video tape

Open reel video tape and video cassette formats restored and digitised in the Greatbear studio

Video Art & Machine Obsolescence

multiple stills from BBC documentary showing Jim Moir and Greatbear video equipment in a mock-up studio

Stills from BBC4's "Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art", showing vintage video equipment from the Greatbear studio with researcher Adam Lockhart and artists Catherine Elwes and George Barber © Academy 7 Productions 2019.

At Greatbear we have many, many machines. A small selection of our analogue video players, CRT monitors, cameras, cables and tapes recently found work as props (both functional and decorative) in the BBC documentary “Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art”, on BBC iPlayer here.

From the BBC website: “Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves, explores video art, revealing how different generations hacked the tools of television to pioneer new ways of creating art."

Our obsession with collecting and restoring rare video equipment is vital for our work. As technology developed through the latter half of the 20th century, dozens of different formats of video tape were created - each requiring specialist equipment to play it back: equipment which is now obsolete. The machines have not been manufactured for decades and the vast majority of them have been scrapped.

Those that remain are wearing out - the rotating head drums that read video tape have a finite number of working hours before they need replacement. Wear to the head drum tips is irrevocable, and the remaining few in existence are highly sought-after.

Even TV companies, where U-matic, Betacam and countless other formats of VTR machine were once ubiquitous, no longer have access to the machines and monitors we provided for “Kill Your TV”.

It is a similar conundrum for the artists who produced work with older video technology, and for the galleries and museums who hold collections of their work. We have recently been working on a fascinating project with specialist art conservator for time-based media, Brian Castriota and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, transferring important video artworks produced between 1972 - 2013 from multiple video tape formats, by artists including Isaac Julien, Gillian Wearing and Willie Doherty - more on this in a future blog post!

conceptual immateriality & the material device

In "Kill Your TV", Jim Moir describes a demonstration of David Hall’s "Vidicon Inscriptions" (1973) as “an electronic image that doesn’t really exist in a physical space” which nevertheless relies on the quirks of (very physical) vintage video equipment for its enactment.

Artist Peter Donebauer refers specifically to immateriality inherent to his 1974 video art piece “Entering” (broadcast via the BBC’s arts programme “2nd House”). PD: "Technically, the real core of this is the signal. It made me think about what this medium was, because it’s not material in the same way as painting, sculpture or even performance, dance, film - almost anything that has physicality.”

But for a signal to be perceived, it needs to be reproduced by a physical device capable of reading it. The dangers facing video artwork preservation lie not only in the fragility of the tape itself, but in the disappearance of rare playback machines and the specialist tools for their maintenance and repair; of the service manuals, calibration tapes and the expertise needed to set them up.

The 'tools of television' relished in "Kill Your TV" are the material devices we are striving to save, repair and maintain.

links & further reading:

Read about our facilities to transfer video made with the Sony Portapak system featured in the documentary: Sony 1/2 inch Portapak (EIAJ) / CV2100 / CV2000 open reel video tape

Our work with Videokunstarkivet, an exciting archival project mapping all the works of video art that have been made in Norway since the mid-1960s, funded by the Norwegian Arts Council.

“Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art” was made for BBC4 by Academy 7 Productions


Posted by melanie in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

Mouldy Tape

The effects of mould growth on both the integrity of the tape and the recorded sound or image can be significant.

Mould growth often sticks the tape layers in a tightly packed reel together often at one edge. If an affected tape is wound or played this can rip the tape.

In the case of narrow and thin tapes like DAT, this can be catastrophic.

opened up DAT cassette shell with white powdery mould on upper surface of tape wound around red plastic spool

DAT audio cassette shell opened to reveal visible mould on edge of tape pack

video tape split diagonally, with no visible signs of mould on surface of tape

DVCPRO video cassette lid lifted to show tape split longitudinally

If the mould has damaged the record side of the tape then the magnetic tracks are usually damaged and signal loss will result. This will create audible and visual artefacts that cannot be resolved.

Mould develops on tapes that have been stored in less-than-optimum conditions. Institutional collections can exhibit mould growth if they have not have been stored in a suitable, temperature controlled environment. For magnetic tape collections this is recommended at 15 +/- 3° C and 40% maximum relative humidity, although the British Library's Preservation Advisory Centre suggest 'the necessary conditions for [mould] germination are generally: temperatures of 10-35ºC with optima of 20ºC and above [and] relative humidities greater than 70%.'

For domestic and personal collections the mouldy tapes we receive are often the ones that have been stored in the shed, loft or basement, so be sure to check the condition of anything you think may be at risk.

It is important to remember that a mouldy tape is a hazard not just for the individual tape. If not handled carefully it can potentially spread to other parts of your collection and must be treated immediately.

fine filaments of white and golden brown mould on edge of tape wound around white plastic spool

filaments of mould on Hi8 video tape edge

diagonal tear across 8mm tape on spool

Hi8 tape showing longitudinal tear caused by sticking

What can we do to help?

We have a lot of experience treating tapes suffering from mould infestation and getting great results!

There are several stages to our treatment of your mouldy tape.

Firstly, if the mould is still active it has to be driven into dormancy. You will be able to tell if there is active mould on your tape because it will be moist, smudging slightly if it is touched. If the tape is in this condition there is a high risk it will infect other parts of your collection. We strongly advise you to quarantine the tape (and of course wash your hands because active mould is nasty stuff).

When we receive mouldy tape we place it in a sealed bag filled with desiccating silica gel. The silica gel helps to absorb the tape's moisture and de-fertilises the mould's 'living environment'.

When the mould becomes dormant it will appear white and dusty, and is relatively easy to treat at this stage. We use brushes, vacuums with HEPA filters and cleaning solutions such as hydrogen peroxide to clean the tape.

Treatment should be conducted in a controlled environment using the appropriate health protections such as masks and gloves because mould can be very damaging for health.

All machines used to playback mouldy tape are cleaned thoroughly after use - even tapes with dormant mould still carry the risk of infection.

Most tapes-infested with mould are treatable and can be effectively played back following the appropriate treatment procedures. Occasionally mould growth is so extensive however that it damages the binder irreparably. Mould can also exacerbate other problems associated with impaired tape, such as binder hydrolysis.

white powdery mould with cleaning cloth inside U-matic tape sheel

gently dislodging mould from U-matic video tape

fine line of white mould on edge and upper surface of black tape

Edge and upper-surface mould causing U-matic video tape to stick

When it comes to tape mould the message is simple: it is a serious problem which poses a significant risk to the integrity of your collection.

If you do find mould on your tapes all is not lost. With careful, specialised treatment the material can be recovered. Action does need to be taken promptly however in order to salvage the tape and prevent the spread of further infection.

Feel free to contact us if you want to talk about your audio or video tapes that may need treatment or assessment.

Posted by greatbear in audio tape, video tape, 2 comments

Binder Problems and ‘Sticky-Shed Syndrome’

reel-to-reel tape: extreme delamination

The binder is crucial part of the composition of audio and video magnetic tape. It holds the iron oxide magnetisable coating on to its plastic carrier and facilitates its transport through the playback mechanism.  It is also, however, 'universally agreed that with modern PET-based tape the binder is the weak link, and is generally the part of the tape which creates the most problems,' according to a UNESCO report.

There is of course no 'one-size-fits-all' answer to treating problems with tape binder. Each tape will have a unique manufacturing, playback and storage history that will shape its current condition, so restoration solutions need to respond on a case-by-case basis.

Detailed below are some of the common and diverse things that can go wrong with the tape binder, and how Greatbear can help restore your tape to a playable condition.

Binder Hydrolysis a.k.a. Sticky Shed Syndrome

Probably the most well-known fault that can occur with magnetic tape is binder hydrolysis.

As its name indicates, hydrolysis is a chemical process caused by the absorption of water present in the tape's storage environment. In certain brands of tape, most notably Ampex, the binder polymers used in magnetic tape construction are broken apart as they react with water, which causes damage to the tape.

There are other theories about what happens when tapes get sticky and shed. Dietrich Schüller conducted interviews with experts of former tape manufacturers based in Germany, and concluded that 'the chemical recipe is the basis, if not the guarantee, for tape quality and stability. The production process, is equally, if not more essential.'

Schüller's research explains how the manufacture of tapes required a delicate balance between speed and precision, encompassing issues such as coating speed, proper dispersion of components, temperature and pressure of calendars. Professional tapes were produced at a rate between 100-200 metres per second (m/s). In the final stage of tape manufacture 'production speed reached 1000 m/s. This required the cross linking of binder components during the coating process.' This uneven distribution, Schüller found, sometimes led to sticky areas. [1]

Tapes exhibiting sticky shed syndrome will stick to the tape pack as they are unwound. These tapes are extremely vulnerable and need effective treatment before they can be played back. Playing a sticky tape is likely to damage the tape. It will also result in head clogs, stick-slip playback and seizure of the tape transport. In extreme cases the tape may fall apart entirely.

Although a serious problem, binder hydrolysis can be treated. Tape baking at controlled temperatures can temporarily improve binder integrity, helping to restore tape to a playable condition. In our studios we use a Thermo Scientific Heraeus B20 laboratory incubator for this process.

Lubricant Loss

Lubricants are a crucial part of the tape binder's composition because it helps the tape move smoothly through the transport. 'The quantity of lubricant is greater for video than for audio because of the higher writing and reading speeds.' [2]

Over time, the level of lubricant in the tape decreases because lubricants are partially consumed every time the tape is played. Lubricant levels decrease over time even if they are unplayed, particularly if they have not been stored in appropriate conditions for passive preservation.

As you will imagine, playing a tape back that has lost its lubricant carries with it certain risks. The tape may seize in the transport as a result of high friction, and the magnetic coating may be torn off the tape backing as it moves at a high speed past the tape head.

In cases where there is extreme lubricant loss we can apply a lubricant to help ease the tape through the transport. On the whole we are keen to use treatment methods that are as non-intrusive as possible, so such measures are kept to a minimum: 're-lubrication [...] must be seen very critically, as it is impossible to restrict added lubricants to the small amounts actually needed. Superfluous lubricants are difficult to remove from the tape guides, heads, and capstan and may interact with other tapes played on those machines at a later date.' [3]

A lack of lubricant can often result in dry shedding. This produces a dusty (rather than sticky) residue that is deposited on the capstan belts and pinch rollers as the tape moves through the transport. Dry shedding can be treated by consistently cleaning the tape until it reaches a point where it can be played back without shedding again. You can read more about this method here.

[1] Dietrich Schüller, 'Magnetic Tape Stability: Talking to Experts of Former Tape Manufacturers.' IASA Journal, Vol. 42, Jan 2014, 32-37, 34.

[2] IASA-TC-05, 'Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers,' 20.

[3] IASA-TC-05, 'Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers,' 20.

Posted by greatbear in audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Gregory Sams’s VegeBurger – Food Revolution

‘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’s VegeBurger 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.

As the story of the VegeBurger goes, it helped ‘a whole lot of latent vegetarians came out of the closet.’

Whole Food Histories

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.

Working with his brother Craig Sams he started Harmony Foods, a whole food distribution business (later Whole Earth), and published the pioneering Seed – the Journal of Organic Living. 

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

Greatbear 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?’

Gregory’s story shows that it is possible to combine canny entrepreneurship and social activism. Want to know more about it? You can read the full VegeBurger story on Gregory’s website.

Thanks to Gregory for permission to reproduce the advert and for talking to us about his life.

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

Guest post: The Upright Electric Guitar

Is it a piano? Is it an electric guitar? Neither, it’s a hybrid! Keys, “action”, dampers from an upright piano, wood planks, electric guitar strings, and long pickup coils.

Watch and listen to a YouTube video of this instrument:

Inception, designing and building

I first had the idea for the upright electric guitar in late 1986. At that time I had been scraping together a living for around 2 years, by hauling a 450-pound upright piano around to the shopping precincts in England, playing it as a street entertainer – and in my spare time I dreamt of having a keyboard instrument that would allow working with the sound of a “solid body” electric guitar. I especially liked the guitar sound of Angus Young from AC/DC, that of a Gibson SG. It had a lot of warmth in the tone, and whenever I heard any of their music, I kept thinking of all the things I might be able to do with that sound if it was available on a keyboard, such as developing new playing techniques. I had visions of taking rock music in new directions, touring, recording, and all the usual sorts of things an aspiring musician has on their mind.

Digital sampling was the latest development in keyboard technology back then, but I had found that samples of electric guitar did not sound authentic enough, even just in terms of their pure tone quality. Eventually all this led to one of those “eureka” moments in which it became clear that one way to get what I was after, would be to take a more “physical” approach by using a set of piano keys and the “action” and “dampering” mechanism that normally comes with them, and then, using planks of wood to mount on, swop out piano strings for those from an electric guitar, add guitar pickups, wiring and switches, and so on – and finally, to send the result of all this into a Marshall stack.

I spent much of the next 12 years working on some form of this idea, except for a brief interlude for a couple of years in the early 1990s, during which I collaborated with a firm based in Devon, Musicom Ltd, whose use of additive synthesis technology had led them to come up with the best artificially produced sounds of pipe organs that were available anywhere in the world. Musicom had also made some simple attempts to create other instrument sounds including acoustic piano, and the first time I heard one of these, in 1990, I was very impressed – it clearly had a great deal of the natural “warmth” of a real piano, warmth that was missing from any digital samples I had ever heard. After that first introduction to their technology and to the work that Musicom were doing, I put aside my idea for the physical version of the upright electric guitar for a time, and became involved with helping them with the initial analysis of electric guitar sounds.

Unfortunately, due to economic pressures, there came a point in 1992 when Musicom had to discontinue their research into other instrument sounds and focus fully on their existing lines of development and their market for the pipe organ sounds. It was at that stage that I resumed work on the upright electric guitar as a physical hybrid of an electric guitar and an upright piano.

I came to describe the overall phases of this project as “approaches”, and in this sense, all work done before I joined forces with Musicom was part of “Approach 1”, the research at Musicom was “Approach 2”, and the resumption of my original idea after that was “Approach 3”.

During the early work on Approach 1, my first design attempts at this new instrument included a tremolo or “whammy bar” to allow some form of note / chord bending. I made detailed 3-view drawings of the initial design, on large A2 sheets. These were quite complicated and looked like they might prove to be very expensive to make, and sure enough, when I showed them a light engineering firm, they reckoned it would cost around £5,000.00 for them to produce to those specifications. Aside from the cost, even on paper this design looked a bit impractical – it seemed like it might never stay in tune, for one thing.

Despite the apparent design drawbacks, I was able to buy in some parts during Approach 1, and have other work done, which would eventually be usable for Approach 3. These included getting the wood to be used for the planks, designing and having the engineering done on variations of “fret” pieces for all the notes the new instrument would need above the top “open E” string on an electric guitar, and buying a Marshall valve amp with a separate 4×12 speaker cabinet.

While collaborating with Musicom on the electronic additive synthesis method of Approach 2, I kept hold of most of the work and items from Approach 1, but by then I had already lost some of the original design drawings from that period. This is a shame, as some of them were done in multiple colours, and they were practically works of art in their own right. As it turned out, the lost drawings included features that I would eventually leave out of the design that resulted from a fresh evaluation taken to begin Approach 3, and so this loss did not stop the project moving forward.

The work on Approach 3 began in 1992, and it first involved sourcing the keys and action/dampering of an upright piano. I wanted to buy something new and “off the shelf”, and eventually I found a company based in London, Herrberger Brooks, who sold me one of their “Rippen R02/80” piano actions and key sets, still boxed up as it would be if sent to any company that manufactures upright pianos.

These piano keys and action came with a large A1 blueprint drawing that included their various measurements, and this turned out to be invaluable for the design work that had to be done next. The basic idea was to make everything to do with the planks of wood, its strings, pickups, tuning mechanism, frets, “nut”, machine heads and so on, fit together with, and “onto”, the existing dimensions of the piano keys and action – and to then use a frame to suspend the planks vertically, to add a strong but relatively thin “key bed” under the keys, legs under the key bed to go down to ground level and onto a “base”, and so on.

To begin work on designing how the planks would hold the strings, how those would be tuned, where the pickup coils would go and so on, I first reduced down this big blueprint, then added further measurements of my own, to the original ones. For the simplest design, the distance between each of the piano action’s felt “hammers” and the next adjacent hammer was best kept intact, and this determined how far apart the strings would have to be, how wide the planks needed to be, and how many strings would fit onto each plank. It looked like 3 planks would be required.

While working on new drawings of the planks, I also investigated what gauge of electric guitar string should be used for each note, how far down it would be possible to go for lower notes, and things related to this. With a large number of strings likely to be included, I decided it would be a good idea to aim for a similar tension in each one, so that the stresses on the planks and other parts of the instrument would, at least in theory, be relatively uniform. Some enquiries at the University of Bristol led me to a Dr F. Gibbs, who had already retired from the Department of Physics but was still interested in the behaviour and physics of musical instruments. He assisted with the equations for calculating the tension of a string, based on its length, diameter, and the pitch of the note produced on it. Plugging all the key factors into this equation resulted in a range of electric guitar string gauges that made sense for the upright electric guitar, and for the 6 open string notes found on a normal electric guitar, the gauges resulting from my calculations were similar to the ones your average electric guitarist might choose.

Other practicalities also determined how many more notes it would theoretically be possible to include below the bottom “open E” string on an electric guitar, for the new instrument. For the lowest note to be made available, by going all the way down to a 0.060 gauge wound string – the largest available at that time as an electric guitar string – it was possible to add several more notes below the usual open bottom E string. I considered using bass strings for notes below this, but decided not to include them and instead, to let this extra range be the lower limit on strings and notes to be used. Rather than a bass guitar tone, I wanted a consistent sort of electric guitar tone, even for these extra lower notes.

For the upper notes, everything above the open top E on a normal guitar would have a single fret at the relevant distance away from the “bridge” area for that string, and all those notes would use the same string gauge as each other.

The result of all the above was that the instrument would accommodate a total of 81 notes / strings, with an octave of extra notes below the usual guitar’s open bottom E string, and just under 2 octaves of extra notes above the last available fret from the top E string of a Gibson SG, that last fretted note on an SG being the “D” just under 2 octaves above the open top E note itself. For the technically minded reader, this range of notes went from “E0” to “C7”.

Having worked all this out, I made scale drawings of the 3 planks, with their strings, frets, pickup coils, and a simple fine-tuning mechanism included. It was then possible to manipulate a copy of the piano action blueprint drawing – with measurements removed, reduced in size, and reversed as needed – so it could be superimposed onto the planks’ scale drawings, to the correct relational size and so on. I did this without the aid of any computer software, partly because in those days, CAD apps were relatively expensive, and also because it was difficult to find any of this software that looked like I could learn to use it quickly. Since I had already drawn this to scale in the traditional way – using draftsman’s tools and a drawing board – it made sense to work with those drawings, so instead of CAD, I used photocopies done at a local printing shop, and reduced / reversed etc, as needed.

Key drawing of 3 planks, strings, frets, fine tuning mechanism and pickup coils, combined with upright piano action

It was only really at this point, once the image of the piano action’s schematic was married up to the scale drawings of the 3 planks, that I began to fully understand where this work was heading, in terms of design. But from then on, it was relatively easily to come up with the rest of the concepts and to draw something for them, so that work could proceed on the frame to hold up the planks, the key bed, legs, and a base at ground level.

Around this time, I came across an old retired light engineer, Reg Huddy, who had a host of engineer’s machines – drill presses, a lathe, milling machine, and so on – set up in his home. He liked to make small steam engines and things of that nature, and when I first went to see him, we hit it off immediately. In the end he helped me make a lot of the metal parts that were needed for the instrument, and to machine in various holes and the pickup coil routing sections on the wood planks. He was very interested in the project, and as I was not very well off, he insisted in charging minimal fees for his work. Reg also had a better idea for the fine tuning mechanism than the one I had come up with, and we went with his version, as soon as he showed it to me.

If I am honest, I don’t think I would ever have finished the work on this project without all the help that Reg contributed. I would buy in raw materials if he didn’t already have them, and we turned out various parts as needed, based either on 3-view drawings I had previously come up with, or for other parts we realised would be required as the project progressed, from drawings I worked up as we went along. Reg sometimes taught me to use his engineering machinery, and although I was a bit hesitant at times, after a while I was working on these machines to a very basic standard.

I took the wood already bought for the instrument during the work on Approach 1, to Jonny Kinkead of Kinkade Guitars, and he did the cutting, gluing up and shaping to the required sizes and thicknesses for the 3 planks. The aim was to go with roughly the length of a Gibson SG neck and body, to make the planks the same thickness as an SG body, and to include an angled bit as usual at the end where an SG or any other guitar is tuned up, the “machine head” end. Jonny is an excellent craftsman and was able to do this work to a very high standard, based on measurements I provided him with.

As well as getting everything made up for putting onto the planks, the piano action itself needed various modifications. The highest notes had string lengths that were so short that the existing dampers had to be extended so they were in the correct place, as otherwise they would not have been positioned over those strings at all. Extra fine adjustments were needed for each damper, so that instead of having to physically bend the metal rod holding a given damper in place – an inexact science at the best of times – it was possible to turn a “grub screw” to accomplish the same thing, but with a much greater degree of precision. And finally, especially important for the action, the usual felt piano “hammers” were to be replaced by smaller versions made of stiff wire shaped into a triangle. For these, I tried a few design mock-ups to find the best material for the wire itself, and to get an idea of what shape to use. Eventually, once this was worked out, I made up a “jig” around which it was possible to wrap the stiff wire so as to produce a uniformly shaped “striking triangle” for each note. This was then used to make 81 original hammers that were as similar to each other as possible. Although using the jig in this way was a really fiddly job, the results were better than I had expected, and they were good enough.

Close-up of a few hammers, dampers and strings

While this was all underway, I got in touch with an electric guitar pickup maker, Kent Armstrong of Rainbow Pickups. When the project first started, I had almost no knowledge of solid body electric guitar physics at all, and I certainly had no idea how pickup coils worked. Kent patiently explained this to me, and once he understood what I was doing, we worked out as practical a design for long humbucker coils as possible. A given coil was to go all the way across one of the 3 planks, “picking up” from around 27 strings in total – but for the rightmost plank, the upper strings were so short that there was not enough room to do this and still have both a “bridge” and a “neck” pickup, so the top octave of notes would had to have these two sets of coils stacked one on top of the other, using deeper routed areas in the wood than elsewhere.

For the signal to send to the amplifier, we aimed for the same overall pickup coil resistance (Ω) as on a normal electric guitar. By using larger gauge wire and less windings than normal, and by wiring up the long coils from each of the 3 planks in the right way, we got fairly close to this, for both an “overall bridge” and an “overall neck” pickup. Using a 3-way switch that was also similar to what’s found on a normal electric guitar, it was then possible to have either of these 2 “overall” pickups – bridge or neck – on by itself, or both at once. Having these two coil sets positioned a similar distance away from the “bridge end” of the strings as on a normal guitar, resulted in just the sort of sound difference between the bridge and neck pickups, as we intended. Because, as explained above, we had to stack bridge and neck coils on top of each other for the topmost octave of notes, those very high notes – much higher than on most electric guitars – did not sound all that different with the overall “pickup switch” position set to “bridge”, “neck”, or both at once. That was OK though, as those notes were not expected to get much use.

Some electric guitar pickups allow the player to adjust the volume of each string using a screw or “grub screw” etc. For the upright electric guitar I added 2 grub screws for every string and for each of the bridge and neck coils, and this means we had over 300 of these that had to be adjusted. Once the coils were ready, and after they were covered in copper sheeting to screen out any unwanted interference and they were then mounted up onto the planks, some early adjustments made to a few of these grub screws, and tests of the volumes of those notes, enabled working up a graph to calculate how much to adjust the height of each of the 300+ grub screws, for all 81 strings. This seemed to work quite well in the end, and there was a uniform change to volume from one end of the available notes to the other, one which was comparable to a typical electric guitar.

Unlike a normal electric guitar, fine tuning on this instrument was done at the “ball end” / “bridge end” of each string, not the “machine heads end” / “nut end”. The mechanism for this involved having a very strong, short piece of round rod put through the string’s “ball”, positioning one end of this rod into a fixed groove, and turning a screw using an allen key near the other end of the rod, to change the tension in the string. It did take a while to get this thing into tune, but I have always had a good ear, and over the years I had taught myself how to tune a normal piano, which is much more difficult than doing this fine tuning of the upright electric guitar instrument.

fine tuning mechanisms for each string (in the upper right part of the photo)
hammers, dampers, strings, pickup coils and their grub screws, and fine tuning mechanisms

A frame made of aluminium was designed to support the 3 planks vertically. They were quite heavy on their own, and much more so with all the extra metal hardware added on, so the frame had to be really strong. Triangle shapes gave it extra rigidity. To offset the string tensions, truss rods were added on the back of the 3 planks, 4 per plank at equal intervals. When hung vertically, the 3 planks each had an “upper” end where the fine tuning mechanisms were found and near where the pickup coils were embedded and the strings were struck, and a “lower” end where the usual “nut” and “machine heads” would be found. I used short aluminium bars clamping each of 2 adjacent strings together in place of a nut, and zither pins in place of machine heads. The “upper” and “lower” ends of the planks were each fastened onto their own hefty piece of angle iron, which was then nestled into the triangular aluminium support frame. The result of this design was that the planks would not budge by even a tiny amount, once everything was put together. This was over-engineering on a grand scale, making it very heavy – but to my thinking at that time, this could not be helped.

The piano keys themselves also had to have good support underneath. As well as preventing sagging in the middle keys and any other potential key slippage, the “key bed” had to be a thin as possible, as I have long legs and have always struggled with having enough room for them under the keys of any normal piano. These 2 requirements – both thin and strong – led me to have some pieces of aluminium bar heat treated for extra strength. Lengths of this reinforced aluminium bar were then added “left to right”, just under the keys themselves, having already mounted the keys’ standard wooden supports – included in what came with the piano action – onto a thin sheet of aluminium that formed the basis of the key bed for the instrument. There was enough height between the keys and the bottom of these wooden supports, to allow a reasonable thickness of aluminium to be used for these left-to-right bars. For strength in the other direction of the key bed – “front to back” – 4 steel bars were added, positioned so that, as I sat at the piano keyboard, they were underneath but still out of the way. Legs made of square steel tubing were then added to the correct height to take this key bed down to a “base” platform, onto which everything was mounted. Although this key bed ended up being quite heavy in its own right, with the legs added it was as solid as a rock, so the over-engineering did at least work in that respect.

If you have ever looked inside an upright piano, you might have noticed that the “action” mechanism usually has 2 or 3 large round nuts you can unscrew, after which it is possible to lift the whole mechanism up and out of the piano and away from the keys themselves. On this instrument, I used the same general approach to do the final “marrying up” – of piano keys and action, to the 3 planks of wood suspended vertically. The existing action layout already had “forks” that are used for this, so everything on the 3 planks was designed to allow room for hefty sized bolts fastened down tightly in just the right spots, in relation to where the forks would go when the action was presented up to the planks. The bottom of a normal upright piano action fits into “cups” on the key bed, and I also used these in my design. Once the planks and the key bed were fastened down to the aluminium frame and to the base during assembly, then in much the same way as on an upright piano, the action was simply “dropped down” into the cups, then bolted through the forks and onto, in this case, the 3 planks.

It’s usually possible to do fine adjustments to the height of these cups on an upright piano, and it’s worth noting that even a tiny change to this will make any piano action behave differently. This is why it was so important to have both very precise tolerances in the design of the upright electric guitar’s overall structure, together with as much strength and rigidity as possible for the frame and other parts.

With a normal upright piano action, when you press a given key on the piano keyboard, it moves the damper for that single note away from the strings, and the damper returns when you let go of that key. In addition to this, a typical upright piano action includes a mechanism for using a “sustain pedal” with the right foot, so that when you press the pedal, the dampers are pushed away from all the strings at the same time, and when you release the pedal, the dampers are returned back onto all the strings. The upright piano action bought for this instrument did include all this, and I especially wanted to take advantage of the various dampering and sustain possibilities. Early study, drawing and calculations of forces, fulcrums and so on, eventually enabled use of a standard piano sustain foot pedal – bought off the shelf from that same firm, Herrberger Brooks – together with a hefty spring, some square hollow aluminium tube for the horizontal part of the “foot to dampers transfer” function, and a wooden dowel for the vertical part of the transfer. Adjustment had to be made to the position of the fulcrum, as the first attempt led to the foot pedal needing too much force, which made it hard to operate without my leg quickly getting tired. This was eventually fixed, and then it worked perfectly.

At ground level I designed a simple “base” of aluminium sheeting, with “positioners” fastened down in just the right places so that the legs of the key bed, the triangular frame holding up the 3 planks, and the legs of the piano stool to sit on, always ended up in the correct places in relation to each other. This base was also where the right foot sustain pedal and its accompanying mechanism were mounted up. To make it more transportable, the base was done in 3 sections that could fairly easily be fastened together and disassembled.

After building – further tests and possible modifications

When all this design was finished, all the parts were made and adjusted as needed, and it could finally be assembled and tried out, the first time I put the instrument together, added the wiring leads, plugged it into the Marshall stack, and then tuned it all up, it was a real thrill to finally be able to sit and play it. But even with plenty of distortion on the amp, it didn’t really sound right – it was immediately obvious that there was too much high frequency in the tone. It had wonderful amounts of sustain, but the price being paid for this was that the sound was some distance away from what I was really after. In short, the instrument worked, but instead of sounding like a Gibson SG – or any other electric guitar for that matter – it sounded a bit sh***y.

When I had first started working on this project, my “ear” for what kind of guitar sound I wanted, was in what I would describe as an “early stage of development”. Mock-up tests done during Approach 1, before 1990, had sounded kind of right at that time. But once I was able to sit and play the finished instrument, and to hear it as it was being played, with hindsight I realised that my “acceptable” evaluation of the original mock-up was more because, at that point, I had not yet learned to identify the specific tone qualities I was after. It was only later as the work neared completion, that my “ear” for the sound I wanted became more fully developed, as I began to better understand how a solid body electric guitar behaves, what contributes to the tone qualities you hear from a specific instrument, and so on.

I began asking some of the other people who had been involved in the project, for their views on why it didn’t sound right. Two things quickly emerged from this – it was too heavy, and the strings were being struck, instead of plucking them.

Kent Armstrong, who made the pickups for the upright electric guitar, told me a story about how he once did a simple experiment which, in relation to my instrument, demonstrated what happens if you take the “it’s too heavy” issue to the extreme. He told me about how he had once “made an electric guitar out of a brick wall”, by fastening an electric guitar string to the wall at both ends of the string, adding a pickup coil underneath, tuning the string up, sending the result into an amp, and then plucking the string. He said that this seemed to have “infinite sustain” – the sound just went on and on. His explanation for this was that because the brick wall had so much mass, it could not absorb any of the vibration from the string, and so all of its harmonics just stayed in the string itself.

Although this was a funny and quite ludicrous example, I like this kind of thing, and the lesson was not lost on me at the time. We discussed the principles further, and Kent told me that in his opinion, a solid body electric guitar needs somewhere around 10 to 13 pounds of wood mass, in order for it to properly absorb the strings’ high harmonics in the way that gives you that recognisable tone quality we would then call “an electric guitar sound”. In essence, he was saying that the high frequencies have to “come out”, and then it’s the “warmer” lower harmonics which remain in the strings, that makes an electric guitar sound the way it does. This perfectly fit with my own experience of the tones I liked so much, in a guitar sound I would describe as “desirable”. Also, it did seem to explain why my instrument, which had a lot more “body mass” than 10 to 13 pounds – with its much larger wood planks, a great deal of extra hardware mounted onto them, and so on – did not sound like that.

As for striking rather than plucking the strings, I felt that more trials and study would be needed on this. I had opted to use hammers to strike the strings, partly as this is much simpler to design for – the modifications needed to the upright piano action bought off the shelf, were much less complicated than those that would have been required for plucking them. But there was now a concern that the physics of plucking and striking might be a lot different to each other, and if so there might be no way of getting around this, except to pluck them.

I decided that in order to work out what sorts of changes would best be made to the design of this instrument to make it sound better, among other things to do as a next step, I needed first-hand experience of the differences in tone quality between various sizes of guitar body. In short, I decided to make it my business to learn as much as I could about the physics of the solid body electric guitar, and if necessary, to learn more than perhaps anyone else out there might already know. I also prepared for the possibility that a mechanism to pluck the strings might be needed.

At that time, in the mid 1990s, there had been some excellent research carried out on the behaviour of acoustic guitars, most notably by a Dr Stephen Richardson at the University of Cardiff. I got in touch with him, and he kindly sent me details on some of this work. But he admitted that the physics of the acoustic guitar – where a resonating chamber of air inside the instrument plays a key part in the kinds of sounds and tones that the instrument can make – is fundamentally different to that of a solid body electric guitar.

I trawled about some more, but no one seemed to have really studied solid body guitar physics – or if they had, nothing had been published on it. Kent Armstrong’s father Dan appeared on the scene at one point, as I was looking into all this. Dan Armstrong was the inventor of the Perspex bass guitar in the 1960s. When he, Kent and I all sat down together to have a chat about my project, it seemed to me that Dan might in fact know more than anyone else in the world, about what is going on when the strings vibrate on a solid body guitar. It was very useful to hear what he had to say on this.

I came away from all these searches for more knowledge, with further determination to improve the sound of the upright electric guitar. I kept an eye out for a cheap Gibson SG, and as luck would have it, one appeared online for just £400.00 – for any guitar enthusiasts out there, you will know that even in the 1990s, that was dirt cheap. I suspected there might be something wrong with it, but decided to take a risk and buy it anyway. It turned out to have a relatively correct SG sound, and was cheap because it had been made in the mid 1970s, at a time when Gibson were using inferior quality wood for the bodies of this model. While it clearly did not sound as good as, say, a vintage SG, it was indeed a Gibson original rather than an SG copy, and it did have a “workable” SG sound that I could compare against.

I also had a friend with a great old Gibson SG Firebrand, one that sounded wonderful. He offered to let me borrow it for making comparative sound recordings and doing other tests. I was grateful for this, and I did eventually take him up on the offer.

One thing that I was keen to do at this stage, was to look at various ways to measure – and quantify – the differences in tone quality between either of these two Gibson SGs and the upright electric guitar. I was advised to go to the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol, who were very helpful. Over the Easter break of 1997, they arranged for me to bring in my friend’s SG Firebrand and one of my 3 planks – with its strings all attached and working – so that one of their professors, Brian Day, could conduct “frequency sweep” tests on them. Brian had been suffering from early onset of Parkinson’s disease and so had curtailed his normal university activities, but once he heard about this project, he was very keen to get involved. Frequency sweep tests are done by exposing the “subject” instrument to an artificially created sound whose frequency is gradually increased, while measuring the effect this has on the instrument’s behaviour. Brian and his colleagues carried out the tests while a friend and I assisted. Although the results did not quite have the sorts of quantifiable measurements I was looking for, they did begin to point me in the right direction.

After this testing, someone else recommended I get in touch with a Peter Dobbins, who at that time worked at British Aerospace in Bristol and had access to spectral analysis equipment at their labs, which he had sometimes used to study the physics of the hurdy gurdy, his own personal favourite musical instrument. Peter was also very helpful, and eventually he ran spectral analysis of cassette recordings made of plucking, with a plectrum, the SG Firebrand, the completed but “toppy-sounding” upright electric guitar, and a new mock-up I had just made at that point, one that was the same length as the 3 planks, but only around 4 inches wide. This new mock-up was an attempt to see whether using around 12 or 13 much narrower planks in place of the 3 wider ones, might give a sound that was closer to what I was after.

Mock-up of possible alternative to 3 planks – would 12 or 13 of these sound better instead? Shown on its own (with a long test coil), and mounted up to the keys and action setup so that plucking tests could make use of the dampers to stop strings moving between recordings of single notes

As it turned out, the new mock-up did not sound that much different to the completed upright electric guitar itself, when the same note was plucked on each of them. It was looking like there was indeed a “range” of solid guitar body mass / weight of wood that gave the right kind of tone, and that even though the exact reasons for the behaviour of “too much” or “too little” mass might be different to each other, any amount of wood mass / weight on either side of that range, just couldn’t absorb enough of the high harmonics out of the strings. Despite the disappointing result of the new mock-up sounding fairly similar to the completed instrument, I went ahead and gave Peter the cassette recordings of it, of the completed instrument, and of my friend’s SG Firebrand, and he stayed late one evening at work and ran the spectral analysis tests on all of these.

Peter’s spectral results were just the kind of thing I had been after. He produced 3D graphs that clearly showed the various harmonics being excited when a given string was plucked, how loud each one was, and how long they went on for. This was a pictorial, quantitative representation of the difference in tone quality between my friend’s borrowed SG Firebrand, and both the completed instrument and the new mock-up. The graphs gave proper “shape” and “measure” to these differences. By this time, my “ear” for the sort of tone quality I was looking for, was so highly developed that I could distinguish between these recordings immediately, when hearing any of them. And what I could hear, was reflected precisely on these 3D graphs.

Spectral analysis graphs in 3D, of Gibson SG Firebrand “open bottom E” note plucked, and the same note plucked on the upright electric guitar. Frequency in Hz is on the x axis and time on the y axis, with time starting at the “back” and moving to the “front” on the y axis. Harmonics are left-to-right on each graph – leftmost is the “fundamental”, then 1st harmonic etc. Note how many more higher harmonics are found on the right graph of the upright electric guitar, and how they persist for a long time. I pencilled in frequencies for these various harmonics on the graph on the right, while studying it to understand what was taking place on the string.

While this was all underway, I also mocked up a few different alternative types of hammers and carried out further sound tests to see what sort of a difference you would get in tone, from using different materials for these, but always still striking the string. Even though I was more or less decided on moving to a plucking mechanism, for completeness and full understanding, I wanted to see if any significant changes might show up from using different sorts of hammers. For these experiments, I tried some very lightweight versions in plastic, the usual felt upright piano hammers, and a couple of others that were much heavier, in wood. Not only was there almost no difference whatsoever between the tone quality that each of these widely varied types of hammers seemed to produce, it also made next to no difference where, along the string, you actually struck it.

Other hammer designs tried – there was little variation in the sound each of these produced

These experiments, and some further discussions with a guitar maker who had helped out on the project, brought more clarification to my understanding of hammers vs plucking. Plucking a string seems to make its lower harmonics get moving right away, and they then start out with more volume compared to that of the higher harmonics. The plucking motion will always do this, partly because there is so much energy being transferred by the plectrum or the player’s finger – and this naturally tends to drive the lower harmonics more effectively. When you hit a string with any sort of hammer though, the effect is more like creating a sharp “shock wave” on the string, but one with much less energy. This sets off the higher harmonics more, and the lower ones just don’t get going properly.

In a nutshell, all of this testing and research confirmed the limitations of hammers, and the fact that there are indeed fundamental differences between striking and plucking an electric guitar string. Hammers were definitely “out”.

To summarise the sound characteristic of the upright electric guitar, its heavy structure and thereby the inability of its wood planks to absorb enough high frequencies out of the strings, made it naturally produce a tone with too many high harmonics and not enough low ones – and hitting its strings with a hammer instead of plucking, had the effect of “reinforcing” this tonal behaviour even more, and in the same direction.

The end?

By this point in the work on the project, as 1998 arrived and we got into spring and summer of that year, I had gotten into some financial difficulties, partly because this inventing business is expensive. Despite having built a working version of the upright electric guitar, even aside from the fact that the instrument was very heavy and took some time to assemble and take apart – making it impractical for taking on tour for example – the unacceptable sound quality alone, meant that it was not usable. Mocked-up attempts to modify the design so that there would be many planks, each quite narrow, had not improved the potential of the sound to any appreciable degree, either.

I realised that I was probably reaching the end of what I could achieve on this project, off my own back financially. To fully confirm some of the test results, and my understanding of what it is that makes a solid body electric guitar sound the way it does, I decided to perform a fairly brutal final test. To this end, I first made recordings of plucking the 6 open strings on the cheap SG I had bought online for £400.00. Then I had the “wings” of this poor instrument neatly sawn off, leaving the same 4-inch width of its body remaining, as the new mock-up had. This remaining width of 4 inches was enough that the neck was unaffected by the surgery, which reduced the overall mass of wood left on the guitar, and its shape, down to something quite similar to that of the new mock-up.

I did not really want to carry out this horrible act, but I knew that it would fully confirm all the indications regarding the principles, behaviours and sounds I had observed in both the 3 planks of the completed upright electric guitar, in the new mock-up, and in other, “proper” SG guitars that, to my ear, sounded right. If, by doing nothing else except taking these lumps of wood mass away from the sides of the cheap SG, its sound went from “fairly good” to “unacceptably toppy”, it could only be due to that change in wood mass.

After carrying out this crime against guitars by chopping the “wings” off, I repeated the recordings of plucking the 6 open strings. Comparison to the “before” recordings of it, confirmed my suspicions – exactly as I had feared and expected, the “after” sound had many more high frequencies in it. In effect I had “killed” the warmth of the instrument, just by taking off those wings.

In September 1998, with no more money to spend on this invention, and now clear that the completed instrument was a kind of “design dead end”, I made the difficult decision to pull the plug on the project. I took everything apart, recycled as many of the metal parts as I could (Reg Huddy was happy to have many of these), gave the wood planks to Jonny Kinkead for him to use to make a “proper” electric guitar with as he saw fit, and then went through reams of handwritten notes, sketches and drawings from 12 years of work, keeping some key notes and drawings which I still have today, but having a big bonfire one evening at my neighbour’s place, with all the rest.

Some “video 8” film of the instrument remained, and I recently decided to finally go through all of that, and all the notes and drawings kept, and make up a YouTube video from it. This is what Greatbear Analogue & Digital Media has assisted with. I am very pleased with the results, and am grateful to them. Here is a link to that video:

As for the future of the upright electric guitar, in the 20 years since ceasing work on the project, I have had a couple of ideas for how it could be redesigned to sound better and, for some of those ideas, to also be more practical.

One of these new designs involves using similar narrow 4-inch planks as on the final mockup described above, but adding the missing wood mass back onto this as “wings” sticking out the back – where they would not be in the way of string plucking etc – positioning the wings at a 90-degree angle to the usual plane of the body. This would probably be big and heavy, but it would be likely to sound a lot closer to what I have always been after.

Another design avenue might be to use 3 or 4 normal SGs and add robotic plucking and fretting mechanisms, driven by electronic sensors hooked up to another typical upright piano action and set of keys, with some programmed software to make the fast decisions needed to work out which string and fret to use on which SG guitar for each note played on the keyboard, and so on. While this would not give the same level of intimacy between the player and the instrument itself as even the original upright electric guitar had, the tone of the instrument would definitely sound more or less right, allowing for loss of “player feeling” from how humans usually pluck the strings, hold down the frets, and so on. This approach would most likely be really expensive, as quite a lot of robotics would probably be needed.

An even more distant possibility in relation to the original upright electric guitar, might be to explore additive synthesis further, the technology that the firm Musicom Ltd – with whom I collaborated during Approach 2 in the early 1990s – continue to use even today, for their pipe organ sounds. I have a few ideas on how to go about such additive synthesis exploration, but will leave them out of this text here.

As for my own involvement, I would like nothing better than to work on this project again, in some form. But these days, there are the usual bills to pay, so unless there is a wealthy patron or perhaps a sponsoring firm out there who can afford to both pay me enough salary to keep my current financial commitments, and to also bankroll the research and development that would need to be undertaken to get this invention moving again, the current situation is that it’s very unlikely I can do it myself.

Although that seems a bit of a shame, I am at least completely satisfied that, in my younger days, I had a proper go at this. It was an unforgettable experience, to say the least!

Posted by greatbear in video tape, 0 comments

Happy World Day for Audiovisual Heritage!

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.

Greatbear 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 Greatbear’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.

We work hard to make sure the ‘memory’ of old techniques remain active, and are always happy to share what we learn with the wider audiovisual archiving community.

Skills and Technology

Ray Edmondson points out in Audio Visual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles (2016) that preserving technology and skills is integral to audiovisual archiving:

‘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.’close up of an edit button on a studer tape machine-great-bear-analogue-digital-media

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 Greatbear 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.

Happy World Day for Audiovisual Heritage 2016!

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

VHS – more obsolescence threats


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.

The points we raised in this article and in others on the Great Bear tape blog are only heightened by news that domestic VHS manufacture is to be abandoned this month.

It is always worth being a bit wary of media rhetoric: this is not the first time VHS’s ‘death’ has been declared.

In 2008, for example, JVC announced they would no longer manufacture standalone VHS machines.

Yet Funai Electric’s announcement seems decidedly more grave, given that ‘declining sales, plus a difficulty in obtaining the necessary parts’ are the key reasons cited for their decision.

To be plain here: If manufacturers are struggling to find parts for obsolete machines this doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

The ‘death’ of a format is never immediate. In reality it is a stage by stage process, marked by significant milestones.

The announcement last week is certainly one milestone we should take notice of.

Especially when there are several other issues that compromise the possibility of effective VHS preservation in the immediate and long term future.

What needs to be done?

As ever, careful assessment of your tape collection is recommended. We are always on hand to talk through any questions you have.

Posted by debra in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

VHS – Re-appraising Obsolescence

VHS was a hugely successful video format from the late 1970s to early 2000s. It was adopted widely in domestic and professional contexts.

Due to its familiarity and apparent ubiquity you might imagine it is easy to preserve VHS.

Well, think again.

VHS is generally considered to be a low preservation risk because playback equipment is still (just about) available.

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.

2 large, light-coloured professional video machines with digital counters, needle gauges and multiple dials

SONY SVO-500P and Panasonic AG-650

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-5800P and Panasonic AG-8700 that we use in the Greatbear 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 domestic VHS machines, such as the JVC HM-DR10000 D-VHS or the JVC HR-DVS3 EK.

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.

JVC stopped manufacturing standalone VHS machines in 2008.

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.

silver and black slimline VHS machine


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.

(Re)appraising VHS

Aesthetically, VHS continues to be celebrated in art circles for its rendering of the ‘poor image’. The decaying, unstable appearance of the VHS signal is a direct result of extended recording times that threaten its practical ability to endure.

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, Greatbear are more than happy to discuss specific issues affecting your collection.

Get in touch with us to explore how we can work together.

Posted by debra in digitisation expertise, video tape, 1 comment

SONY’s U-matic video cassette

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.

Mobile news-gathering on U-matic video tape

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.

New Applications

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?'

Preserving U-Matic Video Tape

According the Preservation Self-Assessment Program, U-matic video tape ‘should be considered at high preservation risk’ due to media and hardware obsolescence. 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 Greatbear 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, damage on a smaller surface can result in catastrophic signal loss. Analogue formats such as U-matic, 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.

Like other formats, such as the SONY EIAJ, certain brands of U-matic tape can pose problems. Early SONY, Ampex and Kodak branded tape may need dehydration treatment ('baked') to prevent shedding during playback. If baking is not appropriate, we tend to digitise in multiple passes, allowing us to frequently intervene to clean the video heads of potentially clogging material. 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 1990s.

Greatbear has a significant suite of working NTSC/ PAL/ SECAM U-matic machines and spare parts.

Get in touch by email or phone to discuss transferring your collection.

Through-hole technology

Posted by debra in digitisation expertise, video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

Motobirds U-matic NTSC transfer

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 BBC article offers this sobering assessment: ‘most of the women’s stunts would horrify modern health and safety experts’.

We were pretty overjoyed in the Greatbear studio when Mary Weston-Webb, the driving force behind the recent reunion, sent us a NTSC uMatic video tape to transfer.

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.

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

Philips N-1502 TV Recorder

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.

Philips-N1502-marketing-catalogueThe 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.

Philips N1502-marketing-brochureAlthough N-1500 tape machines were very expensive (£649 [1976]/ £4,868.38 [2016]), 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.

N-1500 transfers

As the first domestic video tape technology, the Philips N-1500 ‘set a price structure and design standard that is still unshaken,’ wrote the New Scientist in 1983.

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.’ [1]

Philips N1500 (top) & Philips N1702 (bottom) machines in the Greatbear studio

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.


[1] S P Bali (2005) Consumer Electronics, Dehli: Pearson Education, 465.

Posted by debra in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

Greatbear 2016 Infomercial

Greatbear have just produced our 2016 ‘infomercial’.

The 4-page document includes details of our work and all the formats we digitise.



We are in the process of sending printed copies to relevant organisations.

Please contact us to request a copy and we will pop one in the post for you.

You can also download a PDF of the document here.

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, video tape, 0 comments

Deaf School ½” open reel video tape transfer

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.

Deaf-School-Screenshot2016 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.’

deaf-school-screenshotCamp 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.

Rare Footage

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.

deaf-school-screenshotFor this reason material captured on ½” videotape is often fairly eclectic and its edgy, glitchy aesthetic celebrated by contemporary documentary makers.

The Greatbear studio has certainly received many interesting ½” video tapes from artists and performers active in the 1970s. We also did an interview with researcher Peter Sachs Collopy who discusses how porta-pak video technology was perceived by artists of that era as a ‘technology of consciousness’.

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 NowDeaf-School-transfer-screenshot

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 2015 they released a new album, Launderette, on Japanese label Hayabusa Landings.

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!

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments