The magnetic viewer makes the mysterious tracks recorded onto the tape visible
We have recently acquired a magnetic viewer in order to aid our digitisation work. By pressing the viewer against the tape we are able to read the magnetic information recorded on it. The reader helps us to visually identify the position of the recorded tracks on the tape, and enables accurate playback during digitisation. Magnetic readers can also help us to identify potential problems with the tape, for example if a track has been partially erased, because it will show up on the viewer.
We receive tapes that are in varying states of repair and disrepair. Sometimes the person who made the recording kept the tapes in impeccable, temperature controlled conditions. Inscribed on the boxes are dates and lists of who performed, and what instrument they played. The tapes often feature detailed notes about the number of tracks recorded, whether they are in stereo or mono and if they used noise reduction technology. Digitisation, in such cases, does not usually pose great challenges.
At the other extreme are tapes recorded by people who never wrote anything down about how they made their recording. This means the people doing the digitising can be left to do a lot of guess work (particularly if that person has since died, and can’t tell you anything about the recording). A lack of informative metadata about the tape does not necessarily create migration difficulties: recordings can be very straightforward like, for example, a ½ track stereo recording of a single voice.
It is essential that the appropriate head is used to read the magnetic information recorded onto the tape.
Problems can however arise when recordings have been made in an idiosyncratic (and inconsistent) manner. For example (and in exceptional circumstances) we receive single magnetic tapes that have a mixture of track formats on them which include four track multi-track, ½ and ¼ track mono and ½ and ¼ track stereo.
In such cases it can be hard to discern the precise nature of the recordings using the ears alone. Often such recordings don’t sound ‘quite right’, even if it is not exactly clear what the problem is.
Rather than relying on speculation, using the magnetic reader gives 100% confirmation about where tracks are recorded on the tape, and therefore helps us to replay the tape using the appropriate playback heads, and therefore digitise it accurately.
The history of amateur recording is peppered with examples of people who stretched technologies to their creative limit. Whether this comes in the form of hours spent trying things out and learning through doing, endlessly bouncing tracks in order to turn an 8-track recording into a 24-track epic or making high quality audio masters on video tape, people have found ways to adapt and experiment using the tools available to them.
One of the lesser known histories of amateur home recordings is making high quality stereo mixdowns and master recordings from multi-track audio tape onto consumer-level Hi-Fi VCRs.
We are currently migrating a stereo master VHS Hi-Fi recording of London-based indie band Hollow Hand. Hollow Hand later adopted the name Slanted and were active in London between 1992-1995. The tapes were sent in by Mark Venn, the bass player with Slanted and engineer for these early recordings that were recorded in 1992 in the basement of a Clapham squat. Along with the Hi-Fi VHS masters, we have also been sent eight reels of AMPEX ¼ tapes of Slanted that are being transferred for archival purposes. Mark intends to remix the eight track recordings digitally but as of yet has no plans for a re-release.
When Mark sent us the tapes to be digitised he thought they had been encoded with a SONY PCM, a mixed digital/ analogue recording method we have covered in a previous blog post. The tapes had, however, been recorded directly from the FOSTEX eight track recorder to the stereo Hi-Fi function on a VHS video tape machine. For Mark at the time this was the best way to get a high quality studio master because other analogue and digital tape options, such as Studer open reel to reel and DAT machines, were financially off-limits to him. It is worth mentioning that Hi-Fi audio technologies were introduced in the VHS model by JVC around 1984, so using this method to record stereo masters would have been fairly rare, even among people who did a lot of home recording. It was certainly a bit of a novelty in the Great Bear Studio – they are the first tapes we have ever received that have been recorded in this way – and take it for granted that we see a lot of tape.
Using the Hi-Fi function on VHS tape machines was probably as good as it got in terms of audio fidelity for those working in an exclusively analogue context. It produced a master recording comparable in quality to a CD, particularly if the machine had manual audio recording level control. This is because, as we wrote about in relation to PCM/ Betamax, video tape could accommodate greater bandwidth that audio tape (particularly audio cassette), therefore leading to better quality recordings.
One of our replacement upper head drums
VHS Hi-Fi audio is achieved using audio frequency-modulation (AFM) and relied on a form of magnetic recording called ‘depth multiplexing‘. This is when
‘the modulated audio carrier pair was placed in the hitherto-unused frequency range between the luminance and the colour carrier (below 1.6 MHz), and recorded first. Subsequently, the video head erases and re-records the video signal (combined luminance and colour signal) over the same tape surface, but the video signal’s higher centre frequency results in a shallower magnetization of the tape, allowing both the video and residual AFM audio signal to coexist on tape.’
Challenges for migrating Hi-Fi VHS Audio
Although the recordings of Hollow Hand are in good working condition, analogue masters to VHS Hi-Fi audio do face particular challenges in the migration process.
Playing back the tapes in principle is easy if both tape and machine are in optimum condition, but if either are damaged the original recordings can be hard to reproduce.
A particular problem for Hi-Fi audio emerges when the tape heads wear and it becomes harder to track the hi-fi audio recording because the radio frequency signal (RF) can’t be read consistently off the tape. Hi-Fi recordings are harder to track because of depth multiplexing, namely the position of the recorded audio relative to the video signal. Even though there is no video signal as such in the playback of Hi-Fi audio, the video signal is still there, layered on top of the audio signal, essentially making it harder to access. Of course when tape heads/ drums wear down they can always be replaced, but acquiring spare parts will become increasingly difficult in years to come, making Hi-Fi audio recordings on VHS particularly threatened.
In order to migrate tape-based media to digital files in the most effective way possible, it is important to use appropriate machines for the transfer. The Panasonic AG-7650 we used to transfer the Hollow Hand tapes afforded us great flexibility because it is possible to select which audio tracks are played back at any given time which meant we could isolate the Hi-Fi audio track. The Panasonic AG-7650 also has tracking meters which makes it easy to assess and adjust the tracking of the tape and tape head where necessary.
As ever, the world of digitisation continues to generate anomalies, surprises and good stories. Who knows how many other video/ audio hybrid tapes are out there! If you do possess an archive collection of such tapes we advise you to take action to ensure they are migrated because of the unique problems they pose as a storage medium.
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.
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!
The Great Bear studio always has a wealth of interesting material in it, that somehow have survived the test of time.
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
As lovers of magnetic tape and obsolete media, we keep our eyes open for people who remain attached to the formats most have forgot.
A recent film posted on Vimeo features the creative life of part time chef, noise musician and tape DJ Micke, also known as ‘The Magnetist’.
The film follows the Stockholm-based artist through his life as a ‘tapeologist.’ From demagnetising tape in order to create soundscapes, to running a club night comprised of tapes scavenged from wherever he can find them, Micke demonstrates how the audio cassette remains a source of inspiration within counter culture.
So what’s behind the sub-cultural obsession with the audio cassette tape? Perhaps it is no more complex than novelty value and nostalgia. It may however be evidence of the persistence of analogue technologies in an era where digital technologies appear to have colonised our relationship to sound and vision.
Is there a yearning to resist the ways digital media shapes how we listen to music, both at the level of sound quality, and the promiscuous skipping through mp3 files?
You simply can’t do that with tape. You have to rewind, fast forward or listen the whole way through. Its a mechanical process, often shrouded in hiss.
What is certain, fashion or no fashion, the wheels on the Great Bear tape machines will keep turning.
In archiving, the simple truth is formats matter. If you want the best quality recording, that not only sounds good but has a strong chance of surviving over time, it needs to be recorded on an appropriate format.
Most of us, however, do not have specialised knowledge of recording technologies and use what is immediately available. Often we record things within limited budgets, and need to make the most of our resources. We are keen to document what’s happening in front of us, rather than create something that will necessarily be accessible many years from now.
At the Great Bear we often receive people’s personal archives on a variety of magnetic tape. Not all of these tapes, although certainly made to ensure memories were recorded, were done on the best quality formats.
Recently we migrated a recording of a wedding service from 1970 made on C-120 audio cassette.
Image taken using a smart phone @ 72 dpi resolution
C60 and C90 tapes are probably familiar to most readers of this blog, but the C-120 was never widely adopted by markets or manufacturers because of its lesser recording quality. The C-120 tape records for an hour each side, and uses thinner tape than its C90 and C60 counterparts. This means the tape is more fragile, and is less likely to produce optimum recordings. Thinner tapes is also more likely to suffer from ‘print-through‘ echo.
As the Nakamichi 680 tape manual, which is pretty much consulted as the bible on all matters tape in the Great Bear studio, insists:
‘Choosing a high quality recording tape is extremely important. A sophisticated cassette deck, like the 680, cannot be expected to deliver superior performance with inferior tapes. The numerous brands and types of blank cassettes on the market vary not only in the consistency of the tape coating, but in the degree of mechanical precision as well. The performance of an otherwise excellent tape is often marred by a poor housing, which can result in skewing and other unsteady tape travel conditions.’
The manual goes on to stress ‘Nakamichi does not recommend the use of C-120 or ferrichrome cassettes under any circumstances.’ Strong words indeed!
It is usually possible to playback most of the tape we receive, but a far greater risk is taken when recordings are made on fragile or low quality formats. The question that has to be thought through when making recordings is: what are you making them for? If they are meant to be a long term record of events, careful consideration of the quality of the recording format used needs to be made to ensure they have the greatest chance of survival.
Such wisdom seems easy to grasp in retrospect, but what about contemporary personal archives that are increasingly ‘born digital’?
A digital equivalent of the C-120 tape would be the MP3 format. While MP3 files are easier to store, duplicate and move across digital locations, they offer substantially less quality than larger, uncompressed audio files, such as WAVs or AIFFs. The current recommended archival standard for recording digital audio is 24 bit/ 48 kHz, so if you are making new recordings, or migrating analogue tapes to digital formats, it is a good idea to ensure they are sampled at this rate
‘in the midst of an amazing revolution in computer technology, there is a near total lack of systems designed with digital preservation in mind. Instead, we have technology seemingly designed to work against digital preservation. The biggest single issue is that we are encouraged to scatter content so broadly among so many different and changing services that it practically guarantees loss. We need programs to automatically capture, organize and keep our content securely under our control.’
The issue of format quality also comes to the fore with the type of everyday records we make of our digital lives. The images and video footage we take on smart phones, for example, are often low resolution, and most people enjoy the flexibility of compressed audio files. In ten years time will the records of our digital lives look pixelated and poor quality, despite the ubiquity of high tech capture devices used to record and share them? Of course, these are all speculations, and as time goes on new technologies may emerge that focus on digital restoration, as well as preservation.
Ultimately, across analogue and digital technologies the archival principles are the same: use the best quality formats and it is far more likely you will make recordings that people many years from now can access.
In a recent blog article on the Presto Centre website, Richard Wright argues that ‘the audiovisual collections of the 20th century were analogue, and we are now at a critical time for considering the digital future of that analogue content.’ He goes on to say, emphatically:
‘All analogue audio and video formats are obsolete. Digital content walks through walls, travels at the speed of light, can be in many places at the same time, and can (with care) be perfectly copied, again and again. So digitisation has become the solution to the obsolescence of all analogue audio and video formats.’
Although careful not to make too clinical a statement, he bookmarks 15 April 2023 as the date when analogue obsolescence really kicks in.
Writing for music magazine The Wire, Numero Group’s Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley describe how ‘vinyl’s violent sales spike has been a lonely bright spot in what has been a 14 year deterioration in sales of recorded music’.
Yet the resilience of vinyl and other contemporary fringe uses of analogue media, such as the cassette tape and floppy disk, is not enough to stop the march of digitisation. For experts like Wright the digital future for the majority of people is inevitable, irresistible even, given how it enables collections to be open, replicable and accessible.
Yet committing to digital technologies as a preservation and access strategy does not solve our information problems, as we have been keen to stress on this blog. There is also a worrying lack of long term strategy for managing digital information, a problem which is ever more pronounced in film preservation where analogue tape is still marked as the original from which digital copies are made, as this article discusses.
It is clear that the information we create, store and use is in transition. It probably always has been. The emergence of digital technologies has just made this a pressing issue, not only for large institutions, but for people as we go about our day to day lives.
‘Digitise now!!’ is Richard Wright’s advice – and of course we agree.
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.
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.
‘It seems we are living in an age in which practically every dream comes true. At no time in the past have so many scientific discoveries and inventions changed our way of life and the face of the world. Yes, we live in the age of science! Maybe we are forgetting to be awed, or are we so used to acquainting ourselves with the new that we seem to take anything for granted nowadays?’
This is the opening paragraph to A Comprehensive Booklet on BASF Magnetic Recording Tape, published c.1965 by the German company BASF.
The booklet, that we will feature more of in later posts, offers advice and instructions on how to record sound on magnetic tape.
While in today’s culture we may well have forgotten ‘to be awed’ by sound recording technology, there was a time when home recording was an extremely novel activity. As our recent post about Brian Pimm-Smith’s tapes demonstrates, sound recording was done by enthusiasts – it was by no means an everyday activity.
Tape recording clubs were however very popular in the 1960s-1970s, with groups forming all around the country.
Sound artist Mark Vernon describes how ‘dedicated amateurs would meet and swap tips, exchange recordings, enter competitions and arrange activities such as field recording trips. Eager members would lug heavy reel-to-reel recorders around the countryside, to church concerts, fire stations, airports and carnivals to capture the sounds around them.’
The excitement of recording sound on a ‘mysterious little reddish-brown ribbon’ is clear from reading the BASF manual. There is no shortage of awe for the ‘magic tape that practically does everything from writing out cheques to guiding missiles in space.’
In contemporary western culture the use of recording technologies has become as common as eating or breathing. Mystery and magic are words not often used to describe our laptops, phones or tablets. Yet it may well be worth remembering how mysterious and magic technology can be. That the things we take for granted as part of our everyday lives were once new inventions that radically transformed perceptions and our ability to document the world we live in.
As the BASF manual enthused, ‘the multitude of different impressions in the acoustic world…are just as beautiful and gratifying as those of the visible world [and] can now be conserved for all posterity.’
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
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.
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.
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.
We were recently sent a collection of recorded interviews with residents of Hebden Bridge, a mill town in the Pennines. They were recorded on regular, domestic tapes of the mid-1970s, the kind that were sold in shops such as Woolworths or WHSmith.
As magnetic cassette tapes go, these cheaper tapes can often deteriorate at a fast rate because they were aimed at a mass consumer market, and therefore not made with longevity in mind. These tapes however were in excellent condition, and no issues arose in the digitisation process.
Here is what Susie Parr told us about the project behind the tapes, and the publishing plans for the material later this year. We were very happy to be part of a creative project that will enable the stories to be shown to new audiences because of digitisation.
‘In 1975 photographer Martin Parr moved to Hebden Bridge, a mill town in the Pennines, with some friends from art school in Manchester. In a project that was to last five years, he started photographing the area, documenting a traditional culture and way of life that were slowly declining. Susie Mitchell, who also lived in Hebden Bridge, wrote about the people and places that Martin photographed. Together they built up a record of the day to day lives of mill-workers, game-keepers, coal miners, hill-farmers and chapel-goers. As part of their research, Susie and Martin would tape record their conversations with some of the characters they met. Thirty years later, the elderly audio tapes have been digitised and the photographs and texts are going to be published by Aperture in a book called The Non Conformists. In September, an exhibition will open in London.’
Below is an audio snippet of one of the tapes. This is a raw unprocessed version, notice the tape hiss inherent in these types of recordings. Sympathetic noise reduction to reduce this type of noise, can be process on these file if necessary.
The main work of Great Bear is to make analogue and digital tape-based media accessible for people living in a digital intensive environment. But once your tape-based media has been digitised, is that the end of the story? Do you never need to think about preservation again? What issues arise for information management in the future, and how do they relate to our actions in the present?
This year (2013) the National Archives in the UK are facing a huge challenge as the ’20-year rule‘, in which the government will be releasing records when they are 20 years old, instead of 30, comes into effect. A huge part of this process is the digitisation of large amounts of material so they can be easily accessible to the public.
What does this have to do with the digitisation of tape you may be wondering? Well, mostly it provides food for thought. When you read the guidelines for the National Archives’ digitisation strategy, it raises many points that are worth thinking about for everyone living inside an information intensive environment, professional archivist or not. These guidelines suggest that many of the problems people face with analogue media, for example not being able to open, play or use formats such as tape, floppy disks or even digital media, such as a cd-r, do not go away with the move toward wholesale digitisation. This is summed up nicely in the National Archive’s point about digital continuity. ‘If you hold selected digital records that are not yet due for transfer, you will need to maintain their digital continuity. This means ensuring that the records can be found, opened, understood, worked with and trusted over time and through change’. This statement encapsulates the essence of digital information management – the process whereby records are maintained and kept up to date with each technological permutation.
Later on in their recommendations they state something which may be surprising to people who assume that digitisation equates to some form of informational omnipotence: ‘Unlike paper records, digital records are very vulnerable and will not survive without active intervention. We cannot leave digital records on a shelf in an archive – they need active management and migration to remain accessible in the long term.’ These statements make clear that digital records are just as vulnerable as their analogue counterparts, which although subject to degrading, are in fact more robust than is often assumed.
What is the answer to ensuring that the data we create is usable in the future, is there an answer? It is clear on whatever format we choose to archive data there is always risk involved: the risk of going out of date, the risk of vulnerability, the risk of ‘not being able to leave them on the shelf’. Records, archives and data cannot, it seems, simply look after themselves. They have to adapt to their technological environments, as much as humans do.
From U Matic to VHS, Betacam to Blu Ray, Standard Definition to High Definition, the formats we use to watch visual media is constantly evolving.
Yet have you ever paused to consider what is at stake in the changing way audio-visual media is presented to us? Is viewing High Definition film and television always a better experience than previous formats? What is lost when the old form is supplanted by the new?
At Great Bear we have the pleasure of seeing the different textures, tones and aesthetics of tape-based Standard Definition video on a daily basis. The fuzzy grain of these videos contrasts starkly with the crisp, heightened colours of High Definition digital media we are increasingly used to seeing now on television, smartphones and tablets.
At Great Bear we always have one foot in the past, and one foot in the future. We act as a conduit between old and new media, ensuring that data stored on older media can continue to have a life in today’s digital intensive environments.
As well as analogue tape, at Great Bear we also migrate digital tape to digital files. Digital media has become synonymous with the everyday consumption of information in the 21st century. Yet it may come as a surprise for people to encounter digital tape when we are so comfortable with the seemingly formless circulation of digital information on computers, at the cinema, on televisions, smartphones, tablets and other forms of mobile media. It is important to remember that digital information has a long history, and it doesn’t need to be binary or electronic – abacuses, Morse code and Braille are all examples of digital systems.
Digital Betacam tapes were launched in 1993 and superseded both Betacam and Betacam SP. Betacam remains the main acquisition and delivery format for broadcasting because there is very little compression on the tape. It is a very reliable format because it has a tried and tested mature transport mechanism.
While Digital Betacam is a current broadcast format, technology will inevitably move on – there is often a 10 year lifespan for broadcast media, as the parent company (SONY in this case) will cease to support the playing machines through selling spare parts.
We were sent some Digital Betacam tapes by Uli Meyer Animation Studios who are based in London. Uli Meyer make 3 and 2 D commercials, long and short films and TV commercials. 5-10 years ago the company would have had Digital Betacam machines, but as technology develops it becomes harder to justify keeping machines that can take up a lot of physical space.
Workflow in broadcasting is also becoming increasingly ‘tape less’, making digital tape formats surplus to requirements. Another issue facing the Digital Betacam is that it records information in Standard Definition format. With broadcasters using High Definition only, the need to transfer digital information in line with contemporary technological requirements is imperative for large parts of industry.