‘Watch out: the vegetarians are on the attack’ warned an article published in the April 1984 edition of the Meat Trades Journal.
The threat? A new product that would revolutionise the UK’s eating habits forever.
Gregory Sams’sVegeBurger invented a vernacular that is so ubiquitous now, you probably thought it’s always been here. While vegetarianism can be traced way back to 7th century BCE, ‘Veggie’, as in the food products and the people that consume them, dates back to the early 1980s.
VegeBurger was the first vegetarian food product to become available on a mass, affordable scale. It was sold in supermarkets rather than niche wholefood shops, and helped popularise the notion that a vegetarian diet was possible.
Before inventing the VegeBurger, Sams opened Seed in 1967, London’s first macrobiotic whole food restaurant. Seed was regularly frequented by all the countercultural luminaries of the era, including John and Yoko.
In 1982 Gregory went out on a limb to launch the VegeBurger. Colleagues in the whole food business (and the bank manager) expressed concern about how successful a single-product business could be. VegeBurger defied the doubters, however, and sales rocketed to 250,000 burgers per week as the 80s wore on.
The burgers may have sold well, but they also helped change hearts and minds. In 1983 his company Realeat commissioned Gallup to conduct a survey of public attitudes to meat consumption.
The survey results coincided with the release of the frozen VegeBurger, prompting substantial debate in the media about vegetarianism. ‘It was news, with more people moving away from red meat consumption than anybody had realized. VegeBurger was on television, radio and newspapers to such a degree that, when I wasn’t being interviewed or responding to a press query, all my time was spent keeping retailers stocked with the new hit’.
Food for Thought
Great Bear have just transferred the 1982 VegeBurger TV commercial that was recorded on the 1″ type C video format.
The advert, Gregory explains, ‘was produced for me by my dear friend Bonnie Molnar who used to work with a major advertising agency and got it all done for £5000, which was very cheap, even in 1982. We were banned from using the word “cowburger” in the original and had to take out the phrase “think about it” which contravened the Advertising Standards Authority’ stricture that adverts could not be thought provoking! I had also done the original narration, very well, but not being in the union that was disallowed. What a world, eh?’
We are living in interesting times for digital video preservation (we are living in interesting times for other reasons too, of course).
For many years digital video preservation has been a confusing area of audiovisual archiving. To date there is no settled standard that organisations, institutions and individuals can unilaterally adopt. As Peter Bubestinger-Steindl argues, ‘no matter whom you ask [about which format to use] you will get different answers. The answers might be correct, but they might not be the right solution for your use-cases.’
The aim of CELLAR is to standardise three lossless open-source audiovisual formats – Matroska, FFV1 and FLAC – for use in archival environments and transmission.
To date the evolution of video formats has largely been driven by broadcast, production and consumer markets. The development of video formats for long term archival use has been a secondary consideration.
2. Lossless compression. Simply put, lossless compression makes digital video files easier to store and transmit: file size is decreased without damaging integrity.
Managing large file sizes has been a major practical glitch that has held back digital video preservation in the past. The development of effective lossless compression for digital video is therefore a huge advance.
Here they explain that ‘the Matroska wrapper is organized into top-level sectional elements for the storage of attachments, chapter information, metadata and tags, indexes, track descriptions, and encoding audiovisual data.’
Each of these elements has a checksum associated with it, which means that each part of the file can be checked at a granular level. If there is an error in the track description, for example, this can be specifically dealt with. Matroska enables digital video preservation to become targeted and focused, a very useful thing given the complexity of video files.
It is also possible to embed technical and descriptive metadata within the Matroska container, rather than alongside it in a sidecar document.
This will no doubt make Matroska attractive to archivists who dream of a container-format that can store additional technical and contextual information.
Yet as Peter B. Hermann Lewetz and Marion Jaks argue, ‘keeping everything in one video-file increases the required complexity of the container, the video-codec – or both. It might look “simpler” to have just one file, but the choice of tools available to handle the embedded data is, by design, greatly reduced. In practice this means it can be harder (or even impossible) to view or edit the embedded data. Especially, if the programs used to create the file were rare or proprietary.’
FFV1 and FLAC are also designed with archival use in mind. FFV1, Rice and Blewer explain, uses lossless compression and contains ‘self-description, fixity, and error resilience mechanisms.’ ‘FLAC is a lossless audio codec that features embedded checksums per audio frame and can store embedded metadata in the source WAVE file.’
Milestones for Digital Video Preservation
By the end of 2016 the CELLAR working group will have submitted standard and information specifications to the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) for Matroska, FFV1, FLAC and EBML, the binary XML format the Matroska container is based on.
Outside of CELLAR’s activities there are further encouraging signs of adoption among the audio visual preservation community.
Austrian-based media archive management company NOA, for example, ‘chose to provide FFV1 as a native option for encoding within its FrameLector products, as they see it has many benefits as a lossless, open source file format that is easy to use, has low computational overheads and is growing in adoption.’
We’ll be keeping an eye on how the standardisation of Matroska, FFV1 and FLAC unfolds in 2017. We will also share our experiences with the format, including whether there is increased demand and uptake among our customer base.
World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, which is sponsored by UNESCO and takes place every year on 27 October, is an occasion to celebrate how audio, video and film contribute to the ‘memory of the world.’
The theme for 2016 – ‘It’s your story, don’t lose it!’ – conveys the urgency of audio visual preservation and the important role sound, film and video heritage performs in the construction of cultural identities and heritage.
Great Bear make an important contribution to the preservation of audiovisual heritage.
On one level we offer practical support to institutions and individuals by transferring recordings from old formats to new.
The wider context of Great Bear’s work, however, is preservation: in our Bristol-based studio we maintain old technologies and keep ‘obsolete’ knowledge and skills alive. Our commitment to preservation happens every time we transfer a recording from one format to another.
‘The story of the audiovisual media is told partly through its technology, and it is incumbent on archives to preserve enough of it – or to preserve sufficient documentation about it – to ensure that the story can be told to new generations. Allied to this is the practical need, which will vary from archive to archive, to maintain old technology and the associated skills in a workable state. The experience of (for example) listening to an acoustic phonograph or gramophone, or watching the projection of a film print instead of a digital surrogate, is a valid aspect of public access.’
Edmondson articulates the shifting perceptions within the field of audiovisual archiving, especially in relation to the question of ‘artefact value.’
‘Carriers once thought of and managed as replaceable and disposable consumables’, he writes, ‘are now perceived as artefacts requiring very different understanding and handling.’
Viewing or listening to media in their original form, he suggests, will come to be seen as a ‘specialist archival experience,’ impossible to access without working machines.
Through the maintenance of obsolete equipment the Great Bear studio offers a bridge to such diverse audio visual heritage experiences.
These intangible cultural heritages, released through the playback of media theorist Wolfgang Ernst has called ‘Sonic Time Machines’, are part of our every day working lives.
We rarely ponder their gravity because we remain focused on day to day work: transferring, repairing, collecting and preserving the rich patina of audio visual heritage sent in by our customers.
On a recent trip to one of Britain’s most significant community archives, I was lucky enough to watch a rare piece of digitised video footage from the late 1970s.
As the footage played it raised many questions in my mind: who shot it originally? What format was it originally created on? How was it edited? How was it distributed? What was the ‘life’ of the artefact after it ceased to actively circulate within communities of interest/ use? How and who digitised it?
As someone familiar with the grain of video images, I could make an educated guess about the format. I also made other assumptions about the video. I imagined there was a limited amount of tape available to capture the live events, for example, because a number of still images were used to sustain the rolling audio footage. This was unlikely to be an aesthetic decision given that the aim of the video was to document a historic event. I could be wrong about this, of course.
When I asked the archivist the questions flitting through my mind she had no answers. She knew who the donor of the digital copy was, but nothing about the file’s significant properties. Nor was this important information included in the artefact’s record.
This struck me as a hugely significant problem with the status of digitised material – and especially perhaps video – in mixed-content archives where the specificities of AV content are not accounted for.
Due to the haphazard and hand-to-mouth way mixed-content archives have acquired digital items, it seems more than likely this situation is the rule rather than the exception: acquired bit by bit (no pun intended), maintaining access is often privileged over preserving the context and context of the digitised video artefact.
As a researcher I was able to access the video footage, and this of course is better than nothing.
Yet I was viewing the item in an ahistoric black hole. It was profoundly decontextualised; an artefact extracted to its most barest of essences.
This is not in any way a criticism of the archive in question. In fact, this situation is wholly understandable given that digital video are examples of ‘media formats that exist in crisis.’
Video digitisation remains a complex and unstable area of digital preservation. It is, as we have written elsewhere on this blog, the final frontier of audiovisual archiving. This seems particularly true within the UK context where there is currently no systematic plan to digitise video collections, unlike film and audio.
There are signs, however, that file-format stabilities are emerging. The No Time to Wait: Standardizing FFV1 & Matroska for Preservation symposium (Berlin, July 2016) brought together software developers and archivists who want to make the shared dream of an open source lossless video standard, fit for archival purpose, a reality.
It seems like the very best minds are working together to solve this problem, so Great Bear are quietly optimistic that a workable, open source standard for video digital preservation is in reach in the not too distant future.
Yet as my experience in the archive makes clear, the challenge of video digitisation is not about file format alone.
There is a pressing need to think very carefully about the kind of metadata and other contextual material that need to be preserved within and alongside the digitised file.
Due to limited funding and dwindling technical capacity, there is likely to be only one opportunity to transfer material currently recorded on magnetic tape. This means that in 2016 there really can be no dress rehearsal for your video digitisation plans.
‘Digitization is preservation…For audiovisual materials. And this bears repeating over and over because the anti-digitization voice is much stronger and generally doesn’t include any nuance in regards to media type because the assumption is towards paper. When we speak about digitization for audio and video, we now are not speaking about simple online access. We are speaking about the continued viability, about the persistence and the existence of the media content.’
What information will future generations need to understand the digitised archive materials we produce?
An important point to reckon with here is that not all media are the same. The affordances of particular technologies, within specific historical contexts, have enabled new forms of community and communicative practice to emerge. Media are also disruptive (if not deterministic) – they influence how we see the world and what we can do.
On this blog, for example, Peter Sachs Collopy discussed how porta-pak technology enabled video artists and activists in the late 1960s/ early 1970s to document and re-play events quickly.
Les prostituées documents a wave of church occupations by feminist activists in France.
The film demonstrates how women used emergent videotape technology to transmit footage recorded within the church onto TV screens positioned outside. Here videotape technology, and in particular its capacity to broadcast uni-directional messages, was used to protect and project the integrity of the group’s political statements. Video, in this sense, was an important tool that enabled the women – many of whom were prostitutes and therefore without a voice in French society – to ‘speak’.
Peter’s interview and Les prostituées de Lyon parlent are specific examples of how AV formats are concretely embedded within a social-historical and technical context. The signal captured – when reduced to bit stream alone – is simply not an adequate archival source. Without sufficient context too much historical substance is shed.
In this respect I disagree with Ranger’s claim that ‘all that really may be needed moving ahead [for videotape digitisation] is a note in the record for the new digital preservation master that documents the source.’ To really preserve the material, the metadata record needs to be rich enough for a future researcher to understand how a format was used, and what it enabled users to do.
‘Rich enough’ will always be down to subjective judgement, but such judgements can be usefully informed by understanding what makes AV archive material unique, especially within the context of mixed-content archives.
So, to think about this practically. How could the archive item I discuss at the beginning of the article be contextualised in a way that was useful to me, as a researcher?
At the most basic level the description would need to include:
The format it was recorded on, including details of tape stock and machine used to record material
When it was digitised
Who digitised it (an individual, an institution)
In an ideal world the metadata would include:
Images of the original artefact – particularly important if digital version is now the only remaining copy
Storage history (of original and copy)
Accompanying information (e.g., production sheets, distribution history – anything that can illuminate the ‘life’ of artefact, how it was used)
These suggestions may seem obvious, but it is surprising the extent to which they are overlooked, especially when the most pressing concern during digitisation is access alone.
In every other area of archival life, preserving the context of item is deemed important. The difference with AV material is that the context of use is often complex, and in the case of video, is always changing.
As stressed earlier: in 2016 and beyond you will probably only get one chance to transfer collections stored on magnetic tape, so it is important to integrate rich descriptions as part of the transfer.
Capturing the content alone is not sufficient to preserve the integrity of the video artefact. Creating a richer metadata record will take more planning and time, but it will definitely be worth it, especially if we try to imagine how future researchers might want to view and understand the material.
We couldn’t let the news that ‘Japan’s Funai Electric has announced it will end production of home videocassette recorders in July’ go by unnoticed.
Earlier this month we wrote an article that re-appraised the question of VHS obsolescence.
Variability within the VHS format, such as recording speeds and the different playback capacities of domestic and professional machines, fundamentally challenge claims that VHS is immune from obsolescence threats which affect other, less ubiquitous formats.
There is, however, a huge degree of variation within VHS. This is even before we consider improvements to the format, such as S-VHS (1987), which increased luminance bandwidth and picture quality.
Complicating the preservation picture
The biggest variation within VHS is of recording speed.
Recording speed affects the quality of the recording. It also dictates which machines you can use to play back VHS tapes.
Domestic VHS could record at three different speeds: Standard Play, which yielded the best quality recordings; Long Play, which doubled recording time but compromised the quality of the recording; Extended or Super Long Play, which trebled recording time but significantly reduced the recording quality. Extended/ Super Long Play was only available on the NTSC standard.
It is generally recognised that you should always use the best quality machines at your disposal to preserve magnetic media.
VHS machines built for domestic use, and the more robust, industrial models vary significantly in quality.
Richard Bennette in The Videomaker wrote (1995): ‘In more expensive VCRs, especially industrial models, the transports use thicker and heavier mounting plates, posts and gears. This helps maintain the ever-critical tape signal distances over many more hours of usage. An inexpensive transport can warp or bend, causing time base errors in the video signals’.
Yet better quality VHS machines, such as the SONY SVO-500P and Panasonic AG-650 that we use in the Great Bear Studio, cannot play back Long or Extended Play recordings. They only recorded—and therefore can only play back—Standard Play signals.
This means that recordings made at slower speeds can only be transferred using cheaper, domestic VHS machines.
Domestic VHS tape: significant problems to come
This poses two significant problems within a preservation context.
Firstly, there is concern about the availability of high-functioning domestic VHS machines in the immediate and long-term.
Domestic VHS machines were designed to be mass produced and affordable to the everyday consumer. Parts were made from cheaper materials. They simply were not built to last.
Used VHS machines are still available. Given the comparative fragility of domestic machines, the ubiquity of the VHS format—especially in its domestic variation—is largely an illusion.
The second problem is the quality of the original Long or Extended Play recording.
One reason for VHS’s victory over Betamax in the ‘videotape format wars’ was that VHS could record for three hours, compared with Betamax’s one.
As with all media recorded on magnetic tape, slower recording speeds produce poorer quality video and audio.
An Extended Play recording made on a domestic VHS is already in a compromised position, even before you put it in the tape machine and press ‘play.’
Which leads us to a further and significant problem: the ‘press play’ moment.
Interchangeability—the ability to play back a tape on a machine different to the one it was recorded on—is a massive problem with video tape machines in general.
The tape transport is a sensitive mechanism and can be easily knocked out of sync. If the initial recording was made with a mis-aligned machine it is not certain to play back on another, differently aligned machine. Slow recording complicates alignment further, as there is more room for error in the recording process.
The preservation of Long and Extended Play VHS recordings is therefore fraught with challenges that are not always immediately apparent.
Variation of recording time is the key point of distinction within the VHS format. It dramatically affects the quality of the original recording and dictates the equipment a tape can be played back on. With this in mind, we need to distinguish between standard, long and extended play VHS recordings when appraising collections, rather than assuming ‘VHS’ covers everything.
One big stumbling block is that you cannot tell the recording speed by looking at the tape itself. There may be metadata that can indicate this, or help you make an educated guess, but this is not always available.
We recommend, therefore, to not assume VHS—and other formats that straddle the domestic/ professional divide such as DVCAM and 8mm video—is ‘safe’ from impending obsolescence. Despite the apparent availability and familiarity of VHS, the picture in reality is far more complex and nuanced.
As ever, Great Bear are more than happy to discuss specific issues affecting your collection.
Introduced by SONY in 1971 U-matic was, according to Jeff Martin, ‘the first truly successful videocassette format’.
Philips’ N-1500 video format dominated the domestic video tape market in the 1970s. By 1974 U-Matic was widely adopted in industrial and institutional settings. The format also performed a key role in the development of Electronic News Gathering. This was due to its portability, cost effectiveness and rapid integration into programme workflow. Compared with 16mm film U-matic had many strengths.
The design of the U-Matic case mimicked a hardback book. Mechanical properties were modelled on the audio cassette’s twin spool system.
Like the Philips compact audio cassette developed in the early 1960s, U-Matic was a self-contained video playback system. This required minimal technical skill and knowledge to operate.
There was no need to manually lace the video tape through the transport, or even rewind before ejection like SONY’s open reel video tape formats, EIAJ 1/2″ and 1″ Type C. Stopping and starting the tape was immediate, transferring different tapes quick and easy. U-Matic ushered in a new era of efficiency and precision in video tape technology.
Emphasising technical quality and user-friendliness was key to marketing U-Matic video tape.
As SONY’s product brochure states, ‘it is no use developing a TV system based on highly sophisticated knowledge if it requires equally sophisticated knowledge to be used.’
The ‘ease of operation’ is demonstrated in publicity brochures in a series of images. These guide the prospective user through tape machine interface. The human operator, insulated from the complex mechanical principles making the machine tick only needs to know a few things: how to feed content and direct pre-programmed functions such as play, record, fast forward, rewind and stop.
Marketing material for audio visual technology often helps the potential buyer imagine possible applications. This is especially true when a technology is new.
For SONY’s U-Matic video tape it was the ‘very flexibility of the system’ that was emphasised. The brochure recounts a story of an oil tanker crew stationed in the middle of the Atlantic.
After they watch a football match the oil workers sit back and enjoy a new health and safety video. ‘More inclined to take the information from a television set,’ U-matic is presented as a novel way to combine leisure and work.
Ultimately ‘the obligation for the application of the SONY U-matic videocassette system lies with the user…the equipment literally speaks for itself.’
International Video Networks
Before the internet arrived, SONY believed video tape was the media to connect global businesses.
‘Ford, ICI, Hambro Life, IBM, JCB…what do these companies have in common, apart from their obvious success? Each of these companies, together with many more, have accepted and installed a new degree of communications technology, the U-matic videocassette system. They need international communication capability. Training, information, product briefs, engineering techniques, sales plans…all can be communicated clearly, effectively by means of television’.
SONY heralded videotape’s capacity to reach ‘any part of the world…a world already revolutionised by television.’ Video tape distributed messages in ‘words and pictures’. It enabled simultaneous transmission and connected people in locations as ‘wide as the world’s postal networks.’ With appropriate equipment interoperability between different regional video standards – PAL, NTSC and SECAM – was possible.
Video was imagined as a powerful virtual presence serving international business communities. It was a practical money-saving device and effective way to foster inter-cultural communication: ‘Why bring 50 salesmen from the field into Head Office, losing valuable working time when their briefing could be sent through the post?’
A lot of material was recorded on the U-matic format, especially in media and news-gathering contexts. In the long term there is likely to be more tape than working machines.
Despite these important concerns, at Great Bear we find U-Matic a comparatively resilient format. Part of the reason for this is the ¾” tape width and the presence of guard bands that are part of the U-matic video signal.
Guard bands were used on U-matic to prevent interference or ‘cross-talk’ between the recorded tracks.
In early video tape design guard bands were seen as a waste of tape. Slant azimuth technology, a technique which enabled stripes to be recorded next to each other, was integrated into later formats such as Betamax and VHS. As video tape evolved it became a whole lot thinner.
In a preservation context thinner tape can pose problems. If tape surface is damaged and there is limited tape it is harder to read a signal during playback. In the case of digital tape damaged tape on a smaller surface can result in catastrophic signal loss. Analogue formats often fare better, regardless of age.
Paradoxically it would seem that the presence of guard bands insulates the recorded signal from total degradation: because there is more tape there is a greater margin of error to transfer the recorded signal.
Through Hole Technology
Like other formats, such as the SONY EIAJ, certain brands of U-Matic tape can pose problems. Early SONY, Ampex and Kodak branded tape need to dehydration treatment (‘baked’) to prevent shedding during playback. If your U-Matic tape smells of wax crayons this is a big indication there are issues. The wax crayon smell seems only to affect SONY branded tape.
Concerns about hardware obsolescence should of course be taken seriously. Early ‘top loading’ U-Matic machines are fairly unusable now.
Mechanical and electronic reliability for ‘front loading’ U-Matic machines such as the BVU-950 remains high. The durability of U-Matic machines becomes even more impressive when contrasted with newer machines such as the DVC Pro, Digicam and Digibeta. These tend to suffer relatively frequent capacitor failure.
Later digital video tape formats also use surface-mounted custom-integrated circuits. These are harder to repair at component level. Through-hole technology, used in the circuitry of U-Matic machines, make it easier to refurbish parts that are no longer working.
Transferring your U-Matic Collections
U-matic made video cassette a core part of many industries. Flexible and functional, its popularity endured until the 1980s.
Great Bear has a significant suite of working NTSC/ PAL/ SECAM U-matic machines and spare parts.
Motobirds, a 1970s all-girl motorbike stunt team from Leicester, have recently re-captured the public imagination.
The group re-united for an appearance on BBC One’s The One Show which aired on 1 April 2016. They hadn’t seen each other for forty years.
The Motobirds ‘travelled all over the UK and Europe, did shows with the Original American Hell Drivers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, etc. We were originally four, then six, then fourteen girls.
We performed motorbike stunts, car stunts and precision driving, and human cannon. We were eventually followed by the Auto Angels, an all girl group from Devon or Cornwall. I don’t know of any other all girl teams’, remembers founding member Mary Weston-Webb.
Motobirds were notoriously daring, and wore little or no protective clothing.
The video, which was in a perfect, playable condition, is a document of Motobirds strutting their stuff in Japan.
As Mary explains:
‘We (Liz Hammersley and Mary Connors) went to Japan with Joe Weston-Webb (who I later married) who ran the Motobirds for a Japanese TV programme called Pink Shock, as it was very unusual at that time, mid seventies, for girls to ride motorbikes in Japan. It was filmed on an island and we rehearsed and should have been filmed on the beach, which gave us plenty of room for a run up to the jumps. The day of the shoot, there had been a storm and the beach was flooded and we moved onto the car park of a shopping mall. Run up was difficult, avoiding shoppers with trolleys, round the flower beds, down the kerb, and a short stopping distance before the main road.’
Enjoy these spectacular jumps!
Thank you Mary for telling us the story behind the tapes.
Often customers ask us to deliver their transferred files onto a CD, yet we only have capacity to produce a CD-R of the transfer.
Although these recordings can still be high resolution there remains a world of difference—in an archival sense—between a CD-R, burnt on a computer drive, and CD recordings made in the context of the professional music industry.
The CD format is far from ‘obsolete,‘ and recent history has shown us repeatedly that formats deemed ‘dead’, such as vinyl or the audio cassette, can become fashionable again.
Yet when it comes to the preservation of your audio and video archives, it is a good idea to think about this material differently. It is one thing to listen to your favourite artist on CD, in other words, but that precious family recording of your Grandfather discussing his life history on a burnt CD-R is different.
Because of this, we believe that supplying customers with digital files, on hard drive on USB stick is, in 2016 and beyond, a much better option. Holding a recording in physical form in the palm of your hand can be reassuring. Yet if you’ve transferred valuable recordings to ensure you can listen to them once…
Why risk having to do it again?
CD-Rs are, quite simply, not a reliable archival medium. Even optical media that claims spectacular longevity, such as the 1000 year proof M-Disc, are unlikely to survive the warp and weft of technological progress.
Exposure to sunlight can render CD-Rs and DVDs unreadable. If the surface of a CD-R becomes scratched, its readability is severely compromised.
There are standards for CD-R discs to facilitate the interchange of discs between burners and readers. However, there are no standards covering the burners or readers themselves, and the disc standards do not take preservation or longevity into consideration. Several different burning and reading speeds were developed, and earlier discs or burners are not compatible with later, faster speeds. As a result, there is considerable variability in whether any given disc can be read by any given reader (30).
Furthermore, disc drives on computers are becoming less common. It would therefore be unwise to exclusively store valuable recordings on this medium if you want them to have the best chance of long time survival.
Yet given the reality of the situation, and the desire people harbour to return to recordings that are important to them, it makes sense that non-experts gain a basic understanding of what digital preservation may entail for them.
There are a growing amount of online resources for people who want to get familiar with the rudiments of personal digital archiving. It would be very difficult to cover all the issues below, so comments are limited to a few observations.
It is true that managing a digital collection requires a different kind of attitude – and skill set – to analogue archiving that is far less labour intensive. You cannot simply transfer your digital files onto a hard drive, put it on the shelf and forget about it for ten-fifteen years. If you were to do this, there is a very real possibility the file could not be opened when you return to it.
Screenshot taken from the DPC guide to Personal Digital Archiving
As Gabriela Redwine explains in the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Technology Watch Report on Personal Digital Archiving, ‘the reality of ageing hardware and software requires us to be actively attuned to the age and condition of the digital items in our care.’ The emerging personal digital archivist therefore needs to learn how to practice actively engaging with their collections if their digital files are to survive in the long term.
Getting to grips with digital preservation, even at a basic level, will undoubtedly involve learning a variety of new skills, terms and techniques. Yet there are some simple, and fairly non-technical, things you can do to get started.
The first point to emphasise is the importance of saving files in more than one location. This is probably the most basic principle of digital preservation.
The good news about digital files is they can be moved, copied and shared with family and friends all over the world with comparable ease. So if there is a fire in one location, or a computer fails in another, it is likely that the file will still be safe in the other place where it is stored.
Employing consistent and clear file naming is also very important, as this enables files to be searched for and found easily.
Beyond this, things get a little more complicated and a whole lot more computer-based. We move into the more specialist area of digital preservation with its heady language of metadata, checksums and emulation, among other terms.
The need for knowledge and competencies
At present it can feel like there is a chasm between the world of private digital archiving, where people rely on third party solutions such as Google or Amazon to store and manage their files, and the professional field of digital preservation, which is populated by tech-specialists and archival whizz-kids.
The reality is that as we move deeper into the digital, file-based future, ordinary people will need to adopt existing preservation tools if they are to learn how to manage their digital collections in a more direct and informed way.
Take, for example, the often cited recommendation for people to migrate or back up their collections on different media at annual or bi-annual intervals. While this advice may be sound, should people be doing this without profiling the file integrity of their collections first? What’s the point in migrating a collection of files, in other words, if half of those files are already corrupted?
In such instances as these, the everyday person may wish to familiarise themselves with existing software tools that can be used to assess and identify potential problems with their personal collections.
DROID (Digital Record Object IDentification), for example, a software tool developed by the UK National Archives, profiles files in your collection in order to facilitate ‘digital continuity’, ‘the ability to use digital information in the way that you need, for as long as you need.’
The open source software can identify over 200 of the most common document, image, audio and video files. It can help tell you what versions you have, their age and size, and when they were last changed. It can also help you find duplicates, and manage your file space more efficiently. DROID can be used to scan individual files or directories, and produces this information in a summary report. If you have never assessed your files before it may prove particularly useful, as it can give a detailed overview.
A big draw back of DROID is that it requires programming knowledge to install, so is not immediately accessible to those without such specialist skills. Fixity is a more user-friendly open source software tool that can enable people to monitor their files, tracking file changes or corruptions. Tools like Fixity and DROID do not ensure that digital files are preserved on their own; they help people to identify and manage problems within their collections. A list of other digital preservation software tools can be found here.
For customers of Great Bear, who are more than likely to be interested in preserving audiovisual archives, AV Preserve have collated a fantastic list of tools that can help people both manage and practice audiovisual preservation. For those interested in the different scales of digital preservation that can be employed, the NDSA (National Digital Stewardship Alliance) Levels of Preservation offers a good overview of how a large national institution envisions best practice.
We are, perhaps, at a tipping point for how we play back and manage our digital data. The 21st century has been characterised by the proliferation of digital artefacts and memories. The archive, as the fundamental shaper of individual and community identities, has taken central stage in our lives.
With this unparalleled situation, new competencies and confidences certainly need to be gained if the personal archiving of digital files is to become an everyday reality at a far more granular and empowered level than is currently the norm.
Maybe, one day, checking the file integrity of one’s digital collection will be seen as comparable to other annual or bi-annual activities, such as going to the dentist or taking the car for its MOT.
We are not quite there yet, that much is certain. This is largely because companies such as Google make it easy for us to store and efficiently organise personal information in ways that feel secure and manageable. These services stand in stark contrast to the relative complexity of digital preservation software, and the computational knowledge required to install and maintain it (not to mention the amount of time it could take to manage one’s digital records, if you really dedicated yourself to it).
Growing public knowledge about digital archiving, the desire for knowledge and new competencies, as well as the pragmatic fact that digital archives are easier to manage in file-based systems, may encourage the gap between professional digital preservation practices and the interests of everyday, digital citizens, to gradually close over time. Dialogue and greater understanding is most certainly needed if we are to move forward from the current context.
Great Bear want to be part of this process by helping customers have confidence in file-based delivery, rather than rely on formats that are obsolete, of poorer quality and counter-intuitive to the long term preservation of audio visual archives.
We are, as ever, happy to explain the issues in more detail, so please do contact us if there are issues you want to discuss.
The front page of the Philips N-1502 TV Recorder catalogue presents a man peering mournfully into a dark living room. A woman, most probably his wife, drags him reluctantly out for the evening. She wants to be social, distracted in human company.
The N-1502 tape machine is superimposed on this unfamiliar scene, an image of a Grand Slam tennis match arises from it, like a speech bubble, communicating the machine’s power to capture the fleeting live event. The man’s stare into the domestic environment constructs desire in a way that feels entirely new in 1976: a masculinity that appropriates the private space of the home, now transformed as a location where media events are transmitted and videotaped.
The man’s gaze is confrontational. It invites those looking to participate in a seductive, shared message: videotape-in the home-will change your life forever.
In the 1970s Philips were leading figures in the development of domestic video tape technology. Between 1972 and 1979, the company produced seven models of the N-1500 video ‘TV recorder’. It was the first time video tape entered the domestic environment, and the format offered a number of innovations such as timed, unattended recording (‘busy people needn’t miss important programmes’), an easy loading mechanism, a built in TV tuner, a digital electronic time switch and stop motion bar.
The N-1500 converged upon several emergent markets for video tape. While SONY’s hulking uMatic format almost exclusively targeted institutional and industrial markets, the N-1500 presented itself as a more nimble alternative: ‘Compact and beautifully designed it can be used in schools, advertising agencies, sale demonstrations and just about everywhere else.’
Used alongside the Philips Video Camera, the N-1500 could capture black and white video, offering ‘a flexible, economic and reliable’ alternative to EIAJ/ porta-pak open reel video. Marketing also imagined uses for sports professionals: practices or competitive games could be watched in order to analyse and improve performance.
Although N-1500 tape machines were very expensive (£649 / £4,868.38 ), the primary market for the product was overwhelmingly domestic. In 2016 we are fairly used to media technologies disrupting our intimate, every day lives. We are also told regularly that this or that gadget will make our lives easier.
Such needs are often deliberately and imaginatively invented. The mid-1970s was a time when video tape was novel, and its social applications experimental. How could video tape be used in the home? How would it fit into existing social relationships? The marketing brochure for the Philips N-1502 offer compelling evidence of how video tape technology was presented to consumers in its early days.
One aspect highlighted how the machine gave the individual greater control of their media environment: ‘Escape from the Dictatorship of TV Timetables’!
The VCR could also help liberate busy people from the disappointment of missing their favourite TV programmes, ‘if visitors call at the moment of truth don’t despair. Turn the TV off and the VCR on.’
In the mid 1970s domestic media consumption was inescapably communal, and the N-1500 machine could help sooth ‘typical’ rifts within the home. ‘You want to see a sports programme but your wife’s favourite serial is on the other channel. The solution? Simple. Just switch on your Philips VCR.’
Owning the N-1500 meant there would be ‘no more arguments about which channel to select – you watch one while VCR makes a parallel recording from another.’ Such an admission tells us a lot about the fragility of marriages in the 1970s, as well as the central place TV-watching occupied as a family activity. More than anything, the brochure presents videotape technology as a vital tool that could help people take control over their leisure time and negotiate the competing tastes of family members.
In a preservation context, however, these early machines are notoriously difficult to work with. Tapes heads are fragile and wear quickly because of a comparatively high running tape speed (11.26 ips). Interchange is often poor between machines, and the entry/ exit guides on the tape path often need to be adjusted to ensure the tapes track correctly.
Later models, the N-1700 onwards, used slant azimuth technology, a recording technique patented by Professor Shiro Okamura of the University of Electronic Communications, Tokyo in 1959. Slant azimuth was adopted by JVC, Philips and SONY in the mid-1970s, and this decision is heralded as a breakthrough moment in the evolution of domestic video tape technology. The technique offered several improvements to the initial N-1500 model, which used guard bands to prevent cross talk between tracks, and the Quadruplex technology developed by Ampex in the late 1950s. Slant azimuth meant more information could be recorded onto the tape without interference from adjacent tracks and, crucially, the tape could run at a slower speed, use less tape and record for longer.
In general, the design of the N-1500’s tape path and transport doesn’t lend itself to reliability.
As S P Bali explains:
‘One reason for the eventual failure of the Philips VCR formats was that the cassette used coaxial spools—in other words, spools stacked one on top of the other. This means that the tape had to run a skew path which made it much more difficult to control. The tape would jam, and even break, especially ageing cassettes.’ 
Such factors make the Philips N-1500 series an especially vulnerable video tape format. The carrier itself is prone to mechanical instability, and preservation worries are heightened by a lack of available spare parts that can be used to refurbish poorly functioning machines. If you have valuable material recorded on this format, be sure to earmark it as a preservation priority.
 S P Bali (2005) Consumer Electronics, Dehli: Pearson Education, 465.
At the end of 2015 Steve Lindsey, founding member of Liverpool art rock trailblazers Deaf School, stumbled upon two 1/2″ open reel video tape recordings of the band, tucked away in a previously unknown nook of his Dublin home.
2016 is the 40th anniversary of Deaf School’s first album 2nd Honeymoon.
With the landmark approaching, Steve felt it was an ideal time to get the tapes digitised. The video transfers done in the Great Bear studio will contribute to the growing amount of documentation online celebrating the band’s antics.
Betwen 1976-1978 Deaf School were signed to Warner Brothers, releasing three albums.
Deaf School are described by music journalist Dave Simpson as ‘a catalyst band‘ ‘whose influence was great – who might even have changed pop history in their own way – but who never made the leap into the music history books.’
Deaf School nonetheless remain legendary figures to the people who loved, and were profoundly transformed by, their music.
Holly Johnson, who went on the achieve great success with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, described Deaf School as ‘the benchmark that had to be transcended. Someone had to make a bigger splash. After the “big bang” of the 1960s, they were the touchstone that inspired a wave of creative rebellion and musical ambition that revived Liverpool’s music scene for a generation.’
Camp and Chaotic
Deaf School’s performances were a celebratory spectacle of the camp and chaotic.
The band took their lead from art music projects such as the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra comprised of non musicians which anyone could join, regardless of ability, knowledge or experience.
‘Everyone who wanted to be part of Deaf School was welcomed and no one turned away. The music was diverse and varied, drawing on rock and roll, Brecht and cabaret,’ Steve told us.
The ½” porta-pak video tapes feature rare footage of Deaf School performing on 1st December 1975 at the Everyman Theatre, one of Liverpool’s many iconic venues.*
The show was organised for Warner Brothers employees who had taken the train from London to Liverpool to see Deaf School perform.
Porta-pak open reel video was revolutionary for its time: It was the first format to enable people outside the professional broadcast industry to make (often documentary) moving images.
For this reason material captured on ½” videotape is often fairly eclectic and its edgy, glitchy aesthetic celebrated by contemporary documentary makers.
Non-professional video tape recordings made in the 1970s are, nevertheless, fairly rare. At that time it was still expensive to acquire equipment. Even if videos were made, once they had served their purpose there is a strong possibility the tape would be re-used, wiping whatever was recorded on there.
With this in mind, we are in a lucky position to be able to watch the Deaf School videos, which have managed to survive the rough cuts of history.
Preserving 1/2 ” open reel video tape
The video of the Everyman Theatre performance was cleaned prior to transfer because it was emitting a small amount of loose binder. It was recorded onto Scotch-branded ½” video tape which, in our experience, pose very few problems in the transfer process.
The other tape Steve sent us was recorded onto a SONY-branded ½” video tape. In comparison, these tapes always need to be ‘baked’ in a customised-incubator in order to temporarily restore them to playable condition.
The preservation message to take away here is this: if you have ½” video tape on SONY branded stock, make them your digitisation priority!
Deaf School Now
Steve told me that members of Deaf School ‘always kept in touch and remained friends’.
Over the past 10 years they have reformed and performed a number of gigs in the UK and Tokyo.
In 2016 they are planning to go to the U.S., reaching out to ‘the pockets of people all over the world who know about Deaf School.’
Ultimately though Liverpool will always be the band’s ‘spiritual home.’
When they return to Liverpool the gigs are always sold out and they have great fun, which is surely what being in a band is all about.
* The Everyman archive is stored in Special Collections at Liverpool John Moores University. This archive listing describes how the Everyman ‘is widely recognised as a pivotal influence and innovative key player in regional theatre. A model of innovative practice and a centre of experimental theatre and new writing, it has thrived as a nurturing ground for a new breed of directors, actors, writers and designers, and a leading force in young people’s theatre.’
Many thanks to Steve Lindsey for talking to us about his tapes!
The UK is unique in this regard. In Australia, for example, the approach to audiovisual preservation appears more integrated (if no less fraught!)
The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia make no distinction between audio and video tape in their Deadline 2025: Collections at Risk position paper. It is the endangered status of all magnetic tape collections that are deemed a preservation priority.
From experience we know that the preservation of videotape brings with it specific challenges.
It cannot be subsumed into a remit to preserve moving image archives in general.
‘Film formats have changed little in the last 50 years. Videotape, however, has seen many changes and various formats have come and gone. Videotape formats are in a constant cycle of change, driven largely by the market interests of the manufacturers of the hardware. Any preservation strategy for archival materials must be prepared to embrace a culture of format migration as the commercial market develops and new formats become the industry standard. The only variable is when, not if, collections require to be transferred.’
It is worth reiterating what public campaigns to preserve audio and film heritage make patently clear: recordings on magnetic tape have a finite lifespan, and the end of that lifespan is alarmingly near.
In years to come, one of the biggest challenge for the preservation of video tape in particular will be sourcing working machines for all the different formats.
In a recent hardware inventory conducted in the Great Bear studio, we noted that video tape machines outnumbered audio tape machines by 40%. This might be comforting to hear, and rest assured, we are well stocked to manage the range of possible video tape transfers that come our way. Yet this number becomes less impressive when you consider there are over 32 different video tape formats (compared with 16 audio), with very little degree (if any) of interoperability between them.
In comparison with audio tape, and in particular open reel formats which can be played back on a range of different machines, video tape offers significantly less flexibility.
The mechanical circuitry of video tape machines can be immensely complex. Due to the vast market turnover of video formats, these machines often used ‘immature’ technology.
To put it bluntly: proportionally there are less videotape machines, and those machines were not built to last.
Viewed in this light, the status of video tape archives, even compared with audio tape, seem very precarious indeed.
The cultural value of video tape
Why, then, has video tape been persistently overlooked?
Why have we not received calls to ‘save’ video tape, or confront its undeniable ‘fragility’?
Patterson believes that videotape, in comparison to film, has historically been perceived as a ‘broadcast thing,’ or used predominantly in amateur/ domestic settings.
The perception of videotape’s cultural value affects both the acquisition and preservation of the medium.
Patterson explains: ‘Public film archives rely on people depositing things because there is no money for acquisition. If people find rolls of film they have the sense that it might be interesting. Videotape, especially video cassettes, don’t make people think in the same way. If people have a box of VHS cassettes, they are less likely to see it as important. Even at the point when home move making became more democratised, the medium they were using seemed more throwaway.’
The relatively small amounts of video tape collections being deposited in regional film archives is, James believes, a ‘public awareness issue.’ This means they ‘don’t see nearly enough or as much videotape’ as they want. This is a pity because amateur collections may hold the key to building a varied, everyday picture of regional histories uniquely captured by accessible videotape technologies.
Despite comparatively uneven acquisition, ‘most regional archives have significant quantities of videotape.’ In MACE these are ‘mostly broadcast’, deposited by ITV Midlands, on formats such as Beta SP, 1”C, uMatic, VHS and smaller quantities of digital video tape. MACE’s material is migrated to digital files on an order-by-order basis—there is no systematic plan in place to transfer this material or place them in a secure digital repository post-transfer.
This has implications for the preservation of challenging mediums, such as videotape, which require specialised technical infrastructure and skills, not to mention the people power necessary to manage large amounts of real-time transfers.
‘Archival communities that focus on formats such as documents, still images, and audio have had longer experience with digitisation workflows, whereas the digitisation of video (hampered by storage sizes, bandwidth, and expenses) has only recently become more approachable. While digitisation practices for documents, still images, and audio include more community consensus regarding best practices and specifications, there is much greater technical diversity regarding the workflows, specifications, and even objectives for digitising archival video.’
This point was echoed by Megan McCooley, moving image archivist at the Yorkshire Film Archive. She told me that preserving film stock is relatively manageable through careful control of storage environments, but preserving video is more challenging because of the lack of firm ‘protocols in place’ to guide best practices. It is not the case that videotape digitisation is simply ‘off the radar’ and not seen as an issue among moving image archivists. Rather the complexity of the process makes systematic video digitisation ‘harder for regional archives to undertake’ because they are smaller, lack specialised technical video facilities, and are often dependent on project-based funding. Patterson also commented that within regional archives there is a ‘technological knowledge gap’ when it comes to videotape.
Are the times a-changing?
There is the sense, from talking to Megan and James, that attention is beginning to turn to video preservation, but until now other projects have taken precedence. This is the case for the BFI’s national Unlocking Film Heritage project where the main stipulation for digitisation funding is that nominated titles must originate on film.
His work was so interesting we invited Peter to do a short interview for the blog. Thanks Peter for taking time to respond, you can read the answers below!
We were really struck by your description of early video as a technology of consciousness. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea? Did early users of portable video technology use video in order to witness events?
Absolutely! Technology of consciousness is a term I found in communications scholar Fred Turner’s work, particularly his essay on the composer Paul DeMarinis (“The Pygmy Gamelan as Technology of Consciousness,” in Paul DeMarinis: Buried in Noise, ed. Ingrid Beirer, Sabine Himmelsbach, and Carsten Seiffarth [Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2010], 23–27). Every technology affects how we think and experience the world, but I use this phrase specifically to refer to technologies whose users understood that they were doing so. The quintessential examples are psychedelic drugs, which people use specifically in order to alter their consciousness. For many videographers in the 1960s and 1970, video was like a drug in that it helped a person see the world in new ways; a cartoon in the magazine Radical Software proclaimed, for example, that “Video is as powerful as LSD” (Edwin Varney, Radical Software 1, no. 3 [Spring 1971]: 6). Part of all of this was that following Aldous Huxley, people believed that psychedelics made it possible to break down the barriers of the individual and share consciousness, and following media theorist Marshall McLuhan and theologian/paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, they believed that new electronic media had the same effects. In my research, I trace these ways of thinking about technologies of consciousness back to the influence of philosopher Henri Bergson at the turn of the century. So yes, people were using video to witness events, but just as importantly they were using video to witness—and to reinterpret, and even to constitute—themselves and their communities.
As specialists in the transfer of video tapes we often notice the different aesthetic qualities of porta-pak video, uMatic, VHS and DVCAM, to name a few examples. How does ‘the look’ of a video image shape its role as a technology of consciousness? Is it more important how these technologies were used?
It’s striking how little discussion of aesthetics and the visual there was in venues like Radical Software, though of course art critics started writing about video in these terms in the late 1960s. People were often more interested in what differentiated the process of shooting video from film and other media, in its ability to be played back immediately or in its continuity as an electronic technology with the powerful media of television and computing. Sony’s first half-inch videotape recorders, using the CV format, had only half the vertical resolution of conventional television. CV decks could still be hooked up to ordinary television sets for playback, though, so they still became a way for users to make their own TV.
What’s your favourite piece of video equipment you have encountered in your research and why?
I have several Sony AV-3400 portapaks that I’ve bought on eBay, none of them quite in working order. Those were the standard tool for people experimenting with video in the early 1970s, so I’ve learned a lot from the tactile experience of using them. I also have a Sony CMA-4 camera adaptor which provides video out from an AVC-3400 portapak camera without using a deck at all; I’ve used that, along with digital equipment, to make my own brief video about some of my research, “The Revolution Will Be Videotaped: Making a Technology of Consciousness in the Long 1960s (see below).”
In your research you discuss how there has been a continuity of hybrid analogue/ digital systems in video art since the 1970s. Given that so much of contemporary society is organised via digital infrastructures, do you think analogue technologies will be reclaimed more widely as a tool for variability in the future, i.e., that there will be a backlash against what can be perceived as the calculating properties of the digital?
I’m not sure a reclaiming of analog technologies will ever take the form of an explicit social movement, but I think this process is already happening in more subtle ways. It’s most apparent in music, where vinyl records and analog synthesizers have both become markers of authenticity and a kind of retro cool. In the process, though, analog has shifted from a description of machines that worked by analogy—usually between a natural phenomenon such as luminance and an electrical voltage—to an umbrella term for everything that isn’t digital. In the context of moving images, this means that film has become an analog technology as the definition of analog has shifted—even though analog and digital video are still more technically similar, and have at times been more culturally related, than film and analog video. So yes, I think there’s a backlash against precision, particularly among some artistic communities, but I think it’s embedded in a more complex reclassification of technologies into these now dominant categories of analog and digital.