azimuth

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

Two reel-to-reel tapes and boxes We 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

4 track 1/4 inch reel to reel tape recorded in mono – The Couriers Folk Club, Leicester

We were recently sent a ¼ inch tape by Ed Bates that included recordings from the Couriers Folk Club in Leicester,  which ran from Autumn 1964 – June 1974.

The tape features performances from The Couriers (Jack Harris and Rex Brisland), George and Thadeus Kaye, Bill Pickering, Mark Newman and Mick Odam.

Jack Harris, who alongside Rex Brisland ran the club, describes how ‘traditional singers like Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and Pete Seeger, Bob Davenport were regular visitors together with ageing ploughboys, miners and fishermen who were often so infirm or unlikely to make their own way to Leicester they had to be fetched by car.’

As well as supporting grassroots folk music from the local area, well known performers such as musical superstar Barbara Dickson, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell graced the stage.

Inside of tape box, The Couriers live at the Couriers Folk Club Whyte Swan 6.8.66.

The tape recordings we received span five years. The first recording was made on 6 August 1966, then 3 September 1966, 8 February 1970 and finally 9 April 1971.

Each performance was recorded on a separate track in mono. This means that the 7” long spool contains 8 hours of music!

Like today’s MP3 digital files, the quality of the recorded sound is compromised because so much information is squeezed into a smaller space on the tape. A better quality recording would have been made if all four channels were used for a single performance, rather than one track for each performance.

The speed at which recordings were made also effects the quality of the recordings, simply because you can record more information per second at a faster rate. The tapes we were sent were recorded at 7 ½ per second on what is likely to have been a domestic tape recorder such as the Sony TC-263D. Ed’s letter to us speaks volumes about the conditions in which the recordings were made:

‘I was present at the Couriers Folk Club in Leicester when they were recorded so I can say that the recording quality is not good. The Sony recorder was used as an amplifier and on some occasions (if someone remembered) a tape was recorded.’

While the recordings certainly would have benefited from less haphazard recording conditions, the quality of the transfer is surprisingly crisp, as you can hear from this excerpt.

Excerpt from the digitised recordings of the Couriers folk club

The tape was in good condition, as Philips magnetic reel-to-reel tape often survives well over time, which aided a good transfer. One thing we were especially attentive to in the transfer process was carefully adjusting the azimuth, because of the slow speed of the original recording and the narrow track width.

Diagram of how to record on magnetic tape using a 4 track recorder, demonstrating a 1/4 inch tape divided into four lines on which each track can be recorded

Image taken from the BASF magnetic tape manual that  illustrates  how  four tracks can be recorded on magnetic tape

The emergence of recordings of the Couriers Club is especially timely given the recent launch of the English and Folk Dance Society‘s The Full English online digital archive . This contains a massive 44,000 records and over 58,000 digitised images about English folk history.

With a dozen or more tapes recently found from the Club, we look forward to helping this unique part of cultural heritage become accessible again.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, quarter inch tape, 4 comments

Digitising Audio Tape – Process, Time & Cost

Last week we wrote about the person time involved in transferring magnetic tape to digital files, and we want to tell you more about the processes involved in digitisation work.

While in theory the work of migrating media from one format to another can be simple, even the humble domestic cassette can take a substantial amount of time to transfer effectively.

Doing transfers quickly would potentially keep the costs of our work down, but there are substantial risks involved in mass migrations of tape-based material.

Problems with digital transfers can occur at two points: the quality of the playback machine and the quality of the tape.

First, lets focus on the playback machine.

Each time a cassette is transferred we have to ensure that the cassette deck is calibrated to the technical specification appropriate to that machine. Calibration is a testing procedure where a standard test tape is used to set the levels for tape to be digitised. The calibration process allows us to check tapes are played back at the correct speed and audio levels, that wow and flutter levels are set and the azimuth is aligned.

Azimuth refers to the angle between the tape head(s) and tape. Differences in Azimuth alignment arise from the azimuth of the original recording. You cannot know this information from just looking at a tape and you will get a sub-optimal transfer unless you adjust your machine’s azimuth to match the original recording.

sony-apr-5003-headblock-azimuth

Regularly checking the Wow and Flutter on the tape machine is also very important for doing quality transfers. Wow and flutter refer to fluctuations in speed on the playback mechanism, flutter being a higher rate version of wow. If you have listened to a tape you will probably be familiar with the sound of warped and woozy tape – this is the presence of wow. All tape machines have wow and flutter, but as components in the mechanisms stretch there is the potential for wow and flutter to increase. It is therefore essential to know what level the wow and flutter are set on your tape deck –less than 0.08% Weighted Peak on our Nakamichi 680 machines – to ensure optimal transfer quality.

Not all cassette machines were made equal either, and the quality of playback is absolutely dependent on the type of machine you have. There is a massive difference between the cheap domestic cassette machines made by Amstrad, to the cassette decks we use at Great Bear. Nakamichi machines were designed to squeeze the most out of the cassette, and their performance is way above the standard ‘two head’ cheap domestic machines.

Even with a Nakamichi deck, however, they have to be regularly checked because they are fragile electromagnetic machines that will drift out of specification over time. When machines drift they slip out of alignment, therefore effecting their operating capacity. This can occur through subtle knocks, everyday wear and tear and general ageing of mechanical and electrical components. For example, with extended use the grease in the components dries up and goes hard, and therefore affects the movement of the mechanisms.

Wow-and-flutter-monitor

Problems can also arise with the tapes themselves.

Most issues arise from tapes not being played back in well calibrated machines.

With audio cassettes the potential for azimuth error is increased because the speed the tape moves pasts the head is very slow. The tape therefore needs to be assessed to see if it is in a playable condition. It is played back in mono because it is easier to hear if there are problems with the azimuth, and then the azimuth is manually adjusted on the machine.

Migrating tape is unquestionably a ‘real time’ process. You need to listen and monitor what’s on the tape and the digitised version to ensure that problems with the transfer are detected as it is happening. It is a very hands on activity, that cannot be done without time, care and attention.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, tape machines, 2 comments

azimuth adjustment when you transfer and convert cassettes to cd

Cassette tapes run at a very slow speed of 1 7/8’s inches per second (ips) with a very small track width of 1.59mm

Cassette decks when they left the factory or a service centre should have been aligned to a standard reference for the position of the record and play heads. Unfortunately they often weren’t all the same and over time the alignment can get drift, get knocked out or manual ‘fiddled with’ by an owner.

What this means is that unless you’re playing back your tape on the machine it was originally recorded on you may be getting the maximum quality as the angle of the head to the recording or azimuth will not be optimal.

Without calibration tones recorded at the start of the tape which is very unlikely on most domestic cassette tape recordings you must set the playback azimuth manually. A few high end tape decks, namely those made by Nakamichi, either had a easily accessed Azimuth adjust or could even automatically adjust this throughout the tape. The Nakamichi Dragon was one such tape deck and could be the best, if working well, for high quality playback.

If you want to transfer or convert a cassette to CD and adjust the azimuth yourself this is the an easy way to do it:

  1. Look at the tape path (everything the tape will move across) and if it looks brown and dirty get some isopropyl alcohol and give it a good clean with a cotton bud.
  2. If you haven’t demagnetised your deck for a while now would be a good time to do it..
  3. Power up your cassette deck, which hopefully works correctly and doesn’t have too much speed instability!
  4. Pop your tape in the cassette well and start to play.
  5. Turn your amplifier’s volume up and if you can put it in Mono.
  6. Now, look under the tape machine’s playback or combined record and playback heads you should see a small screw or nut possibly with anti tamper paint on it.
  7. Using an appropriate tool, turn this nut or screw a little left or right while listening to the audio.
  8. You should hear the recording, especially if it has a lot of high frequency content such as cymbals etc get bright and dull sounding or more technically get more in or out of phase.
  9. Your aim is to get the most in phase or bright sounding playback.
  10. Sounds better now?? Great, start to record using you favourite computer audio software. We like SoX for the control but there’s a huge range out there.

 

Posted by greatbear in Audio Tape, 1 comment