authenticity

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

Videokunstarkivet’s Mouldy U-matic Video Tapes

Lives and VideotapesLast year we featured the pioneering Norwegian Videokunstarkivet (Video Art Archive) on the Greatbear tape blog.

In one of our most popular posts, we discussed how Videokunstarkivet has created a state of the video art archive using open source software to preserve, manage and disseminate Norway’s video art histories for contemporary audiences and beyond.

In Lives and Videotapes, the beautiful collection of artist’s oral histories collected as part of the Videokunstarkivet project, the history of Norwegian video art is framed as ‘inconsistent’.

This is because, Mike Sperlinger eloquently writes, ‘in such a history, you have navigate by the gaps and contradictions and make these silences themselves eloquent. Videotapes themselves are like lives in that regard, the product of gaps and dropout—the shedding not only of their material substance, but of the cultural categories which originally sustained them’ (8).

The question of shedding, and how best to preserve the integrity of audiovisual archive object is of course a vexed one that we have discussed at length on this blog.

It is certainly an issue for the last collection of tapes that we received from Videokunstarkivet—a number of very mouldy U-matic tapes.

umatic-dry-mould-inside-cassette-shellAccording to the Preservation Self-Assessment Program website, ‘due to media and hardware obsolescence’ U-matic ‘should be considered at high preservation risk.’

At Greatbear we have stockpiled quite a few different U-matic machines which reacted differently to the Videokunstarkivet tapes.

As you can see from the photo, they were in a pretty bad way.

 Note the white, dusty-flaky quality of the mould in the images. This is what tape mould looks like after it has been rendered inactive, or ‘driven into dormancy.’ If mould is active it will be wet, smudging if it is touched. In this state it poses the greatest risk of infection, and items need to be immediately isolated from other items in the collection.

Once the mould has become dormant it is fairly easy to get the mould off the tape using brushes, vacuums with HEPA filters and cleaning solutions. We also used a machine specifically for the cleaning process, which was cleaned thoroughly afterwards to kill off any lingering mould.

The video tape being played back on vo9800 U-matic

This extract  demonstrates how the VO9800 replayed the whole tape yet the quality wasn’t perfect. The tell-tale signs of mould infestation are present in the transferred signal.

Visual imperfections, which begin as tracking lines and escalate into a fuzzy black out of the image, is evidence of how mould has extended across the surface of the tape, preventing a clear reading of the recorded information.

Despite this range of problems, the V09800 replayed the whole tape in one go with no head clogs.

SONY BVU 950

The video tape being played back on SONY BVU 950

In its day, the BVU950 was a much higher specced U-matic machine than the VO9800. As the video extract demonstrates, it replayed some of the tape without the artefacts produced by the V09800 transfer, probably due to the deeper head tip penetration.

Yet this deeper head penetration also meant extreme tape head clogs on the sections that were affected badly by mould—even after extensive cleaning.

This, in turn, took a significant amount of time to remove the shedded material from the machine before the transfer could continue.

Mould problems

The play back of the tapes certainly underscores how deeply damaging damp conditions are for magnetic tape collections, particularly when they lead to endemic mould growth.

Yet the quality of the playback we managed to achieve also underlines how a signal can be retrieved, even from the most mould-mangled analogue tapes. The same cannot be said of digital video and audio, which of course is subject to catastrophic signal loss under similar conditions.

As Mike Sperlinger writes above, the shedding and drop outs are important artefacts in themselves. They mark the life-history of magnetic tapes, objects which so-often exist at the apex of neglect and recovery.

The question we may ask is: which transfer is better and more authentic? Yet this question is maddeningly difficult to answer in an analogue world defined by the continuous variation of the played back signal. And this variation is certainly amplified within the context of archival transfers when damage to tape has become accelerated, if not beyond repair.

At Greatbear we are in the good position of having a number of machines which enables us to test and experiment different approaches.

One thing is clear: for challenging collections, such as these items from the Videokunstarkivet, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to achieve the optimal transfer.

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