what happens to your tape
After customers decide they want to send us their tape they often ask: ‘what happens next’?
To answer this question we thought we’d put together a step-by-step guide outlining the journey your tape undergoes once you decide to work with Great Bear.
Please note: this guide largely refers to our domestic customer inquiries. For work conducted with archives, heritage institutions and media professionals there are most likely to be additional steps, such as developing a plan to capture metadata.
1) Send us your tape
We recommend you send your tape using a quick and tracked delivery service, particularly if the material is rare or valuable to you. We recommend using a fast service because it minimises the amount of time your tape is not in a temperature controlled environment. You can use a covering letter to tell us about your tapes, or fill out the customer tape assessment sheet and enclose it with your package. You can also visit us in person. We like visitors and understand that people feel nervous about sending material in the post. Make sure you phone us first to ensure that someone will be in to meet you.
2) Reception, labeling and database entry
When we receive your tape each individual reel, cartridge or box is given a unique identifying number, a barcode and is entered on our database. All tapes are given an at least 24 hour ‘sitting period’ in order to acclimatise to conditions in the Great Bear Studio. It is risky to play tape back immediately because it will undergo subtle changes in shape as it adjusts to its new environment. Playing it back prior to acclimatisation risks damaging the tape. If your tape is displaying signs of mould infestation it will placed in quarantine and treated immediately so that active mould can be driven into dormancy. After 24 hours the tape will have stabilised, making it safe to move on to the next stage of the digitisation process: assessment.
We offer customers free assessment of their tape primarily because it can be difficult to know what treatments are necessary without examining the tape’s physical condition. This is also why we are hesitant to advertise generic prices for our service because the condition of each tape will vary depending on its storage and playback history. Often we can figure out the condition of tape by visual assessment. The tape pack may not have been stored in the most careful way, leading it to become loose and bumpy. Your tape may be displaying signs of vinegar syndrome, a common problem with acetate tape, which is identifiable if the tape pack appears translucent when held up to the light. We also have many years of experience working with particular tape brands which consistently degrade due to their chemical composition. Ampex tapes, for example, almost always develop problems with the binder, known as binder hydrolysis or ‘sticky shed syndrome.’ Playing back tapes suffering from this condition without treatment will severely damage them and our machines. Recordings are usually recoverable however, following the appropriate treatment. On other occasions we may need to play back the tapes as part of our assessment because problems may not be so obvious, for example in cases where tape is suffering from a loss of lubricant (dry shedding). We use a specially adapted Studer A80 which doesn’t have any fixed guides to conduct the machine-based assessment. This enables us to control the tension and speed of the tape as it moves through the mechanism, lessening any potential damage to the tape.
We also use magnetic readers to visually assess the material recorded on our customer’s tapes. 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.
Once the problems with tape have been ascertained, we then proceed with the appropriate treatment. For tapes experiencing binder hydrolysis, the tape is dehydrated at controlled temperatures in a laboratory incubator for at least 24 hours, sometimes more depending on the brand, size and age of the tape. Dry shedding tapes require intensive cleaning before a clear transfer can be made. In such cases tape is carefully wound and rewound allowing each section of the tape to be cleaned using interlining curtain fabric. Other examples of pre-transfer treatment could include re-shelling cassettes, re-spooling reels and cassettes in order to deal with the tension in the spools and in some cases, re-lubricating tape so it can move smoothly through the transport.
After treatment has been completed we do a final check to see if tapes are playing back without shedding or emitting squealing noises from the tape transport. If either is occurring, we go back to conduct further treatment.
Prior to digitisation our playback machines have to be cleaned. Machines are cleaned regularly, according to the requirements of each format. Open reel formats, for example, are quick and easy to clean because the tape path is clearly visible. Machines are cleaned before each transfer, and sometimes more, depending on the condition of the tape. For other formats, such as DVCAM, cleaning before every transfer is risky because of the size of head drum and relative fragility of the transports. We only clean these machines when it becomes necessary to do so, for example when there are severe drop outs.
For video cassette tape transfers we check the loading mechanism with spare, non-vital tapes. If the loading mechanism is not working properly it can severely damage the tape.
In a digitisation context, calibration refers to the process through which playback machine specifications are adjusted in order for the tape to be played back in the clearest, most accurate form possible. Migrating professional audio tape recordings can be relatively straightforward if you have access to information about speed the tape was recorded, audio tones and noise reduction. This precious metadata was meticulously written on tape boxes by sound engineers so that recordings could be played accurately in different studios.
For those digitising magnetic tape this information is a gift because it helps us playback the tape according to its original specifications. Of course not all professional recordings include this information, and in such cases we adjust the specifications of the playback machine aurally, making what is known as an ‘educated guess’. Almost all domestic tape recordings are prepared in this manner because it is incredibly rare that detailed information about the recording history is documented. For video tape recordings we similarly work with existing metadata such as EBU Colour Bars and use vectorscopes and wave form monitors to measure the chroma (colour) and luma (black and white) of the video signal. For a full list of equipment we use for calibration purposes visit our video studio equipment page.
Once all the above processes are complete we are finally ready to go with the transfer! We capture the digital file at recommended archival standards (24 bits/ 96kHz for audio; 10-bit uncompressed quicktime .MOV for video) so they are the best quality possible.
9) Audio and Video ‘Restoration’
Once we have the ‘raw transfer’ there is the option to apply various restoration technologies. We only do this if it is explicitly requested from the customer because, in line with professional archival practices, we believe such actions compromise the authenticity of the transfer.
We do, however, understand this issue is not important to all our customers who may simply want their transfer to be as clear as possible.
In such cases applying audio restoration technologies may be desirable. The audio and video restoration services we offer include noise reduction, speed correction and volume correction for audio; chroma and luma correction, noise reduction and colour level adjustment for video.
10) Encoding file format for use and access
Large uncompressed files can take up a lot of data space, making it difficult to publish and share information online. We are able to encode files for ease of use and access. For video the most common encoded files are MPEG2 and H264, while for audio it is MP3 and AAC. If you want your file encoded differently, just ask! We do however recommend you have both an uncompressed, high quality transfer for archival purposes and a lossy, compressed copy for access. You can specify what file formats you want on our downloadable customer assessment form.
11) Creating delivery media
Once the files are finalised we then create the delivery media. As of 2016, we strongly recommend file delivery on an external hard drive. We are happy to provide a hard drive, the cost of which will be added to your invoice, or you can send a hard drive along with your tapes.
12) Packing finished transfers to send to customers
The digitisation process is complete when we pack the finished transfers into recycled bubble wrap and jiffy bags. The package is then sent using a tracked delivery service. Customers are also very welcome to pick their tapes and transferred digital files up in person, but as always, do call to arrange your visit.
We hope this makes it clear what happens to your tape when you send it to us.
If you do have any more questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch.