Posts Tagged ‘personal archives’

Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn for Four Voices 3″ 1/4 inch reel to reel tape transfer

Friday, September 19th, 2014

We have recently transferred a previously unpublished 3” ¼ inch tape recording of British 20th century composer Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn for Four Voices.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.

When migrating magnetic tape recordings to digital files there are several factors that can be considered to assess the quality of recording even before we play back the tape. One of these is the speed at which the tape was originally recorded.

Diagramme of track widths on magnetic tape, and the relative thicknesses of 1, 2 and 4 track recordings

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.’Open reel tape and box

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.

Irene Brown’s reel to reel recordings of folk and Gaelic culture

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Two reel-to-reel tapes and boxesWe 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.

Open reel in a box

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.

‘Missing Believed Wiped’: The Search For Lost TV Treasures

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Contemporary culture is often presented as drowning in mindless nostalgia, with everything that has ever been recorded circulating in a deluge of digital information.

Whole subcultures have emerged in this memory boom, as digital technologies enable people to come together via a shared passion for saving obscurities presumed to be lost forever. One such organisation is Kaleidoscope, whose aim is to keep the memory of ‘vintage’ British television alive. Their activities capture an urgent desire bubbling underneath the surface of culture to save everything, even if the quality of that everything is questionable.

Of course, as the saying goes, one person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure. As with most cultural heritage practices, the question of value is at the centre of people’s motivations, even if that value is expressed through a love for Pan’s People, Upstairs, Downstairs, Dick Emery and the Black and White Minstrel Show.

We were recently contacted by a customer hunting for lost TV episodes. His request: to lay hands on any old tapes that may unwittingly be laden with lost jewels of TV history. His enquiry is not so strange since a 70s Top of the Pops programme, a large proportion of which were deleted from the official BBC archive, trailed the end of ½ EIAJ video tape we recently migrated. And how many other video tapes stored in attics, sheds or barns potentially contain similar material? Or, as stated on the Kaleidoscope website:

‘Who’d have ever imagined that a modest, sometimes mould-infested collection of VHS tapes in a cramped back bedroom in Pill would lead to the current Kaleidoscope archive, which hosts the collections of many industry bodies as well as such legendary figures as Bob Monkhouse or Frankie Howard?’

Selection and appraisal in the archive

Selection of video tapes

Mysterious tapes?

Living in an age of seemingly infinite information, it is easy to forget that any archival project involves keeping some things and throwing away others. Careful considerations about the value of an item needs to be made, both in relation to contemporary culture and the projected needs of subsequent generations.

These decisions are not easy and carry great responsibility. After all, how is it possible to know what society will want to remember in 10, 20 or even 30 years from now, let alone 200? The need to remember is not static either, and may change radically over time. What is kept now also strongly shapes future societies because our identities, lives and knowledge are woven from the memory resources we have access to. Who then would be an archivist?

When faced with a such a conundrum the impulse to save everything is fairly seductive, but this is simply not possible. Perhaps things were easier in the analogue era when physical storage constraints conditioned the arrangement of the archive. Things had to be thrown away because the clutter was overwhelming. With the digital archive, always storing more seems possible because data appears to take up less space. Yet as we have written about before on the blog, just because you can’t touch or even see digital information, doesn’t mean it is not there. Energy consumption is costly in a different way, and still needs to be accounted for when appraising how resource intensive digital archives are.

For those who want their media memories to remain intact, whole and accessible, learning about the clinical nature of archival decisions may raise concern. The line does however need to be drawn somewhere. In an interview in 2004 posted on the Digital Curation Centre’s website, Richard Wright, who worked in the BBC’s Information and Archives section, explained the long term preservation strategy for the institution at the time.

‘For the BBC, national programmes that have entered the main archive and been fully catalogued have not, in general, been deleted. The deletions within the retention policy mainly apply to “contribution material” i.e. components (rushes) of a final programme, or untransmitted material. Hence, “long-term” for “national programmes that have entered the main archive and been fully catalogued” means in perpetuity. We have already kept some material for more than 75 years, including multiple format migrations.’

Value – whose responsibility?

For all those episodes, missing believed wiped, the treasure hunters who track them down tread a fine line between a personal obsession and offering an invaluable service to society. You decide.

What is inspiring about amateur preservationists is that they take the question of archival value into their own hands. In the 21st century, appraising and selecting the value of cultural artifacts is therefore no longer the exclusive domain of the archivist, even if expertise about how to manage, describe and preserve collections certainly is.

Does the popularity of such activities change the constitution of archives? Are they now more egalitarian spaces that different kinds of people contribute to? It certainly suggests that now, more than ever, archives always need to be thought of in plural terms, as do the different elaborations of value they represent.

Digital Preservation – Establishing Standards and Challenges for 2014

Monday, January 13th, 2014

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.

Close up of tape machine on the 'play', 'stop', 'rewind' button

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.

As Lee Nilsson, who is currently working as a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the US Library of Congress writes, ‘specific file format action plans are not very common’, and when created are often subject to constant revision. Nevertheless he argues that devising action plans can ‘be more than just an “analysis of risk.” It could contain actionable information about software and formats which could be a major resource for the busy data manager.’

Other Preservation Challenges

Analogue to Digital Converter close upWhat 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.

Audio Noise Reduction and Finn’s World War Two Stories

Monday, September 16th, 2013

We get a range of tape and video recordings to digitise at the Great Bear. Our attention is captured daily by things which are often unusual, interesting and historically significant in their own way.

Last week we received a recording of Pilot Officer Edwin Aldridge ‘Finn’ Haddock talking about his experiences in the Second World War. Finn, who has since passed away,  had made the tape in preparation for a talk he was doing at a local school, using the recording in order to rehearse his memories.

Despite the dramatic nature of the story where he is shot down in Northern France, sheltered by the French resistance and captured by the Germans, it is told in a remarkably matter of fact, detached manner. This is probably because the recording was made with no specific audience in mind, but was used to prompt his talk.

Finn’s story gives us a small insight into the bravery and resilience of people in such exceptional circumstances. The recording tells us what happened in vivid terms, from everyday facts such as what he ate during his shelter and capture to mass executions conducted by the Gestapo.

The now digitised tape recording, which was sent to us by his niece, will be shared among family members and a copy deposited with the local history club in Wheatley Hill, where Finn was born.

Finn was also interviewed by the Imperial War Museum about his experiences, which can be accessed if you click on this link.

On a technical note, when we were sent the tape we were asked if we could reduce the noise and otherwise ‘clean up’ the recording. While the question of how far it is reasonable to change the original recording remains an important consideration for those involved in digital archiving work, as was discussed last week on the Great Bear tape blog, there are some things which can be done if there is excessive hiss or other forms of noise on a recording.

screen grab of spectogram from Izotope RX of an audio file

The first step is to remove transient noise which manifest as clicks and pops which can affect the audibility of the recording. Family home recordings that were made with cheap tape recorders and microphones often picked up knocks and bangs, and there were some on Finn’s tape that were most probably the result of him moving around as he recorded his story.

The second step is to deploy broadband noise reduction, which removes noise across the audio spectrum. To do this we use high pass and low pass filters which effectively smooth off unwanted noise at either end of the frequency range. The limited frequency range of the male voice means that it is acceptable to employ filters at 50 Hz (high pass) and 8000 Hz (low pass) and this will not affect the integrity of the recording.

It is important to remember that noise reduction is always a bit of a compromise because you don’t want to clean something up to the extent that it sounds completely artificial. This is why it is important to keep the ‘raw’ transfer as well as an uncompressed edited version because we do not know what noise reduction techniques may be available in five, ten or twenty years from now. Although we have a lot of experience in achieving high quality digital transfers at the Great Bear, any editing we do to a transfer is only one person’s interpretation of what sounds clear or appropriate. We therefore always err on the side of caution and provide customers with copies of uncompressed raw, edited and compressed access copies of digitised files.

Finn’s story noise reduced

The ‘raw’ transfer

A further problem in noise reduction work is that it is possible to push noise reduction technology too much so that you end up creating ‘artefacts’ in the recording. Artefacts are fundamental alterations of the sound quality in ways that are inappropriate for digitisation work.

Another thing to consider is destructive and non-destructive editing. Destructive editing is when a recording has been processed in software and changed irrevocably. Non-destructive editing, not surprisingly, is reversible, and Samplitude, the software we use at the Great Bear, can save all the alterations made to the file so if certain editing steps need to be undone they can be.

Again, while in essence the principles of digital transfer are simple, the intricacies of the work are what makes it challenging and time consuming. 

 

Digitising & Restoring Personal Archives – 1/4 inch reel to reel audio tape

Monday, May 13th, 2013

In today’s digital society most people have an archive. On personal computers, tablets and mobile devices we store, create and share vast amounts of information. We use archives to tell others about our lives, and the things that are important to us.

Gone are the days when archives were dusty, dark places where experts went to research esoteric knowledge. Archives are everywhere. They are dynamic, digital and personal, as well as being institutional, historical, corporate and civic.

The creation of personal archives is of course nothing new, but the digital age forces us to have a far more intimate relationship with information, and its organisation. Put simply, there is loads more information, and if it isn’t collected in a systematic way you may well drown in a sea of your own, not to mention everybody else’s, data. Maybe this is happening to you right now! If so, you need to embrace the archival moment and get your own collections in shape.

Part of this everyday information management is migrating archives stored on obsolete formats, such as the many different types of analogue and digital magnetic tape we work with at Great Bear. Digitising tape gives it new life, allowing it to be easily circulated, shared and used with today’s technologies.

A significant amount of the Great Bear’s work involves digitising the diverse collections people produce in their everyday working, creative and social lives.

Here are two recent digitisation projects which are a good example of our work.

Swansea Sound 1976

1/4 inch tape with water damage on the box

We were sent a number of ¼ inch reel to reel Scotch 3M tape ‘made for the BBC’ tape, recorded at the rate of 7 ½ inches per second from local radio station Swansea Sound in 1976. The tapes were all in good condition, although the boxes had some evidence of water damage. Over time the tension in the tape pack had also changed, so they required careful re-spooling before being played.

The recordings were fascinating to digitise because they communicated how little the format of radio programmes have changed since the late 1970s. Jingles, news reports, chat and music were all part of the show, and anyone familiar with BBC Radio 2 would certainly enjoy the recordings, that still seem to be played every Saturday morning!

Brian Pimm-Smith’s recording diaries and tape letters

A collection of Brian’s 1/4 inch tapes

Another collection was sent to us from Brian Pimm-Smith. Brian enthusiastically documented his life and work activities using a Uher open reel portable tape recorder which he acquired in 1963.  The box included many ¼ inch tapes that could record up to 10 minutes at 3 and ¾ inches per second. These tapes could also record up to 4 mono tracks at 10 minutes each, allowing for storage of up to forty minutes at a time. The main bulk of the collection is a series of spoken letters sent to and from Pimm-Smith and his parents, who between them lived in Britain, Pakistan, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Japan and Saudi-Arabia, but it also includes recordings of when Brian worked taking weather measurements for the British Antarctic Survey.

Some of the 1/4 inch tapes were marketed by companies such as Scotch and EMI specifically to be used as ‘voice letters’ that ‘links absent friends’. Despite this Pimm-Smith said that making such recordings was pretty rare, something ‘quite out there’ for most people. Brian’s mother nonetheless embraced the activity, as they shared correspondence back and forth between wherever they lived at the time.

Pimm 2

Voice Letters

The 1/4 inch tape boxes in themselves are a colourful record of international postage in the late 1960s. Sent from Pakistan, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Saudi Arabia, Australia and Japan, the small boxes are plastered with stamps. The boxes were reinforced with sellotape to ensure the contents didn’t fall out (which is still stuck fast to the boxes, by the way, clearly demonstrating the surprising longevity of some forms of sticky tape). Pimm-Smith’s tapes are fascinating objects in themselves that bear the marks of travel through space in the form of postal stamp marks, and time, as they sit on the desk now in the Great Bear Studio.

Perhaps the most exciting and unique recording Brian has kept is the audio diary of his trip through the Sahara desert. For the trip Brian drove an early 70s Range Rover which had a cassette player-recorder, a technological device only available in Africa which used audio cassette tapes. This enabled him to document his impressions as he drove along. Brian describes how he had taken a portable typewriter with the intention of keeping a written diary, but he used the tape recorder because it was more ‘immediate.’ On hearing the digitised tapes Brian was amazed at how clear the recordings sound today, particularly because he was driving at the same time and there was likely to be background noise. You can hear the hum of the car engine in the extract below, but the voice is still clearly very audible.

http://www.thegreatbear.net/wp-content/uploads/blog-example-cassette-tape-1.mp3

Listen to Brian talk about problems with his tyre as he drove across the Sahara Desert in 1976

The stories Swansea Sound radio and Pimm-Smith’s collection tell are part of wider social histories. They tell us about communities and places, as well as the continuities of style in broadcast radio. They tell us how people used analogue tape recordings to document personal adventures and communicate with families who lived in different countries.

Both tapes are examples of the sheer diversity of personal, magnetic tape based archives that people have been keeping for years, and which we digitise at the Great Bear. Brian Pimm-Smith contacted Great Bear because he wanted to make his tapes accessible, and preserve them for future use. He is hoping one day to write a book from his many adventures and these recordings can now remind him not only of what he did, but how he felt in the moment he made them.


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