media archaeology

Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording – interview with Martin Theophilus

How did the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording get started, what kind of equipment does it collect and what do they think the future holds for magnetic tape?

Many thanks to Martin for taking time to respond to our questions. If you want to support the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording’s aim to establish a permanent storage facility you can make a donation here.

Enjoy!

GB: When and how did the Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording get started?

M: The Museum was created in an effort to preserve our vintage recording collection that was initiated in 1998 with the web site Reel2ReelTexas.com. My audio recording began professionally in 1964. Our production switched to video in the early 1990’s. In 1998, the collection began with a gift of an Edison cylinder player from my wife Chris. I missed having the tape recorders around, so we began acquiring the recorders I’d worked with and then several historically significant recorders were secured. One included the first professional magnetic tape recorder built in the US. It is the 1948 Ampex 200A #33 reel to reel tape recorder belonging to Capitol Records. We also have Willie first T-26 Dynavox tape recorder

We have many very first recording devices from: Ampex, Berlant, Brush, Magnecord, Pioneer, Sony, Studer and Teac/Tascam. While there are not many large multi-track recorders, the intent was to display those recording devices that assisted musicians in creating their music. There are now around 225 tape recorders and 100 + vintage classic microphones. in 2012 we decided the collection was of significance and needed to be preserved and made available to the public in a permanent secure facility. We founded the non-profit and acquired a dedicated Board with all original members staying the course with us.

GB: How are you funded and how can people view the collection?

M: Presently the Museum is funded by private donations. At this time we are functioning with volunteers and the collection is available to view on line. By appointment we provide private tours in our Studio/Museum.

GB: What is your favourite piece of (working) equipment and why?

That’s difficult, however it is the Studer A807. It is in excellent condition and is one of the top Studer machines produced. Incidentally they had a wonderful museum saving their history. It disappeared after Harmon took Studer over.

A tour of the Studer tape recorder and mixer ‘museum’ and a company history, recorded in Switzerland before the museum relocated to the Soundcraft Studer HQ in the UK.

GB:What is your favourite piece of (non-working) equipment and why?

M: There has to be two. 1) One would be the Ampex 200A #33 mentioned above. It just needs motor capacitors and will be operating soon. The 200A was overbuilt and weighed 240 lbs. While it originally belonged to Capitol Records, it eventually ended up with the San Francisco engineer/producer Leo De Gar Kulka.  2) The second is the Sony TC-772 half track 15 ips portable location recorder. It too needs motor capacitors. It was able to complete long high quality remote recordings and provided audio limiters, vari-speed and XLR connections. Beautiful design.

GB: What are the challenges of preserving magnetic sound recording? Is there a tension between keeping the machines working, and preserving their appearance as museum exhibits? Do you also seek to preserve the context surrounding the machines, i.e., marketing materials and so forth?

M: We strive to acquire the most complete and working examples of the items in the collection. Several, including another favourite – the Technics RS-1700, was traded up six times before we acquired a showroom quality recorder. The same was true for its dust cover and now both are “as new.” The working units need to be exercised regularly, oiled, heads cleaned and aligned and kept as clean as possible. I can go around the collection one day and everything is working well. The next day there may be a tour and some will always be finicky. The Swiffer duster is a valuable tool to keep the items clean. They are all in air conditioned rooms, but it is Texas and there will be dust.

The things we believe set our collection apart from others are: 1) most units work, are connected to sound systems and can be demonstrated, and 2) for each unit we have acquired and display not only manuals, but also ads, brochures, reviews and posters. All of these are scanned loaded to the web site.

Currently, we have over 1,000 images that are waiting to be processed and added to the site. Additionally, the Museum has most of the radio catalogs (Allied, Burstein Applebee, Lafayette, Olsen, Radio Shack, and more) and magazines (AES Journals, Engineer Producer, Db, Modern Recording, Tape Recorder, etc.) that advertised tape recorders from the 1930’s until they quit publishing. The recorder and microphone sections have also been scanned and added to the website.

GB: What kind of people come to the museum tours? What response do they have the material?

M: Most of the tours we provide are: folks who have been active in the recording industry; professional musicians; other collectors; radio and TV related folks; persons who have viewed the web site and are visiting in the Austin area; students; teachers; and people who are making a donation of a piece of equipment.

The responses have been overwhelming. As are visits to the web site.  We maintain an ongoing web site survey asking if folks support the creation of our permanent public facility.

GB:Do you ever work with audio visual archivists to offer advice about preservation?

M: In the Spring of 2015, University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture’s Third Year Interior Design Class completed 11 interior designs for our Museum. One of the students won a $30,000 scholarship with her museum design. In that process, the UT School of Architecture provided significant information regarding preservation practices. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum’s Deputy Director, Margaret Koch, has been a supporter and mentor for our museum and provided many recommendations for preservation as we move forward. Just in the past couple of weeks, Peter Hammer, curator of the Ampex Museum prior to its donation to Stanford University, has agreed to provide our museum with preservation practices. Peter also envisions our re-creating the original Ampex Museum within our Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording. While we maintain the collection in a climate controlled studio, we will be more able to adhere to preservation practices when we have a permanent public facility.

GB:What do you see as the future of magnetic sound recording?

M: Magnetic sound recording will hopefully always be preserved and new discoveries integrated into the current knowledge. Magnetic cassettes have recently gained new attention (vinyl too). Maybe reel tape recorders will make a comeback. On our home page we show a new Revox A77 reel tape recorder being built by Akai. Otari still custom produces their classic MX-5050 reel tape recorder.

More importantly, professional recording studios around the globe are finding that many musicians love analogue recordings, so they are retaining, or acquiring analogue recorders. The evolutionary period of magnetic recording beginning in Germany in 1934 to the dawn of digital around 1982, spans an almost fifty year period. While the recording quality of vinyl had evolved and many still consider it of top reproduction quality, the advent of magnetic tape with the ability to edit and reproduce multiple copies was an incredible breakthrough.

GB:Your website is full of amazing information. What is the relationship between the online site and the physical museum?

M: Interesting question, because our intent has always been to provide as much web information as possible (far beyond the physical collection). In our recent conversations with Peter Hammer, the Ampex Museum curator, it is his belief that our preservation work: saving and scanning manuals, ads, catalogs, letters and all the supporting documentation, will actually be more significant than the actual machines themselves. 

Peter states “When I say to people,“Digits last longer than molecules”, that tends to make them think twice about the extreme impermanence of physical collections, especially after I tell them horror stories like the Ampex Museum, the Anna Amalia Library fire in Weimar in 2004, the Cologne City Museum collapse in 2009, and now a new one for me, the sad demise of the Studer collection. Physical collections simply cannot withstand the vagaries of governmental agencies, corporations, private owners, the weather, or seismic stability!”

However, I am still passionate about creating a safe permanent public facility for the collection. There is much to be said for folks being able to actually view and operate a vintage recorder and view the process of making a recording.

GB: Anything else you want to say?

M: We have come to realize that to implement our vision, we will require a major donor who would enable the museum in the long term. We also found that preserving recording technology cannot compete with the museums that are preserving the musicians and their music. The Bob Bullock Texas History Museum considered displaying some of our magnetic recording items when they expanded their Texas music section. However they determined that folks were more likely to visit displays about Texas music. For that reason they went with the history of the Austin City Limits and items from music collections from the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammy Museum.
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In closing, I thank you for this opportunity you’ve given me to reflect on what our goals are. We have responded to many promising opportunities, received significant verbal support, but have yet to bring the permanent facility to fruition. Due to last year’s heavy production schedule and some folks who did not follow through, I was discouraged. So last October I told our Board that maybe the museum had run its course. However, they would have none of that and encouraged us to push forward. Shortly after that we received a nice donation and I met Peter Hammer who has become an excellent resource who will be providing valuable Ampex documents and preservation consultation. So I feel very positive about our mission and will be happy to keep you posted as we progress.

Posted by debra in audio tape, audio technology, machines, equipment, 4 comments

Hands On History Conference

Media scholars, tinkerers and ‘thinkerers’ gathered in London last week for ADAPT TV‘s Hands on History Conference.

ADAPT is a five-year research project based at Royal Holloway, University of London that aims to capture and analyse the complex histories of TV production from the 1950s to the present.

A core part of the project methodology is the creation of simulated media environments that re-unite TV production crews with the specific machines they used in order to trigger sensory, practical and emotional memories.

Such embodied insights are largely absent from traditional historical research which is invested in maintaining a conceptual distance from ‘the past’.

This ‘hands-on’ approach can bring alternative historical perspectives alive by activating old machinery and the cultural practices attached to their use.

Tinkering

Andreas Fickers described these methodologies in his keynote as ‘experimental media archaeology.’

Tinkering and ‘playing’ with media technologies were presented as alternative techniques that can ‘re-sensitise’ researchers to the lost dimensions of media experience.

Such knowledge, which may resound as feelings of shock, disorientation or novelty, quickly become lost when media are normalised through everyday use.

Playing with old media as if they were new may offer crucial insights into what technologies enable us to do or think. Such activities are even valuable when a media tool breaks down.

Practicing Engagement

Practicing engagement was very much the defining feature of the conference.

The Projection Project based at Warwick University for example, explores the social and technical histories of cinema projection in the transition from analogue to the digital.

Lori Emerson discussed her work at the Media Archaeology Lab and Jason Papadimas, Sebastian Doring, and Jose Munoz tinkered with children’s toys and circuit boards to explore how cultural logics are socialised through the use of tools.

Many presentations focused on archiving software, video games and computational culture. Laine Nooney and Kevin Driscoll‘s presented their work on Softalk, an Apple II enthusiast magazine that circulated 1980–84, and Christian Hviid Mortensen from the Danish Media Museum discussed the challenges of curating video game culture.

Tape splices

Of most interest to Greatbear, because of its focus on magnetic tape, was Jessica Borge’s presentation on ‘The Secret Psychosexual Counselling Tapes of Dr Joan Malleson.’

Jessica recounted her research on a collection of clandestine recordings made by Dr Joan Malleson shortly before her suicide in 1956. During the course of her research Jessica realised that recordings were made without patients’ consent. This meant she could not write about the recorded content due to data protection issues.

Her focus then turned to the materiality of the tapes which enabled a close reconstruction of the scenarios in which the recordings were made.

Jessica’s presentation clearly speaks to the question of whether tape stock should be kept or destroyed post-digitisation. As a historian it was vital for her to see the original materials. Viewing the reels them enabled her to draw nuanced conclusions that would not have been possible if she had consulted access copies alone.

Yet keeping such artefacts, particularly when they cannot be played back in 10-15 years from now, will seem counter-intuitive and impractical for many archives, who are often have limited storage space available.

One way to ensure that the materiality of historical artefacts is recorded will of course lie in detailed metadata description. Jessica’s experience makes it clear the extent to which descriptive practices must go if the materiality of artefact is to be sufficiently captured in digital form. It is common place for extraneous information, such as writing on the tape box to be recorded in metadata records. Arguably the condition of the tape must also be recorded, including details such as splice marks or evidence of deterioration. These marks tell us crucial things about the environmental life of the tape and helps to place the object in its historical context, animating how it was used.

The Hands On History conference was a valuable opportunity for scholars and practitioners to meet and learn about these emerging historical methodologies.

The Network for Experimental Media Archaeology will continue to build on the connections made at the conference, and will act as a support hub for research, teaching and curatorial activities in this area. This is something Greatbear look forward to participating in, as preserving magnetic tape involves a lot of tinkering and a lot of learning.

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

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

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 Greatbear. 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 play back 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 Greatbear 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 scanThe 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, audio technology, machines, equipment, video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments