Posts Tagged ‘reel to reel’

Reel-to-reel transfer of Anthony Rye, Selborne’s nature poet

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

We have recently transferred a number of recordings of the poet, Anthony Rye, reading his work. The tapes were sent by his Grandson Gabriel who was kind enough to tell us a bit more about Anthony’s life and work.

‘Anthony Francis Rye is intimately associated with the Hampshire village of Selborne, a village made famous by Gilbert White and his book, Natural History of Selborne.

The Rye family has been here since the end of the 19th century and Anthony came to live here in the 1940s with his wife, in the house I now live in.

Among his books of poems are The Inn of the Birds (1947), Poems from Selborne (1961) and To A Modern Hero (1957). He was an illustrator and trained as an engraver and illustrated The Inn of the Birds himself, of which he said the poems “…were written to make people more alive to the spirit of bird-life and to the nature of birds generally. It was hoped to communicate something of the intense pleasure in birds felt by the author, and at the same time, by emphasizing their strange remote quality without destroying the sense of their being our fellow creatures…”Jacket cover depicting a hand drawn rural scene with people walking

His poem ‘The Shadow on the Lyth’ from Poems from Selborne, invokes a dark moment in Selborne’s history when it was proposed by the council to put a much needed sewage works at the bottom of Church Meadow, thus ruining one of the most beautiful settings in Hampshire – one beloved of natural historian Gilbert White. Anthony Rye fought this and after a long struggle managed to have the works re-sited out of sight.’

Gilbert White’s life and work was a significant influence on Rye’s work and in 1970 he published the book Gilbert White and his Selborne.

Although the BBC has previously broadcast Rye’s poems, Gabriel tell us that these particular recordings have not been. Until now the recordings have been stored in Arthur’s house; migrating them to digital files is an exciting opportunity for family members, but also hopefully wider audiences, to access Rye’s work.

 

Listen to Anthony Rye reading his poems, with thanks to Gabriel for granting permission

Recording technologies in history

75SonyBrochure02

Arthur Jolland, a nature photographer and friend of the poet made the recordings on a SONY 800B, a portable reel-to-reel tape machine described by SONY as ‘compact, convenient and capable, a natural for both business and pleasure.’

The machine, which used a ‘ServoControl Motor; the same type of motor used is missile guidance control systems where critical timing accuracy is a must,’ is historically notorious for its use by US President Richard Nixon who racked up 3,700-4,000 hours of recordings that would later implicate him during the Watergate Scandal.

Sahr Conway-Lanz explains that ‘room noise may constitute roughly one quarter of the total hours of recorded sound’ because tape machines recorded at the super slow speed of 15/16 of an inch per second ‘in order to maximize the recording time on each tape’ (547-549).

Decreasing the speed of a tape recording causes a uniform reduction in the linearity of response, resulting in more hiss and dropouts. If you listen to the recordings made by Nixon, it is pretty hard to discern what is being said without reference to the transcripts.

The transfer process

There were no big issues with the condition of the Anthony Rye tapes other than a small amount of loose binder shedding. This was easily solved by dry cleaning with pellon fabric prior to digitization.

Although in some cases playing back tapes on exactly the same machine as it was recorded on is desirable (particularly so with DAT transfers), we migrated the recordings using our SONY APR 5003. Sony APR 5003v headblock closeup, with tape laced up

Using a technically superior model, one of the few large format professional reel-to-reel machines SONY manufactured, mitigates the extent errors are added to the recording as part of the transfer process. Furthermore, the greater flexibility and control offered with the 5003 makes it easier to accurately replay tapes recorded on machines that had lower specifications.

Another slight adjustment was attaching longer leader tape to the front and end of the tape. This is because the Sony APR 5003 has a much longer tape path than the 800B, and if this isn’t done material can be lost from the beginning and end of the recording.

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The journeys we have been on above – from the natural history of a Hampshire village seen through the eyes of largely unknown poet to the Watergate scandal – is another example of the diverse technical, cultural and historical worlds that are opened up by the ‘mysterious little reddish-brown ribbon‘ and its playback mechanisms.

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.

Significant properties – technical challenges for digital preservation

Monday, April 28th, 2014

A consistent focus of our blog is the technical and theoretical issues that emerge in the world of digital preservation. For example, we have explored the challenges archivists face when they have to appraise collections in order to select what materials are kept, and what are thrown away. Such complex questions take on specific dimensions within the world of digital preservation.

If you work in digital preservation then the term ‘significant properties’ will no doubt be familiar to you. The concept has been viewed as a hindrance due to being shrouded by foggy terminology, as well as a distinct impossibility because of the diversity of digital objects in the world which, like their analogue counterparts, cannot be universally generalised or reduced to a series of measurable characteristics.

Cleaning an open reel-to-reel tape

In a technical sense, establishing a set of core characteristics for file formats has been important for initiatives like Archivematica, ‘a free and open-source digital preservation system that is designed to maintain standards-based, long-term access to collections of digital objects.’ Archivematica implement ‘default format policies based on an analysis of the significant characteristics of file formats.’ These systems manage digital information using an ‘agile software development methodology’ which ‘is focused on rapid, iterative release cycles, each of which improves upon the system’s architecture, requirements, tools, documentation, and development resources.’

Such a philosophy may elicit groans of frustration from information managers who may well want to leave their digital collections alone, and practice a culture of non-intervention. Yet this adaptive-style of project management, which is designed to respond rapidly to change, is often contrasted with predictive development that focuses on risk assessment and the planning of long-term projects. The argument against predictive methodologies is that, as a management model, it can be unwieldy and unresponsive to change. This can have damaging financial consequences, particularly when investing in expensive, risky and large scale digital preservation projects, as the BBC’s failed DMI initiative demonstrates.

Indeed, agile software development methodology may well be an important key to the sustainability of digital preservation systems which need to find practical ways of maneuvering technological innovations and the culture of perpetual upgrade. Agility in this context is synonymous with resilience, and the practical application of significant properties as a means to align file format interoperability offers a welcome anchor for a technological environment structured by persistent change.

Significant properties vs the authentic digital object

What significant properties imply, as archival concept and practice, is that desiring authenticity for the digitised and born-digital objects we create is likely to end in frustration. Simply put, preserving all the information that makes up a digital object is a hugely complex affair, and is a procedure that will require numerous and context-specific technical infrastructures.

As Trevor Owens explains: ‘you can’t just “preserve it” because the essence of what matters about “it” is something that is contextually dependent on the way of being and seeing in the world that you have decided to privilege.’ Owens uses the example of the Geocites web archiving project to demonstrate that if you don’t have the correct, let’s say ‘authentic’ tools to interpret a digital object (in this case, a website that is only discernible on certain browsers), you simply cannot see the information accurately. Part of the signal is always missing, even if something ‘significant’ remains (the text or parts of the graphics).

It may be desirable ‘to preserve all aspects of the platform in order to get at the historicity of the media practice’, Jonathan Sterne, author of MP3: Meaning of a Format suggests, but in a world that constantly displaces old technological knowledge with new, settling for the preservation of significant properties may be a pragmatic rather than ideal solution.

Analogue to digital issues

To bring these issues back to the tape we work we with at Great Bear, there are of course times when it is important to use the appropriate hardware to play the tapes back, and there is a certain amount of historically specific technical knowledge required to make the machines work in the first place. We often wonder what will happen to the specialised knowledge learnt by media engineers in the 70s, 80s and 90s, who operated tape machines that are now obsolete. There is the risk that when those people die, the knowledge will die with them. Of course it is possible to get hold of operating manuals, but this is by no means a guarantee that the mechanical techniques will be understood within a historical context that is increasingly tape-less and software-based.  By keeping our wide selection of audio and video tape machines purring, we are sustaining a machinic-industrial folk knowledge which ultimately helps to keep our customer’s magnetic tape-based, media memories, alive.

Of course a certain degree of historical accuracy is required in the transfers because, very obviously, you can’t play a V2000 tape on a VHS machine, no matter how hard you try!

Yet the need to play back tapes on exactly the same machine becomes less important in instances where the original tape was recorded on a domestic reel-to-reel recorder, such as the Grundig TK series, which may not have been of the greatest quality in the first place. To get the best digital transfer it is desirable to play back tapes on a machine with higher specifications that can read the magnetic information on the tape as fully as possible. This is because you don’t want to add any more errors to the tape in the transfer process by playing it back on a lower quality machine, which would then of course become part of the digitised signal.

It is actually very difficult to remove things like wow and flutter after a tape has been digitised, so it is far better to ensure machines are calibrated appropriately before the tape is migrated, even if the tape was not originally recorded on a machine with professional specifications. What is ultimately at stake in transferring analogue tape to digital formats is the quality of the signal. Absolute authenticity is incidental here, particularly if things sound bad.

The moral of this story, if there can be one, is that with any act of transmission, the recorded signal is liable to change. These can be slight alterations or huge drop-outs and everything in-between. The agile software developers know that given the technological conditions in which current knowledge is produced and preserved, transformation is inevitable and must be responded to. Perhaps it is realistic to assume this is the norm in society today, and creating digital preservation systems that are adaptive is key to the survival of information, as well as accepting that preserving the ‘full picture’ cannot always be guaranteed.

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.

Seeing tracks: viewing magnetic information as an aid for tape digitisation

Monday, April 14th, 2014
Magnetic viewer pressed up against a tape displaying the magnetic information

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.

Multi-track tape machine

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.

reel to reel audio tape restoration and digitising of Manchester Oi! band State Victims

Monday, February 17th, 2014

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.

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.

End of year thank yous to our customers

Monday, December 16th, 2013

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.

Throughout the year we have been transported to a breathtaking array of places and situations via the ‘mysterious little reddish-brown ribbon.’ Spoken word has featured heavily, with highlights including Brian Pimm-Smith‘s recordings of his drive across the Sahara desert, Pilot Officer Edwin Aldridge ‘Finn’ Haddock’s memories of World-War Two, and poet Paul Roche reading his translation of Sophocles’ Antigone.

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.

Rack of three digital multi-track machines 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.

We have been developing the blog into a source of information and advice for our customers, particularly relating to issues such as copyright and compression/ digital format delivery. We hope you have found it useful!

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.

Paul Roche recordings & preservation challenges with acetate reel-to-reel magnetic tape

Monday, November 25th, 2013

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.

Paul Roche's Tape BoxWhen 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!

Voice Letter – Analogue Reel-to-Reel Tape Transfer

Monday, November 18th, 2013

What can the packaging of a tape object tell you?

Grandma's voice and all of us, Xmas, Audre Boxing Day 1962

Even before a tape is played back prior to transfer the packaging can tell you a lot about how and where it has been stored, and what it was used for.

Whether the boxes include sparse notation or are covered in stamps from countries across the world, the places where the tape has been, and the personality of its owners, sometimes shines through.

The packaging can also provide insight about the cultural context of tape, like this 3″ spool that was marketed to link ‘absent friends’. The space on the back of the box to affix a stamp (that remains empty), shows how these tapes were posted to friends and family who lived far away from each other, prior to the introduction of the telephone.

The back of the tape indicates how it was used to record family gatherings, with precious recordings of ‘Grandma’s voice’ and ‘all of us’ together on rare occasions such as ‘Boxing Day 1962?’ And perhaps further recordings five years later, with the warning of the tape’s special content: ‘Elaine Don’t You Touch’, preventing further use.

 

Jack Hollingshead’s lost Apple recordings on reel-to-reel tape

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Digital technologies have helped to salvage all manner of ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ recordings. Whole record labels, from the recently featured Bristol Archive Records to institutional collections like Smithsonian Folkways, are based on the principle of making ‘hard to access’ recordings available in digital form.

A box crammed with dusty reel-to-reel tapes of different sizes

Occasionally we get such rare recordings in the Great Bear studio, and we are happy to turn the signal from analogue to digital so the music can be heard by new audiences. Last week we were sent a particularly interesting collection of tapes: a box of nearly 40 3”-10.5” reel to reel tapes from the songwriter and artist Jack Hollingshead, who sadly passed away in March 2013. The tapes are in good condition, although the spools are pretty dirty, most probably from being stored under the bed or at the back of a cupboard, as these things often are! Jack’s tape came to our attention after a phone call from the writer Stefan Granados, who wanted to arrange for a few songs to be digitised for a research project he is doing focused around the Beatles’ Apple Records company.

The Beatles set up Apple Records in 1968 as an outlet for their own and emerging artists’ recordings. Well known performers who were signed to Apple included Mary Hopkin, Ravi Shankar, James Taylor and many others. But there were also a number of artists who recorded sessions with Apple, but for one reason or another, their music was never released on the label. This is what happened to Jack’s music. Jack’s Apple sessions are psychedelic pop-folk songs with striking melodies, song cousins of drowsy Beatles hits like ‘Across the Universe’. He recorded seven songs in total, which we received on magnetic tape and acetate disc, the test cut of the recording that would have been printed on vinyl. We digitised from the magnetic tape because the disc was in fairly poor condition and we didn’t know how many times the disc had been played.

Listen to ‘Vote for ME’ by Jack Hollingshead

Jack Hollingshead_Acetate_Angle

 

It wasn’t the first time that Jack’s work had aroused record company interest. When he was 16 he signed a contract with Aberbach publishers. Like his experience with Apple a few years later, nothing came of the sessions, and because the companies owned the recordings, he was not able to release them independently.

Jack soon became very frustrated by the record industry in the late 1960s and decided he would do it himself. This was ten years before home recording became widely accessible, so it was not easy, either financially or technically.

In the 1970s a series of serious accidents, and a spell in prison, proved to be disruptive for his musical career. Jack’s prison sentence, received for growing marijuana he was using for medical pain relief purposes, was however fairly positive. It gave him time to focus on playing guitar and he wrote his best songs while incarcerated.

Jack Hollingshead_acetate_back

The back of a test acetate is grooveless

He continued to write and record music throughout his life, and there is a significant amount of material that Trina Grygiel, who is responsible for managing Jack’s estate, is determined to organise and release in his memory.

Jack was also prodigiously talented artist in other mediums, and turned his hand to puppet making, wax painting, gardening and property restoration. His obituary described him as a ‘perfectionist, in all his artistic, creative and practical endeavours he would settle for nothing less.’

Bristol Archive Records – ¼ inch studio master tapes, ½ inch 8 track multi-track tapes, audio cassettes, DAT recordings and Betamax digital audio recordings

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Bristol Archive Records is more than a record label. It releases music, books and through its website, documents the history of Bristol’s punk and reggae scenes from 1977 onwards. You can get lost for hours trawling through the scans of rare zines and photographs, profiles of record labels, bands, discographies and gig lists. Its a huge amount of work that keeps on expanding as more tapes are found, lurking in basements or at that unforeseen place at the back of the wardrobe.

REVELATION-ROCKERS-ARC242V-Cover

Great Bear has the privilege of being the go-to digitisation service for Bristol Archive Records, and many of the albums that grace the record store shelves of Bristol and beyond found their second digital life in the Great Bear Studio.

BLACK-ROOTS-Antholgy-cover

The tapes that Mike Darby has given us to digitise include ¼ inch studio master tapes, ½ inch 8 track multi-track tapes, audio cassettes, DAT recordings and Betamax digital audio recordings. The recordings were mostly made at home or in small commercial studios, often they were not stored in the best conditions.  Some are demos, or other material which has never been released before.  Many were recorded on Ampex tape, and therefore needed to be baked before they were played back, and we also had to deal with other physical problems with the tape, such as mold, but they have all, thankfully, been fixable.

After transfers we supply high quality WAV files as individual tracks or ‘stems’ to label manager Mike Darby, which are then re-mastered before they are released on CD, vinyl or downloads.

Bristol Archive Records have done an amazing job ensuring the cultural history of Bristol’s music scenes are not forgotten. As Mike explains in an interview on Stamp the Wax:

‘I’m trying to give a bit of respect to any individual that played in any band that we can find any music from. However famous or successful they were is irrelevant. For me it’s about acknowledging their existence. It’s not saying they were brilliant, some of it was not very good at all, but it’s about them having their two seconds of “I was in that scene”.’

electric_guitars-cover

While Darby admits in the interview that Bristol Archive Records is not exactly a money spinner, the cultural value of these recordings are immeasurable. We are delighted to be part of the wider project and hope that these rare tapes continue to be found so that contemporary audiences can enjoy the musical legacies of Bristol.

7″ 8 track reel to reel tapes recorded on a Fostex A8

Monday, September 30th, 2013

We were recently sent a collection of 7″ 8-track reel-to-reel tapes. All the 8-track tapes were recorded using Dolby C noise reduction on a Fostex A8 machine. They haven’t been stored in optimum conditions and as many were recorded on AMPEX tape, they need to be baked prior to transfer in order to treat their probable binder hydrolysis.

Ampex 7" Tapes

The A-8 was part of the home recording revolution that took the 80s by storm. The A-8 in particular was popular because it was the first machine to offer eight tracks on just one 1/4″ tape. The machine, like its ‘first mate’ the 350 Mixer, were not meant for professionals but enthusiastic amateurs who were happy to work things out themselves. ‘Sure you won’t know everything right off. But you won’t have to. Just hook up to the 350 (our instructions are easy and explicit) and go to work. You can learn the key to incredible flexibility as you go. While you are working on your music. Not before,’ were the encouraging words in the 350 mixer manual.

Fostex_A-8LR

Products like the Fostex A-8 enabled bands and artists who would never have got a commercial record deal to record their music. All sorts of weird and wonderful sounds were recorded on multi-track tape recorders, and they often received airplay on John Peel‘s radio shows.

When we transfer reel-to-reel multi-track tapes we save each stem individually, so you can remix the recordings digitally if you want to. If you spent far too much time in the early 80s playing with your home studio and have a load of old tapes lying in your cupboard, we can help give them a new lease of life. With Ampex tapes in particular, it is critical to transfer them now because they will deteriorate quickly if action is not taken soon.

Magnetic Reel to Reel Tape and New Transfer Machines – Pictures from the Great Bear Studio

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

The Great Bear studio always has a wealth of interesting material in it, that somehow have survived the test of time.

EMI and Scotch Magnetic Recording tape

From racks stacked full of obsolete audio and video tape machines, to the infinite varieties of reel-to-reel tape that were produced by companies such as Scotch, E.M.I. and Irish Recording Tape.

As objects in themselves they are fascinating, instilled with the dual qualities of fragility and resilience, the boxes worn at the edges and sometimes marked with stamps, identificatory stickers or scrawled, handwritten notes.

A selection of ‘audio letters’ sent to us by a customer

 

The latest addition to the Great Bear Studio – the Fostex Model 80 8 Track Recorder

Sony V62 EIAJ reel to reel video tape transfer for Barrie Hesketh

Monday, July 8th, 2013

We have recently been sent a Sony V62 high density video tape by Barrie Hesketh. Barrie has had an active career in theatre and in 1966 he set up the Mull Little Theatre on the Isle of Mull off the West Coast of Scotland with his late wife Marianne Hesketh. Specialising in what Barrie calls the ‘imaginative use of nothing’ they toured the UK, Germany and Holland and gained a lot of publicity world wide in the process. Both Marianne and Barrie were awarded MBEs for their services to Scottish Theatre.

You can read a more detailed history of the Mull Little Theatre in this book written by Barrie.

Panasonic VTR NV-8030 transferring a tape

The video tape Barrie sent us came from when he and Marianne were working as actors in residence at Churchill College at Cambridge University. Barrie and Marianne had what Barrie described as ‘academic leanings,’ gained from their time as students at the Central College of Speech and Drama in London.

In a letter Barrie sent with the tape he wrote:

‘I own a copy of a video tape recording made for me by the University of Cambridge video unit in 1979. I was researching audience/actors responses and the recording shows the audience on the top half of the picture, and the actors on the bottom half – I have not seen the stuff for years, but have recently been asked about it.’

While audience research is a fairly common practice now in the Creative Arts, in 1979 Barrie’s work was pioneering. Barrie was very aware of audience’s interests when he performed, and was keen to identify what he calls ‘the cool part’ of the audience, and find out ways to ‘warm them up.’

Recording audience responses was a means to sharpen the attention of actors. He was particularly interested in the research to identify ‘includers’. These were individuals who influenced the wider audience by picking up intentions of the performers and clearly responding. The movement of this individual (who would look around from time to time to see if other people ‘got it’), would be picked up in the peripheral vision of other audience members and an awareness gradually trickled throughout. Seeing such behaviour helped Barrie to understand how to engage audiences in his subsequent work.

Screenshot of the Audience Reactions

Barrie’s tape would have been recorded on one of the later reel-to-reel tape machines that conformed to the EIAJ Standard.

The EIAJ-1 was developed in 1969 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.

Prior to the introduction of the standard, tapes could not be interchanged between comparable models made by different manufacturers. The EIAJ standard changed all this, and certainly makes the job of transferring tapes easier for us today! Imagine the difficulties we would face if we had to get exactly the right machine for each tape transfer. It would probably magnify the problem of tape and machine obsolescence effecting magnetic tape collections.

In the Great Bear Studio we have the National Panasonic Time Lapse VTR NV-8030 and Hitachi SV-640.

Diagram of a  Panasonic VTR NV-8030

Like Ampex tapes, all the Sony EIAJ tape tend to suffer from sticky shed syndrome caused by absorption of moisture into the binder of the tape. Tapes need to be dehydrated and cleaned before being played back, as we did with Barrie’s tape.

The tape is now being transferred and Barrie intends to give copies to his sons. It will also be used by Dr Richard Trim in an academic research project. In both cases it is gratifying to give the these video tapes a new lease of life through digitisation. No doubt they will be of real interest to Barrie’s family and the wider research community.

4 track 1/4 inch reel to reel tape recorded in mono – The Couriers Folk Club, Leicester

Monday, July 1st, 2013

We were recently sent a ¼ inch tape by Ed Bates that included recordings from the Couriers Folk Club in Leicester,  which ran from Autumn 1964 – June 1974.

The tape features performances from The Couriers (Jack Harris and Rex Brisland), George and Thadeus Kaye, Bill Pickering, Mark Newman and Mick Odam.

Jack Harris, who alongside Rex Brisland ran the club, describes how ‘traditional singers like Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and Pete Seeger, Bob Davenport were regular visitors together with ageing ploughboys, miners and fishermen who were often so infirm or unlikely to make their own way to Leicester they had to be fetched by car.’

As well as supporting grassroots folk music from the local area, well known performers such as musical superstar Barbara Dickson, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell graced the stage.

Inside of tape box, The Couriers live at the Couriers Folk Club Whyte Swan 6.8.66.

The tape recordings we received span five years. The first recording was made on 6 August 1966, then 3 September 1966, 8 February 1970 and finally 9 April 1971.

Each performance was recorded on a separate track in mono. This means that the 7” long spool contains 8 hours of music!

Like today’s MP3 digital files, the quality of the recorded sound is compromised because so much information is squeezed into a smaller space on the tape. A better quality recording would have been made if all four channels were used for a single performance, rather than one track for each performance.

The speed at which recordings were made also effects the quality of the recordings, simply because you can record more information per second at a faster rate. The tapes we were sent were recorded at 7 ½ per second on what is likely to have been a domestic tape recorder such as the Sony TC-263D. Ed’s letter to us speaks volumes about the conditions in which the recordings were made:

‘I was present at the Couriers Folk Club in Leicester when they were recorded so I can say that the recording quality is not good. The Sony recorder was used as an amplifier and on some occasions (if someone remembered) a tape was recorded.’

While the recordings certainly would have benefited from less haphazard recording conditions, the quality of the transfer is surprisingly crisp, as you can hear from this excerpt.

Excerpt from the digitised recordings of the Couriers folk club

The tape was in good condition, as Philips magnetic reel-to-reel tape often survives well over time, which aided a good transfer. One thing we were especially attentive to in the transfer process was carefully adjusting the azimuth, because of the slow speed of the original recording and the narrow track width.

Diagram of how to record on magnetic tape using a 4 track recorder, demonstrating a 1/4 inch tape divided into four lines on which each track can be recorded

Image taken from the BASF magnetic tape manual that  illustrates  how  four tracks can be recorded on magnetic tape

The emergence of recordings of the Couriers Club is especially timely given the recent launch of the English and Folk Dance Society‘s The Full English online digital archive . This contains a massive 44,000 records and over 58,000 digitised images about English folk history.

With a dozen or more tapes recently found from the Club, we look forward to helping this unique part of cultural heritage become accessible again.


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