analogue

Video and Technologies of Consciousness: An Interview with Peter Sachs Collopy

We first encountered the work of Media Historian Peter Sachs Collopy during research for a previous blog article about video synthesizers.

His work was so interesting we invited Peter to do a short interview for the blog. Thanks Peter for taking time to respond, you can read the answers below!

We were really struck by your description of early video as a technology of consciousness. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea? Did early users of portable video technology use video in order to witness events?

Absolutely! Technology of consciousness is a term I found in communications scholar Fred Turner’s work, particularly his essay on the composer Paul DeMarinis (“The Pygmy Gamelan as Technology of Consciousness,” in Paul DeMarinis: Buried in Noise, ed. Ingrid Beirer, Sabine Himmelsbach, and Carsten Seiffarth [Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2010], 23–27). Every technology affects how we think and experience the world, but I use this phrase specifically to refer to technologies whose users understood that they were doing so. The quintessential examples are psychedelic drugs, which people use specifically in order to alter their consciousness. For many videographers in the 1960s and 1970, video was like a drug in that it helped a person see the world in new ways; a cartoon in the magazine Radical Software proclaimed, for example, that “Video is as powerful as LSD” (Edwin Varney, Radical Software 1, no. 3 [Spring 1971]: 6). Part of all of this was that following Aldous Huxley, people believed that psychedelics made it possible to break down the barriers of the individual and share consciousness, and following media theorist Marshall McLuhan and theologian/paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, they believed that new electronic media had the same effects. In my research, I trace these ways of thinking about technologies of consciousness back to the influence of philosopher Henri Bergson at the turn of the century. So yes, people were using video to witness events, but just as importantly they were using video to witness—and to reinterpret, and even to constitute—themselves and their communities.

Video is powerful as LSDAs specialists in the transfer of video tapes we often notice the different aesthetic qualities of porta-pak videouMatic, VHS and DVCAM, to name a few examples. How does ‘the look’ of a video image shape its role as a technology of consciousness? Is it more important how these technologies were used?

It’s striking how little discussion of aesthetics and the visual there was in venues like Radical Software, though of course art critics started writing about video in these terms in the late 1960s. People were often more interested in what differentiated the process of shooting video from film and other media, in its ability to be played back immediately or in its continuity as an electronic technology with the powerful media of television and computing. Sony’s first half-inch videotape recorders, using the CV format, had only half the vertical resolution of conventional television. CV decks could still be hooked up to ordinary television sets for playback, though, so they still became a way for users to make their own TV.

What’s your favourite piece of video equipment you have encountered in your research and why?

I have several Sony AV-3400 portapaks that I’ve bought on eBay, none of them quite in working order. Those were the standard tool for people experimenting with video in the early 1970s, so I’ve learned a lot from the tactile experience of using them. I also have a Sony CMA-4 camera adaptor which provides video out from an AVC-3400 portapak camera without using a deck at all; I’ve used that, along with digital equipment, to make my own brief video about some of my research, “The Revolution Will Be Videotaped: Making a Technology of Consciousness in the Long 1960s (see below).”

In your research you discuss how there has been a continuity of hybrid analogue/ digital systems in video art since the 1970s. Given that so much of contemporary society is organised via digital infrastructures, do you think analogue technologies will be reclaimed more widely as a tool for variability in the future, i.e., that there will be a backlash against what can be perceived as the calculating properties of the digital?

I’m not sure a reclaiming of analog technologies will ever take the form of an explicit social movement, but I think this process is already happening in more subtle ways. It’s most apparent in music, where vinyl records and analog synthesizers have both become markers of authenticity and a kind of retro cool. In the process, though, analog has shifted from a description of machines that worked by analogy—usually between a natural phenomenon such as luminance and an electrical voltage—to an umbrella term for everything that isn’t digital. In the context of moving images, this means that film has become an analog technology as the definition of analog has shifted—even though analog and digital video are still more technically similar, and have at times been more culturally related, than film and analog video. So yes, I think there’s a backlash against precision, particularly among some artistic communities, but I think it’s embedded in a more complex reclassification of technologies into these now dominant categories of analog and digital.

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

Red Beat: U-matic Low Band Transfer and Video Synthesizers

The latest eclectic piece of music history to be processed in the Greatbear Studio is a U-matic Low Band video of ‘Dream/Dream Dub’ by Red Beat, a post-punk band that was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite emitting a strong wax crayon-like odour that is often a sure sign of a degraded U-matic tape, there were no issues with the transfer.

Red Beat formed in High Wycombe in 1978. After building up in solid fan base in the Home Counties they moved to London to pursue their musical ambitions. In London they recorded an EP that was released on Indie label Malicious Damage and did what most do it yourself punk bands would have killed to do: record a John Peel session. They also supported bands such as U2, Killing Joke, Thompson Twins and Aswad.

Originally inspired by New Wave acts such as Blondie and XTC, their later sound was more experimental, influenced by bands like PiL, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Killing Joke.

Roy Jones, singer and driving force behind getting Red Beat’s archive digitised explains that ‘we wrote together by jamming for hours till something sparked.’ Later evolutions of the band had more of a ‘pop orientation’ underscored by ‘a dark sound that fused Punk and Reggae and Tribal Beats.’ Songs by the band include the sci-fi inspired ‘Visit to Earth’ , ‘Ritual Sacrifice,’ a lamentation on the futility of war and ‘Searching for Change’, which explores the need for personal, spiritual and political transformation.

Video Synthesizers

In 1982 Red Beat formed their own indie label, Manic Machine Products, and released two further singles ‘See/Survival’ and ‘Dream/Dream Dub’, both distributed by Rough Trade.

The video of ‘Dream/ Dream Dub’ is the only existing video footage of the band at the time.

Roy’s motivation for sending it to Greatbear was to get the best quality transfer that he will then remaster, add a clean sound track to and upload to the Red Beat youtube playlist.

Of particular interest is ‘Dream/ Dream Dub’s use of video synthesizer footage which was, Roy tells me, ‘quite unique at the time. This footage was then edited with two tape analogue technology which is slow and not as accurate as modern editing.’

As Tom DeWitt explains ‘technically, the video synthesizer is more complex than its audio cousin. Video signals cover a frequency spectrum 100 times greater than audio and must be constructed according to a precise timing synchronization which does not exist in the one dimensional audio signal.’

In the early 1960s and 1970s, synthesizing video images was an emergent form of video art. Artists Shuya Abe and Nam June Paik created one of the first ‘video devices intended to distort and transform the conventional video image.’ [1] Part of their aim was to challenge the complacent viewer’s trans-fixation on the TV screen.

In the 1970s the artistic palette of the video synthesizer evolved. Bill Hearn was instrumental in developing ‘colorisation’ in 1972, and in 1975, Peter Sachs Collopy tells us, he incorporated this tool into ‘a full-featured synthesizer, the Videolab, which also produced effects like switching, fades, dissolves, wipes, and chromakey.’ [2]

‘Colourisation’ is a big feature of the Red Beat video. It refers to the ability to change the appearance of colours by mixing either the red, blue and green elements or the video colour parameters: luminance, chrominance and hue. In ‘Dream/ Dream Dub’ the red, green and blue colourisation is applied, accentuating the primary colours to give the image a garish, radioactive and extra-terrestrial quality.

Want more Red Beat?

If this article has sparked your curiosity about Red Beat you can buy their albums Endless Waiting Game and The Wheel from itunes.

The final word about the band must go to Roy: ‘We were part of a vibrant music scene. Other people enjoyed more success than us but we had a great time and created some great memories. I don’t think many people would remember our music but there are a few who buy our albums and remember seeing us live. We created our own bit of rock’n roll history and it’s worth documenting.’ [3]

Notes

[1] Chris Meigh-Andrews, A History of Video Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 136.

[2] Peter Sachs Collopy ‘Video Synthesizers: From Analog Computing to Digital Art,’ IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 2014, 74-86, 79.

[2] Thank you to Roy for generously sharing his memories of Red Beat and to Peter Sachs Collopy for sharing his research.

Posted by debra in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments
Type IV Metal Cassettes and Robert Chenciner’s Daghestan Collection

Type IV Metal Cassettes and Robert Chenciner’s Daghestan Collection

We recently received a fascinating collection of tapes from the archive of Robert Chenciner, an ethnographer with over thirty years experience studying the cultures, human rights and current affairs of Daghestan.

Daghestan is located in the north Caucasus region, its neighbouring countries are Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Georgia, while its eastern border is flanked by the Caspian Sea.

In the early 1980s Robert had unique access to Daghestan and other parts of the Soviet Caucasus in the twilight years of the USSR.

During visits Robert made recordings of Daghestan’s rich culture. This included music, documenting ethnic instruments such as the Chagana, as well as singing and dancing.

Although Robert believes that claims to authenticity must be treated with suspicion, he nonetheless told me that these recordings document the traditional folk culture that was practiced in the villages of Daghestan.

These tapes also document the 31 mutually unintelligible languages spoken in Daghestan such as Avar which is spoken by 900,000 people.

Listen to excerpt of a tape from the collection. The tape had experienced mould growth and had snapped. It therefore needed to be repaired prior to transfer. Robert explains: ‘The recording was made in Untsukul c.March 1990. You can hear Russian being spoken with a heavy accent, some Kumyk and some Avar. It was joking and talk about who was I and where from.’

Type IV metal cassette with shell open. Visible thin layer of dust on the surface.

Type IV Metal Cassettes

When Robert travelled to Daghestan he was keen to get the most professional recordings he could. For this reason he used type IV metal audio cassette tapes, a tape formula that had been introduced in the late 1970s to offer better quality recordings.

By the mid 1980s, the tape tardis explains, these tapes

‘had been adopted by a lot of enthusiasts. They remained too expensive to be bought in bulk by the average consumer, but if you wanted to record something special – and particularly if you produced music yourself – you’d probably be highly attracted by the exceptional recording quality of a good metal cassette.’

The science behind the type IV cassette, according to the Museum of Obsolete Media, was to use ‘pure metal particles instead of metal oxides. This created a hard-wearing tape with superior frequency response and greater dynamic range.’

Since completing the recordings in the mid 1980s, as with so many of the tapes we receive at Greatbear, they have been tucked away in a drawer and out of circulation.

Due to being stored in poor conditions some of the tapes were displaying signs of mould growth.

Another problem some tapes exhibited was the degradation of the foam pressure pad. This had ‘stuck’ onto the tape and stopped it it from playing. In one case the tape had snapped as a result from a previous attempt at playback. Melted foam pressure pad on a type IV metal tape

Fortunately this issue did not effect our ability to do the transfer. We use Nakamichi tape decks to do optimal audio cassette transfers. The transport design within Nakamichi machines doesn’t use the tape pressure pad to play back the tapes. This is because, Wikipedia tells us,

‘Nakamichi found that this pad provided uneven and fairly inaccurate pressure and was therefore inadequate for reliable tape/head contact. Furthermore, Nakamichi found that the pressure pad was a source of audible noise, particularly scrape flutter (the tape bouncing across the head, a result of uneven pressure), and also contributed to premature head wear. Nakamichi’s dual-capstan tape decks provide such accurate and precise tape tension that, unlike other decks, the cassette’s pressure pad is not needed at all.’

Head pad lifter on a Nakamichi tape machine

The insides of a Nakamichi machine that has no need of a pressure pad to play back tapes.

Re-publication plans

Recent interest from musicologist Stefan Williamson-Fa, the driving force behind getting the tapes transferred to digital files with Great Bear, will enable these unique recordings to be heard by new audiences.

These include what Robert believes to be the only recording of an Andi Zikr ritual. Banned by the Tsar and later the Soviets, the Zikr ritual proved to be a resilient part of Daghestan’s Sufi culture. Zikr involves a group rotating in a circle, stamping the ground and grunting in order to create a mystical and ecstatic experience.

Stefan and Robert have plans to make the transferred digital files available online.

Robert reflected that when he was collecting the tapes in the 1980s his imagined audience for the recordings was pretty small. With the possibility of online publication this audience has substantially increased.

Furthermore, through people uploading material to sites such as YouTube the amount of Daghestan’s culture that can be accessed on the internet continues to grow. Robert’s links with the academic community in Daghestan also means the recordings will gain exposure there as well.

It is no doubt that those interested in the cultural history of Daghestan will await the publication of these recordings with much excitement. When the website is available we will of course let you know!

***Many thanks to Robert Chenciner for talking to us about his collection, and to Stefan for putting us in touch***

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

Analogue to analogue – the Courtyard Music Group

Greatbear were recently approached by the Courtyard Music Group to help them complete the 100% analogue re-issue of their 1974 acid-folk album Just Our Way of Saying Hello.

Among Britfolk enthusiasts, news of the Courtyard Music Group’s plans to re-issue their album has been greeted with excitement and anticipation.

Just Our Way of Saying Hello was created when ‘an idealistic young teacher cut a lo-fi folk-rock record with a bunch of teenagers in the Utopian rural setting of Kilquhanity School in the Scottish borders.’

100 copies of the album were made in a private pressing, originally intended for family and friends.

Yet this was not the end of the story, as the record went on to become ‘one of the most obscure albums in Britfolk history is now an ultra-rare collector’s item, with copies trading online for over £1000.’

After a hugely successful pledge music campaign, the band are pushing ahead with their re-issue project that will produce a limited pressing of the mono vinyl, a remastered audio CD with outtakes and a 48 page booklet with interviews, photos and drawings. These will all be available in the summer of 2015.

Great Bear’s role in the project was twofold: first to restore the physical condition of tapes in order to achieve the best quality transfer. Second to produce analogue copies of the original master tapes. These second generation masters, originally recorded at a speed of 7½ inches per second, were transferred at the speed of 15 ips in our studio.

These copies were then sent to Timmion Records in Finland to complete the final, analogue only cutting of the re-issue. Even amid the much discussed ‘vinyl revival‘ there are currently no UK-based studios that do pure analogue reproductions. The risk of losing precious cargo in transit to Finland was too great, hence our involvement at the copying stage.

original master tapes - Courtyard Music Group

The original master tapes

Analogue only

Why was it so important to members of the Courtyard Music Group to have an analogue only release? Digital techniques began creeping into the production of audio recordings from the late 1970s onwards, to the situation today where most studios and music makers work in an exclusively digital environment.

Can anyone really tell the difference between an analogue and digital recording, or even a recording that has been subject to a tiny bit of ‘digital interference’?

Frank Swales, member of the Courtyard Music Group, explains how remaining true to analogue was primarily a preference for authenticity.

‘I think in this case it’s really about the JOURNEY that this particular product has had, and the measures taken to keep it as close to the original product as possible. So, I’m not sure anyone can, in a listening context, perceive any real difference between digital and analogue, given that all of us humans are pretty much restricted to the frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz, if we’re lucky!’

While Richard Jones, also a member of Courtyard Music Group, revealed: ‘Our 1974 recording was made using a selection of microphones, some ribbon, a valve powered four channel mixer and an ancient Ferrograph tape recorder. I cannot claim these decisions about the analogue reissue are soundly based on principles of Acoustics/physics. They are decisions to produce an authentic product. That is, attempting to eliminate the introduction of “colours” into the sound which were not there in 1974.’

The ability to create exact copies is perilously difficult to achieve in an analogue context. Even in the most controlled circumstances analogue transfers are always different from their ‘original.’ The tape might distort at high frequencies for example, or subtle noise will be created as the tape moves through the transport mechanism.

Yet the desire for analogue authenticity is not the same as wanting a replica. It is about preserving historically specific sound production process whose audible traces are becoming far less discernible.

After all, if authenticity was correlated with exact replication, the Courtyard Music Group would not have asked us to make the copies at a higher recording speed than the originals. Yet, Frank explains, ‘the difference in sound quality – the tracks especially having been recorded onto tape travelling at 15ips – will likely be negligible, but it must be said that this was a decision not lightly taken.’

By preserving the historical authenticity of analogue reproduction, the Courtyard Music Group re-issue project converges with the archival concern to maintain the provenance of archival objects. This refers to when the ‘significance of archival materials is heavily dependent on the context of their creation, and that the arrangement and description of these materials should be directly related to their original purpose and function.’

For a range of audiovisual objects made in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, such fidelity to the recording and its context will be increasingly difficult to realise.

As appropriate playback machines and recordable media become increasingly difficult to source, an acceptance of hybridity over purity may well be necessary if a whole range of recordings are to be heard at all.

We are not yet at that stage, thankfully, and Greatbear are delighted to have played a part in helping spread the analogue purity just that little bit further.

***Thanks to Courtyard Music Group members for answering questions for this article.***

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

IASA – Resources and Research

There are an astonishing amount of online resources relating to the preservation and re-formatting of magnetic tape collections.

Whether you need help identifying and assessing your collection, getting to grips with the latest video codec saga or trying to uncover esoteric technical information relating to particular formats, the internet turns up trumps 95% of the time.

Marvel at the people who put together the U-Matic web resource, for example, which has been online since 1999, a comprehensive outline of the different models in the U-Matic ‘family.’ The site also hosts ‘chat pages’ relating to Betamax, Betacam, U-Matic and V2000, which are still very much active, with archives dating back to 1999. For video tape nerds willing to trawl the depths of these forums, nuggets of machine maintenance wisdom await you.

 International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives

Sometimes you need to turn to rigorous, peer-reviewed research in order to learn from AV archive specialists.

Fortunately such material exists, and a good amount of it is collected and published by the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA).

Three IASA journals laid out on the floor

‘Established in 1969 in Amsterdam to function as a medium for international co-operation between archives that preserve recorded sound and audiovisual documents’, IASA holds expertise relating to the many different and specialist issues attached to the care of AV archives.

Comprised of several committees dealing with issues such as standards and best practices; National Archive policies; Broadcast archives; Technical Issues; Research Archives; Training and Education, IASA reflects the diverse communities of practice involved in this professional field.

As well as hosting a yearly international conference (check out this post on The Signal for a review of the 2014 meeting), IASA publish a bi-annual journal and many in-depth specialist reports.

Their Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects (2nd edition, 2009), written by the IASA Technical Committee, is available as a web resource, and provides advice on key issues such as small scale approaches to digital storage systems, metadata and signal extraction from original carriers, to name a few.

Most of the key IASA publications are accessible to members only, and therefore remain behind a paywall. It is definitely worth taking the plunge though, because there are comparably few specialist resources relating to AV archives written with an interdisciplinary—and international—audience in mind.

Examples of issues covered in member-only publications include Selection in Sound Archives, Decay of Polymers, Deterioration of Polymers and Ethical Principles for Sound and Audiovisual Archives.

The latest publication from the IASA Technical Committee, Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers (2014) or TC05, provides detailed outlines of types of recording carriers, physical and chemical stability, environmental factors and ‘passive preservation,’ storage facilities and disaster planning.

The report comes with this important caveat:

 ‘TC 05 is not a catalogue of mere Dos and Don’ts. Optimal preservation measures are always a compromise between many, often conflicting parameters, superimposed by the individual situation of a collection in terms of climatic conditions, the available premises, personnel, and the financial situation. No meaningful advice can be given for all possible situations. TC 05 explains the principal problems and provides a basis for the archivist to take a responsible decision in accordance with a specific situation […] A general “Code of Practice” […] would hardly fit the diversity of structures, contents, tasks, environmental and financial circumstances of collections’ (6).

Member benefits

Being an IASA member gives Greatbear access to research and practitioner communities that enable us to understand, and respond to, the different needs of our customers.

Typically we work with a range of people such as individuals whose collections have complex preservation needs, large institutions, small-to-medium sized archives or those working in the broadcast industry.

Our main concern is reformatting the tapes you send us, and delivering high quality digital files that are appropriate for your plans to manage and re-use the data in the future.

If you have a collection that needs to be reformatted to digital files, do contact us to discuss how we can help.

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

1″ Type A Video Tape – The Old Grey Whistle Test

Sometimes genuine rarities turn up at the Greatbear studio. Our recent acquisition of four reels of ‘missing, believed wiped’ test recordings of cult BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test is one such example.Old Grey Whistle Test Ampex reel

It is not only the content of these recordings that are interesting, but their form too, because they were made on 1” Type A videotape.

The Ampex Corporation introduced 1” Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) type A videotape in 1965.

The 1″ Type A was ‘one of the first standardised reel-to-reel magnetic tape formats in the 1 inch (25 mm) width.’ In the US it had greatest success as an institutional and industrial format. It was not widely adopted in the broadcast world because it did not meet Federal Communications Commission (FCC) specifications for broadcast videotape formats—it was capable of 350 lines, while the NTSC standard was 525, PAL and SECAM were 625. (Note: upcoming conference ‘Standards, Disruptions and Values in Digital Culture and Communication‘ taking place November 2015).

According the VT Old Boys website, created by ex-BBC engineers in order to document the history of videotape used at the organisation, 2″ Quadruplex tape remained very much the norm for production until the end of the 1970s.

Yet the very existence of the Old Grey Whistle Test tapes suggests type A videotape was being used in some capacity in the broadcast world. Perhaps ADAPT, a project researching British television production technology from 1960-present, could help us solve this mystery?

Old Grey Whistle Test ReelFrom Type A, to Type B….

As these things go, type A was followed by Type B, with this model developed by the German company Bosch. Introduced in 1976, Type B was widely adopted in continental Europe, but not in UK and USA which gravitated toward the type C model, introduced by SONY/ Ampex, also in 1976. Type C then became the professional broadcast standard and was still being used well into the 1990s. It was able to record high quality composite video, and therefore had an advantage over component videos such as Betacam and MII that were ‘notoriously fussy and trouble-prone.‘ Type C also had fancy functions like still, shuttle, variable-speed playback and slow motion.

From a preservation assessment point of view, ‘one-inch open reel is especially susceptible to risks associated with age, hardware, and equipment obsolescence. It is also prone to risks common to other types of magnetic media, such as mould, binder deterioration, physical damage, and signal drop-outs.’

1" Type A Machine

The Preservation Self-Assessment Programme advise that ‘this format is especially vulnerable, and, based on content assessment, it should be a priority for reformatting.’

AMPEX made over 30 SMPTE type A models, the majority of which are listed here. Yet the number of working machines we have access to today is few and far between.

In years to come it will be common for people to say ‘it takes four 1” Type A tape recorders to make a working one’, but remember where you heard the truism first.

Harvesting several of these hulking, table-top machines for spares and working parts is exactly how we are finding a way to transfer these rare tapes—further evidence that we need to take the threat of equipment obsolescence very seriously.

Posted by debra in video tape, 1 comment

Digitising small audiovisual collections: making decisions and taking action

Deciding when to digitise your magnetic tape collections can be daunting.

The Presto Centre, an advocacy organisation working to help ‘keep audiovisual content alive,’ have a graphic on their website which asks: ‘how digital are our members?’

They chart the different stages of ‘uncertainty,’ ‘awakening’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘certainty’ that organisations move through as they appraise their collections and decide when to re-format to digital files.

Similarly, the folks at AV Preserve offer their opinion on the ‘Cost of Inaction‘ (COI), arguing that ‘incorporating the COI model and analyses into the decision making process around digitization of legacy physical audiovisual media helps organizations understand the implications and make well-informed decisions.’

They have even developed a COI calculator tool that organisations can use to analyse their collections. Their message is clear: ‘the cost of digitization may be great, but the cost of inaction may be greater.’

Digitising small-medium audiovisual collections

For small to medium size archives, digitising collections may provoke worries about a lack of specialist support or technical infrastructure. It may be felt that resources could be better used elsewhere in the organisation. Yet as we, and many other people working with audiovisual archives often stress, the decision to transfer material stored on magnetic tape has to be made sooner or later. With smaller archives, where funding is limited, the question of ‘later’ is not really a practical option.

Furthermore, the financial cost of re-formatting audiovisual archives is likely to increase significantly in the next five-ten years; machine obsolescence will become an aggravated problem and it is likely to take longer to restore tapes prior to transfer if the condition of carriers has dramatically deteriorated. The question has to be asked: can you afford not to take action now?

If this describes your situation, you might want to hear about other small to medium sized archives facing similar problems. We asked one of our customers who recently sent in a comparatively small collection of magnetic tapes to share their experience of deciding to take the digital plunge.

We are extremely grateful for Annaig from the Medical Mission Sisters for answering the questions below. We hope that it will be useful for other archives with similar issues.

threadimg-eiaj-half-inch-video-tape1. First off, please tell us a little bit about the Medical Mission Sisters Archive, what kind of materials are in the collection?

The Medical Mission Sisters General Archives include the central archives of the congregation. They gather all the documents relating to the foundation and history of the congregation and also documents relating to the life of the foundress, Anna Dengel. The documents are mainly paper but there is a good collection of photographs, slides, films and audio documents. Some born digital documents are starting to enter the archives but they are still few.

2. As an archive with a modest collection of magnetic tapes, why did you decide to get the materials digitised now? Was it a question of resources, preservation concerns, access request (or a mixture of all these things!)

The main reason was accessibility. The documents on video tapes or audio tapes were the only usable ones because we still had machines to read them but all the older ones, or those with specific formats,  where lost to the archives as there was no way to read them and know what was really on the tapes. Plus the Medical Mission Sisters is a congregation where Sisters are spread out on 5 continents and most of the time readers don’t come to the archives but send me queries by emails where I have to respond with scanned documents or digital files. Plus it was obvious that some of the tapes were degrading as that we’d better have the digitisation sooner than later if we wanted to still be able to read what was on them. Space and preservation was another issue. With a small collection but varied in formats, I had no resources to properly preserve every tape and some of the older formats had huge boxes and were consuming a lot of space on the shelves. Now, we have a reasonably sized collection of CDs and DVDs, which is easy to store in good conditions and is accessible everywhere as we can read them on computer here and I can send them to readers via email.

3. Digital preservation is a notoriously complex, and rapidly evolving field. As a small archive, how do you plan to manage your digital assets in the long term? What kinds of support, services and systems are your drawing on to design a system which is robust and resilient?

At the moment the digital collection is so small that it cannot justify any support service or system. So I have to build up my own home made system. I am using the archives management software (CALM) to enter data relating to the conservation of the CDs or DVDs, dates of creation, dates to check them and I plan to have regular checks on them and migrations or copies made when it will prove necessary.

4. Aside from the preservation issue, what are your plans to use the digitised material that Greatbear recently transferred?

It all depends on the content of the tapes. But I’ve already spotted a few documents of interest, and I haven’t been through everything yet. My main concern now is to make the documents known and used for their content. I was already able to deliver a file to one of the Sisters who was working on a person related to the foundation of the congregation, the most important document on her was an audio file that I had just received from Greatbear, I was able to send it to her. The document would have been unusable a few weeks before. I’ve come across small treasures, like a film, probably made by the foundress herself, which nobody was aware of. The Sisters are celebrating this year the 90th anniversary of their foundation. I plan to use as many audio or video documents as I can to support the events the archives are going to be involved into.

***

What is illuminating about Annaig’s answers is that her archive has no high tech plan in place to manage the collection – her solutions for managing the material very much draw on non-digital information management practices.

The main issues driving the decision to migrate the materials are fairly common to all archives: limited storage space and accessibility for the user-community.

What lesson can be learnt from this? Largely, that if you are trained as an archivist, you are likely to already have the skills you need to manage your digital collection.

So don’t let the more bewildering aspects of digital preservation put you off. But do take note of the changing conditions for playing back and accessing material stored on magnetic tape. There will come a time when it will be too costly to preserve recordings on a wide variety of formats – many of such formats we can help you with today.

If you want to discuss how Greatbear can help you re-format your audiovisual collections, get in touch and we can explore the options.

If you are a small-medium size archive and want to share your experiences of deciding to digitise, please do so in the comment box below.

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

Save our Sounds – 2030 and the threat of audiovisual extinction

At the beginning of 2015, the British Library launched the landmark Save Our Sounds project.

The press release explained:

‘The nation’s sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation and as the means of playing them disappear from production. Archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.’

dvw-a510-digital-betacam-loading-gearYes you have read that correctly dear reader: by 2030 it is likely that we simply will not be able to play many, if not all of the tape formats we currently support at Greatbear. A combination of machine obsolescence, tape deterioration and, crucially, the widespread loss of skills necessary to repair, service and maintain playback machines are responsible for this astounding situation. They will make it ‘costly, difficult and, in many cases, impossible’ to preserve our recorded audio heritage beyond the proposed cut-off date.

While such news might (understandably) usher in a culture of utter panic, and, let’s face it, you’d have to have a strong disposition if you were charged with managing the Save Our Sounds project, the British Library are responding with stoic pragmatism. They are currently undertaking a national audit to map the conditions of sound archives which your organisation can contribute to.

Yet whatever way you look at it, there is need to take action to migrate any collections currently stored on obsolete media, particular if you are part of a small organisation with limited resources. The reality is it will become more expensive to transfer material as we move closer to 2030. The British Library project relates particularly to audio heritage, but the same principles apply to audiovisual collections too.

Yes that rumbling you can hear is the sound of archivists the world over engaged in flurry of selection and appraisal activities….

Extinction

One of the most interesting things about discussions of obsolete media is that the question of operability is often framed as a matter of life or death.

Formats are graded according to their ‘endangered statuses’ in more or less explicit terms, as demonstrated on this Video Preservation website which offers the following ‘obsolescence ratings’:

‘Extinct: Only one or two playback machines may exist at specialist laboratories. The tape itself is more than 20 years old.

Critically endangered: There is a small population of ageing playback machinery, with no or little engineering or manufacturing support. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are fewer working machine-hours than total population of tapes. Tapes may range in age from 40 years to 10 years.

Endangered: The machine population may be robust, but the manufacture of the machinery has stopped. Manufacturing support for the machines and the tapes becomes unavailable. The tapes are often less expensive, and more vulnerable to deterioration.

Threatened: The playback machines are available; however, either the tape format itself is unstable or has less integrity than other available formats, or it is known that a more popular or updated format will be replacing this one in a short period of time.

Vulnerable: This is a current but highly proprietary format.

Lower risk: This format will be in use over the next five years (1998-2002).’

The ratings on the video preservation website were made over ten years ago. A more comprehensive and regularly updated resource to consult is the Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP), ‘a free online tool that helps collection managers prioritize efforts to improve conditions of collections. Through guided evaluation of materials, storage/exhibit environments, and institutional policies, the PSAP produces reports on the factors that impact the health of cultural heritage materials, and defines the points from which to begin care.’ As well as audiovisual media, the resource covers photo and image material, paper and book preservation. It also has advice about disaster planning, metadata, access and a comprehensive bibliography.

The good news is that fantastic resources do exist to help archivists make informed decisions about reformatting collections.

dcc-backview

A Digital Compact Cassette

The bad news, of course, is that the problem faced by audiovisual archivists is a time-limited one, exacerbated no doubt by the fact that digital preservation practices on the ‘output end’ are far from stable. Finding machines to playback your Digital Compact Cassette collection, in other words, will only be a small part of the preservation puzzle. A life of file migrations in yet to be designed wrappers and content-management systems awaits all kinds of reformatted audiovisual media in their life-to-come as a digital archival object.

Depending on the ‘content value’ of any collection stored on obsolete media, vexed decisions will need to be made about what to keep and what to throw away at this clinical moment in the history of recorded sound.

Sounding the fifteen-year warning

At such a juncture, when the fifteen year warning has been sounded, perhaps we can pause for a second to reflect on the potential extinction of large swathes of audio visual memory.

If we accept that any kind of recording both contains memory (of a particular historical event, or performance) and helps us to remember as an aide-mémoire, what are the consequences when memory storage devices which are, according to UNESCO, ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries’, can no longer be played back?

These questions are of course profound, and emerge in response to what are consequential historical circumstances. They are questions that we will continue to ponder on the blog as we reflect on our own work transferring obsolete media, and maintaining the machines that play them back. There are no easy answers!

As the 2030 deadline looms, our audiovisual context is a sobering retort to critics who framed the widespread availability of digitisation technologies in the first decade of the 21st century as indicative of cultural malaise—evidence of a culture infatuated with its ‘past’, rather than concerned with inventing the ‘future’.

Perhaps we will come to understand the 00s as a point of audiovisual transition, when mechanical operators still functioned and tape was still in fairly good shape. When it was an easy, almost throw away decision to make a digital copy, rather than an immense preservation conundrum. So where once there was a glut of archival data—and the potential to produce it—is now the threat of abrupt and irreversible dropout.

Play those tapes back while you can!

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

1/2″ EIAJ video tape – aesthetic glitches

In an article on the BBC website Temple reflected on the recordings: ‘we affectionately called the format “Glorious Bogroll Vision” but really it was murksville. Today monochrome footage would be perfectly graded with high-contrast effects. But the 1970s format has a dropout-ridden, glitchy feel which I enjoy now.’ 

Note the visible drop out in the image

Note the visible drop out in the image

The glitches of 1/2″ video were perfect for Temple’s film, which aimed to capture the apocalyptic feeling of Britain on the eve of 1977. Indeed, Temple reveals that ‘we cut in a couple of extra glitches we liked them so much.

Does the cutting in of additional imperfection signal a kind-of fetishisation of the analogue video, a form of wanton nostalgia that enables only a self-referential wallowing on a time when things were gloriously a lot worse than they are now?

Perhaps the corrupted image interrupts the enhanced definition and clarity of contemporary digital video.

Indeed, Temple’s film demonstrates how visual perception is always produced by the transmission devices that playback moving images, sound and images, whether that be the 1/2″ video tape or the super HD television.

It is reminder, in other words, that there are always other ways of seeing, and underlines how punk, as a mode of aesthetic address in this case, maintains its capacity to intervene into the business-as-usual ordering of reality.

What to do with your 1/2″ video tapes?

hitachi_reel_to_reel_eiaj_vtr1

While Temple’s film was made to look worse than it could have been, EIAJ 1/2″ video tapes are most definitely a vulnerable format and action therefore needs to be taken if they are to be preserved effectively.

In a week where the British Library launched their Save Our Sounds campaign, which stated that ‘archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost,’ the same timeframes should be applied to magnetic tape-based video collections.

So if your 1/2″ tapes are rotting in your shed as Temple’s Clash footage was, you know that you need to get in there, fish them out, and send them to us pronto!

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

World Day for Audiovisual Heritage – digitisation and digital preservation policy and research

Today, October 27, has been declared World Day for Audiovisual Heritage by UNESCO. We also blogged about it last year.

Since 2005, UNESCO have used the landmark to highlight the importance of audiovisual archives to ‘our common heritage’ which  contain ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries.’ Increasingly, however, the day is used to highlight how audio and moving image archives are particularly threatened with by ‘neglect, natural decay to technological obsolescence, as well as deliberate destruction’.

Indeed, the theme for 2014 is ‘Archives at Risk: Much More to Do.’ The Swiss National Sound Archives have made this rather dramatic short film to promote awareness of the imminent threat to audiovisual formats, which is echoed by UNESCO’s insistence that ‘all of the world’s audiovisual heritage is endangered.’

As it is World Audiovisual Heritage Day, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of the recent research and policy that has been collected and published relating to digitisation and digital preservation.

While the UNESCO anniversary is useful for raising awareness of the fragility of audiovisual mediums, what is the situation for organisations and institutions grappling with these challenges in practice?

Recent published research – NDSA

The first to consider are preliminary results from a survey published by the US-based NDSA Standards and Practices Working Group, full details can be accessed here.

The survey asked a range of organisations, institutions and collections to rank issues that are critical for the preservation of video collections. Respondents ‘identified the top three stumbling blocks in preserving video as:

  • Getting funding and other resources to start preserving video (18%)
  • Supporting appropriate digital storage to accommodate large and complex video files (14%)
  • Locating trustworthy technical guidance on video file formats including standards and best practices (11%)’

Interestingly in relation to the work we do at Great Bear, which often reveal the fragilities of digital recordings made on magnetic tape, ‘respondents report that analog/physical media is the most challenging type of video (73%) followed by born digital (42%) and digital on physical media (34%).’

It may well be that there is simply more video on analogue/ physical media than other mediums which can account for the higher response, and that archives are yet to grapple with the archival problem of digital video stored on physical mediums such as DVD and in particular, consumer grade DVD-Rs. Full details will be published on The Signal, the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation blog, in due course.

Recent research – Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC)

Another piece of preliminary research published recently was the user consultation for the 2nd edition of the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Digital Preservation Handbook. The first edition of the Handbook was published in 2000 but was regularly updated throughout the 00s. The consultation precedes what will be a fairly substantial overhaul of the resource.

Many respondents to the consultation welcomed that a new edition would be published, stating that much content is now ‘somewhat outdated’ given the rapid change that characterises digital preservation as a technological and professional field.

Survey respondents ranked storage and preservation (1), standards and best practices (2) and metadata and documentation (3) as the biggest challenges involved in digital preservation, and therefore converge with the NDSA findings. It must be stressed, however, that there wasn’t a massive difference across all the categories that included issues such as compression and encryption, access and creating digital materials.

Some of the responses ranged from the pragmatic…

‘digital preservation training etc tend to focus on technical solutions, tools and standards. The wider issues need to be stressed – the business case, the risks, significant properties’ (16)

‘increasingly archives are being approached by community archive groups looking for ways in which to create a digital archive. Some guidance on how archive services can respond effectively and the issues and challenges that must be considered in doing so would be very welcome’ (16)

…to the dramatic…

‘The Cloud is a lethal method of storing anything other than in Lo Res for Access, and the legality of Government access to items stored on The Cloud should make Curators very scared of it. Most digital curators have very little comprehension of the effect of solar flares on digital collections if they were hit by one. In the same way that presently part of the new method of “warfare” is economic hacking and attacks on financial institutions, the risks of cyber attacks on a country’s cultural heritage should be something of massive concern, as little could demoralise a population more rapidly. Large archives seem aware of this, but not many smaller ones that lack the skill to protect themselves’ (17)

…Others stressed legal issues related to rights management…

‘recording the rights to use digital content and ownership of digital content throughout its history/ life is critical. Because of the efforts to share bits of data and the ease of doing so (linked data, Europeana, commercial deals, the poaching of lines of code to be used in various tools/ services/ products etc.) this is increasingly important.’ (17)

It will be fascinating to see how the consultation are further contextualised and placed next to examples of best practice, case studies and innovative technological approaches within the fully revised 2nd edition of the Handbook.

European Parliament Policy on Film Heritage

Our final example relates to the European Parliament and Council Recommendation on Film Heritage. The Recommendation was first decreed in 2005. It invited Member States to offer progress reports every two years about the protection of and access to European film heritage. The 4th implementation report was published on 2 October 2014 and can be read in full here.

The language of the recommendation very much echoes the rationale laid out by UNESCO for establishing World Audiovisual Heritage Day, discussed above:

‘Cinematography is an art form contained on a fragile medium, which therefore requires positive action from the public authorities to ensure its preservation. Cinematographic works are an essential component of our cultural heritage and therefore merit full protection.’

Although the recommendation relates to preservation of cinematic works specifically, the implementation report offers wide ranging insight into the uneven ways ‘the digital revolution’ has affected different countries, at the level of film production/ consumption, archiving and preservation.

The report gravely states that ‘European film heritage risks missing the digital train,‘ a phrase that welcomes a bit more explanation. One way to understand is that it describes how countries, but also Europe as a geo-political space, is currently failing to capitalise on what digital technologies can offer culturally, but also economically.

The report reveals that the theoretical promise of interoperable digital technologies-smooth trading, transmission and distribution across economic, technical and cultural borders-was hindered in practice due to costly and complex copyright laws that make the cross border availability of film heritage, re-use (or ‘mash-up’) and online access difficult to implement. This means that EU member states are not able to monetise their assets or share their cultural worth. Furthermore, this is further emphasised by the fact that ‘85% of Europe’s film heritage is estimated to be out-of-commerce, and therefore, invisible for the European citizen’ (37).

In an age of biting austerity, the report makes very clear that there simply aren’t enough funds to implement robust digitization and digital preservation plans: ‘Financial and human resources devoted to film heritage have generally remained at the same level or have been reduced. The economic situation has indeed pushed Member States to change their priorities’ (38).

There is also the issue of preserving analogue expertise: ‘many private analogue laboratories have closed down following the definitive switch of the industry to digital. This raises the question on how to maintain technology and know-how related to analogue film’ (13).

Production Heritage Budget EUThe report gestures toward what is likely to be a splitting archival-headache-to-come for custodians of born digital films: ‘resources devoted to film heritage […] continue to represent a very small fraction of resources allocated to funding of new film productions by all Member States’ (38). Or, to put it in numerical terms, for every €97 invested by the public sector in the creation of new films, only €3 go to the preservation and digitisation of these films. Some countries, namely Greece and Ireland, are yet to make plans to collect contemporary digital cinema (see opposite infographic).

Keeping up to date

It is extremely useful to have access to the research featured in this article. Consulting these different resources helps us to understand the nuts and bolts of technical practices, but also how different parts of the world are unevenly responding to digitisation. If the clock is ticking to preserve audiovisual heritage in the abrupt manner presented in the Swiss National Archives Film, the EU research in particular indicates that it may well be too late already to preserve a significant proportion of audiovisual archives that we can currently listen to and watch.

As we have explored at other places in this blog, wanting to preserve everything is in many ways unrealistic; making clinical selection decisions is a necessary part of the archival process. The situation facing analogue audiovisual heritage is however both novel and unprecedented in archival history: the threat of catastrophic drop out in ten-fifteen years time looms large and ominous.

All that is left to say is: enjoy the Day for World Audiovisual Heritage! Treasure whatever endangered media species flash past your eyes and ears. Be sure to consider any practical steps you can take to ensure the films and audio recordings that are important to you remain operable for many years to come.

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

Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn for Four Voices 3″ 1/4 inch reel to reel tape transfer

We have recently transferred a previously unpublished 3” ¼ inch tape recording of British 20th century composer Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn for Four Voices. The tape is a 2-track stereo recording made at 7.5 inches per second (in/s) at the Purcell Room in London’s Southbank Centre in 1975, and was broadcast on 16 September 1976.

When migrating magnetic tape recordings to digital files there are several factors that can be considered to assess the quality of recording even before we play back the tape. One of these is the speed at which the tape was originally recorded.

Diagramme of track widths on magnetic tape, and the relative thicknesses of 1, 2 and 4 track recordings

Generally speaking, the faster the speed the better the reproduction quality when making the digital transfer. This is because higher tape speeds spread the recorded signal longitudinally over more tape area, therefore reducing the effects of dropouts and tape noise. The number of tracks recorded on the tape also has an impact on how good it sounds today. Simply put, the more information stored on the tape due to recording speed or track width, the better the transfer will sound.

The tape of Nocturn for Four Voices was however suffering from binder hydrolysis and therefore needed to be baked prior to play back. EMI tape doesn’t normally do this but as the tape was EMI professional it may well have used Ampex stock and / or have been back coated, thus making the binder more susceptible to such problems.

Remembering Phyllis Tate

Nocturn for Four Voices is an example of how Tate ‘composed for unusual combinations of instruments and voice.’ The composition includes ‘Bass Clarinet, Celeste, String Quartet and Double Bass’, music scholar Jane Ballantyne explains.

The tape was brought into us by Tate’s daughter, Celia Frank, who is currently putting the finishing touches to a web archive that, she hopes, will help contemporary audiences (re)discover her mother’s work.

Like many women musicians and artists, Phyllis Tate, who trained at the Royal Academy of Music, remains fairly obscure to the popular cultural ear.

This is not to say, of course, that her work did not receive critical acclaim from her contemporaries or posthumously. Indeed, it is fair to say that she had a very successful composing career. Both the BBC and the Royal Academy of Music, among others, commissioned compositions from Tate, and her work is available to hire or buy from esteemed music publishers Oxford University Press (OUP).

Edmund Whitehouse, who wrote a short biography of the composer, described her as ‘one of the outstanding British composers of her generation, she was truly her own person whose independent creative qualities produced a wide range of music which defy categorisation.’

Her music often comprised of contrasting emotional registers, lyrical sections and unexpected changes of direction. As a writer of operattas and choral music, with a penchant for setting poetry to music, her work is described by the OUP as the product of ‘an unusual imagination and an original approach to conventional musical forms or subjects, but never to the extent of being described as “avant-garde”.’

Tate’s music was very much a hit with iconic suffrage composer Ethel Smyth who, upon hearing Tate’s compositions, reputedly declared: ‘at last, I have heard a real woman composer.’ Such praise was downplayed by Tate, who tended to point to Smyth’s increased loss of hearing in later life as the cause of her enjoyment: ‘My Cello Concerto was performed soon afterwards at Bournemouth with Dame Ethel sitting in the front row banging her umbrella to what she thought was the rhythm of the music.’Open reel tape and box

While the dismissal of Smyth’s appreciation is tender and good humoured, the fact that Tate destroyed significant proportions of her work does suggest that at times she could have doubted her own abilities as a composer. Towards the end of her life she revealed: ‘I must admit to having a sneaking hope that some of my creations may prove to be better than they appear. One can only surmise and it’s not for the composer to judge. All I can vouch is this: writing music can be hell; torture in the extreme; but there’s one thing worse; and that is not writing it.’ As a woman composing in an overwhelmingly male environment, such hesitancies are perhaps an understandable expression of what literary scholars Gilbert and Gubar called ‘the anxiety of authorship.’

Tate’s work is a varied and untapped resource for those interested in twentieth century composition and the wider history of women composers. We wish Celia the best of luck in getting the website up and running, and hope that many more people will be introduced to her mother’s work as a consequence.

Thanks to Jane Ballantyne and Celia Frank for their help in writing this article.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Obsolete technologies and contemporary sound art

At the recent Supernormal experimental arts and music festival held at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, a number of artists were using analogue technologies to explore concepts that dovetail nicely with the work we do at Greatbear collecting, servicing and repairing obsolete tape machines.

Hacker Farm, for example, keep ‘obsolete tech and discarded, post-consumerist debris’ alive using ‘salvaged and the hand-soldered’ DIY electronics. Their performance was a kind-of technological haunting, the sound made when older machines are turned on and re-purposed in different eras. Eerie, decayed, pointless and mournful, the conceptual impetus behind Hacker Farm raises many questions that emerge from the rather simple desire to keep old technologies working. Such actions soon become strange and aesthetically challenging in the contemporary technological context, which actively reproduces obsolescence in the endless search for the new, fostering continuous wastefulness at the centre of industrial production.

Music by the Metre

Another performance at the festival which engaged with analogue technologies was Graham Dunning’s Music by the Metre. The piece pays homage to Situationist Pinot-Gallizio‘s method of ‘Industrial Painting’ (1957-1959), in which the Italian artist created a 145 metre hand and spray painted canvas that was subsequently cut up and sold by the metre. The action, which attempted to destroy the perception of the sacrilegious art-object and transform it into something which could be mass-quantified and sold, aimed to challenge ‘the mental disease of banalisation’ inherent to what Guy Debord termed ‘the society of the spectacle.’

In Dunning’s contemporary piece he used spools of open reel tape to record a series of automated machines comprised of looping record players, synth drone, live environmental sound and tape loops. This tape is then cut by the artist in metre long segments, placed in see-through plastic bags and ‘sold’ on his temporary market stall used to record and present the work.

Dunning’s work exists in interesting tension with the ideas of Pinot-Gallizio, largely because of the different technological and aesthetic contexts the artists are responding to.

Pinot-Gallizio’s industrial painting aimed to challenge the role of art within a consumer society by accelerating its commodity status (mass-produced, uniform, quantified, art as redundant, art as part of the wall paper). Within Dunning’s piece, such a process of acceleration is not so readily available, particularly given the deep obsolescence of consumer-grade open reel tape in 2014, and, furthermore, its looming archival obsolescence (often cited at ’10-20 years‘ by archivists).

Within the contemporary context, open reel analogue tapes have become ornate and aestheticised in themselves because they have lost their function as an everyday, recordable mass blank media. When media lose their operating context they are transformed into objects of fascination and desire, as Claire Bishop pithily states in her Art Forum essay, ‘The Digital Divide’: ‘Today, no exhibition is complete without some form of bulky, obsolete technology—the gently clucking carousel of the slide-projector, or the whirring of an 8mm or 16mm film reel […] the sumptuous texture of indexical media is unquestionably seductive, but its desirability also arises from the impression that it is scarce, rare and precious.’

In reality, the impression of open reel to reel analogue tape’s rarity is however well justified, as manufacturers and distributors of magnetic tape are increasingly hard to find. Might there be something more complex and contradictory be going on in Dunning’s homage to Pinot-Gallizio? Could we understand it as a neat inversion of the mass-metred-object, doubly cut adrift from its historical (1950s-1970s) and technological operating context (the open reel tape recorder), the bag of tape is decelerated, existing as nothing other than art object. Stuffed messily in a plastic bag and displayed ready to be sold (if only by donation), the tape is both ugly and useless given its original and intended use. It is here Dunning’s and Pinot-Gallizio’s work converge, situated at different historical and temporal poles from which critique of the consumer society can be mounted: accelerated plenitude and decelerated exhaustion.

onexmetres

Analogue attachments

As a company that works with obsolete magnetic tape-based media, Great Bear has a vested interest in ensuring tapes and playback machines remain operational. Although our studio, with its stacks of long-forgotten machines, may look like a curious art installation to some, the tapes we migrate to digital files are not quite art objects…yet. Like Hacker Farm, we help to keep old media alive through careful processes of maintenance and repair.

From looking at how contemporary sound artists are engaging with analogue technologies, it is clear that the medium remains very much part of the message, as Marshall McLuhan would say, and that meaning becomes amplified, contorted or transformed depending on historical context, and media norms present within it.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Irene Brown’s reel to reel recordings of folk and Gaelic culture

Two reel-to-reel tapes and boxesWe are currently migrating a collection of tapes made by Irene Brown who, in the late 1960s, was a school teacher living in Inverness. Irene was a member of the Inverness Folk Club and had a strong interest in singing, playing guitar and collecting the musical heritage of folk and Gaelic culture.

The tapes, that were sent by her niece Mrs. Linda Baublys, are documents of her Auntie’s passion, and include recordings Irene made of folk music sung in a mixture of Gaelic and English at the Gellions pub, Inverness, in the late 1960s.

The tapes also include recordings of her family singing together. Linda remembered fondly childhood visits to her ‘Granny’s house that was always filled with music,’ and how her Auntie used to ‘roar and sing.’

Perhaps most illustriously, the tapes include a prize-winning performance at the annual An Comunn Gaidhealach/ The National Mòd (now Royal National Mòd). The festival, which has taken place annually at different sites across Scotland since it was founded in 1892 is modelled on the Welsh Eisteddfod and acts ‘as a vehicle for the preservation and development of the Gaelic language. It actively encourages the teaching, learning and use of the Gaelic language and the study and cultivation of Gaelic literature, history, music and art.’ Mòd festivals also help to keep Gaelic culture alive among diasporic Scottish communities, as demonstrated by the US Mòd that has taken place annually since 2008.

If you want to find out more about Gaelic music visit the Year of the Song website run by BBC Alba where you can access a selection of songs from the BBC’s Gaelic archive. If you prefer doing research in archives and libraries take a visit to the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Based at the University of Edinburgh, the collection comprises a significant sound archive containing thousands of recordings of songs, instrumental music, tales, verse, customs, beliefs, place-names biographical information and local history, encompassing a range of dialects and accents in Gaelic, Scots and English.

As well as learning some of the songs recorded on the tape to play herself, Linda plans to eventually deposit the digitised transfers with the School of Scottish Studies Archives. She will also pass the recordings on to a local school that has a strong engagement with traditional Gaelic music.

Digitising and country lanes

Linda told us it was a ‘long slog’ to get the tapes. After Irene died at the age of 42 it was too upsetting for her mother, and Linda’s Granny, to listen to them. The tapes were then passed onto Linda’s mother who also never played the tapes, so when she passed away Linda, who had been asking for the tapes for nearly 20 years, took responsibility to get them digitised.

Open reel in a box

The tapes were in fairly good condition and minimal problems arose in the transfer process. One of the tapes was however suffering from ‘country-laning’. This is when the shape of the tape has become bendy (like a country lane), most probably because it had been stored in fluctuating temperatures which cause the tape to shrink and grow. It is more common in acetate-backed tape, although Linda’s tapes were polymer-backed. Playing a tape suffering from country-laning often results in problems with the azimuth because the angle between tape head and tape are dis-aligned. A signal can still be discerned, because analogue recordings rarely drop out entirely (unlike digital tape), but the recording may waver or otherwise be less audible. When the tape has been deformed in this way it is very difficult to totally reverse the process. Consequently there has to be some compromise in the quality of the transfer.

We hope you will enjoy this excerpt from the tapes, which Linda has kindly given us permission to include in this article.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Seeing tracks: viewing magnetic information as an aid for tape digitisation

Magnetic viewer pressed up against a tape displaying the magnetic information

The magnetic viewer makes the mysterious tracks recorded onto the tape visible

We use a Sigma Hi-Chemical MV-95 magnetic viewer  in order to aid our digitisation work. By pressing the viewer against the tape we are able to read the magnetic information recorded on it. The reader helps us to visually identify the position of the recorded tracks on the tape, and enables accurate playback during digitisation. Magnetic readers can also help us to identify potential problems with the tape, for example if a track has been partially erased, because it will show up on the viewer.

We receive tapes that are in varying states of repair and disrepair. Sometimes the person who made the recording kept the tapes in impeccable, temperature controlled conditions. Inscribed on the boxes are dates and lists of who performed, and what instrument they played. The tapes often feature detailed notes about the number of tracks recorded, whether they are in stereo or mono and if they used noise reduction technology. Digitisation, in such cases, does not usually pose great challenges.

At the other extreme are tapes recorded by people who never wrote anything down about how they made their recording. This means the people doing the digitising can be left to do a lot of guess work (particularly if that person has since died, and can’t tell you anything about the recording). A lack of informative metadata about the tape does not necessarily create migration difficulties: recordings can be very straightforward like, for example, a ½ track stereo recording of a single voice.

Multi-track tape machine

It is essential that the appropriate head is used to read the magnetic information recorded onto the tape.

Problems can however arise when recordings have been made in an idiosyncratic (and inconsistent) manner. For example (and in exceptional circumstances) we receive single magnetic tapes that have a mixture of track formats on them which include four track multi-track, ½ and ¼ track mono and ½ and ¼ track stereo.

In such cases it can be hard to discern the precise nature of the recordings using the ears alone. Often such recordings don’t sound ‘quite right’, even if it is not exactly clear what the problem is.

Rather than relying on speculation, using the magnetic reader gives 100% confirmation about where tracks are recorded on the tape, and therefore helps us to replay the tape using the appropriate playback heads, and therefore digitise it accurately.

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