, and I haven’t been through everything yet. My main concern now is to make the documents known and used for their content. I was already able to deliver a file to one of the Sisters who was working on a person related to the foundation of the congregation, the most important document on her was an audio file that I had just received from Great Bear, I was able to send it to her. The document would have been unusable a few weeks before. I’ve come across small treasures, like a film, probably made by the foundress herself, which nobody was aware of. The Sisters are celebrating this year the 90th anniversary of their foundation. I plan to use as many audio or video documents as I can to support the events the archives are going to be involved into.
What is illuminating about Annaig’s answers is that her archive has no high tech plan in place to manage the collection – her solutions for managing the material very much draw on non-digital information management practices.
The main issues driving the decision to migrate the materials are fairly common to all archives: limited storage space and accessibility for the user-community.
What lesson can be learnt from this? Largely, that if you are trained as an archivist, you are likely to already have the skills you need to manage your digital collection.
So don’t let the more bewildering aspects of digital preservation put you off. But do take note of the changing conditions for playing back and accessing material stored on magnetic tape. There will come a time when it will be too costly to preserve recordings on a wide variety of formats – many of such formats we can help you with today.
At the beginning of 2015, the British Library launched the landmark Save Our Sounds project.
The press release explained:
‘The nation’s sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation and as the means of playing them disappear from production. Archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.’
Yes you have read that correctly dear reader: by 2030 it is likely that we simply will not be able to play many, if not all of the tape we currently support at Great Bear. A combination of machine obsolescence, tape deterioration and, crucially, the widespread loss of skills necessary to repair, service and maintain playback machines are responsible for this astounding situation. They will make it ‘costly, difficult and, in many cases, impossible’ to preserve our recorded audio heritage beyond the proposed cut-off date.
Yet whatever way you look at it, there is need to take action to migrate any collections currently stored on obsolete media, particular if you are part of a small organisation with limited resources. The reality is it will become more expensive to transfer material as we move closer to 2030. The British Library project relates particularly to audio heritage, but the same principles apply to audiovisual collections too.
Yes that rumbling you can hear is the sound of archivists the world over engaged in flurry of selection and appraisal activities….
One of the most interesting things about discussions of obsolete media is that the question of operability is often framed as a matter of life or death.
Formats are graded according to their ‘endangered statuses’ in more or less explicit terms, as demonstrated on this Video Preservation website which offers the following ‘obsolescence ratings’:
‘Extinct: Only one or two playback machines may exist at specialist laboratories. The tape itself is more than 20 years old.
Critically endangered: There is a small population of ageing playback machinery, with no or little engineering or manufacturing support. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are fewer working machine-hours than total population of tapes. Tapes may range in age from 40 years to 10 years.
Endangered: The machine population may be robust, but the manufacture of the machinery has stopped. Manufacturing support for the machines and the tapes becomes unavailable. The tapes are often less expensive, and more vulnerable to deterioration.
Threatened: The playback machines are available; however, either the tape format itself is unstable or has less integrity than other available formats, or it is known that a more popular or updated format will be replacing this one in a short period of time.
Vulnerable: This is a current but highly proprietary format.
Lower risk: This format will be in use over the next five years (1998-2002).’
The ratings on the video preservation website were made over ten years ago. A more comprehensive and regularly updated resource to consult is the Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP), ‘a free online tool that helps collection managers prioritize efforts to improve conditions of collections. Through guided evaluation of materials, storage/exhibit environments, and institutional policies, the PSAP produces reports on the factors that impact the health of cultural heritage materials, and defines the points from which to begin care.’ As well as audiovisual media, the resource covers photo and image material, paper and book preservation. It also has advice about disaster planning, metadata, access and a comprehensive bibliography.
The good news is that fantastic resources do exist to help archivists make informed decisions about reformatting collections.
A Digital Compact Cassette
The bad news, of course, is that the problem faced by audiovisual archivists is a time-limited one, exacerbated no doubt by the fact that digital preservation practices on the ‘output end’ are far from stable. Finding machines to playback your Digital Compact Cassette collection, in other words, will only be a small part of the preservation puzzle. A life of file migrations in yet to be designed wrappers and content-management systems awaits all kinds of reformatted audiovisual media in their life-to-come as a digital archival object.
Depending on the ‘content value’ of any collection stored on obsolete media, vexed decisions will need to be made about what to keep and what to throw away at this clinical moment in the history of recorded sound.
Sounding the fifteen-year warning
At such a juncture, when the fifteen year warning has been sounded, perhaps we can pause for a second to reflect on the potential extinction of large swathes of audio visual memory.
If we accept that any kind of recording both contains memory (of a particular historical event, or performance) and helps us to remember as an aide-mémoire, what are the consequences when memory storage devices which are, according to UNESCO, ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries’, can no longer be played back?
These questions are of course profound, and emerge in response to what are consequential historical circumstances. They are questions that we will continue to ponder on the blog as we reflect on our own work transferring obsolete media, and maintaining the machines that play them back. There are no easy answers!
Perhaps we will come to understand the 00s as a point of audiovisual transition, when mechanical operators still functioned and tape was still in fairly good shape. When it was an easy, almost throw away decision to make a digital copy, rather than an immense preservation conundrum. So where once there was a glut of archival data—and the potential to produce it—is now the threat of abrupt and irreversible dropout.
Since 2005, UNESCO have used the landmark to highlight the importance of audiovisual archives to ‘our common heritage’ which contain ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries.’ Increasingly, however, the day is used to highlight how audio and moving image archives are particularly threatened with by ‘neglect, natural decay to technological obsolescence, as well as deliberate destruction’.
Indeed, the theme for 2014 is ‘Archives at Risk: Much More to Do.’ The Swiss National Sound Archives have made this rather dramatic short film to promote awareness of the imminent threat to audiovisual formats, which is echoed by UNESCO’s insistence that ‘all of the world’s audiovisual heritage is endangered.’
As it is World Audiovisual Heritage Day, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of the recent research and policy that has been collected and published relating to digitisation and digital preservation.
While the UNESCO anniversary is useful for raising awareness of the fragility of audiovisual mediums, what is the situation for organisations and institutions grappling with these challenges in practice?
The survey asked a range of organisations, institutions and collections to rank issues that are critical for the preservation of video collections. Respondents ‘identified the top three stumbling blocks in preserving video as:
Getting funding and other resources to start preserving video (18%)
Supporting appropriate digital storage to accommodate large and complex video files (14%)
Locating trustworthy technical guidance on video file formats including standards and best practices (11%)’
Interestingly in relation to the work we do at Great Bear, which often reveal the fragilities of digital recordings made on magnetic tape, ‘respondents report that analog/physical media is the most challenging type of video (73%) followed by born digital (42%) and digital on physical media (34%).’
It may well be that there is simply more video on analogue/ physical media than other mediums which can account for the higher response, and that archives are yet to grapple with the archival problem of digital video stored on physical mediums such as DVD and in particular, consumer grade DVD-Rs. Full details will be published on The Signal, the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation blog, in due course.
Recent research – Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC)
Another piece of preliminary research published recently was the user consultation for the 2nd edition of the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Digital Preservation Handbook. The first edition of the Handbook was published in 2000 but was regularly updated throughout the 00s. The consultation precedes what will be a fairly substantial overhaul of the resource.
Many respondents to the consultation welcomed that a new edition would be published, stating that much content is now ‘somewhat outdated’ given the rapid change that characterises digital preservation as a technological and professional field.
Survey respondents ranked storage and preservation (1), standards and best practices (2) and metadata and documentation (3) as the biggest challenges involved in digital preservation, and therefore converge with the NDSA findings. It must be stressed, however, that there wasn’t a massive difference across all the categories that included issues such as compression and encryption, access and creating digital materials.
Some of the responses ranged from the pragmatic…
‘digital preservation training etc tend to focus on technical solutions, tools and standards. The wider issues need to be stressed – the business case, the risks, significant properties’ (16)
‘increasingly archives are being approached by community archive groups looking for ways in which to create a digital archive. Some guidance on how archive services can respond effectively and the issues and challenges that must be considered in doing so would be very welcome’ (16)
…to the dramatic…
‘The Cloud is a lethal method of storing anything other than in Lo Res for Access, and the legality of Government access to items stored on The Cloud should make Curators very scared of it. Most digital curators have very little comprehension of the effect of solar flares on digital collections if they were hit by one. In the same way that presently part of the new method of “warfare” is economic hacking and attacks on financial institutions, the risks of cyber attacks on a country’s cultural heritage should be something of massive concern, as little could demoralise a population more rapidly. Large archives seem aware of this, but not many smaller ones that lack the skill to protect themselves’ (17)
…Others stressed legal issues related to rights management…
‘recording the rights to use digital content and ownership of digital content throughout its history/ life is critical. Because of the efforts to share bits of data and the ease of doing so (linked data, Europeana, commercial deals, the poaching of lines of code to be used in various tools/ services/ products etc.) this is increasingly important.’ (17)
It will be fascinating to see how the consultation are further contextualised and placed next to examples of best practice, case studies and innovative technological approaches within the fully revised 2nd edition of the Handbook.
The language of the recommendation very much echoes the rationale laid out by UNESCO for establishing World Audiovisual Heritage Day, discussed above:
‘Cinematography is an art form contained on a fragile medium, which therefore requires positive action from the public authorities to ensure its preservation. Cinematographic works are an essential component of our cultural heritage and therefore merit full protection.’
Although the recommendation relates to preservation of cinematic works specifically, the implementation report offers wide ranging insight into the uneven ways ‘the digital revolution’ has affected different countries, at the level of film production/ consumption, archiving and preservation.
The report gravely states that ‘European film heritage risks missing the digital train,‘ a phrase that welcomes a bit more explanation. One way to understand is that it describes how countries, but also Europe as a geo-political space, is currently failing to capitalise on what digital technologies can offer culturally, but also economically.
The report reveals that the theoretical promise of interoperable digital technologies-smooth trading, transmission and distribution across economic, technical and cultural borders-was hindered in practice due to costly and complex copyright laws that make the cross border availability of film heritage, re-use (or ‘mash-up’) and online access difficult to implement. This means that EU member states are not able to monetise their assets or share their cultural worth. Furthermore, this is further emphasised by the fact that ‘85% of Europe’s film heritage is estimated to be out-of-commerce, and therefore, invisible for the European citizen’ (37).
In an age of biting austerity, the report makes very clear that there simply aren’t enough funds to implement robust digitization and digital preservation plans: ‘Financial and human resources devoted to film heritage have generally remained at the same level or have been reduced. The economic situation has indeed pushed Member States to change their priorities’ (38).
There is also the issue of preserving analogue expertise: ‘many private analogue laboratories have closed down following the definitive switch of the industry to digital. This raises the question on how to maintain technology and know-how related to analogue film’ (13).
The report gestures toward what is likely to be a splitting archival-headache-to-come for custodians of born digital films: ‘resources devoted to film heritage […] continue to represent a very small fraction of resources allocated to funding of new film productions by all Member States’ (38). Or, to put it in numerical terms, for every €97 invested by the public sector in the creation of new films, only €3 go to the preservation and digitisation of these films. Some countries, namely Greece and Ireland, are yet to make plans to collect contemporary digital cinema (see opposite infographic).
Keeping up to date
It is extremely useful to have access to the research featured in this article. Consulting these different resources helps us to understand the nuts and bolts of technical practices, but also how different parts of the world are unevenly responding to digitisation. If the clock is ticking to preserve audiovisual heritage in the abrupt manner presented in the Swiss National Archives Film, the EU research in particular indicates that it may well be too late already to preserve a significant proportion of audiovisual archives that we can currently listen to and watch.
All that is left to say is: enjoy the Day for World Audiovisual Heritage! Treasure whatever endangered media species flash past your eyes and ears. Be sure to consider any practical steps you can take to ensure the films and audio recordings that are important to you remain operable for many years to come.
We have recently transferred a previously unpublished 3” ¼ inch tape recording of British 20th century composer Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn forFour Voices. The tape is a 2-track stereo recording made at 7.5 inches per second (in/s) at the Purcell Room in London’s Southbank Centre in 1975, and was broadcast on 16 September 1976.
Generally speaking, the faster the speed the better the reproduction quality when making the digital transfer. This is because higher tape speeds spread the recorded signal longitudinally over more tape area, therefore reducing the effects of dropouts and tape noise. The number of tracks recorded on the tape also has an impact on how good it sounds today. Simply put, the more information stored on the tape due to recording speed or track width, the better the transfer will sound.
The tape of Nocturn for Four Voices was however suffering from binder hydrolysis and therefore needed to be baked prior to play back. EMI tape doesn’t normally do this but as the tape was EMI professional it may well have used Ampex stock and / or have been back coated, thus making the binder more susceptible to such problems.
Remembering Phyllis Tate
Nocturn for Four Voices is an example of how Tate ‘composed for unusual combinations of instruments and voice.’ The composition includes ‘Bass Clarinet, Celeste, String Quartet and Double Bass’, music scholar Jane Ballantyne explains.
The tape was brought into us by Tate’s daughter, Celia Frank, who is currently putting the finishing touches to a web archive that, she hopes, will help contemporary audiences (re)discover her mother’s work.
Like many women musicians and artists, Phyllis Tate, who trained at the Royal Academy of Music, remains fairly obscure to the popular cultural ear.
This is not to say, of course, that her work did not receive critical acclaim from her contemporaries or posthumously. Indeed, it is fair to say that she had a very successful composing career. Both the BBC and the Royal Academy of Music, among others, commissioned compositions from Tate, and her work is available to hire or buy from esteemed music publishers Oxford University Press (OUP).
Edmund Whitehouse, who wrote a short biography of the composer, described her as ‘one of the outstanding British composers of her generation, she was truly her own person whose independent creative qualities produced a wide range of music which defy categorisation.’
Her music often comprised of contrasting emotional registers, lyrical sections and unexpected changes of direction. As a writer of operattas and choral music, with a penchant for setting poetry to music, her work is described by the OUP as the product of ‘an unusual imagination and an original approach to conventional musical forms or subjects, but never to the extent of being described as “avant-garde”.’
Tate’s music was very much a hit with iconic suffrage composer Ethel Smyth who, upon hearing Tate’s compositions, reputedly declared: ‘at last, I have heard a real woman composer.’ Such praise was downplayed by Tate, who tended to point to Smyth’s increased loss of hearing in later life as the cause of her enjoyment: ‘My Cello Concerto was performed soon afterwards at Bournemouth with Dame Ethel sitting in the front row banging her umbrella to what she thought was the rhythm of the music.’
While the dismissal of Smyth’s appreciation is tender and good humoured, the fact that Tate destroyed significant proportions of her work does suggest that at times she could have doubted her own abilities as a composer. Towards the end of her life she revealed: ‘I must admit to having a sneaking hope that some of my creations may prove to be better than they appear. One can only surmise and it’s not for the composer to judge. All I can vouch is this: writing music can be hell; torture in the extreme; but there’s one thing worse; and that is not writing it.’ As a woman composing in an overwhelmingly male environment, such hesitancies are perhaps an understandable expression of what literary scholars Gilbert and Gubar called ‘the anxiety of authorship.’
Tate’s work is a varied and untapped resource for those interested in twentieth century composition and the wider history of women composers. We wish Celia the best of luck in getting the website up and running, and hope that many more people will be introduced to her mother’s work as a consequence.
Thanks to Jane Ballantyne and Celia Frank for their help in writing this article.
We are currently migrating a collection of tapes made by Irene Brown who, in the late 1960s, was a school teacher living in Inverness. Irene was a member of the Inverness folk club and had a strong interest in singing, playing guitar and collecting the musical heritage of folk and Gaelic culture.
The tapes, that were sent by her niece Mrs. Linda Baublys, are documents of her Auntie’s passion, and include recordings Irene made of folk music sung in a mixture of Gaelic and English at the Gellions pub, Inverness, in the late 1960s.
The tapes also include recordings of her family singing together. Linda remembered fondly childhood visits to her ‘Granny’s house that was always filled with music,’ and how her Auntie used to ‘roar and sing.’
Perhaps most illustriously, the tapes include a prize-winning performance at the annual An Comunn Gaidhealach/ The National Mòd (now Royal National Mòd). The festival, which has taken place annually at different sites across Scotland since it was founded in 1892 is modelled on the Welsh Eisteddfod and acts ‘as a vehicle for the preservation and development of the Gaelic language. It actively encourages the teaching, learning and use of the Gaelic language and the study and cultivation of Gaelic literature, history, music and art.’ Mòd festivals also help to keep Gaelic culture alive among diasporic Scottish communities, as demonstrated by the US Mòd that has taken place annually since 2008.
If you want to find out more about Gaelic music visit the Year of the Song website run by BBC Alba where you can access a selection of songs from the BBC’s Gaelic archive. If you prefer doing research in archives and libraries take a visit to the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Based at the University of Edinburgh, the collection comprises a significant sound archive containing thousands of recordings of songs, instrumental music, tales, verse, customs, beliefs, place-names biographical information and local history, encompassing a range of dialects and accents in Gaelic, Scots and English.
As well as learning some of the songs recorded on the tape to play herself, Linda plans to eventually deposit the digitised transfers with the School of Scottish Studies Archives. She will also pass the recordings on to a local school that has a strong engagement with traditional Gaelic music.
Digitising and country lanes
Linda told us it was a ‘long slog’ to get the tapes. After Irene died at the age of 42 it was too upsetting for her mother, and Linda’s Granny, to listen to them. The tapes were then passed onto Linda’s mother who also never played the tapes, so when she passed away Linda, who had been asking for the tapes for nearly 20 years, took responsibility to get them digitised.
The tapes were in fairly good condition and minimal problems arose in the transfer process. One of the tapes was however suffering from ‘country-laning’. This is when the shape of the tape has become bendy (like a country lane), most probably because it had been stored in fluctuating temperatures which cause the tape to shrink and grow. It is more common in acetate-backed tape, although Linda’s tapes were polymer-backed. Playing a tape suffering from country-laning often results in problems with the azimuth because the angle between tape head and tape are dis-aligned. A signal can still be discerned, because analogue recordings rarely drop out entirely (unlike digital tape), but the recording may waver or otherwise be less audible. When the tape has been deformed in this way it is very difficult to totally reverse the process. Consequently there has to be some compromise in the quality of the transfer.
We hope you will enjoy this excerpt from the tapes, which Linda has kindly given us permission to include in this article.
The magnetic viewer makes the mysterious tracks recorded onto the tape visible
We have recently acquired a magnetic viewer in order to aid our digitisation work. By pressing the viewer against the tape we are able to read the magnetic information recorded on it. The reader helps us to visually identify the position of the recorded tracks on the tape, and enables accurate playback during digitisation. Magnetic readers can also help us to identify potential problems with the tape, for example if a track has been partially erased, because it will show up on the viewer.
We receive tapes that are in varying states of repair and disrepair. Sometimes the person who made the recording kept the tapes in impeccable, temperature controlled conditions. Inscribed on the boxes are dates and lists of who performed, and what instrument they played. The tapes often feature detailed notes about the number of tracks recorded, whether they are in stereo or mono and if they used noise reduction technology. Digitisation, in such cases, does not usually pose great challenges.
At the other extreme are tapes recorded by people who never wrote anything down about how they made their recording. This means the people doing the digitising can be left to do a lot of guess work (particularly if that person has since died, and can’t tell you anything about the recording). A lack of informative metadata about the tape does not necessarily create migration difficulties: recordings can be very straightforward like, for example, a ½ track stereo recording of a single voice.
It is essential that the appropriate head is used to read the magnetic information recorded onto the tape.
Problems can however arise when recordings have been made in an idiosyncratic (and inconsistent) manner. For example (and in exceptional circumstances) we receive single magnetic tapes that have a mixture of track formats on them which include four track multi-track, ½ and ¼ track mono and ½ and ¼ track stereo.
In such cases it can be hard to discern the precise nature of the recordings using the ears alone. Often such recordings don’t sound ‘quite right’, even if it is not exactly clear what the problem is.
Rather than relying on speculation, using the magnetic reader gives 100% confirmation about where tracks are recorded on the tape, and therefore helps us to replay the tape using the appropriate playback heads, and therefore digitise it accurately.
The summer of 2008 saw a spate of articles in the media focusing on a new threat to magnetic tapes.
The reason: the warm, wet weather was reported as a watershed moment in magnetic tape degradation, with climate change responsible for the march of mould consuming archival memories, from personal to institutional collections.
The connection between climate change and tape mould is not one made frequently by commentators, even in the digital preservation world, so what are the links? It is certainly true that increased heat and moisture are prime conditions for the germination of the mould spores that populate the air we breathe. These spores, the British Library tell us
‘can stay dormant for long periods of time, but when the conditions are right they will germinate. The necessary conditions for germination are generally:
• temperatures of 10-35ºC with optima of 20ºC and above
• relative humidities greater than 70%’
The biggest threat to the integrity of magnetic tape is fluctuations in environmental temperatures. This means that tape collections that are not stored in controlled settings, such as a loft, cupboard, shed or basement, are probably most at risk.
While climate change has not always been taking as seriously as it should be by governments and media commentators, the release today of the UN’s report, which stated in no uncertain terms that climate change is ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible’, should be a wake up call to all the disbelievers.
To explore the links between climate change and tape degradation further we asked Peter Specs from US-based disaster recovery specialists the Specs Brothers if he had noticed any increase in the number of mouldy tapes they had received for restoration. In his very generous reply he told us:
‘The volume of mouldy tapes treated seems about the same as before from areas that have not experienced disasters but has significantly increased from disaster areas. The reason for the increase in mould infected tapes from disaster areas seems to be three-fold. First, many areas have recently been experiencing severe weather that is not usual for the area and are not prepared to deal with the consequences. Second, a number of recent disasters have affected large areas and this delays remedial action. Third, after a number of disasters, monies for recovery seem to have been significantly delayed. We do a large amount of disaster recovery work and, when we get the tapes in for processing fairly quickly, are generally able to restore tapes from floods before mould can develop. In recent times, however, we are getting more and more mouldy tapes in because individuals delayed having them treated before mould could develop. Some were unaware that lower levels of their buildings had suffered water damage. In other areas the damage was so severe that the necessities of life totally eclipsed any consideration of trying to recover “non-essential” items such as tape recordings. Finally, in many instances, money for recovery was unavailable and individuals/companies were unwilling to commit to recovery costs without knowing if or when the government or insurance money would arrive.’
Nigel Bewley, soon to be retired senior sound engineer at the British Library, also told us there had been no significant increase in the number of mouldy tapes they had received for treatment. Yet reading between the lines here, and thinking about what Pete Specs told us, in an age of austerity and increased natural disasters, restoring tape collections may slip down the priority list of what needs to be saved for many people and institutions.
Mould: Prevention Trumps the Cure
Climate change aside, what can be done to prevent your tape collections from becoming mouldy? Keeping the tapes stored in a temperature controlled environment is very important – ’15 + 3° C and 40% maximum relative humidity (RH) are safe practical storage conditions,’ recommend the National Technology Alliance. It is also crucial that storage environments retain a stable temperature, because significant changes in the storage climate risk heating or cooling the tape pack, making the tension in the tape pack increase or decrease which is not good for the tape.
If you are wondering how mould attacks magnetic tape, it is attracted to the binder or adhesive that attaches the layers of the tape together. If you can see the mould on the tape edges it usually means the mould has infected the whole tape.
Optical media can also be affected by mould. Miriam B. Kahn writes in Disaster Response and Planning for Libraries
‘Optical discs are susceptible to water, mould and mildew. If the polycarbonate surface is damaged or not sealed appropriately, moisture can become trapped and begin to corrode the metal encoding surface. If moisture or mould is invasive enough, it will make the disc unreadable’ (85).
Prevention, it seems, is better than having to find the cure. So turn on the lights, keep the air flowing and make the RH level stable.
We are pleased to announce that we are now able to support the transfer of 2″ Quadruplex Video Tape (PAL, SECAM & NTSC) to digital formats.
2” Quad was a popular broadcast analogue video tape format whose halcyon period ran from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The first quad video tape recorder made by AMPEX in 1956 cost a modest $45,000 (that’s $386,993.38 in today’s money).
2” Quad revolutionized TV broadcasting which previously had been reliant on film-based formats, known in the industry as ‘kinescope‘ recordings. Kinescope film required significant amounts of skilled labour as well as time to develop, and within the USA, which has six different time zones, it was difficult to transport the film in a timely fashion to ensure broadcasts were aired on schedule.
To counter these problems, broadcasters sought to develop magnetic recording methods, that had proved so successful for audio, for use in the television industry.
The first experiments directly adapted the longitudinal recording method used to record analogue audio. This however was not successful because video recordings require more bandwidth than audio. Recording a video signal with stationary tape heads (as they are in the longitudinal method), meant that the tape had to be recorded at a very high speed in order accommodate sufficient bandwidth to reproduce a good quality video image. A lot of tape was used!
Ampex, who at the time owned the trademark marketing name for ‘videotape’, then developed a method where the tape heads moved quickly across the tape, rather than the other way round. On the 2” quad machine, four magnetic record/reproduce heads are mounted on a headwheel spinning transversely (width-wise) across the tape, striking the tape at a 90° angle. The recording method was not without problems because, the Toshiba Science Museum write, it ‘combined the signal segments from these four heads into a single video image’ which meant that ‘some colour distortion arose from the characteristics of the individual heads, and joints were visible between signal segments.’
The limitations of Quadruplex recording influenced the development of the helical scan method, that was invented in Japan by Dr. Kenichi Sawazaki of the Mazda Research Laboratory, Toshiba, in 1954. Helical scanning records each segment of the signal as a diagonal stripe across the tape. ‘By forming a single diagonal, long track on two-inch-wide tape, it was possible to record a video signal on one tape using one head, with no joints’, resulting in a smoother signal. Helical scanning was later widely adopted as a recording method in broadcast and domestic markets due to its simplicity, flexibility, reliability and economical use of tape.
This brief history charting the development of 2″ Quad recording technologies reveals that efficiency and cost-effectiveness, alongside media quality, were key factors driving the innovation of video tape recording in the 1950s.
Often the tapes we receive to digitise are ‘forgotten’ recordings. Buried under a pile of stuff in a dark, cold room, their owners think they are lost forever. Then, one day, a reel of the mysterious tape emerges from the shadows generating feelings of excitement and anticipation. What is stored on tape? Is the material in a playable condition? What will happen to the tape once it is in a digital format?
All of these things happened recently when Paul Travis sent us a ¼ inch AMPEX tape of the band he played in with his brother, the Salford Oi! punk outfit State Victims. The impetus for forming State Victims emerged when the two brothers ‘split from Salford bands, Terrorist Guitars and the Bouncing Czechs respectively, and were looking for a new musical vessel to express and reassert their DIY music ethic, but in a more vital and relevant way, searching for a new form of “working-class protest.”‘
The tape had been in the wilderness for the past 30 years, residing quietly in a shed in rural Cambridgeshire. It was in fairly good condition, displaying no signs of damage such as mould on the tape or spool. Like many of the AMPEX tapes we receive it did need some baking treatment because it was suffering from binder hydrolysis (a.k.a. Sticky Shed Syndrome). The baking, conducted at 49 Celsius for 8 hours in our customised oven, was successful and the transfer was completed without any problems. We created a high resolution stereo 24 bit/ 96 kHz WAV file which is recommended for archived audio, as well as a MP3 access copy that can be easily shared online.
Image of tape post-transfer. When it arrived the tape was not wound on neatly and there was no leder tape on it.
Finding old tapes and sending them to be digitised can be a process of discovery. Originally Paul thought the tape was of a 1983 session recorded at the Out of the Blue Studios in Ancoats, Manchester, but it became apparent that the tape was of an earlier recording. Soon after we digitised the first recording we received a message from Paul saying another State Victims tape had ‘popped up in an attic’, so it is amazing what you find when you start digging around!
Like many other bands connected to the Manchester area, the digital artefacts of State Victims are stored on the Manchester District Music Archive (MDMA), a user-led online archive established in 2003 in order to celebrate Greater Manchester music and its history. The MDMA is part of a wider trend of do it yourself archival activity that exploded in the 21st century due to the availability of cheap digital technologies. In what is arguably a unique archival moment, digital technologies have enabled marginal, subcultural and non/ anti-commercial music to widely circulate alongside the more conventional, commercial artefacts of popular music. This is reflected in the MDMA where the artefacts of famous Manchester bands such as The Smiths, The Fall, Oasis and Joy Division sit alongside the significantly less famous archives of the Manchester Musicians Collective, The Paranoids, Something Shady and many others.
Within the community-curated space of the MDMA all of the artefacts acquire a similar value, derived from their ability to illuminate the social history of the area told through its music. Much lip service has been paid to the potential of Web 2.0 technologies and social media to enable new forms of collaboration and ‘user-participation’, but involving people in the construction of web-based content is not always an automatic process. If you build it, people do not always come. As a user-led resource, however, the MDMA seems pretty effective. It is inviting to use, well organised and a wide range of people are clearly contributing, which is reflected in the vibrancy of its content. It is exciting that such an online depository exists, providing a new home for the errant tape, freshly digitised, that is part of Manchester’s music history.
2014 will no doubt present a year of new challenges for those involved in digital preservation. A key issue remains the sustainability of digitisation practices within a world yet to establish firm standards and guidelines. Creating lasting procedures capable of working across varied and international institutions would bring some much needed stability to a profession often characterized by permanent change and innovation.
In 1969 The EIAJ-1 video tape was developed by the Electronic Industries Association of Japan. It was the first standardized format for industrial/non-broadcast video tape recording. Once implemented it enabled video tapes to be played on machines made by different manufacturers and it helped to make video use cheaper and more widespread, particularly within a domestic context.
The introduction of standards in the digitisation world would of course have very little impact on the widespread use of digital technologies which are, in the west, largely ubiquitous. It would however make the business of digital preservation economically more efficient, simply because organisations would not be constantly adapting to change. For example, think of the costs involved in keeping up with rapid waves of technological transformation: updating equipment, migrating data and ensuring file integrity and operability are maintained are a few costly and time consuming examples of what this would entail.
Although increasingly sophisticated digital forensic technology can help to manage some of these processes, highly trained (real life!) people will still be needed to oversee any large-scale preservation project. Within such a context resource allocation will always have to account for these processes of adaptation. It has to be asked then: could this money, time and energy be practically harnessed in other, more efficient ways? The costs of non-standardisation becomes ever more pressing when we consider the amount of the digital data preserved by large institutions such as the British Library, whose digital collection is estimated to amass up to 5 petabytes (5000 terabytes) by 2020. This is not a simple case of updating your iphone to the next model, but an extremely complex and risky venture where the stakes are high. Do we really want to jeopardise rich forms cultural heritage in the name of technological progress?
The US-based National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) National Agenda for Digital Stewardship 2014 echoes such a sentiment. They argue that ‘the need for integration, interoperability, portability, and related standards and protocols stands out as a theme across all of these areas of infrastructure development’ (3). The executive summary also stresses the negative impact rapid technological change can create, and the need to ‘coordinate to develop comprehensive coverage on critical standards bodies, and promote systematic community monitoring of technology changes relevant to digital preservation.’ (2)
File Format Action Plans
One step on the way to more secure standards is the establishment of File Format Action Plans, a practice which is being increasingly recommended by US institutions. The idea behind developing a file format action plan is to create a directory of file types that are in regular use by people in their day to day lives and by institutions. Getting it all down on paper can help us track what may be described as the implicit user-standards of digital culture. This is the basic idea behind Parsimonious Preservation, discussed on the blog last year: that through observing trends in file use we may come to the conclusion that the best preservation policy is to leave data well alone since in practice files don’t seem to change that much, rather than risk the integrity of information via constant intervention.
What are the other main challenges facing ‘digital stewards’ in 2014? In a world of exponential information growth, making decisions about what we keep and what we don’t becomes ever more pressing. When whole collections cannot be preserved digital curators are increasingly called upon to select material deemed representative and relevant. How is it possible to know now what material needs to be preserve for posterity? What values inform our decision making?
To take an example from our work at Great Bear: we often receive tapes from artists who have achieved little or no commercial success in their life times, but whose work is often of great quality and can tell us volumes about a particular community or musical style. How does such work stand up against commercially successful recordings? Which one is more valuable? The music that millions of people bought and enjoyed or the music that no one has ever heard?
Ultimately these questions will come to occupy a central concern for digital stewards of audio data, particularly with the explosion of born-digital music cultures which have enabled communities of informal and often non-commercial music makers to proliferate. How is it possible to know in advance what material will be valuable for people 20, 50 or 100 years from now? These are very difficult, if not impossible questions for large institutions to grapple with, and take responsibility for. Which is why, as members of a digital information management society, it is necessary to empower ourselves with relevant information so we can make considered decisions about our own personal archives.
A final point to stress is that among the ‘areas of concern’ for digital preservation cited by the NDSA, moving image and recorded sound figure highly, alongside other born-digital content such as electronic records, web and social media. Magnetic tape collections remain high risk and it is highly recommended that you migrate this content to a digital format as soon as possible. While digitisation certainly creates many problems as detailed above, magnetic tape is also threatened by physical deterioration and its own obsolescence challenges, in particular finding working machines to play back tape on. The simple truth is, if you want to access material in your tape collections it needs now to be stored in a resilient digital format. We can help, and offer other advice relating to digital information management, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.
What a year it has been in the life of Great Bear Analogue and Digital Media. As always the material customers have sent us to digitise has been fascinating and diverse, both in terms of the recordings themselves and the technical challenges presented in the transfer process. At the end of a busy year we want to take this opportunity to thank our customers for sending us their valuable tape collections, which over the course of 2013 has amounted to a whopping 900 hours of digitised material.
We feel very honoured to play a part in preserving personal and institutional archives that are often incredibly rare, unique and, more often than not, very entertaining. It is a fairly regular occurrence in the Great Bear Studio to have radio jingles from the 60s, oral histories of war veterans, recordings of family get-togethers and video documentation of avant-garde 1970s art experiments simultaneously migrating in a vibrant melee of digitisation.
We have also received a large amount of rare or ‘lost’ audio recordings through which we have encountered unique moments in popular music history. These include live recordings from the Couriers Folk Club in Leicester, demo tapes from artists who achieved niche success like 80s John Peel favourites BOB, and large archives of prolific but unknown songwriters such as the late Jack Hollingshead, who was briefly signed to the Beatles’ Apple label in the 1960s. We always have a steady stream of tapes from Bristol Archive Records, who continue to acquire rare recordings from bands active in the UK’s reggae and post-punk scenes. We have also migrated VHS footage of local band Meet Your Feet from the early 1990s.
On our blog we have delved into the wonderful world of digital preservation and information management, discussing issues such as ‘parsimonious preservation‘ which is advocated by the National Archives, as well as processes such as migration, normalisation and emulation. Our research suggests that there is still no ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy in place for digital information management, and we will continue to monitor the debates and emerging practices in this field in the coming year. Migrating analogue and digital tapes to digital files remains strongly recommended for access and preservation reasons, with some experts bookmarking 15 April 2023 as the date when obsolescence for many formats will come into full effect.
While the world is facing a growing electronic waste crisis, Great Bear is doing its bit to buck the trend by recycling old domestic and professional tape machines. In 2013 we have acquired over 20 ‘new’ old analogue and digital video machines. This has included early 70s video cassette domestic machines such as the N1502, up to the most recent obsolete formats such as Digital Betacam. We are always looking for old machines, both working and not working, so do get in touch if your spring clean involves ridding yourself of obsolete tape machines!
Our collection of test equipment is also growing as we acquire more wave form monitors, rare time-based correctors and vectorscopes. In audio preservation we’ve invested heavily in early digital audio machines such as multi-track DTRS and ADAT machines which are rapidly becoming obsolete.
We are very much looking forward to new challenges in 2014 as we help more people migrate their tape-based collections to digital formats. We are particularly keen to develop our work with larger archives and memory institutions, and can offer consultation on technical issues that arise from planning and delivering a large-scale digitisation project, so please do get in touch if you want to benefit from our knowledge and experience.
Once again a big thank you from us at Greatbear, and we hope to hear from you in the new year.
We were recently sent a very interesting collection of recordings of the late poet, novelist and acclaimed translator Paul Roche. During his colourful and creative life Roche published two novels, O Pale Gallellean and Vessel of Dishonour, and several poetry collections, and brushed shoulders with some of the 20th century’s most captivating avant-garde artistic and literary figures. His faculty colleague when he worked at Smith College, MA in the late 1950s was none other than Sylvia Plath, who pithily described Roche’s ‘professional dewy blue-eyed look and his commercially gilded and curled blond hair on his erect, dainty bored aristocratic head’.
His intense 30 year friendship with painter Duncan Grant was immortalised in the book With Duncan Grant in Southern Turkey, which documented a holiday the friends took together shortly before Grant’s death. The relationship with Grant has often eclipsed Roche’s own achievements, and he is often mistakenly identified as a member of the Bloomsbury group. Roche also achieved success beyond the literary and scholarly world when his translation of Oedipus the King became the screenplay for the 1968 film starring Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles.
The recordings we were sent were made between 1960-1967 when Roche worked at universities in America. Roche experienced greater professional success in America, and his translations of Ancient Greek are still used in US schools and universities. His son Martin, who sent us the tapes, is planning to use the digitised recordings on a commemorative website that will introduce contemporary audiences to his father’s creative legacy.
The Great Bear Studio has been pleasantly awash today with the sound of Roche reading poetry and his dramatic renditions of Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus the King’, ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ and ‘Antigone’. The readings communicate his emphatic pleasure performing language via the spoken word, and an unique talent to immerse listeners in images, rhythm and phrases.
Listen to Paul Roche reading his translation of ‘Antigone’.
Our own pleasure listening to the recordings has however been disrupted because of frequent snaps in the tape. The tapes are covered in splices, which suggests they had been edited previously. Over time the adhesive glue has dried out, breaking the tape as it moves through the transport. The collection of tapes as a whole are fairly brittle because the base film, which forms the structural integrity of the tape, is made of acetate.
Canadian-based digitisation expert Richard Hess explains that
‘Acetate was the first widely used base film, with Scotch 111 being in production from 1948 through 1972/73, a total of 24-25 years. Acetate tape is generally robust and has the advantage of breaking cleanly rather than stretching substantially prior to breaking when overstressed. Acetate tapes residing in collections are over 30-years-old, with the oldest being over 60-years-old.’
The big downside to acetate is that when it degrades it loses its flexibility and becomes a bit like an extended tape measure. This means it is harder to pass the tape consistently through the tape transport. This is colloquially known in the digitisation world as ‘country-laning’, when the tape changes shape in all dimensions and becomes wiggly, like a country lane. To extend the metaphor, a well functioning tape should be flat, like, one supposes, a motorway.
When a tape is ‘country-laning’ it means tracks of recorded material are moving slightly so they shift in and out of phase, dis-aligning the angle between the tape head(s) and tape, or azimuth. This has a detrimental effect on the quality of the playback because the machine reading the recorded material on the tape is at odds with surface area from which the information is being read.
If you are reading this and wondering if the base film in your tape is made of acetate, or is made of another substance such as paper or polyester, you can perform a simple test. If you hold the tape against the light and it appears translucent then the tape is acetate. There may also be a slightly odd, vinegar smell coming from the tape. If so, this is bad news for you because the tape is probably suffering from ‘Vinegar Syndrome’. Richard Hess explains that
‘Vinegar syndrome occurs as acetate decomposes and forms acetic acid. This is a well-known degradation mode for acetate film. High temperature and humidity levels, the presence of iron oxide, and the lack of ventilation all accelerate the process. Once it has started it can only be slowed down, not reversed.’
Acetate tape is also particularly vulnerable to excessive heat exposure, which makes it shrink in size. This is why you should never bake acetate tape! When acetate tape is exposed to heat it reaches what is known as the liquid-glass transition phase, the temperature where the material composition starts to change shape from a hard and relatively brittle state into a molten or rubber-like state. Although glass transition is reversible, it certainly is destructive. In other words, you can change the tape back from molten to a hard substance again but the tape would be unplayable.
While acetate backed tape has certain advantages over polyester tape in the migration process, namely it is easier to cleanly splice together tape that has broken as it has moved through the transport, unfortunately acetate tape is more fragile, and can get extremely stiff which makes it difficult to play back the tape at all. Even if you can pass the tape through the machine it may snap regularly, and will therefore require a lot of treatment in the transfer process. So if you have a valuable tape collection stored predominantly on acetate tape, we strongly recommend getting it migrated to digital format as soon as possible due to the fragility of the format. And if that whiff of vinegar is present, you need to move even more quickly!