Machine Obsolescence

SONY’s U-matic video cassette

Introduced by SONY in 1971 U-matic was, according to Jeff Martin, 'the first truly successful videocassette format'.

Philips’ N-1500 video format dominated the domestic video tape market in the 1970s. By 1974 U-Matic was widely adopted in industrial and institutional settings. The format also performed a key role in the development of Electronic News Gathering. This was due to its portability, cost effectiveness and rapid integration into programme workflow. Compared with 16mm film U-matic had many strengths.

The design of the U-Matic case mimicked a hardback book. Mechanical properties were modelled on the audio cassette's twin spool system.

Like the Philips compact audio cassette developed in the early 1960s, U-Matic was a self-contained video playback system. This required minimal technical skill and knowledge to operate.

There was no need to manually lace the video tape through the transport, or even rewind before ejection like SONY's open reel video tape formats, EIAJ 1/2" and 1" Type C. Stopping and starting the tape was immediate, transferring different tapes quick and easy. U-Matic ushered in a new era of efficiency and precision in video tape technology.

Mobile news-gathering on U-matic video tape

Emphasising technical quality and user-friendliness was key to marketing U-Matic video tape.

As SONY's product brochure states, 'it is no use developing a TV system based on highly sophisticated knowledge if it requires equally sophisticated knowledge to be used.

'The 'ease of operation' is demonstrated in publicity brochures in a series of images. These guide the prospective user through tape machine interface. The human operator, insulated from the complex mechanical principles making the machine tick only needs to know a few things: how to feed content and direct pre-programmed functions such as play, record, fast forward, rewind and stop.

New Applications

Marketing material for audio visual technology often helps the potential buyer imagine possible applications. This is especially true when a technology is new.

For SONY’s U-Matic video tape it was the ‘very flexibility of the system’ that was emphasised. The brochure recounts a story of an oil tanker crew stationed in the middle of the Atlantic.

After they watch a football match the oil workers sit back and enjoy a new health and safety video. ‘More inclined to take the information from a television set,’ U-matic is presented as a novel way to combine leisure and work.

Ultimately ‘the obligation for the application of the SONY U-matic videocassette system lies with the user…the equipment literally speaks for itself.’

International Video Networks

Before the internet arrived, SONY believed video tape was the media to connect global businesses.

'Ford, ICI, Hambro Life, IBM, JCB...what do these companies have in common, apart from their obvious success? Each of these companies, together with many more, have accepted and installed a new degree of communications technology, the U-matic videocassette system. They need international communication capability. Training, information, product briefs, engineering techniques, sales plans…all can be communicated clearly, effectively by means of television'.

SONY heralded videotape's capacity to reach 'any part of the world...a world already revolutionised by television.' Video tape distributed messages in 'words and pictures'. It enabled simultaneous transmission and connected people in locations as 'wide as the world's postal networks.' With appropriate equipment interoperability between different regional video standards - PAL, NTSC and SECAM - was possible.

Video was imagined as a powerful virtual presence serving international business communities. It was a practical money-saving device and effective way to foster inter-cultural communication: 'Why bring 50 salesmen from the field into Head Office, losing valuable working time when their briefing could be sent through the post?'

Preserving U-Matic Video Tape

According the Preservation Self-Assessment Program, U-Matic video tape ‘should be considered at high preservation risk’ due to media and hardware obsolescence. A lot of material was recorded on the U-matic format, especially in media and news-gathering contexts. In the long term there is likely to be more tape than working machines.

Despite these important concerns, at Greatbear we find U-Matic a comparatively resilient format. Part of the reason for this is the ¾” tape width and the presence of guard bands that are part of the U-matic video signal. Guard bands were used on U-matic to prevent interference or ‘cross-talk’ between the recorded tracks.

In early video tape design guard bands were seen as a waste of tape. Slant azimuth technology, a technique which enabled stripes to be recorded next to each other, was integrated into later formats such as Betamax and VHS. As video tape evolved it became a whole lot thinner.

In a preservation context thinner tape can pose problems. If tape surface is damaged and there is limited tape it is harder to read a signal during playback. In the case of digital tape damaged tape on a smaller surface can result in catastrophic signal loss. Analogue formats often fare better, regardless of age.

Paradoxically it would seem that the presence of guard bands insulates the recorded signal from total degradation: because there is more tape there is a greater margin of error to transfer the recorded signal.

Like other formats, such as the SONY EIAJ, certain brands of U-Matic tape can pose problems. Early SONY, Ampex and Kodak branded tape need to dehydration treatment ('baked') to prevent shedding during playback. If your U-Matic tape smells of wax crayons this is a big indication there are issues. The wax crayon smell seems only to affect SONY branded tape.

Concerns about hardware obsolescence should of course be taken seriously. Early 'top loading' U-Matic machines are fairly unusable now.

Mechanical and electronic reliability for 'front loading' U-Matic machines such as the BVU-950 remains high. The durability of U-Matic machines becomes even more impressive when contrasted with newer machines such as the DVC Pro, Digicam and Digibeta. These tend to suffer relatively frequent capacitor failure.

Later digital video tape formats also use surface-mounted custom-integrated circuits. These are harder to repair at component level. Through-hole technology, used in the circuitry of U-Matic machines, make it easier to refurbish parts that are no longer working.

 

Transferring your U-Matic Collections

U-matic made video cassette a core part of many industries. Flexible and functional, its popularity endured until the 1990s.

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

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

Through-hole technology

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

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

Sometimes genuine rarities turn up at the Great Bear 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 standardized 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 (for more information on television standards visit this page, also note the 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 Reel From 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

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

Future tape archaeology: speculations on the emulation of analogue environments

At the recent Keeping Tracks symposium held at the British Library, AV scoping analyst Adam Tovell stated that

‘there is consensus internationally that we as archivists have a 10-20 year window of opportunity in which to migrate the content of our physical sound collections to stable digital files. After the end of this 10-20 year window, general consensus is that the risks faced by physical media mean that migration will either become impossible or partial or just too expensive.’

This point of view certainly corresponds to our experience at Great Bear. As collectors of a range of domestic and professional video and audio tape playback machines, we are aware of the particular problems posed by machine obsolescence. Replacement parts can be hard to come by, and the engineering expertise needed to fix machines is becoming esoteric wisdom. Tape degradation is of course a problem too. These combined factors influence the shortened horizon of magnetic tape-based media.

All may not be lost, however, if we are take heart from a recent article which reported the development of an exciting technology that will enable memory institutions to recover recordings made over 125 years ago on mouldy wax cylinders or acid-leaching lacquer discs.

IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), developed by physicist Carl Haber at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is a software programme that ‘photographs the grooves in fragile or decayed recordings, stitches the “sounds” together with software into an unblemished image file, and reconstructs the “untouchable” recording by converting the images into an audio file.’

The programme was developed by Haber after he heard a radio show discuss the Library of Congress’ audio collections that were so fragile they risked destruction if played back. Haber speculated that the insights gained from a project he was working on could be used to recover these audio recordings. ‘“We were measuring silicon, why couldn’t we measure the surface of a record? The grooves at every point and amplitude on a cylinder or disc could be mapped with our digital imaging suite, then converted to sound.”’

For those involved in the development of IRENE, there was a strong emphasis on the benefits of patience and placing trust in the inevitable restorative power of technology. ‘It’s ironic that as we put more time between us and the history we are exploring, technology allows us to learn more than if we had acted earlier.’

Can such a hands-off approach be applied to magnetic tape based media? Is the 10-20 year window of opportunity described by Tovell above unnecessarily short? After all, it is still possible to playback wax cylinder recordings from the early 20th century which seem to survive well over long periods of time, and magnetic tape is far more durable than is commonly perceived.

In a fascinating audio recording made for the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Nigel Bewley from the British Library describes how he migrated wax cylinder recordings that were made by Evans Pritchard in 1928-1930 and Diamond Jenness in 1911-1912. Although Bewley reveals his frustration in the preparation process, he reveals that once he had established the size of stylus and rotational speed of the cylinder player, the transfer was relatively straightforward.

You will note that in contrast with the recovery work made possible by IRENE, the cylinder transfer was made using an appropriate playback mechanism, examples of which can accessed on this amazing section of the British Library’s website (here you can also browse through images and information about disc cutters, magnetic recorders, radios, record players, CD players and accessories such as needle tins and headphones – a bit of a treasure trove for those inclined toward media archaeology).

Perhaps the development of the IRENE technology will mean that it will no longer be necessary to use such ‘authentic’ playback mechanisms to recover information stored on obsolete media. This brings us neatly to the question of emulation.

Emulation

Insides of a beta-hi-fi machine

If we assume that all the machines that playback magnetic tape become irrevocably obsolete in 10-20 years, what other potential extraction methods may be available? Is it possible that emulation techniques, commonly used in the preservation of born-digital environments, can be applied to recover the recorded information stored on magnetic tape?

In a recent interview Dirk Von Suchodoletz explains that:

‘Emulation is a concept in digital preservation to keep things, especially hardware architectures, as they were. As the hardware itself might not be preservable as a physical entity it could be very well preserved in its software reproduction. […] For memory institutions old digital artifacts become more easy to handle. They can be viewed, rendered and interacted-with in their original environments and do not need to be adapted to our modern ones, saving the risk of modifying some of the artifact’s significant properties in an unwanted way. Instead of trying to mass-migrate every object in the institution’s holdings objects are to be handled on access request only, significantly shifting the preservation efforts.’

For the sake of speculation, let us imagine we are future archaeologists and consider some of the issues that may arise when seeking to emulate the operating environments of analogue-based tape media.

To begin with, without a working transport mechanism which facilitates the transmission of information, the emulation of analogue environments will need to establish a circuitry that can process the Radio Frequency (RF) signals recorded on magnetic tape. As Jonathan Sterne reflects, ‘if […] we say we have to preserve all aspects of the platform in order to get at the historicity of the media practice, that means archival practice will have to have a whole new engineering dimension to it.’

Yet with the emulation of analogue environments, engineering may have to be a practical consideration rather than an archival one. For example, some kind of transport mechanism would presumably have to be emulated through which the tape could be passed through. It would be tricky to lay the tape out flat and take samples of information from its surface, as IRENE’s software does to grooved media, because of the sheer length of tape when it unwound. Without an emulated transport mechanism, recovery would be time consuming and therefore costly, a point that Tovell intimates at the beginning of the article. Furthermore, added time and costs would necessitate even more complex selection and appraisal decisions on behalf of archivists managing in-operative magnetic tape-based collections. Questions about value will become fraught and most probably politically loaded. With an emulated transport mechanism, issues such as tape vulnerability and head clogs, which of course impact on current migration practices, would come into play.

Audio and video differences

On a technical level emulation may be vastly more achievable for audio where the signal is recorded using a longitudinal method and plays back via a relatively simple process. Audio tape is also far less propriety than video tape. On the SONY APR-5003V machine we use in the Great Bear Studio for example, it is possible to play back tapes of different sizes, speeds, brands, and track formations via adjustments of the playback heads. Such versatility would of course need to be replicated in any emulation environment.

helical scan The technical circuitry for playing back video tape, however, poses significantly more problems. Alongside the helical scan methods, which records images diagonally across the video tape in order to prevent the appearance of visible joints between the signal segments, there are several heads used to read the components of the video signal: the image (video), audio and control (synch) track.

Unlike audio, video tape circuitry is more propriety and therefore far less inter-operable. You can’t play a VHS tape on a U-Matic machine, for example. Numerous mechanical infrastructures would therefore need to be devised which correspond with the relevant operating environments – one size fits all would (presumably) not be possible.

A generic emulated analogue video tape circuit may be created, but this would only capture part of the recorded signal (which, as we have explored elsewhere on the blog, may be all we can hope for in the transmission process). If such systems are to be developed it is surely imperative that action is taken now while hardware is operative and living knowledge can be drawn upon in order to construct emulated environments in the most accurate form possible.

While hope may rest in technology’s infinite capacity to take care of itself in the end, excavating information stored on magnetic tape presents far more significant challenges when compared with recordings on grooved media. There is far more to tape’s analogue (and digital) circuit than a needle oscillating against a grooved inscription on wax, lacquer or vinyl.

The latter part of this article has of course been purely speculative. It would be fascinating to learn about projects attempting to emulate the analogue environment in software – please let us know if you are involved in anything in the comments below.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments