Music

DAT restoration: The High – Martin Hannett Sessions

Record Store Day is usually 'the one day each year when over 200 independent record shops all across the UK come together to celebrate their unique culture. Special vinyl releases are made exclusively for the day, in what’s become one of the biggest annual events on the music calendar.' This year, due to COVID-19, Record Store Day is being split across 3 dates: 29th August, 26th September and 24th October.

This Record Store Day, Saturday 29th August 2020, is particularly exciting for Greatbear as it sees the release on Vinyl Revival, Manchester of The High - Martin Hannett Sessions, a restoration and digitisation project we worked on earlier this year.

The High - Martin Hannett Sessions on white vinyl © Vinyl Revival 2020

One of the Martin Hannett session DAT tapes digitised at Greatbear

Martin Hannett - Manchester music producer, known for his era-defining creative work with Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, John Cooper Clarke, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and many others - died aged 42 in April 1991.

The tapes we received were DAT (Digital Audio Tape) masters, produced by Hannett at recording sessions with The High in 1989 (at Strawberry Studios) and 1991 (at Great Linford Manor), and included Hannett's last production work before his untimely death.

The High - Martin Hannett session at Strawberry Studios 1989: producer Martin Hannett / Hannett inspecting DAT manual. Stills from footage by Nigel Couzens.

The High - Martin Hannett session at Strawberry Studios 1989: mixing desk / Andy Couzens. Stills from footage by Nigel Couzens.

The High were formed in 1989 by former Turning Blue singer John Matthews and former Buzzcocks F.O.C. members Andy Couzens (guitar, also formerly of The Stone Roses and pre-Roses bands The Patrol and Waterfront), Simon Davies (bass), and drummer Chris Goodwin (also formerly of the Waterfront as well as the Inspiral Carpets). They were signed by London Records and had three UK Singles Chart hits in 1990 before breaking into the top 30 in 1991 with a revamped version of their debut single, the Martin Hannett-produced "Box Set Go".

The High DAT cassette insert card tracks 1-4

The High DAT cassette insert card tracks 5-9

analogue to digital

From the Nigel Couzens footage (see video clip below), it looks like the Strawberry Studios sessions were recorded to 2 inch analogue tape, on a 24 track Studer A80. This was quite an old machine at that time as there would have been the A800 and possibly the A820 available too - but maybe they just loved the sound on the A80.

DAT, introduced by Sony in 1987, became popular in the audio and recording industry for mastering during the 1990s. The initial recordings would be made to 2" (or other width) analogue tape, but the mixed and produced final versions would be recorded to DAT - allowing the benefits of lossless encoding and avoiding the addition of further analogue tape hiss at the mastering stage. This process could be seen as a stepping stone towards an emerging all-digital production chain, and the development of hard disk recording.

fragile tape

At 3.81mm wide and 0.013mm thick, DAT is more fragile than other cassette-based digital tape formats such as DTRS/DA-88, ADAT and PCM digital audio, or any of the reel-to-reel formats (analogue or digital).

This makes it vulnerable to ripping. The High - Martin Hannett Sessions DAT masters arrived at Greatbear with visible signs of mould growth along the edges of the tape. (See the fuzzy white threads along the surface of the tape pack in the pictures above and below.) When this happens, the mould sticks the layers of the tape together - particularly along the edges - which inevitably leads to the tape ripping under the high tension of playback.

A ripped tape is especially problematic because DAT uses a helical scan recording system, based on a miniature video transport, and so cannot be spliced for clean edits. (Splices also risk irreparable damage to heads on the drum of the playback machine.) A ripped DAT tape - the helically-imprinted signal being bisected - results in irreversible signal loss.

Red arrow showing point where a speck of mould caused this DAT to rip. (Not one of The High - Martin Hannett tapes, but one previously brought to Greatbear in this state!)

Disassembly: unscrewing The High DAT cassette shell to access tape inside

restoration

We've found the safest way to restore mould-stricken DAT cassettes to a playable state and avoid ripping is to:

  • Acclimatise the tape to the controlled temperature and humidity of the Greatbear studio, driving the mould spores to dormancy
  • Disassemble the cassette shell
  • Very slowly and carefully unwind and rewind the tape by hand, dislodging the 'sticky' mould
  • Re-house the spools in a new, clean shell
  • Digitise via multiple passes, cleaning the DAT machine between plays. For these tapes we used our Sony PCM 7040

Sony ceased production of new DAT machines in 2005, and working, professional machines are becoming rare. We spend a considerable (and usually enjoyable) amount of time and resources keeping our machines in good condition. The Sony PCM 7040 is one of the better DAT machines in terms of the robustness of the tape transport and machine parts availability, as the same transport system was used in many Sony DDS DAT drives used in computer backup.

The High - Martin Hannett Sessions DAT master shell open with white mould visible on surface of tape pack

DAT during manual unwinding, showing mould-induced tendency for tape to stick to itself

The problem of mould growth on DATs is not unique to these precious Hannett / The High recordings.

Most DATs are now between 20 - 30 years old, and it only takes one period of storage at high temperature and/or relative humidity (RH) for mould to set in. To avoid damage, magnetic tape must be stored consistently at levels of 18 - 21 °C, and at 45 - 50% RH - something which no garage, attic or back room can guarantee...

We regularly receive mouldy DATs at the Greatbear studio. So much important material was mastered to DAT in the 1990s, and its vulnerabilities make it a priority for digitisation.

Support your local independent record shop on Record Store Day and every day!

Transfer your Digital Audio Tapes (DATs) to a stable format!

 

Posted by melanie in audio tape, digitisation expertise, 0 comments

Guest post: The Upright Electric Guitar

Is it a piano? Is it an electric guitar? Neither, it’s a hybrid! Keys, “action”, dampers from an upright piano, wood planks, electric guitar strings, and long pickup coils.

Watch and listen to a YouTube video of this instrument: https://youtu.be/pXIzCWyw8d4

Inception, designing and building

I first had the idea for the upright electric guitar in late 1986. At that time I had been scraping together a living for around 2 years, by hauling a 450-pound upright piano around to the shopping precincts in England, playing it as a street entertainer – and in my spare time I dreamt of having a keyboard instrument that would allow working with the sound of a “solid body” electric guitar. I especially liked the guitar sound of Angus Young from AC/DC, that of a Gibson SG. It had a lot of warmth in the tone, and whenever I heard any of their music, I kept thinking of all the things I might be able to do with that sound if it was available on a keyboard, such as developing new playing techniques. I had visions of taking rock music in new directions, touring, recording, and all the usual sorts of things an aspiring musician has on their mind.

Digital sampling was the latest development in keyboard technology back then, but I had found that samples of electric guitar did not sound authentic enough, even just in terms of their pure tone quality. Eventually all this led to one of those “eureka” moments in which it became clear that one way to get what I was after, would be to take a more “physical” approach by using a set of piano keys and the “action” and “dampering” mechanism that normally comes with them, and then, using planks of wood to mount on, swop out piano strings for those from an electric guitar, add guitar pickups, wiring and switches, and so on – and finally, to send the result of all this into a Marshall stack.

I spent much of the next 12 years working on some form of this idea, except for a brief interlude for a couple of years in the early 1990s, during which I collaborated with a firm based in Devon, Musicom Ltd, whose use of additive synthesis technology had led them to come up with the best artificially produced sounds of pipe organs that were available anywhere in the world. Musicom had also made some simple attempts to create other instrument sounds including acoustic piano, and the first time I heard one of these, in 1990, I was very impressed – it clearly had a great deal of the natural “warmth” of a real piano, warmth that was missing from any digital samples I had ever heard. After that first introduction to their technology and to the work that Musicom were doing, I put aside my idea for the physical version of the upright electric guitar for a time, and became involved with helping them with the initial analysis of electric guitar sounds.

Unfortunately, due to economic pressures, there came a point in 1992 when Musicom had to discontinue their research into other instrument sounds and focus fully on their existing lines of development and their market for the pipe organ sounds. It was at that stage that I resumed work on the upright electric guitar as a physical hybrid of an electric guitar and an upright piano.

I came to describe the overall phases of this project as “approaches”, and in this sense, all work done before I joined forces with Musicom was part of “Approach 1”, the research at Musicom was “Approach 2”, and the resumption of my original idea after that was “Approach 3”.

During the early work on Approach 1, my first design attempts at this new instrument included a tremolo or “whammy bar” to allow some form of note / chord bending. I made detailed 3-view drawings of the initial design, on large A2 sheets. These were quite complicated and looked like they might prove to be very expensive to make, and sure enough, when I showed them a light engineering firm, they reckoned it would cost around £5,000.00 for them to produce to those specifications. Aside from the cost, even on paper this design looked a bit impractical – it seemed like it might never stay in tune, for one thing.

Despite the apparent design drawbacks, I was able to buy in some parts during Approach 1, and have other work done, which would eventually be usable for Approach 3. These included getting the wood to be used for the planks, designing and having the engineering done on variations of “fret” pieces for all the notes the new instrument would need above the top “open E” string on an electric guitar, and buying a Marshall valve amp with a separate 4×12 speaker cabinet.

While collaborating with Musicom on the electronic additive synthesis method of Approach 2, I kept hold of most of the work and items from Approach 1, but by then I had already lost some of the original design drawings from that period. This is a shame, as some of them were done in multiple colours, and they were practically works of art in their own right. As it turned out, the lost drawings included features that I would eventually leave out of the design that resulted from a fresh evaluation taken to begin Approach 3, and so this loss did not stop the project moving forward.

The work on Approach 3 began in 1992, and it first involved sourcing the keys and action/dampering of an upright piano. I wanted to buy something new and “off the shelf”, and eventually I found a company based in London, Herrberger Brooks, who sold me one of their “Rippen R02/80” piano actions and key sets, still boxed up as it would be if sent to any company that manufactures upright pianos.

These piano keys and action came with a large A1 blueprint drawing that included their various measurements, and this turned out to be invaluable for the design work that had to be done next. The basic idea was to make everything to do with the planks of wood, its strings, pickups, tuning mechanism, frets, “nut”, machine heads and so on, fit together with, and “onto”, the existing dimensions of the piano keys and action – and to then use a frame to suspend the planks vertically, to add a strong but relatively thin “key bed” under the keys, legs under the key bed to go down to ground level and onto a “base”, and so on.

To begin work on designing how the planks would hold the strings, how those would be tuned, where the pickup coils would go and so on, I first reduced down this big blueprint, then added further measurements of my own, to the original ones. For the simplest design, the distance between each of the piano action’s felt “hammers” and the next adjacent hammer was best kept intact, and this determined how far apart the strings would have to be, how wide the planks needed to be, and how many strings would fit onto each plank. It looked like 3 planks would be required.

While working on new drawings of the planks, I also investigated what gauge of electric guitar string should be used for each note, how far down it would be possible to go for lower notes, and things related to this. With a large number of strings likely to be included, I decided it would be a good idea to aim for a similar tension in each one, so that the stresses on the planks and other parts of the instrument would, at least in theory, be relatively uniform. Some enquiries at the University of Bristol led me to a Dr F. Gibbs, who had already retired from the Department of Physics but was still interested in the behaviour and physics of musical instruments. He assisted with the equations for calculating the tension of a string, based on its length, diameter, and the pitch of the note produced on it. Plugging all the key factors into this equation resulted in a range of electric guitar string gauges that made sense for the upright electric guitar, and for the 6 open string notes found on a normal electric guitar, the gauges resulting from my calculations were similar to the ones your average electric guitarist might choose.

Other practicalities also determined how many more notes it would theoretically be possible to include below the bottom “open E” string on an electric guitar, for the new instrument. For the lowest note to be made available, by going all the way down to a 0.060 gauge wound string – the largest available at that time as an electric guitar string – it was possible to add several more notes below the usual open bottom E string. I considered using bass strings for notes below this, but decided not to include them and instead, to let this extra range be the lower limit on strings and notes to be used. Rather than a bass guitar tone, I wanted a consistent sort of electric guitar tone, even for these extra lower notes.

For the upper notes, everything above the open top E on a normal guitar would have a single fret at the relevant distance away from the “bridge” area for that string, and all those notes would use the same string gauge as each other.

The result of all the above was that the instrument would accommodate a total of 81 notes / strings, with an octave of extra notes below the usual guitar’s open bottom E string, and just under 2 octaves of extra notes above the last available fret from the top E string of a Gibson SG, that last fretted note on an SG being the “D” just under 2 octaves above the open top E note itself. For the technically minded reader, this range of notes went from “E0” to “C7”.

Having worked all this out, I made scale drawings of the 3 planks, with their strings, frets, pickup coils, and a simple fine-tuning mechanism included. It was then possible to manipulate a copy of the piano action blueprint drawing – with measurements removed, reduced in size, and reversed as needed – so it could be superimposed onto the planks’ scale drawings, to the correct relational size and so on. I did this without the aid of any computer software, partly because in those days, CAD apps were relatively expensive, and also because it was difficult to find any of this software that looked like I could learn to use it quickly. Since I had already drawn this to scale in the traditional way – using draftsman’s tools and a drawing board – it made sense to work with those drawings, so instead of CAD, I used photocopies done at a local printing shop, and reduced / reversed etc, as needed.

Key drawing of 3 planks, strings, frets, fine tuning mechanism and pickup coils, combined with upright piano action

It was only really at this point, once the image of the piano action’s schematic was married up to the scale drawings of the 3 planks, that I began to fully understand where this work was heading, in terms of design. But from then on, it was relatively easily to come up with the rest of the concepts and to draw something for them, so that work could proceed on the frame to hold up the planks, the key bed, legs, and a base at ground level.

Around this time, I came across an old retired light engineer, Reg Huddy, who had a host of engineer’s machines – drill presses, a lathe, milling machine, and so on – set up in his home. He liked to make small steam engines and things of that nature, and when I first went to see him, we hit it off immediately. In the end he helped me make a lot of the metal parts that were needed for the instrument, and to machine in various holes and the pickup coil routing sections on the wood planks. He was very interested in the project, and as I was not very well off, he insisted in charging minimal fees for his work. Reg also had a better idea for the fine tuning mechanism than the one I had come up with, and we went with his version, as soon as he showed it to me.

If I am honest, I don’t think I would ever have finished the work on this project without all the help that Reg contributed. I would buy in raw materials if he didn’t already have them, and we turned out various parts as needed, based either on 3-view drawings I had previously come up with, or for other parts we realised would be required as the project progressed, from drawings I worked up as we went along. Reg sometimes taught me to use his engineering machinery, and although I was a bit hesitant at times, after a while I was working on these machines to a very basic standard.

I took the wood already bought for the instrument during the work on Approach 1, to Jonny Kinkead of Kinkade Guitars, and he did the cutting, gluing up and shaping to the required sizes and thicknesses for the 3 planks. The aim was to go with roughly the length of a Gibson SG neck and body, to make the planks the same thickness as an SG body, and to include an angled bit as usual at the end where an SG or any other guitar is tuned up, the “machine head” end. Jonny is an excellent craftsman and was able to do this work to a very high standard, based on measurements I provided him with.

As well as getting everything made up for putting onto the planks, the piano action itself needed various modifications. The highest notes had string lengths that were so short that the existing dampers had to be extended so they were in the correct place, as otherwise they would not have been positioned over those strings at all. Extra fine adjustments were needed for each damper, so that instead of having to physically bend the metal rod holding a given damper in place – an inexact science at the best of times – it was possible to turn a “grub screw” to accomplish the same thing, but with a much greater degree of precision. And finally, especially important for the action, the usual felt piano “hammers” were to be replaced by smaller versions made of stiff wire shaped into a triangle. For these, I tried a few design mock-ups to find the best material for the wire itself, and to get an idea of what shape to use. Eventually, once this was worked out, I made up a “jig” around which it was possible to wrap the stiff wire so as to produce a uniformly shaped “striking triangle” for each note. This was then used to make 81 original hammers that were as similar to each other as possible. Although using the jig in this way was a really fiddly job, the results were better than I had expected, and they were good enough.

Close-up of a few hammers, dampers and strings

While this was all underway, I got in touch with an electric guitar pickup maker, Kent Armstrong of Rainbow Pickups. When the project first started, I had almost no knowledge of solid body electric guitar physics at all, and I certainly had no idea how pickup coils worked. Kent patiently explained this to me, and once he understood what I was doing, we worked out as practical a design for long humbucker coils as possible. A given coil was to go all the way across one of the 3 planks, “picking up” from around 27 strings in total – but for the rightmost plank, the upper strings were so short that there was not enough room to do this and still have both a “bridge” and a “neck” pickup, so the top octave of notes would had to have these two sets of coils stacked one on top of the other, using deeper routed areas in the wood than elsewhere.

For the signal to send to the amplifier, we aimed for the same overall pickup coil resistance (Ω) as on a normal electric guitar. By using larger gauge wire and less windings than normal, and by wiring up the long coils from each of the 3 planks in the right way, we got fairly close to this, for both an “overall bridge” and an “overall neck” pickup. Using a 3-way switch that was also similar to what’s found on a normal electric guitar, it was then possible to have either of these 2 “overall” pickups – bridge or neck – on by itself, or both at once. Having these two coil sets positioned a similar distance away from the “bridge end” of the strings as on a normal guitar, resulted in just the sort of sound difference between the bridge and neck pickups, as we intended. Because, as explained above, we had to stack bridge and neck coils on top of each other for the topmost octave of notes, those very high notes – much higher than on most electric guitars – did not sound all that different with the overall “pickup switch” position set to “bridge”, “neck”, or both at once. That was OK though, as those notes were not expected to get much use.

Some electric guitar pickups allow the player to adjust the volume of each string using a screw or “grub screw” etc. For the upright electric guitar I added 2 grub screws for every string and for each of the bridge and neck coils, and this means we had over 300 of these that had to be adjusted. Once the coils were ready, and after they were covered in copper sheeting to screen out any unwanted interference and they were then mounted up onto the planks, some early adjustments made to a few of these grub screws, and tests of the volumes of those notes, enabled working up a graph to calculate how much to adjust the height of each of the 300+ grub screws, for all 81 strings. This seemed to work quite well in the end, and there was a uniform change to volume from one end of the available notes to the other, one which was comparable to a typical electric guitar.

Unlike a normal electric guitar, fine tuning on this instrument was done at the “ball end” / “bridge end” of each string, not the “machine heads end” / “nut end”. The mechanism for this involved having a very strong, short piece of round rod put through the string’s “ball”, positioning one end of this rod into a fixed groove, and turning a screw using an allen key near the other end of the rod, to change the tension in the string. It did take a while to get this thing into tune, but I have always had a good ear, and over the years I had taught myself how to tune a normal piano, which is much more difficult than doing this fine tuning of the upright electric guitar instrument.

fine tuning mechanisms for each string (in the upper right part of the photo)
hammers, dampers, strings, pickup coils and their grub screws, and fine tuning mechanisms

A frame made of aluminium was designed to support the 3 planks vertically. They were quite heavy on their own, and much more so with all the extra metal hardware added on, so the frame had to be really strong. Triangle shapes gave it extra rigidity. To offset the string tensions, truss rods were added on the back of the 3 planks, 4 per plank at equal intervals. When hung vertically, the 3 planks each had an “upper” end where the fine tuning mechanisms were found and near where the pickup coils were embedded and the strings were struck, and a “lower” end where the usual “nut” and “machine heads” would be found. I used short aluminium bars clamping each of 2 adjacent strings together in place of a nut, and zither pins in place of machine heads. The “upper” and “lower” ends of the planks were each fastened onto their own hefty piece of angle iron, which was then nestled into the triangular aluminium support frame. The result of this design was that the planks would not budge by even a tiny amount, once everything was put together. This was over-engineering on a grand scale, making it very heavy – but to my thinking at that time, this could not be helped.

The piano keys themselves also had to have good support underneath. As well as preventing sagging in the middle keys and any other potential key slippage, the “key bed” had to be a thin as possible, as I have long legs and have always struggled with having enough room for them under the keys of any normal piano. These 2 requirements – both thin and strong – led me to have some pieces of aluminium bar heat treated for extra strength. Lengths of this reinforced aluminium bar were then added “left to right”, just under the keys themselves, having already mounted the keys’ standard wooden supports – included in what came with the piano action – onto a thin sheet of aluminium that formed the basis of the key bed for the instrument. There was enough height between the keys and the bottom of these wooden supports, to allow a reasonable thickness of aluminium to be used for these left-to-right bars. For strength in the other direction of the key bed – “front to back” – 4 steel bars were added, positioned so that, as I sat at the piano keyboard, they were underneath but still out of the way. Legs made of square steel tubing were then added to the correct height to take this key bed down to a “base” platform, onto which everything was mounted. Although this key bed ended up being quite heavy in its own right, with the legs added it was as solid as a rock, so the over-engineering did at least work in that respect.

If you have ever looked inside an upright piano, you might have noticed that the “action” mechanism usually has 2 or 3 large round nuts you can unscrew, after which it is possible to lift the whole mechanism up and out of the piano and away from the keys themselves. On this instrument, I used the same general approach to do the final “marrying up” – of piano keys and action, to the 3 planks of wood suspended vertically. The existing action layout already had “forks” that are used for this, so everything on the 3 planks was designed to allow room for hefty sized bolts fastened down tightly in just the right spots, in relation to where the forks would go when the action was presented up to the planks. The bottom of a normal upright piano action fits into “cups” on the key bed, and I also used these in my design. Once the planks and the key bed were fastened down to the aluminium frame and to the base during assembly, then in much the same way as on an upright piano, the action was simply “dropped down” into the cups, then bolted through the forks and onto, in this case, the 3 planks.

It’s usually possible to do fine adjustments to the height of these cups on an upright piano, and it’s worth noting that even a tiny change to this will make any piano action behave differently. This is why it was so important to have both very precise tolerances in the design of the upright electric guitar’s overall structure, together with as much strength and rigidity as possible for the frame and other parts.

With a normal upright piano action, when you press a given key on the piano keyboard, it moves the damper for that single note away from the strings, and the damper returns when you let go of that key. In addition to this, a typical upright piano action includes a mechanism for using a “sustain pedal” with the right foot, so that when you press the pedal, the dampers are pushed away from all the strings at the same time, and when you release the pedal, the dampers are returned back onto all the strings. The upright piano action bought for this instrument did include all this, and I especially wanted to take advantage of the various dampering and sustain possibilities. Early study, drawing and calculations of forces, fulcrums and so on, eventually enabled use of a standard piano sustain foot pedal – bought off the shelf from that same firm, Herrberger Brooks – together with a hefty spring, some square hollow aluminium tube for the horizontal part of the “foot to dampers transfer” function, and a wooden dowel for the vertical part of the transfer. Adjustment had to be made to the position of the fulcrum, as the first attempt led to the foot pedal needing too much force, which made it hard to operate without my leg quickly getting tired. This was eventually fixed, and then it worked perfectly.

At ground level I designed a simple “base” of aluminium sheeting, with “positioners” fastened down in just the right places so that the legs of the key bed, the triangular frame holding up the 3 planks, and the legs of the piano stool to sit on, always ended up in the correct places in relation to each other. This base was also where the right foot sustain pedal and its accompanying mechanism were mounted up. To make it more transportable, the base was done in 3 sections that could fairly easily be fastened together and disassembled.

After building – further tests and possible modifications

When all this design was finished, all the parts were made and adjusted as needed, and it could finally be assembled and tried out, the first time I put the instrument together, added the wiring leads, plugged it into the Marshall stack, and then tuned it all up, it was a real thrill to finally be able to sit and play it. But even with plenty of distortion on the amp, it didn’t really sound right – it was immediately obvious that there was too much high frequency in the tone. It had wonderful amounts of sustain, but the price being paid for this was that the sound was some distance away from what I was really after. In short, the instrument worked, but instead of sounding like a Gibson SG – or any other electric guitar for that matter – it sounded a bit sh***y.

When I had first started working on this project, my “ear” for what kind of guitar sound I wanted, was in what I would describe as an “early stage of development”. Mock-up tests done during Approach 1, before 1990, had sounded kind of right at that time. But once I was able to sit and play the finished instrument, and to hear it as it was being played, with hindsight I realised that my “acceptable” evaluation of the original mock-up was more because, at that point, I had not yet learned to identify the specific tone qualities I was after. It was only later as the work neared completion, that my “ear” for the sound I wanted became more fully developed, as I began to better understand how a solid body electric guitar behaves, what contributes to the tone qualities you hear from a specific instrument, and so on.

I began asking some of the other people who had been involved in the project, for their views on why it didn’t sound right. Two things quickly emerged from this – it was too heavy, and the strings were being struck, instead of plucking them.

Kent Armstrong, who made the pickups for the upright electric guitar, told me a story about how he once did a simple experiment which, in relation to my instrument, demonstrated what happens if you take the “it’s too heavy” issue to the extreme. He told me about how he had once “made an electric guitar out of a brick wall”, by fastening an electric guitar string to the wall at both ends of the string, adding a pickup coil underneath, tuning the string up, sending the result into an amp, and then plucking the string. He said that this seemed to have “infinite sustain” – the sound just went on and on. His explanation for this was that because the brick wall had so much mass, it could not absorb any of the vibration from the string, and so all of its harmonics just stayed in the string itself.

Although this was a funny and quite ludicrous example, I like this kind of thing, and the lesson was not lost on me at the time. We discussed the principles further, and Kent told me that in his opinion, a solid body electric guitar needs somewhere around 10 to 13 pounds of wood mass, in order for it to properly absorb the strings’ high harmonics in the way that gives you that recognisable tone quality we would then call “an electric guitar sound”. In essence, he was saying that the high frequencies have to “come out”, and then it’s the “warmer” lower harmonics which remain in the strings, that makes an electric guitar sound the way it does. This perfectly fit with my own experience of the tones I liked so much, in a guitar sound I would describe as “desirable”. Also, it did seem to explain why my instrument, which had a lot more “body mass” than 10 to 13 pounds – with its much larger wood planks, a great deal of extra hardware mounted onto them, and so on – did not sound like that.

As for striking rather than plucking the strings, I felt that more trials and study would be needed on this. I had opted to use hammers to strike the strings, partly as this is much simpler to design for – the modifications needed to the upright piano action bought off the shelf, were much less complicated than those that would have been required for plucking them. But there was now a concern that the physics of plucking and striking might be a lot different to each other, and if so there might be no way of getting around this, except to pluck them.

I decided that in order to work out what sorts of changes would best be made to the design of this instrument to make it sound better, among other things to do as a next step, I needed first-hand experience of the differences in tone quality between various sizes of guitar body. In short, I decided to make it my business to learn as much as I could about the physics of the solid body electric guitar, and if necessary, to learn more than perhaps anyone else out there might already know. I also prepared for the possibility that a mechanism to pluck the strings might be needed.

At that time, in the mid 1990s, there had been some excellent research carried out on the behaviour of acoustic guitars, most notably by a Dr Stephen Richardson at the University of Cardiff. I got in touch with him, and he kindly sent me details on some of this work. But he admitted that the physics of the acoustic guitar – where a resonating chamber of air inside the instrument plays a key part in the kinds of sounds and tones that the instrument can make – is fundamentally different to that of a solid body electric guitar.

I trawled about some more, but no one seemed to have really studied solid body guitar physics – or if they had, nothing had been published on it. Kent Armstrong’s father Dan appeared on the scene at one point, as I was looking into all this. Dan Armstrong was the inventor of the Perspex bass guitar in the 1960s. When he, Kent and I all sat down together to have a chat about my project, it seemed to me that Dan might in fact know more than anyone else in the world, about what is going on when the strings vibrate on a solid body guitar. It was very useful to hear what he had to say on this.

I came away from all these searches for more knowledge, with further determination to improve the sound of the upright electric guitar. I kept an eye out for a cheap Gibson SG, and as luck would have it, one appeared online for just £400.00 – for any guitar enthusiasts out there, you will know that even in the 1990s, that was dirt cheap. I suspected there might be something wrong with it, but decided to take a risk and buy it anyway. It turned out to have a relatively correct SG sound, and was cheap because it had been made in the mid 1970s, at a time when Gibson were using inferior quality wood for the bodies of this model. While it clearly did not sound as good as, say, a vintage SG, it was indeed a Gibson original rather than an SG copy, and it did have a “workable” SG sound that I could compare against.

I also had a friend with a great old Gibson SG Firebrand, one that sounded wonderful. He offered to let me borrow it for making comparative sound recordings and doing other tests. I was grateful for this, and I did eventually take him up on the offer.

One thing that I was keen to do at this stage, was to look at various ways to measure – and quantify – the differences in tone quality between either of these two Gibson SGs and the upright electric guitar. I was advised to go to the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol, who were very helpful. Over the Easter break of 1997, they arranged for me to bring in my friend’s SG Firebrand and one of my 3 planks – with its strings all attached and working – so that one of their professors, Brian Day, could conduct “frequency sweep” tests on them. Brian had been suffering from early onset of Parkinson’s disease and so had curtailed his normal university activities, but once he heard about this project, he was very keen to get involved. Frequency sweep tests are done by exposing the “subject” instrument to an artificially created sound whose frequency is gradually increased, while measuring the effect this has on the instrument’s behaviour. Brian and his colleagues carried out the tests while a friend and I assisted. Although the results did not quite have the sorts of quantifiable measurements I was looking for, they did begin to point me in the right direction.

After this testing, someone else recommended I get in touch with a Peter Dobbins, who at that time worked at British Aerospace in Bristol and had access to spectral analysis equipment at their labs, which he had sometimes used to study the physics of the hurdy gurdy, his own personal favourite musical instrument. Peter was also very helpful, and eventually he ran spectral analysis of cassette recordings made of plucking, with a plectrum, the SG Firebrand, the completed but “toppy-sounding” upright electric guitar, and a new mock-up I had just made at that point, one that was the same length as the 3 planks, but only around 4 inches wide. This new mock-up was an attempt to see whether using around 12 or 13 much narrower planks in place of the 3 wider ones, might give a sound that was closer to what I was after.

Mock-up of possible alternative to 3 planks – would 12 or 13 of these sound better instead? Shown on its own (with a long test coil), and mounted up to the keys and action setup so that plucking tests could make use of the dampers to stop strings moving between recordings of single notes

As it turned out, the new mock-up did not sound that much different to the completed upright electric guitar itself, when the same note was plucked on each of them. It was looking like there was indeed a “range” of solid guitar body mass / weight of wood that gave the right kind of tone, and that even though the exact reasons for the behaviour of “too much” or “too little” mass might be different to each other, any amount of wood mass / weight on either side of that range, just couldn’t absorb enough of the high harmonics out of the strings. Despite the disappointing result of the new mock-up sounding fairly similar to the completed instrument, I went ahead and gave Peter the cassette recordings of it, of the completed instrument, and of my friend’s SG Firebrand, and he stayed late one evening at work and ran the spectral analysis tests on all of these.

Peter’s spectral results were just the kind of thing I had been after. He produced 3D graphs that clearly showed the various harmonics being excited when a given string was plucked, how loud each one was, and how long they went on for. This was a pictorial, quantitative representation of the difference in tone quality between my friend’s borrowed SG Firebrand, and both the completed instrument and the new mock-up. The graphs gave proper “shape” and “measure” to these differences. By this time, my “ear” for the sort of tone quality I was looking for, was so highly developed that I could distinguish between these recordings immediately, when hearing any of them. And what I could hear, was reflected precisely on these 3D graphs.

Spectral analysis graphs in 3D, of Gibson SG Firebrand “open bottom E” note plucked, and the same note plucked on the upright electric guitar. Frequency in Hz is on the x axis and time on the y axis, with time starting at the “back” and moving to the “front” on the y axis. Harmonics are left-to-right on each graph – leftmost is the “fundamental”, then 1st harmonic etc. Note how many more higher harmonics are found on the right graph of the upright electric guitar, and how they persist for a long time. I pencilled in frequencies for these various harmonics on the graph on the right, while studying it to understand what was taking place on the string.

While this was all underway, I also mocked up a few different alternative types of hammers and carried out further sound tests to see what sort of a difference you would get in tone, from using different materials for these, but always still striking the string. Even though I was more or less decided on moving to a plucking mechanism, for completeness and full understanding, I wanted to see if any significant changes might show up from using different sorts of hammers. For these experiments, I tried some very lightweight versions in plastic, the usual felt upright piano hammers, and a couple of others that were much heavier, in wood. Not only was there almost no difference whatsoever between the tone quality that each of these widely varied types of hammers seemed to produce, it also made next to no difference where, along the string, you actually struck it.

Other hammer designs tried – there was little variation in the sound each of these produced

These experiments, and some further discussions with a guitar maker who had helped out on the project, brought more clarification to my understanding of hammers vs plucking. Plucking a string seems to make its lower harmonics get moving right away, and they then start out with more volume compared to that of the higher harmonics. The plucking motion will always do this, partly because there is so much energy being transferred by the plectrum or the player’s finger – and this naturally tends to drive the lower harmonics more effectively. When you hit a string with any sort of hammer though, the effect is more like creating a sharp “shock wave” on the string, but one with much less energy. This sets off the higher harmonics more, and the lower ones just don’t get going properly.

In a nutshell, all of this testing and research confirmed the limitations of hammers, and the fact that there are indeed fundamental differences between striking and plucking an electric guitar string. Hammers were definitely “out”.

To summarise the sound characteristic of the upright electric guitar, its heavy structure and thereby the inability of its wood planks to absorb enough high frequencies out of the strings, made it naturally produce a tone with too many high harmonics and not enough low ones – and hitting its strings with a hammer instead of plucking, had the effect of “reinforcing” this tonal behaviour even more, and in the same direction.

The end?

By this point in the work on the project, as 1998 arrived and we got into spring and summer of that year, I had gotten into some financial difficulties, partly because this inventing business is expensive. Despite having built a working version of the upright electric guitar, even aside from the fact that the instrument was very heavy and took some time to assemble and take apart – making it impractical for taking on tour for example – the unacceptable sound quality alone, meant that it was not usable. Mocked-up attempts to modify the design so that there would be many planks, each quite narrow, had not improved the potential of the sound to any appreciable degree, either.

I realised that I was probably reaching the end of what I could achieve on this project, off my own back financially. To fully confirm some of the test results, and my understanding of what it is that makes a solid body electric guitar sound the way it does, I decided to perform a fairly brutal final test. To this end, I first made recordings of plucking the 6 open strings on the cheap SG I had bought online for £400.00. Then I had the “wings” of this poor instrument neatly sawn off, leaving the same 4-inch width of its body remaining, as the new mock-up had. This remaining width of 4 inches was enough that the neck was unaffected by the surgery, which reduced the overall mass of wood left on the guitar, and its shape, down to something quite similar to that of the new mock-up.

I did not really want to carry out this horrible act, but I knew that it would fully confirm all the indications regarding the principles, behaviours and sounds I had observed in both the 3 planks of the completed upright electric guitar, in the new mock-up, and in other, “proper” SG guitars that, to my ear, sounded right. If, by doing nothing else except taking these lumps of wood mass away from the sides of the cheap SG, its sound went from “fairly good” to “unacceptably toppy”, it could only be due to that change in wood mass.

After carrying out this crime against guitars by chopping the “wings” off, I repeated the recordings of plucking the 6 open strings. Comparison to the “before” recordings of it, confirmed my suspicions – exactly as I had feared and expected, the “after” sound had many more high frequencies in it. In effect I had “killed” the warmth of the instrument, just by taking off those wings.

In September 1998, with no more money to spend on this invention, and now clear that the completed instrument was a kind of “design dead end”, I made the difficult decision to pull the plug on the project. I took everything apart, recycled as many of the metal parts as I could (Reg Huddy was happy to have many of these), gave the wood planks to Jonny Kinkead for him to use to make a “proper” electric guitar with as he saw fit, and then went through reams of handwritten notes, sketches and drawings from 12 years of work, keeping some key notes and drawings which I still have today, but having a big bonfire one evening at my neighbour’s place, with all the rest.

Some “video 8” film of the instrument remained, and I recently decided to finally go through all of that, and all the notes and drawings kept, and make up a YouTube video from it. This is what Greatbear Analogue & Digital Media has assisted with. I am very pleased with the results, and am grateful to them. Here is a link to that video: https://youtu.be/pXIzCWyw8d4

As for the future of the upright electric guitar, in the 20 years since ceasing work on the project, I have had a couple of ideas for how it could be redesigned to sound better and, for some of those ideas, to also be more practical.

One of these new designs involves using similar narrow 4-inch planks as on the final mockup described above, but adding the missing wood mass back onto this as “wings” sticking out the back – where they would not be in the way of string plucking etc – positioning the wings at a 90-degree angle to the usual plane of the body. This would probably be big and heavy, but it would be likely to sound a lot closer to what I have always been after.

Another design avenue might be to use 3 or 4 normal SGs and add robotic plucking and fretting mechanisms, driven by electronic sensors hooked up to another typical upright piano action and set of keys, with some programmed software to make the fast decisions needed to work out which string and fret to use on which SG guitar for each note played on the keyboard, and so on. While this would not give the same level of intimacy between the player and the instrument itself as even the original upright electric guitar had, the tone of the instrument would definitely sound more or less right, allowing for loss of “player feeling” from how humans usually pluck the strings, hold down the frets, and so on. This approach would most likely be really expensive, as quite a lot of robotics would probably be needed.

An even more distant possibility in relation to the original upright electric guitar, might be to explore additive synthesis further, the technology that the firm Musicom Ltd – with whom I collaborated during Approach 2 in the early 1990s – continue to use even today, for their pipe organ sounds. I have a few ideas on how to go about such additive synthesis exploration, but will leave them out of this text here.

As for my own involvement, I would like nothing better than to work on this project again, in some form. But these days, there are the usual bills to pay, so unless there is a wealthy patron or perhaps a sponsoring firm out there who can afford to both pay me enough salary to keep my current financial commitments, and to also bankroll the research and development that would need to be undertaken to get this invention moving again, the current situation is that it’s very unlikely I can do it myself.

Although that seems a bit of a shame, I am at least completely satisfied that, in my younger days, I had a proper go at this. It was an unforgettable experience, to say the least!

Posted by greatbear in video tape, 0 comments

The Containers – late ’70s new wave lives again

Audio cassette with case, songs listed in hand written text

You worked with talented artists, some went on to become successful pop stars.

You were also pretty organised. You managed to record your music in a professional recording studio. But the band faltered due to commercial reasons, personality differences etc, etc.

The dream of a pop music career faded but, undeterred, you started a new solo project. You built your sound on cutting edge technology – the reliable pulses of the drum machine.

Modest success followed, including an album release on one of the early 1980s many DIY record labels. You secured high profile support slots for big acts, such as the Thompson Twins, and wowed spectators with an idiosyncratic musical style.

Yet it was not possible to make music your profession, and you drifted away from the industry.

The only evidence you ever existed, in a musical sense, was that a friend—Robyn Hitchcock of the Soft Boys—covered your songs from time to time.

Re-discovery

30 years later you start scratching around the internet and realise that the album you made in 1980 is now highly collectable. It’s selling for silly prices on ebay. It seems that all this time you’ve had a cult following on college radio in the US.

This kick starts a self-archiving project, powered by the publishing power of youtube. You start to upload your back catalogue without a shred of wishfulness over what might have been. What the hell, at least people can hear the music now.

Soon you get an email from Manufactured Recordings, an independent record label in Brooklyn who specialise in re-issues. They love you! And want to release and listen to absolutely everything you have done.

A tape reel of the Containers in a boxThe immediate priority is a fresh pressing of your cult DIY album: The Beach Bullies’ We Rule the Universe, warmly re-appraised in 2015 as an ‘excellent slice of obscurist he-said/she-said bedsit pop.’

Then, in 2017, the entire back catalogue of The Containers, your band that never quite made it, will be released. The compilation carries the title Self-Contained.

The material on this album, like so many re-issues available today, were expertly transferred in the Greatbear studio!

Finally the world will be able to hear The Containers’ ‘lost album’, that was recorded in 1979 at Spaceward studio, Cambridge.

Spaceward had a reputation for making ‘no-nonsense, quality recordings that successfully captured the essence of the late seventies style of music.’ Artists such as The Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Gary Numan, The Mekons and many others laid down tracks there. At the helm was Mike Kemp, a supportive and inventive engineer who, James remembered, checked the final mix through a transistor radio whose battery had half expired.

What can we expect to hear when the The Containers’ music is finally released into the world? The band, James explained, combined ‘literate songwriting with the energy of the period.’ ‘We weren’t afraid of using more than three chords. We wanted to write great songs, with witty, biting lyrics.’

Re-issuing music culture

Audio cassette in a tape boxThe status of ‘old’ recordings has changed a lot in recent times. James believes his work is no longer old as in ‘not new’ and therefore ‘forgettable,’ but old as in ‘cult, hidden or classic’.

The contemporary ‘re-issue market’ is built upon the desirability of ‘some mislaid masterwork, tugged from obscurity, relieved of dust, and repackaged for rediscovery.’

While ‘re-issue’ culture can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century, widespread digitisation has clearly fuelled the eruption of pop music’s archival imaginary in the 21st century. Different categories of recorded sound – including more messy or unfinished works – can be decoded as ‘valuable’ or ‘interesting’.

James’ new label, Manufactured Records, for example, wanted to publish demos, rough bedroom recordings and other works in progress as well as the The Containers’ studio recordings.

Such recordings, James believes, have novelty value because they provide unique insight into ‘mindset of the artist’ when they were writing a piece of music. They may also capture the acoustic textures of everyday sound environments, a factor which sets them apart from the flat polished surfaces of (less authentic) studio recordings.

Uncontained

Containers

The Containers (l-r) James A Smith – gtr. vocals, Adrian ‘Hots’ Foster – bass gtr, Alan Bearham – drums, Josephine Buchan – vocals

The timely recognition of the Containers and the Beach Bullies should warm the hearts of anyone who has felt that their music careers happened within a bell jar.

It is clear, from speaking with James, the immense pleasure and excitement he feels in being rediscovered after many years.

What’s more, the future appears bright for his musical endeavours: to celebrate the release of the album next year The Containers will go on tour again, featuring the original drummer and bassist.

The moment has come for this ‘music out of time’, that was only played live on a few occasions in the early 1980s, to live again.

***

Many thanks to James A Smith for sharing his memories with us.

 

Posted by debra in audio tape, 0 comments

Deacon Blue Live – Betamax PCM recordings

We regularly work with Bristol Archive Records, for example, who keep the memory of Bristol’s post punk and reggae history alive, one release at a time.

Other ‘archival’ releases recently transferred include cult Yugoslav New Wave band Doktor Spira i Ljudska Bića’s Dijagnoza (available late 2016), John Peel favourites Bob and legendary acid-folk act The Courtyard Music Group.

Greatbear can deliver your files as high resolution stereo recordings or, if available, individual ‘stems’ ready for the new remix.

A stack of Betamax PCM recordings of a Deacon Blue tour in 1988Deacon Blue Live – PCM Betamax transfer

We recently transferred several live concerts by Scottish pop sensations Deacon Blue.

Recorded in 1988, the concerts capture Deacon Blue in their prime.

The energetic performances feature many of their well-known hits, such as ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Fergus Sings the Blues.’

As Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM) digital recordings on Betamax tape transferred at 24 bit/ 44 kHz, the recordings capture the technical proficiency of the band with exceptional clarity.

Introduced in the late 1970s, PCM digital audio harnessed the larger bandwidth of videotape technology to record digital audio signals.

‘A PCM adaptor has the analogue audio (stereo) signal as its input, and translates it into a series of binary digits, which, in turn, is coded and modulated into a monochrome (black and white) video signal, appearing as a vibrating checkerboard pattern, modulated with the audio, which can then be recorded as a video signal.’

PCM digital audio was widely used until the introduction of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) in 1987. Despite its portability and ability to record at different sampling rates, DAT was not immediately or widely adopted. Given that the Deacon Blue recordings were made on PCM/Betamax in 1988 is evidence of this. It also indicates a telling preference for digital over analogue formats in the late 1980s.

Deacon Blue Live at the Dominion Theatre, London, 26th October 1988 is available to download as part of Deacon Blue’s new album Believers, released 30th September 2016.

According to singer and main songwriter Ricky Ross, the new Deacon Blue album aims to conjure a sense of hope: ‘it’s our statement to the fact that belief in the possibilities of hope and a better tomorrow is the side we choose to come down on.’

Deacon Blue are touring the UK in Nov/ Dec, visiting Bristol’s Colston Hall on 18 November.

 

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

The Genesis Archive – ¼” reel-to-reel tapes transferred

The early 21st century has been witness to numerous projects that document and interpret popular music histories. Whether dedicated to regional histories, such as the Manchester District Music Archive and Birmingham Music Archive, or genre specific, like the National Jazz archive or the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s ‘Full English’, digitsation has helped curators organise and publish material in new and exciting ways.

Tape box for Phil Collins interview on Radio Trent with John Shaw

A significant amount of archive material that exists on the web has been collected by dedicated amateurs, and a recent transfer in the Greatbear studio is an example of such endeavour.

The Genesis archive is powered by the passion of Mark Kenyon who spearheads a small team of Genesis enthusiasts. Together they have created a detailed, unofficial fan-resource dedicated to one of England’s most successful rock bands, and the solo careers of its members.

The Genesis archive is not the only fan site dedicated to Genesis, a band that commands serious adoration from their followers.

Mark’s site is unique, however, for its focus on artifacts, and his drive to share a range of ephemeral and well known material with other fans across the world.

The site is ‘constantly expanding’, and the aim is to continue ‘adding and improving the site like a giant wiki.’ As well as receiving donations of material from fans of the group, Mark buys many of the items featured on the website and he always welcomes paypal donations to fund the quest for more archival material.

Mark told me he had ‘various headaches’ with website design, before he settled on a template that would allow him to showcase the wide range of material he has collected, and continues to collect.

Of particular note is the timeline function, which enables the user to browse each subsection of the site chronologically. This helps break down the content into digestible bits, while presenting items in a manner that is visually appealing.

The transfers

Mark contacted Greatbear because he had acquired two open reel tapes of rare Genesis-related material. Both tapes were in perfect playable condition and are the first reel to reel tapes to grace the Genesis archive.

The first reel was an interview between John Shaw, who died in 2013 , and Phil Collins, recorded on Radio Trent on 27th January 1981. This interview captures Collins as his debut album, Face Value, is climbing the charts.

Mark acquired the tapes for a reasonable price from ebay, after a friend of Shaw had put them up for auction early this year.

Mark and his team have uploaded this interview to the archive website, and you can listen to it here.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway recordings

The second reel we transferred was picked up at a Flea Market in Brick Lane, London, in the early 1980s. It contains semi-finished versions of Genesis’s iconic 1974 album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

The material on the tape demonstrate how Genesis used recording technology to write an album that commentators claim was fraught with difficulty because of financial pressures from their record label, Charisma, and the creative tensions between Gabriel and the rest of the band.

The tape includes guide and out of tune vocals, different time signatures and guitars are placed high in the mix. Michael, who helps Mark to run the archive, ran an A/B comparison with the original vinyl version. He found that vocals ran ahead or were missing in places, and Phil Collins’ drum fills differed significantly to the finished versions.

The lack of vocals can perhaps be explained by Kevin Holm-Hudson’s claim that Gabriel was ‘still writing and revising lyrics a month after the backing tracks had been finished’.

Tape box with track listings written on the backAnother interesting point about the tapes is that work-in-progress titles are written on the box. ‘Sex Song’ for example, became ‘Counting Out Time’, ‘Countryman’ refers to ‘Chamber Of 32 Doors’ and ‘Broadway’ is used to refer to the title track.

There is also a discrepancy between the titles written on the box and the material on the transferred tape which includes the following songs: ‘Counting Out Time’, ‘The Supernatural Anesthetist’, ‘Back In NYC’, ‘Hairless Heart (Instrumental)’.

Mark cannot be 100% certain about the origin of the tape. It is equally likely they are from sessions recorded at the farm in Glaspant Wales, where Genesis used the Island mobile studio to record material for the album, or from sessions at Island studios in Basing Street, London. He has, however, seen photographic evidence of the sessions which indicate that around 10-15 tapes similar tapes were recorded.

Many of these tapes, of course, ended up in a skip once the final version had been ‘laid down.’ These tapes were never destined to be ‘the final copy’ of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. They may even be a source of embarrassment for the artists because they document their raw, unfinished moments of music making. Nonetheless, such tapes provide a fascinating insight into how ‘classic’ albums are recorded and written. For fans such recordings are gold dust. They help them to get closer to the moments when a magical piece of music was invented, or present evidence that it could have sounded very different.

The tapes also make clear that the recording itself can function as an instrument, integral to—rather than a one-dimensional document of—the writing process. Holm-Hudson wrote that ‘occasionally, Gabriel would record over vocals over passages that some band members…thought would be instrumental.’ Gabriel was using the recording, in other words, as a platform for vocal creativity, often against the creative vision of other band members.

It is no doubt that the Genesis archive will continue to evolve and grow in the future. The site Mark and his team have created is a resource for Genesis obsessives and popular music archivists.

It also more than that: an open, public site where visitors can learn about a range of popular music histories that intersect with the Genesis story. These include progressive rock and the concept album, ‘World Music’, the changing nature of both the music industry and its aesthetic expressions from the 60s-90s, to name a few examples.

***

Many thanks to Mark for discussing his archival work with us.

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, audio tape, 2 comments

Dr Spira and the Human Beings – BASF LGR 50 tape on AEG DIN Hubs

The latest in a long line of esoteric musical recordings moving through the tape transports in the Greatbear studio is a collection belonging to Dušan Mihajlović.

Dušan was the main song writer in Yugoslavian new wave band Dr Spira and the Human Beings / Doktor Spira i Ljudska Bića.

Dr Spira have a cult status in Yugoslavia’s new wave history. They produced two albums, Dijagnoza (1981) (translated as ‘Diagnosis’) and Design for the Real World (1987), both of which, due to peculiar quirks of fate, have never received widespread distribution.

Yet this may all change soon: 2016 is the 35th anniversary of Dijagnoza, a milestone marked by a vinyl re-issue containing transfers made, we are proud to say, in the Greatbear studio.

Dijagnoza was previously re-issued on CD in 2007 by Serbia-based record label Multimedia Records. The new Greatbear 1/4 inch transfer, using 24 bit / 96 kHz sampling rates, provides a clearer rendering of the analogue originals.

In 2016 Design for the Real World will receive its first ever vinyl pressing. The name of the album was inspired by a UN project that aimed to create low financed, locally maintained technologies from recycled materials. It was previously only available on the CD compilation Archaeological Artefacts of the Technophile Civilisations of the Yesteryears (or Science Fiction as a Genre in the Second Part of the Twentieth Century).

AEG DIN Hubs

AEG-DIN-HubsThe tapes Dušan sent us were wound onto AEG DIN hubs (a hub being the round shape around which the open reel tape is wrapped). DIN hubs were used in studios in Germany and mainland Europe.

Compared with NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) hubs that were used in the UK/ US, they have a wider diameter (99mm/ 70mm respectively).

In a preservation context playing tapes wound on AEG DIN hubs is unnecessarily awkward. To digitise the material our first step was to re-spool Dušan’s tapes onto NAB hubs. This enabled us to manage the movement of the tape through the transport mechanism in a careful and controlled way.

Another problem we faced was that the BASF LGR 50 tape was ‘dry shedding’ a lot and needed to be cleaned extensively.

When tape dry sheds it clogs the tape heads. This prevents a clear reading of the recorded signal and risks seriously damaging both tape and machine if playback continues.

Apart from these issues, which are fairly common with older tape, the tapes played back well. The final transferred files reflect the crisp clarity of the original masters.

4 AEG DIN hubs stacked on top of each other next to an empty tape reel boxNew Wave Music in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

In the late 1970s Dušan was captivated by the emergence of New Wave music in Yugoslavia, which he described as bringing ‘big musical changes.’

Alongside Enco Lesić, who owned an innovative commercial studio in Belgrade, Dušan helped to produce and record music from the burgeoning new wave scene. One of these projects was the compilation album Paket Aranžman / Package Tour. The album gained cult status at the time and continues to be popular today.

In the same studio Dr Spira and the Human Beings recorded Dijagnoza. Dušan’s technical role in the studio meant his band could take their time with the recording process. This is evident in the finished work which contain a number of energetic, committed performances.

The music is equally captivating: inventive rhythmical detours and absurd vocal expressions populate a polyphony of musical styles and surprises, conjuring the avant-rock histrionics of Rock in Opposition acts such as Etron Fou Leloublan and Univers Zero.

Listen to Dr Spira – ‘Kraj avanture otimača izgubljenog kovčega na Peščanoj Planeti’ / ‘The end of misadventure of the Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Dune’ – the lyrics sung by the women are ‘Stop digging and get out of the hole, the sand will collapse on us! The sand! The sand!

The master copies for Dijagnoza were cut in Trident studios, London, overseen by Dušan. During his visit to London he made 50, hand-numbered white label copies of the album. For a period of time these were the only copies of Dijagnoza available.

The grand plan was to recoup the costs of recording Dijagnoza through the commercial release of the album, but this never happened. The record company refused to pay any money because, from their perspective, the money had already been spent and the recordings already existed.

They did however agree to release the album two years later, by this time Dijagnoza and Dr Spira had already claimed a small corner of Yugoslavia’s new wave folklore.

Cultural Influences

In the 1960s and 1970s Yugoslavia was part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM emerged during the Cold War as ‘vehicle for developing countries to assert their independence from the competing claims of the two superpowers’, USSR and USA. The NAM still exists today, albeit in a very different form.

As a musician in Yugoslavia in the early 1980s Dušan told us he was ‘exposed to all kinds of music: East, West and everything else. We did not follow one mainstream and picked up things from all over the place.’ He described it as an ‘open world with dynamic communication and a different outlook.’

The musical world of Dr Spira is inspired by the ironic social awareness of artists such as Frank Zappa, Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s fascination with the grotesque and the paranoid social commentary of Czech author Franz Kafka. Like many post-punk and new wave acts of the early 1980s, Dr Spira were concerned with how popular culture, language, myth and the media conditioned ‘reality’.

photograph box with label made in yugoslavia and handwritten text dr spira

The song ‘Tight Rope’ dancer, for example, creates a fantastical world of Russian Roulette, as a blind- folded Tight Rope walker muses on life as a meaningless game constricted by the inevitable limits of individual perception:

‘It’s my turn to die- said the Violinist
I ain’t so sure about it- the Singer replied
What difference does it make- said the Ballerina
For all the Numbers destiny’s the same.’

These lyrics, presented here in translation, are examples of the satirical and often surreal humour used by Dr Spira which aimed to make the familiar seem strange so that it could be experienced by listeners in a completely different way.

Memory studies scholar Martin Pogačar explains that ‘the whole new-wave “project,” especially being a youth subculture, was meant to be fun and an accidental social revolt, in the end it turned out to be a seminal landmark in the (musical) history of Yugoslavia. This inherently variegated and far from one-dimensional genre, loud in sounds and sophisticated in texts, decisively redefined the boundaries of Yu-rock music.’ [1]

With the re-issue of Dijagnoza and Design for the Real World, the legacy of this movement, and the contribution of Dr Spira and the Human Beings in particular, will continue to resound. [2]

Notes

[1] Martin Pogačar (2008) ‘Yu-Rock in the 1980s: Between Urban and Rural, Nationalities Papers’, 36:5, 815-832, 829. DOI: 10.1080/00905990802373504.

[2] Huge thanks to Dušan for talking to us about his life and work.

 

 

 

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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

Phil Johnson’s the Wild Bunch VHS video

wildbunch-arnolfini-screen-grab-dancing

Screen shots from the Wild Bunch film

As a business situated in the heart of Bristol, Greatbear is often called upon by Bristol’s artists to re-format their magnetic tape collections.

Previously we have transferred documentaries about the St. Paul’s Carnival and films from the Bristol-based Women in Moving Pictures archive. We also regularly digitise tapes for Bristol Archive Records.

We were recently approached by author Phil Johnson to transfer a unique VHS recording.

As Bristol countercultural folklore goes, the video tape is a bit of a gem: it documents the Wild Bunch performing at Arnolfini in 1985.

For the uninitiated, the Wild Bunch were the genesis of what became internationally known as trip-hop, a.k.a. ‘the Bristol-sound.’

Members went on to form Massive Attack, while Tricky and producer Nellee Hooper continue to have successful careers in the music industry. And that’s just the short-hand version of events.

Want to know more? This documentary from 1996 is a good place to become acquainted.

 wildbunch-arnolfini-vhs-screen-grabThe newly transferred video will be screened at B-Boys, B-Girls, Breakdancers, Wannabees and Posers: ‘Graffiti Art in Bristol 30th Anniversary Party’, a free event taking place on Sunday 19 July 2015, 14:00 to 23:00 at Arnolfini.

We are delighted to feature a guest blog from Phil Johnson, author of Straight Outta Bristol: Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and the Roots of Trip-Hop, who filmed the event.

Below he beautifully evokes the social and technical stories behind why the video was made. Many thanks Phil for putting this together.

***

In 1985 I was a lecturer in Film and Communications at Filton College with an added responsibility for running the Audio Visual Studio, a recording room and edit suite/office that had dropped from the sky as part of a new library and resources building. There was also kit of variable quality and vintage, some new, some inherited. I remember a Sony edit suite for big, chunky u-matic videos and another JVC one for VHS tapes, with a beige plasticky mixer that went in the middle by the edit controller. This also allowed you to do grandiose wipes from one camera to another, although we rarely used the camera set-up in the studio because you really needed to know what you wanted to do in advance, and no one ever did. What students liked using were the portable cameras and recorders, JVC VHS jobs that together with the fancy carry cases and padded camera boxes, plus regulation heavy pivoting tripod, weighed each prospective al fresco film-maker down with the baggage-equivalent of several large suitcases. I remember one aspiring Stanley Kubrick from Foundation Art&Design setting off to get the bus into town carrying everything himself, and returning sweatily later that day, close to collapse. He was wearing a heavy greatcoat, obviously.

We had a ‘professional’ u-matic portable recorder too, and that was seriously heavy, but we didn’t have the requisite three-tube camera to get the quality it was capable of, never entirely understanding the principle of garbage in-garbage out, with the inevitable result that almost everything anyone did was doomed to remain at least as shoddy as the original dodgy signal it depended upon. But hey, this was education: it was the process we were interested in, not the product.

wildbunch-vhs-screen-grab
It was a JVC portable VHS recorder I was using on the night of the Wild Bunch jam at the Arnolfini on Friday 19 July 1985, the case slung over my shoulder while I held a crap Hitachi single-tube camera with a misted-over viewfinder whose murky B&W picture meant you were never entirely sure whether it was on manual or auto focus. There was no tripod, and no lighting; just me and a Foundation student, Jo Evans, helping out. The original camera tape, which I recently found after presuming it lost, is a Scotch 3M 60-minuter and the video document of the event, such as it is, lasts only until the single tape runs out, which is just about the time the Wild Bunch’s rappers, Claude and 3D, are getting started.
The image quality is terrible but when there’s some light in the room – the Arnolfini’s downstairs gallery – you can just about make out what’s happening. When it’s dark – and it generally is – the image is so thin it’s barely an image at all. As this is the camera tape – unimportant in itself, and usually only considered as the raw material for a later edit – the significance of what is shown is very provisional. What I meant to focus on, and what was only being picked up because it was easier to keep recording than it was to switch to ‘pause’, is impossible to say. But what the tape does show – when, of course, there’s enough information there to make out anything at all – is now the stuff of history: a Mitchell and Kenyon type document of the yet-to-emerge ‘Bristol Sound’, and a weirdly innocent time that existed before the camera phone. And there it all is: graffiti on the walls, funk, electro and rap on the muffled boominess of the mono soundtrack, with dancers breaking acrobatically on the floor as rockabilly quiffed boys, big-haired girls and lots and lots of very young kiddies look on. As to why I filmed the event in the first place: it was partly for my master’s dissertation (Black Music, the Arts and Education’ – classic lefty teacher getting down with the kids) and partly for the Arnolfini’s new video library.
If you go down and see it on Sunday July 19: enjoy.
Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, video 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.***

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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.

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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.

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Bristol Archive Records – ¼ inch studio master tapes, ½ inch 8 track multi-track tapes, audio cassettes, DAT recordings and Betamax digital audio recordings

Bristol Archive Records is more than a record label. It releases music, books and through its website, documents the history of Bristol’s punk and reggae scenes from 1977 onwards. You can get lost for hours trawling through the scans of rare zines and photographs, profiles of record labels, bands, discographies and gig lists. Its a huge amount of work that keeps on expanding as more tapes are found, lurking in basements or at that unforeseen place at the back of the wardrobe.

REVELATION-ROCKERS-ARC242V-Cover

Great Bear has the privilege of being the go-to digitisation service for Bristol Archive Records, and many of the albums that grace the record store shelves of Bristol and beyond found their second digital life in the Great Bear Studio.

BLACK-ROOTS-Antholgy-cover

The tapes that Mike Darby has given us to digitise include ¼ inch studio master tapes, ½ inch 8 track multi-track tapes, audio cassettes, DAT recordings and Betamax digital audio recordings. The recordings were mostly made at home or in small commercial studios, often they were not stored in the best conditions.  Some are demos, or other material which has never been released before.  Many were recorded on Ampex tape, and therefore needed to be baked before they were played back, and we also had to deal with other physical problems with the tape, such as mould, but they have all, thankfully, been fixable.

After transfers we supply high quality WAV files as individual tracks or ‘stems’ to label manager Mike Darby, which are then re-mastered before they are released on CD, vinyl or downloads.

Bristol Archive Records have done an amazing job ensuring the cultural history of Bristol’s music scenes are not forgotten. As Mike explains in an interview on Stamp the Wax:

‘I’m trying to give a bit of respect to any individual that played in any band that we can find any music from. However famous or successful they were is irrelevant. For me it’s about acknowledging their existence. It’s not saying they were brilliant, some of it was not very good at all, but it’s about them having their two seconds of “I was in that scene”.’

electric_guitars-cover

While Darby admits in the interview that Bristol Archive Records is not exactly a money spinner, the cultural value of these recordings are immeasurable. We are delighted to be part of the wider project and hope that these rare tapes continue to be found so that contemporary audiences can enjoy the musical legacies of Bristol.

Posted by debra in audio tape, 1 comment

Nakamichi 680 Discrete Head Cassette Deck and Music & Liberation

In 2012 Greatbear digitised a selection of audio and audio-visual tape for the Heritage Lottery Funded exhibition, Music & Liberation.

The first job was to migrate a short film by a feminist film making collective called Women in Moving Pictures who were based in Bristol in the early 1980s. The film shows how the Bristol Women’s Music Collective were using feminism to politicise music making and includes footage music workshops, group performances interspersed with self-defence classes and intimate conversations.

Film still in colour. Woman playing a saxophone.

Film still from ‘In Our Own Time’

Several copies of the film had been stored in the Feminist Archive South, including the master copies. Out of curiosity the U-matic copy was initially digitised, before the original was migrated to high definition digital format.

Picture of a group women singing and playing guitar

Film Still from ‘In Our Own Time’

Another job digitsed a series of rare recordings on tape, donated by Maggie Nicols. This included rare footage of the pioneering Feminist Improvising Group, whose members included Sally Potter, Georgina Born and Lindsay Cooper. One of the tapes was originally recorded at half speed, a technique used to get more recording time. We used the Nakamichi 680 Discrete Head Cassette Deck to play back the tapes at the correct speed to ensure the highest quality transfer.

We also digitised a series of tapes from the open improvisation collective Maggie co-founded in 1980, Contradictions. This included the performance ‘Madness in a Circle’ and many other creative experiments.

Music & Liberation re-opens at Space Station Sixty-Five in London for the last four days of its UK-wide tour on 10 January, so if you want to listen to the music or watch the films make sure you catch it.

 

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

VHS-C and full size VHS (NTSC and PAL)

‘We’re not sure what on here’ is a common phrase used by customers who send tape to the Greatbear. Spurred on by curiosity or creative necessity, they contact us to help them solve the mystery.

This is exactly what documentary film maker Jeanie Finlay did when she sent us VHS-C and full size VHS tapes that were used in her forthcoming film The Great Hip Hop Hoax (2013).

Jeanie wanted us to deliver her digital files as Quicktime Pro Res files, an apple codec often used in professional film production because it offers a good compromise between quality and data size.

We are also digitising material for another of Jeanie’s films, ORION, which is currently in production. ORION is the story of Jimmy Ellis, an unknown singer, who was plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as part of an audacious scheme that had him masquerade as Elvis back from the grave.

We have a series of US NTSC US VHS tapes to digitise for the film which includes copies of out takes, interviews and concert footage of Orion. The tapes were sent to us by the official (and only) Orion fan club based in Norway.

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Sony High Density V-60H video tape digitised for Comhaltas

We were recently contacted by Frank Whelan of the Comhaltas Regional Resource Centre who wanted us to digitise a recording of the Fleadh Cheoil traditional music festival in Buncranna, Co. Donegal in 1975.

Frank sent us an EIAJ ½ inch video that was recorded on a Sony High Density V-60H video tape for Helican Scan Video Tape Recorder. The tape was suffering from binder hydrolysis (often referred to as sticky shed syndrome), so needed treatment before it could be played. The tape was incubated and cleaned before the digitisation process.

A Sony V-60H high density video tape

The recording contains fascinating footage of solo and group performers from the biggest traditional Irish musical festival in the world. The first Fleadh Cheoil took place in 1951 and has happened every year since. Comhaltas are currently collecting archive material for every year the festival was held in order to create a document for future generations. The digitised film will go towards an exhibition and will be stored in a research facility focused on Irish traditional music.

This is an excerpt of the film that Frank kindly said we could use on our site.

Posted by greatbear in video tape, 1 comment