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.
The NAB Cartridge (named after the National Association of Broadcasters) was a mainstay of radio broadcasting from the late 1950s-1990s. It was replaced by the mini disc and computerised broadcast automatons.
NAB Cartridges were used primarily for jingles, station identifications, commercials and music. Each cartridge comprised of several recordings of the same, short jingle. Mechanically the tape is designed to play on an endless loop. This required limited manual operation such as rewinding or fast-forwarding, and enabled short recordings to be accessed efficiently and accurately during live broadcasts.
Because they were used in broadcast NAB Cartridges often used the best quality tape available at the time which was usually AMPEX. As readers of the blog will know, this is bad news if you want to listen to the tape a few years down the line. We baked the tapes so they could be played back again, and were then transferred using a SONIFEX HS Cartridge player.
You can listen to one of the incredibly cheesy jingles below!
An important part of digitisation work we do is tape restoration. Often customers send us tape that have been stored in less than ideal conditions that are either too hot, cold or damp, which can lead to degradation.
In the excellent Council on Library and Information Sources’ report on Magnetic Storage and Handling (1995), they set the ideal archival storage conditions for magnetic tape at ‘significantly lower than room ambient (as low as 5 centrigade)’, with no less than 4 degrees variation in temperature at 20% room humidity. They suggest that ‘the conditions are specifically designed to reduce the rate of media deterioration through a lowering of the temperature and humidity content of the media.’
Of course most people do not have access to such temperature controlled environments, or are necessarily thinking about the future when they store their tape at home. Sometimes manufacturers recommended to store tape in a ‘cool, dark place’, but often tape is not adorned with any such advice. This leads to us receiving a lot of damaged tape!
As we are keen to emphasise to customers, it is possible to salvage most recordings made on magnetic analogue tape that appear to be seriously damaged, it just requires a lot more time and attention.
For example, we were recently sent a collection of 3” multi-track tapes that had been stored in fairly bad conditions. Nearly all the tapes were degraded and needed to be treated. A significant number of these tapes were AMPEX so were suffering from binder hydrolysis, a.k.a. sticky shed syndrome in the digitisation world. This is a chemical process where binder polymers used in magnetic tape constructions become fragmented because the tape has absorbed water from its immediate environment. When this happens tapes become sticky and sheds when it is played back.
Baking the AMPEX tapes is a temporary treatment for binder hydrolysis, and after baking they need to be migrated to digital format as soon as possible (no more than two weeks is recommended). Baking is by no means a universal treatment for all tapes – sticky shed occurs due to the specific chemicals AMPEX used in their magnetic tape.
Cleaning shedding tape
Other problems occur that require different kinds of treatment. For example, some of the 3” collection weren’t suffering from sticky shed syndrome but were still shedding. We were forewarned by notes on the box:
The tapes recorded on TDK were particularly bad, largely because of poor storage conditions. There was so much loose binder on these tapes that they needed cleaning 5 or 6 times before we could get a good playback.
We use an adapted Studer A 80 solely for cleaning purposes. Tape is carefully wound and rewound and interlining curtain fabric is used to clean each section of the tape. The photo below demonstrates the extent of the tape shedding, both by the dirty marks on fabric, and the amount we have used to clean the collection.
You might think rigorous cleaning risks severely damaging the quality of the tape, but it is surprising how clear all the tapes have sounded on playback. The simple truth is, the only way to deal with dry shedding is to apply such treatment because it simply won’t be able to playback clearly through the machine if it is dirty.
Loss of lubricant
Another problem we have dealt with has been the loss of lubricant in the tape binder. Tape binder is made up of a number of chemicals that include lubricant reservoirs, polymers and magnetic particles.
Lubricants are normally added to the binder to reduce the friction of the magnetic topcoat layer of the tape. Over time, the level of the lubricant decreases because it is worn down every time the tape is played, potentially leading to tape seizures in the transport device due to high friction.
In such circumstances it is necessary to carefully re-lubricate the tape to ensure that it can run smoothly past the tape heads and play back. Lubrication must be done sparingly because the tape needs to be moist enough to function effectively, but not too wet so it exacerbates clogging in the tape head mechanism.
Restoration work can be very time consuming. Even though each 3″ tape plays for around 20 minutes, the preparation of tapes can take a lot longer.
Another thing to consider is these are multi-track recordings: eight tracks are being squeezed onto a 1/4″ tape. This means that it only takes a small amount of debris to come off, block the tape heads, dull the high frequencies and ultimately compromise the transfer quality.
It is important, therefore, to ensure tapes are baked, lubricated or cleaned, and heads are clear on the playback mechanism so the clarity of the recording can realised in the transfer process.
Now we’ve explored the technical life of the tape in detail, what about the content? If you are a regular visitor to this blog you will know we get a lot of really interesting tape to transfer that often has a great story behind it. We contacted Richard Blackborow, who sent the tapes, to tell us more. We were taken back to the world of late 80s indie-pop, John Peel Sessions, do it yourself record labels and a loving relationship with an 8 track recorder.
A Short History of BOBby Richard Blackborow
Back in 1983 I was a 17 year old aspiring drummer, still at school in North London and in an amateur band. Happily for me, at that time, my eldest brother, also a keen musician, bought a small cottage in a village called Banwell, which is 20 or so miles outside of Bristol, near Weston Super Mare. He moved there to be near his work. The cottage had a big attic room and he installed a modest 8-track studio into it so that he could record his own music during his spare time. The studio was based around a new Fostex A8 reel-to-reel machine and the little mixing desk that came with it.
The equipment fascinated me and I was a regular visitor to his place to learn how to use it and to start recording my own music when he wasn’t using it.
Skip forward a couple of years and I am now 19, out of school, deferring my place at university and in a new band with an old friend, Simon Armstrong. My brother’s work now takes him increasingly abroad, so the studio is just sitting there doing nothing. Simon and I begin to write songs with the express intention of going to Banwell every time we had a decent number of tunes to record. Over the next ten years it becomes part of the routine of our lives! We formed a band called BOB in 1986, and although we still lived in London, we spent a lot of time in that small studio in Banwell – writing, recording demos, having wild parties! By this time my brother had moved to the US, leaving me with open access to his little studio.
To cut a long story short, we loved that little studio and wrote and recorded some 300 songs over the ensuing 10 years…the studio gear finally dying in about 1995. Most recordings were for/by BOB, but I also recorded bands called The Siddeleys and Reserve (amongst others).
The tapes we recorded have been lying around for years, waiting to be saved!
Recent interest in BOB has resulted in plans to release two double CDs. The first contains a re-issued album, all the BBC sessions and a few rarities. The second CD, planned for next year, will contain all of the BOB singles, plus a whole CD of the best of those demos we recorded. It was for this reason that all of those old tapes were sent to Adrian to be transferred to digital. I now have a studio near my home in West Cornwall, close to Land’s End, where I will be mixing all the material that Great Bear have been working on. The demos map our progression from pretty rubbish schoolboy aspirants to reasonably accomplished songwriters. Some of the material is just embarrassing, but a good chunk is work I am still proud of. We were very prolific and the sheer number of reels that Adrian has transferred is testament to that. There is enough material there for a number of CDs, and only time will tell how much is finally released.
Listen to the recently transferred Convenience demo
This is a bit of a rarity! It’s the demo (recorded on the little 8-track machine in Banwell) for a BOB single that came out in 1989. It’s called Convenience and I wrote and sang it. This early version is on one of the tapes that Adrian has transferred, so, like many of the rest of the songs, it will be re-mixed this winter for digital formats and released next year.
If you want the latest news from BOB you can follow them on twitter. You can also pre-order the expanded edition of their 1991 album Leave the Straight Life Behind from Rough Trade. It will be available from the end of January 2014. A big thank you to Richard for sending us the photos, his writing and letting us include the recording too!
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.
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.
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”.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are currently digitising a collection of U-Matic Ampex KCS-20 video tapes for Keith Barnfather, the founder of Reeltime Pictures.
Reeltime Pictures are most well-known for their production of documentaries about the BBC series Doctor Who. They also made Doctor Who spin-off films, a kind of film equivalent of fan fiction, that revived old and often marginal characters from the popular TV series.
The tapes we were sent were Ampex’s U-Matic video tapes. For those of you out there that have recorded material on Ampex tape be it audio or video, we have bad news for you. While much magnetic tape is more robust than most people imagine, this is not true of tape made by Ampex in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nearly all Ampex tape degrades disgracefully with age. A common outcome is ‘sticky shed syndrome,‘ a condition created by the deterioration of the binders in a magnetic tape which hold the iron oxide magnetic coating to its plastic carrier. So common was this problem with Ampex tape that the company patented the process of baking the tape (to be done strictly at the temperature 54 Centrigade, for a period of 16 hours), that would enable the tape to be played back.
In order to migrate the Ampex video tapes to a digital format they have, therefore, to be dehydrated in our incubator. This is careful process where we remove the tape from its outer shell to minimise ‘outgassing‘. Outgassing refers to the release of a gas that has become dissolved, trapped, frozen or absorbed in material. This can have significant effects if the released gas collects in a closed environment where air is stagnant or recirculated. The smell of new cars is a good example of outgassing that most people are familiar with.
When baking a tape in an enclosed incubator, it can therefore be vulnerable to the potential release of gasses from the shell, as well as the tape and its constituent material parts. Removing the shell primarily minimises danger to the tape, as it is difficult to know in advance what chemicals will be released when baking occurs.
It is important to stress that tape dehydration needs to be done in a controlled manner within a specifically designed lab incubator. This enables the temperature to be carefully regulated to the degree. Such precision cannot of course be achieved with domestic ovens (which are designed to cook things!), nor even food dehydrators, because there is very little temperature control.
So if you do have Ampex tapes, whether audio or video, we recommend that you treat them with extreme care, and if what is recorded on them is important to you, migrate them to a digital format before they almost certainly deteriorate.
We’ve been a bit quiet since last year on our blog here primarily because we have been processing large, ongoing audio archiving digital migration job for Mood Media Ltd
In essence audio archiving, digital migration, transfer or digitisation, whatever term you prefer, is conceptually simple, one analogue or digital format is moved to another, usually digital, format. It is in the details of this process that things can get complex requiring experience, specialised tools and often custom-built solutions.
This job has many factors not just attaining the best analogue transfers but also addressing the organisation of such a large amount of 10.5″ reels, their digital management once migrated and the creation and management of metadata.
The archive, dating from the 1950’s up the early 90’s, even though it had been stored in less than ideal conditions, is in generally good condition. An interesting and often fantastic sounding collection of recordings and music are evident all recorded at 15ips in mono, stereo and some encoded with Dolby A noise reduction. There are specific issues with some tapes that are not uncommon with older audio tape:
Binder hydrolysis or sticky shed syndrome (SSS) has affected a significant proportion of the archive in particular Ampex branded tapes from the 1980’s onwards.
Some glue used in spices from the 1980’s spreads over time and tends to stick layers of tape adjacent to the splice together. This can be a very frustrating problem which rarely damages the tape but affects the tape tension on certain sections so that head to tape contact is momentarily lost and a very obvious audio glitch noticed.
The Analogue side is important to get correct initially but the management of the data is critical with such a large number of reels and individual artists and tracks. Each batch of tapes would be catalogued in a .csv file. The digital audio transfers were split into individual tracks which then had to be renamed based on the data in the .csv file. This was handled by some php coding which matched the metadata supplied with the files, checking for inconsistencies then renaming the .wav files on one of our servers.
This type of customised workflow can be tricky to setup initially and find the balance between accuracy and speed but once done a smooth workflow is possible maintaining high quality, accuracy and value.
Like much late 1970’s and 80’s studio recordings, this was recorded on Ampex branded tape that suffers badly from binder hydrolysis or ‘sticky shed syndrome’ that must be addressed before the tape can be successfully played and digitised. This was in addition to the mould growth that was evident on the tape pack edges, and cardboard box. Storage in damp conditions and high humidity causes this type of mould and increases the breakdown of magnetic tape generally, sometimes to the point where de-lamination occurs, that is, the binder breaks away from the polyester structure of the tape. When this happens, which is luckily quite rarely, the magnetic information is damaged and mostly lost beyond repair.
Thankfully this tape, whilst it looked in poor condition was relatively straightforward to restore but time consuming. Careful hand winding, and mould cleaning is necessary as is awareness of the potential health effects of some mould spores so good ventilation and protective masks are necessary.