video

Codecs and Wrappers for Digital Video

In the last Greatbear article we quoted sage advice from the International Association of Audiovisual Archivists: ‘Optimal preservation measures are always a compromise between many, often conflicting parameters.’ [1]

While this statement is true in general for many different multi-format collections, the issue of compromise and conflicting parameters becomes especially apparent with the preservation of digitized and born-digital video. The reasons for this are complex, and we shall outline why below.

Lack of standards (or are there too many formats?)

Carl Fleischhauer writes, reflecting on the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative (FADGI) research exploring Digital File Formats for Videotape Reformatting (2014), ‘practices and technology for video reformatting are still emergent, and there are many schools of thought. Beyond the variation in practice, an archive’s choice may also depend on the types of video they wish to reformat.’ [2]

We have written in depth on this blog about the labour intensity of digital information management in relation to reformatting and migration processes (which are of course Great Bear’s bread and butter). We have also discussed how the lack of settled standards tends to make preservation decisions radically provisional.

In contrast, we have written about default standards that have emerged over time through common use and wide adoption, highlighting how parsimonious, non-interventionist approaches may be more practical in the long term.

The problem for those charged with preserving video (as opposed to digital audio or images) is that ‘video, however, is not only relatively more complex but also offers more opportunities for mixing and matching. The various uncompressed-video bitstream encodings, for example, may be wrapped in AVI, QuickTime, Matroska, and MXF.’ [3]

What then, is this ‘mixing and matching’ all about?

It refers to all the possible combinations of bitsteam encodings (‘codecs’) and ‘wrappers’ that are available as target formats for digital video files. Want to mix your JPEG2000 – Lossless with your MXF, or ffv1 with your AVI? Well, go ahead!

What then is the difference between a codec and wrapper?.

As the FADGI report states: ‘Wrappers are distinct from encodings and typically play a different role in a preservation context.’ [4]

The wrapper or ‘file envelope’ stores key information about the technical life or structural properties of the digital object. Such information is essential for long term preservation because it helps to identify, contextualize and outline the significant properties of the digital object.

Information stored in wrappers can include:

  • Content (number of video streams, length of frames),
  • Context (title of object, who created it, description of contents, re-formatting history),
  • Video rendering (Width, Height and Bit-depth, Colour Model within a given Colour Space, Pixel Aspect Ratio, Frame Rate and Compression Type, Compression Ratio and Codec),
  • Audio Rendering – Bit depth and Sample Rate, Bit Rate and compression codec, type of uncompressed sampling.
  • Structure – relationship between audio, video and metadata content. (adapted from the Jisc infokit on High Level Digitisation for Audiovisual Resources)

Codecs, on the other hand, define the parameters of the captured video signal. They are a ‘set of rules which defines how the data is encoded and packaged,’ [5] encompassing Width, Height and Bit-depth, Colour Model within a given Colour Space, Pixel Aspect Ratio and Frame Rate; the bit depth and sample rate and bit rate of the audio.

Although the wrapper is distinct from the encoded file, the encoded file cannot be read without its wrapper. The digital video file, then, comprises of wrapper and at least one codec, often two, to account for audio and images, as this illustration from AV Preserve makes clear.

Codecs and Wrappers

Diagram taken from AV Preserve’s A Primer on Codecs for Moving Image and Sound Archives

Pick and mix complexity

Why then, are there so many possible combinations of wrappers and codecs for video files, and why has a settled standard not been agreed upon?

Fleischhauer at The Signal does an excellent job outlining the different preferences within practitioner communities, in particular relating to the adoption of ‘open’ and commercial/ proprietary formats.

Compellingly, he articulates a geopolitical divergence between these two camps, with those based in the US allegedly opting for commercial formats, and those in Europe opting for ‘open.’ This observation is all the more surprising because of the advice in FADGI’s Creating and Archiving Born Digital Video: ‘choose formats that are open and non-proprietary. Non-proprietary formats are less likely to change dramatically without user input, be pulled from the marketplace or have patent or licensing restrictions.’ [6]

One answer to the question: why so many different formats can be explained by different approaches to information management in this information-driven economy. The combination of competition and innovation results in a proliferation of open source and their proprietary doubles (or triplets, quadruples, etc) that are constantly evolving in response to market ‘demand’.

Impact of the Broadcast Industry

An important area to highlight driving change in this area is the role of the broadcast industry.

Format selections in this sector have a profound impact on the creation of digital video files that will later become digital archive objects.

In the world of video, Kummer et al explain in an article in the IASA journal, ‘a codec’s suitability for use in production often dictates the chosen archive format, especially for public broadcasting companies who, by their very nature, focus on the level of productivity of the archive.’ [7] Broadcast production companies create content that needs to be able to be retrieved, often in targeted segments, with ease and accuracy. They approach the creation of digital video objects differently to how an archivist would, who would be concerned with maintaining file integrity rather ensuring the source material’s productivity.

Furthermore, production contexts in the broadcast world have a very short life span: ‘a sustainable archiving decision will have to made again in ten years’ time, since the life cycle of a production system tends to be between 3 and 5 years, and the production formats prevalent at that time may well be different to those in use now.’ [8]

Take, for example, H.264/ AVC ‘by far the most ubiquitous video coding standard to date. It will remain so probably until 2015 when volume production and infrastructure changes enable a major shift to H.265/ HEVC […] H.264/ AVC has played a key role in enabling internet video, mobile services, OTT services, IPTV and HDTV. H.264/ AVC is a mandatory format for Blu-ray players and is used by most internet streaming sites including Vimeo, youtube and iTunes. It is also used in Adobe Flash Player and Microsoft Silverlight and it has also been adopted for HDTV cable, satellite, and terrestrial broadcasting,’ writes David Bull in his book Communicating Pictures.

HEVC, which is ‘poised to make a major impact on the video industry […] offers to the potential for up to 50% compression efficiency improvement over AVC.’ Furthermore, HEVC has a ‘specific focus on bit rate reduction for increased video resolutions and on support for parallel processing as well as loss resilience and ease if integration with appropriate transport mechanisms.’ [9]

CODEC Quality Chart3 Increased compression

The development of codecs for use in the broadcast industry deploy increasingly sophisticated compression that reduce bit rate but retain image quality. As AV Preserve explain in their codec primer paper, ‘we can think of compression as a second encoding process, taking coded information and transferring or constraining it to a different, generally more efficient code.’ [10]

The explosion of mobile, video data in the current media moment is one of the main reasons why sophisticated compression codecs are being developed. This should not pose any particular problems for the audiovisual archivist per se—if a file is ‘born’ with high degrees of compression the authenticity of the file should not ideally, be compromised in subsequent migrations.

Nevertheless, the influence of the broadcast industry tells us a lot about the types of files that will be entering the archive in the next 10-20 years. On a perceptual level, we might note an endearing irony: the rise of super HD and ultra HD goes hand in hand with increased compression applied to the captured signal. While compression cannot, necessarily, be understood as a simple ‘taking away’ of data, its increased use in ubiquitous media environments underlines how the perception of high definition is engineered in very specific ways, and this engineering does not automatically correlate with capturing more, or better quality, data.

Like error correction that we have discussed elsewhere on the blog, it is often the anticipation of malfunction that is factored into the design of digital media objects. These, in turn, create the impression of smooth, continuous playback—despite the chaos operating under the surface. The greater clarity of the visual image, the more the signal has been squeezed and manipulated so that it can be transmitted with speed and accuracy. [11]

MXF

Staying with the broadcast world, we will finish this article by focussing on the MXF wrapper that was ‘specifically designed to aid interoperability and interchange between different vendor systems, especially within the media and entertainment production communities. [MXF] allows different variations of files to be created for specific production environments and can act as a wrapper for metadata & other types of associated data including complex timecode, closed captions and multiple audio tracks.’ [12]

The Presto Centre’s latest TechWatch report (December 2014) asserts ‘it is very rare to meet a workflow provider that isn’t committed to using MXF,’ making it ‘the exchange format of choice.’ [13] MXF

We can see such adoption in action with the Digital Production Partnership’s AS-11 standard, which came into operation October 2014 to streamline digital file-based workflows in the UK broadcast industry.

While the FADGI reports highlights the instability of archival practices for video, the Presto Centre argue that practices are ‘currently in a state of evolution rather than revolution, and that changes are arriving step-by-step rather than with new technologies.’

They also highlight the key role of the broadcast industry as future archival ‘content producers,’ and the necessity of developing technical processes that can be complimentary for both sectors: ‘we need to look towards a world where archiving is more closely coupled to the content production process, rather than being a post-process, and this is something that is not yet being considered.’ [14]

The world of archiving and reformatting digital video is undoubtedly complex. As the quote used at the beginning of the article states, any decision can only ever be a compromise that takes into account organizational capacities and available resources.

What is positive is the amount of research openly available that can empower people with the basics, or help them to delve into the technical depths of codecs and wrappers if so desired. We hope this article will give you access to many of the interesting resources available and some key issues.

As ever, if you have a video digitization project you need to discuss, contact us—we are happy to help!

References:

[1] IASA Technical Committee (2014) Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers, 6. 

[2] Carl Fleischhauer, ‘Comparing Formats for Video Digitization.’ http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2014/12/comparing-formats-for-video-digitization/.

[3] Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative (FADGI), Digital File Formats for Videotape Reformatting Part 5. Narrative and Summary Tables. http://www.digitizationguidelines.gov/guidelines/FADGI_VideoReFormatCompare_pt5_20141202.pdf, 4.

[4] FADGI, Digital File Formats for Videotape, 4.

[5] AV Preserve (2010) A Primer on Codecs for Moving Image and Sound Archives & 10 Recommendations for Codec Selection and Managementwww.avpreserve.com/wp-content/…/04/AVPS_Codec_Primer.pdf, 1.

‎[6] FADGI (2014) Creating and Archiving Born Digital Video Part III. High Level Recommended Practices, http://www.digitizationguidelines.gov/guidelines/FADGI_BDV_p3_20141202.pdf, 24.
[7] Jean-Christophe Kummer, Peter Kuhnle and Sebastian Gabler (2015) ‘Broadcast Archives: Between Productivity and Preservation’, IASA Journal, vol 44, 35.

[8] Kummer et al, ‘Broadcast Archives: Between Productivity and Preservation,’ 38.

[9] David Bull (2014) Communicating Pictures, Academic Press, 435-437.

[10] Av Preserve, A Primer on Codecs for Moving Image and Sound Archives, 2.

[11] For more reflections on compression, check out this fascinating talk from software theorist Alexander Galloway. The more practically bent can download and play with VISTRA, a video compression demonstrator developed at the University of Bristol ‘which provides an interactive overview of the some of the key principles of image and video compression.

[12] ‘FADGI, Digital File Formats for Videotape, 11.

[13] Presto Centre, AV Digitisation and Digital Preservation TechWatch Report #3, https://www.prestocentre.org/, 9.

[14] Presto Centre, AV Digitisation and Digital Preservation TechWatch Report #3, 10-11.

Posted by debra in Information Technology, Video Tape, 1 comment

Mistress or master? Digitising the cultural heritage of women’s movements

U-Matic video case with lettering 'mistress copy' The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) is full of quirky examples of how womyn tried to wrestle culture from the sordid grip of male domination.

Part of this process was reinventing the world in wimmin’s image, word and song; to create and reclaim a lasting herstory in which sisterhood could flourish.

A recent U-Matic video tape transfer conducted in the Great Bear studio offers a window into this cultural heritage. 

State Your Destination was a film made by Bristol-based 80s feminist film collective Women in Moving Pictures (W.I.M.P.S.), whose complete archive is stored at the Feminist Archive South.

We previously migrated another film by W.I.M.P.S called In Our Own Time, screened at the recent Translation/ Transmission Women’s Film Season which took place at Watershed.

The way women shirked the language of patriarchy is evident on the tape box. We digitised the ‘MISTRESS’ copy, not the master copy.

Seeing the mistress copy today is a reminder of the way gendered language influences how we can think about cultural forms.  The master copy, of course, in conventional understanding, is the finished article, the final cut. The master of the house – the person in charge – is gendered male. Yet is this still the case?
DSC04764

Writing about a similar issue almost thirty years later, sound theorists Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers seem to think so:

‘If we find that audio-technical discourse renders signal processing in terms of masculinist languages of mastery and domination of nature, can we help but wonder after its broader social implications? Does it not also suggest a gendered set of relations to these technologies? It is any wonder we still find the design, implementation, marketing, and use of audio-signal processing technologies to be male-dominated fields? [To change things] it will require fundamentally rethinking how we model, describe, interact, and sound with signal processing technologies’.

For feminist women who felt systematically excluded from certain kinds of cultural and economic activity, the gendering of language was an extension of violence they experienced because they were women.

Making the tape a MISTRESS may help rectify the problem, as does crossing out the very idea of a master copy.

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

Digitising Stereo Master Hi-Fi VHS Audio Recordings

The history of amateur recording is peppered with examples of people who stretched technologies to their creative limit. Whether this comes in the form of hours spent trying things out and learning through doing, endlessly bouncing tracks in order to turn an 8-track recording into a 24-track epic or making high quality audio masters on video tape, people have found ways to adapt and experiment using the tools available to them.

Hollow Hand Demos

One of the lesser known histories of amateur home recordings is making high quality stereo mixdowns and master recordings from multi-track audio tape onto consumer-level Hi-Fi VCRs.

We are currently migrating a stereo master VHS Hi-Fi recording of London-based indie band Hollow Hand. Hollow Hand later adopted the name Slanted and were active in London between 1992-1995. The tapes were sent in by Mark Venn, the bass player with Slanted and engineer for these early recordings that were recorded in 1992 in the basement of a Clapham squat. Along with the Hi-Fi VHS masters, we have also been sent eight reels of AMPEX ¼ tapes of Slanted that are being transferred for archival purposes. Mark intends to remix the eight track recordings digitally but as of yet has no plans for a re-release.

When Mark sent us the tapes to be digitised he thought they had been encoded with a SONY PCM, a mixed digital/ analogue recording method we have covered in a previous blog post. The tapes had, however, been recorded directly from the FOSTEX eight track recorder to the stereo Hi-Fi function on a VHS video tape machine. For Mark at the time this was the best way to get a high quality studio master because other analogue and digital tape options, such as Studer open reel to reel and DAT machines, were financially off-limits to him. It is worth mentioning that Hi-Fi audio technologies were introduced in the VHS model by JVC around 1984, so using this method to record stereo masters would have been fairly rare, even among people who did a lot of home recording. It was certainly a bit of a novelty in the Great Bear Studio – they are the first tapes we have ever received that have been recorded in this way – and take it for granted that we see a lot of tape.

Using the Hi-Fi function on VHS tape machines was probably as good as it got in terms of audio fidelity for those working in an exclusively analogue context. It produced a master recording comparable in quality to a CD, particularly if the machine had manual audio recording level control. This is because, as we wrote about in relation to PCM/ Betamax, video tape could accommodate greater bandwidth that audio tape (particularly audio cassette), therefore leading to better quality recordings.

One of our replacement upper head drums

One of our replacement upper head drums

VHS Hi-Fi audio is achieved using audio frequency-modulation (AFM) and relied on a form of magnetic recording called ‘depth multiplexing‘. This is when

‘the modulated audio carrier pair was placed in the hitherto-unused frequency range between the luminance and the colour carrier (below 1.6 MHz), and recorded first. Subsequently, the video head erases and re-records the video signal (combined luminance and colour signal) over the same tape surface, but the video signal’s higher centre frequency results in a shallower magnetization of the tape, allowing both the video and residual AFM audio signal to coexist on tape.’

Challenges for migrating Hi-Fi VHS Audio

Although the recordings of Hollow Hand are in good working condition, analogue masters to VHS Hi-Fi audio do face particular challenges in the migration process.

Playing back the tapes in principle is easy if both tape and machine are in optimum condition, but if either are damaged the original recordings can be hard to reproduce.

A particular problem for Hi-Fi audio emerges when the tape heads wear and it becomes harder to track the hi-fi audio recording because the radio frequency signal (RF) can’t be read consistently off the tape. Hi-Fi recordings are harder to track because of depth multiplexing, namely the position of the recorded audio relative to the video signal. Even though there is no video signal as such in the playback of Hi-Fi audio, the video signal is still there, layered on top of the audio signal, essentially making it harder to access. Of course when tape heads/ drums wear down they can always be replaced, but acquiring spare parts will become increasingly difficult in years to come, making Hi-Fi audio recordings on VHS particularly threatened.

In order to migrate tape-based media to digital files in the most effective way possible, it is important to use appropriate machines for the transfer. The Panasonic AG-7650 we used to transfer the Hollow Hand tapes afforded us great flexibility because it is possible to select which audio tracks are played back at any given time which meant we could isolate the Hi-Fi audio track. The Panasonic AG-7650 also has tracking meters which makes it easy to assess and adjust the tracking of the tape and tape head where necessary.

As ever, the world of digitisation continues to generate anomalies, surprises and good stories. Who knows how many other video/ audio hybrid tapes are out there! If you do possess an archive collection of such tapes we advise you to take action to ensure they are migrated because of the unique problems they pose as a storage medium.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

‘Missing Believed Wiped’: The Search For Lost TV Treasures

Contemporary culture is often presented as drowning in mindless nostalgia, with everything that has ever been recorded circulating in a deluge of digital information.

Whole subcultures have emerged in this memory boom, as digital technologies enable people to come together via a shared passion for saving obscurities presumed to be lost forever. One such organisation is Kaleidoscope, whose aim is to keep the memory of ‘vintage’ British television alive. Their activities capture an urgent desire bubbling underneath the surface of culture to save everything, even if the quality of that everything is questionable.

Of course, as the saying goes, one person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure. As with most cultural heritage practices, the question of value is at the centre of people’s motivations, even if that value is expressed through a love for Pan’s People, Upstairs, Downstairs, Dick Emery and the Black and White Minstrel Show.

We were recently contacted by a customer hunting for lost TV episodes. His request: to lay hands on any old tapes that may unwittingly be laden with lost jewels of TV history. His enquiry is not so strange since a 70s Top of the Pops programme, a large proportion of which were deleted from the official BBC archive, trailed the end of ½ EIAJ video tape we recently migrated. And how many other video tapes stored in attics, sheds or barns potentially contain similar material? Or, as stated on the Kaleidoscope website:

‘Who’d have ever imagined that a modest, sometimes mould-infested collection of VHS tapes in a cramped back bedroom in Pill would lead to the current Kaleidoscope archive, which hosts the collections of many industry bodies as well as such legendary figures as Bob Monkhouse or Frankie Howard?’

Selection and appraisal in the archive

Selection of video tapes

Mysterious tapes?

Living in an age of seemingly infinite information, it is easy to forget that any archival project involves keeping some things and throwing away others. Careful considerations about the value of an item needs to be made, both in relation to contemporary culture and the projected needs of subsequent generations.

These decisions are not easy and carry great responsibility. After all, how is it possible to know what society will want to remember in 10, 20 or even 30 years from now, let alone 200? The need to remember is not static either, and may change radically over time. What is kept now also strongly shapes future societies because our identities, lives and knowledge are woven from the memory resources we have access to. Who then would be an archivist?

When faced with a such a conundrum the impulse to save everything is fairly seductive, but this is simply not possible. Perhaps things were easier in the analogue era when physical storage constraints conditioned the arrangement of the archive. Things had to be thrown away because the clutter was overwhelming. With the digital archive, always storing more seems possible because data appears to take up less space. Yet as we have written about before on the blog, just because you can’t touch or even see digital information, doesn’t mean it is not there. Energy consumption is costly in a different way, and still needs to be accounted for when appraising how resource intensive digital archives are.

For those who want their media memories to remain intact, whole and accessible, learning about the clinical nature of archival decisions may raise concern. The line does however need to be drawn somewhere. In an interview in 2004 posted on the Digital Curation Centre’s website, Richard Wright, who worked in the BBC’s Information and Archives section, explained the long term preservation strategy for the institution at the time.

‘For the BBC, national programmes that have entered the main archive and been fully catalogued have not, in general, been deleted. The deletions within the retention policy mainly apply to “contribution material” i.e. components (rushes) of a final programme, or untransmitted material. Hence, “long-term” for “national programmes that have entered the main archive and been fully catalogued” means in perpetuity. We have already kept some material for more than 75 years, including multiple format migrations.’

Value – whose responsibility?

For all those episodes, missing believed wiped, the treasure hunters who track them down tread a fine line between a personal obsession and offering an invaluable service to society. You decide.

What is inspiring about amateur preservationists is that they take the question of archival value into their own hands. In the 21st century, appraising and selecting the value of cultural artifacts is therefore no longer the exclusive domain of the archivist, even if expertise about how to manage, describe and preserve collections certainly is.

Does the popularity of such activities change the constitution of archives? Are they now more egalitarian spaces that different kinds of people contribute to? It certainly suggests that now, more than ever, archives always need to be thought of in plural terms, as do the different elaborations of value they represent.

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

2″ Quad Video Tape Transfers – new service offered

We are pleased to announce that we are now able to support the transfer of 2″ Quadruplex Video Tape (PAL, SECAM & NTSC) to digital formats.

Quadruplex Scanning Diagram

2” Quad was a popular broadcast analogue video tape format whose halcyon period ran from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The first quad video tape recorder made by AMPEX in 1956 cost a modest $45,000 (that’s $386,993.38 in today’s money).

2” Quad revolutionized TV broadcasting which previously had been reliant on film-based formats, known in the industry as ‘kinescope‘ recordings. Kinescope film required significant amounts of skilled labour as well as time to develop, and within the USA, which has six different time zones, it was difficult to transport the film in a timely fashion to ensure broadcasts were aired on schedule.

To counter these problems, broadcasters sought to develop magnetic recording methods, that had proved so successful for audio, for use in the television industry.

The first experiments directly adapted the longitudinal recording method used to record analogue audio. This however was not successful because video recordings require more bandwidth than audio. Recording a video signal with stationary tape heads (as they are in the longitudinal method), meant that the tape had to be recorded at a very high speed in order accommodate sufficient bandwidth to reproduce a good quality video image. A lot of tape was used!

Ampex, who at the time owned the trademark marketing name for ‘videotape’, then developed a method where the tape heads moved quickly across the tape, rather than the other way round. On the 2” quad machine, four magnetic record/reproduce heads are mounted on a headwheel spinning transversely (width-wise) across the tape, striking the tape at a 90° angle. The recording method was not without problems because, the Toshiba Science Museum write, it ‘combined the signal segments from these four heads into a single video image’ which meant that ‘some colour distortion arose from the characteristics of the individual heads, and joints were visible between signal segments.’

Quad scanning

The limitations of Quadruplex recording influenced the development of the helical scan method, that was invented in Japan by Dr. Kenichi Sawazaki of the Mazda Research Laboratory, Toshiba, in 1954. Helical scanning records each segment of the signal as a diagonal stripe across the tape. ‘By forming a single diagonal, long track on two-inch-wide tape, it was possible to record a video signal on one tape using one head, with no joints’, resulting in a smoother signal. Helical scanning was later widely adopted as a recording method in broadcast and domestic markets due to its simplicity, flexibility, reliability and economical use of tape.

This brief history charting the development of 2″ Quad recording technologies reveals that efficiency and cost-effectiveness, alongside media quality, were key factors driving the innovation of video tape recording in the 1950s.

 

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

Early digital tape recordings on PCM/ U-matic and Betamax video tape

We are now used to living in a born-digital environment, but the transition from analogue to digital technologies did not happen overnight. In the late 1970s, early digital audio recordings were made possible by a hybrid analogue/digital system. It was composed by the humble transport and recording mechanisms of the video tape machine, and a not so humble PCM (pulse-code-modulation) digital processor. Together they created the first two-channel stereo digital recording system.

Inside a Betamax Video Recorder

The first professional use digital processing machine, made by SONY, was the PCM 1600. It was introduced in 1978 and used a U-Matic tape machine. Later models, the PCM 1610/ 1630, acted as the first standard for mastering audio CDs in the 1980s. SONY employee Toshitada Doi, whose impressive CV includes the development of the PCM adaptor, the Compact Disc and the CIRC error correction system, visited recording studios around the world in an effort to facilitate the professional adoption of PCM digital technologies. He was not however welcomed with open arms, as the SONY corp. website explains:

‘Studio engineers were opposed to digital technology. They criticized digital technology on the grounds that it was more expensive than analogue technology and that it did not sound as soft or musical. Some people in the recording industry actually formed a group called MAD (Musicians Against Digital), and they declared their position to the Audio Engineering Society (AES).’

Several consumer/ semi-professional models were marketed by SONY in the 70s and 80s, starting with the PCM-1 (1977). In a retro-review of the PCM-F10 (1981), Dr Frederick J. Bashour explains that

‘older model VCRs often worked better than newer ones since the digital signal, as seen by the VCR, was a monochrome pattern of bars and dots; the presence of modern colour tweaking and image compensation circuits often reduced the recording system’s reliability and, if possible, were turned off.’

Why did the evolution of an emerging digital technology stand on the shoulders of what had, by 1981, become a relatively mature analogue technology? It all comes down to the issue of bandwidth. A high quality PCM audio recording required 1-1.5 MHz bandwidth, which is far greater than a conventional analogue audio signal (15-20KHz). While this bandwidth was beyond the scope of analogue recording technology of the time, video tape recorders did have the capacity to record signals with higher bandwidths.

If you have ever wondered where the 16 bit/ 44 Khz sampling standard for the CD came from, it was because in the early 1980s, when the CD standard was agreed, there was no other practical way of storing digital sound than by a PCM Converter & video recorder combination. As the wikipedia entry for the PCM adaptor explains, ‘the sampling frequencies of 44.1 and 44.056 kHz were thus the result of a need for compatibility with the 25-frame (CCIR 625/50 countries) and 30-frame black and white (EIAN 525/60 countries) video formats used for audio storage at the time.’ The sampling rate was adopted as the standard for CDs and, unlike many other things in our rapidly changing technological world, it hasn’t changed since.

The fusion of digital and analogue technologies did not last long, and the introduction of DAT tapes in 1987 rendered the PCM digital converters/ video tape system largely obsolete. DAT recorders basically did the same job as PCM/ video but came in one, significantly smaller, machine. DAT machines had the added advantage of being able to accept multiple sampling rates (the standard 44.1 kHz, as well as 48kHz, and 32kHz, all at 16 bits per sample, and a special LP recording mode using 12 bits per sample at 32 kHz for extended recording time).

Problems with migrating early digital tape recordings

There will always be the risk with any kind of magnetic tape recordings that there won’t be enough working tape machines to playback the material recorded on them in the future. As spare parts become harder to source, tapes with worn out transport mechanisms will simply become inoperable. We are not quite at this stage yet, and at Great Bear we have plenty of working U-Matic, Betamax and VHS machines so don’t worry too much! Machine obsolescence is however a real threat facing tape based archives.

Such a problem comes into sharp relief when we consider the case of digital audio recordings made on analogue video tape machines. Audio recordings ‘work’ the tape transport in a far more vigorous fashion than your average domestic video tape user. It may be rewound and fast-forwarded more often, and in a professional environment may be in constant use, thus leading to greater wear and tear.

Those who chose to adopt digital early and made recordings on tape will have marvelled at the lovely clean recordings and the wonders of error correction technology. As a legacy format however, tape-based digital recordings are arguably more at risk than their analogue counterparts. They are doubly compromised by fragility of tape, and the particular problems that befall digital technologies when things go wrong.

Example of edge damage on a video tape ‘Edge damage’ is very common in video tape and can happen when the tape transport becomes worn. This can alter the alignments of transport mechanism, leading it to move move up and down and crush the tape. As you can see in this photograph the edge of this tape has become damaged.

Because it is a digital recording, this has led to substantial problems with the transfer, namely that large sections of the recording simply ‘drop out.’ In instances such as these, where the tape itself has been damaged, analogue recordings on tape are infinitely more recoverable than digital ones. Dr W.C. John Van Bogart explains that

‘even in instances of severe tape degradation, where sound or video quality is severely compromised by tape squealing or a high rate of dropouts, some portion of the original recording will still be perceptible. A digitally recorded tape will show little, if any, deterioration in quality up to the time of catastrophic failure when large sections of recorded information will be completely missing. None of the original material will be detectable in these missing sections.’

This risk of catastrophic, as opposed to gradual loss of information on tape based digital media, is what makes these recordings particularly fragile and at risk. What is particularly worrying about digital tape recordings is they may not show any external signs of damage until it is too late. We therefore encourage individuals, recording studios and memory institutions to assess the condition of their digital tape collections and take prompt action if the recorded information is valuable.

***

 The story of PCM digital processors and analogue tapes gives us a fascinating window into a time when we were not quite analogue, but not quite digital either, demonstrating how technologies co-evolve using the capacities of what is available in order to create something new.

 

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 1 comment

Digitise VHS Tapes – Bristol’s Meet Your Feet

We recently digitised some VHS tapes from when Bristol-based band Meet Your Feet performed on HTV in 1990. Meet Your Feet

‘formed in 1988 as a result of three of the women getting together to start a women’s music workshop, Meet Your Feet played its first gig in June 1988, when asked to get a set together for a Benefit Gig against section 28. This gig was so successful that the band decided to stay together and gradually the original line-up of the early years of the band evolved: Carol Thomas, vocals; Diana Milstein, founder member, bass and lyricist; Diggy, percussion; Heie Gelhaus, founder member, keyboards and songwriter; Julie Lockhart, vocals; Karen Keen, sax; Sue Hewitt, founder member, drums and songwriter; Vicki Burke, sax’ (taken from the  Women’s Liberation Music Archive).

During the 80s the band achieved great success and performed at prestigious festivals such as Glastonbury and WOMAD, as well as appearing on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. They played together until 1992 before disbanding, reformed in 2010 and continue to play shows in Bristol and beyond. Meet Your Feet’s style, which draws from Latin, Jazz and Soul influences, interspersed with passionate, upbeat political lyrics, align them with other ‘women’s music’ bands from the 1980s, such as The Guest Stars and Hi-Jinx.

Meet Your Feet from Adrian Finn on Vimeo.

The video clip we digitised is interesting because it indicates how novel women’s bands were in 1990.

After the band finish performing their new single, they take part in a short interview where they are asked:

‘Its an obvious question, but I am going to ask it, why all women?’

Julie Lockhart, one of the singers, responds wittily, but not without a tinge of bewilderment, ‘Um, we were born that way!’

Can you imagine an all male group being asked a similar question in a television interview, either now or in the early 1990s?! It just wouldn’t happen because no one notices if all the members of a group are male, it just seems completely normal.

The interview goes on to emphasise gender issues, rather than focus on other aspects, such as themes in their music or that it is a large group (there are nine people in the band after all, which is a lot!)

This is not a criticism of the interviewer’s questions as such. Yet the fact it was necessary to asks them about their gender speaks volumes about how surprising it was to see women playing music together. The interview continues as follows:

Presenter: Are there any real advantages to being an all female group?

Sue Hewitt: We listen to each other more, and spin ideas of each other a lot more easily

Julie Lockhart: We giggle a lot more

Presenter: Do you row a lot because you are on the road, its a hard life isn’t it, very intense?

Julie Lockhart: No, that’s the obvious difference we never row!

Presenter: Do you find it hard to be taken seriously by men who come to see an all girl band?

Sue Hewitt: Well no, not all the time. I think initially some men take the view of ‘oh well, its just a bunch of girls on stage’ but when we get up there and start playing they think, ohhh [they can play as well]

It is frustrating that such questions had to be asked, and maybe they wouldn’t be now – although it is still often the case that in music, as in other areas of cultural life, women’s gender is marked, while male gender is not. We have all heard, for example, the phrase ‘female-fronted band’. When do we ever hear of bands that are ‘male-fronted’?

It is really valuable to have access to recordings such as those of Meet Your Feet, not only as a documentation of their performances, but also to demonstrate the attitudes and assumptions that women faced when they participated in a male dominated cultural field.

It is also good to know that Meet Your Feet are still performing and undoubtedly upsetting a few stereotypes and expectations along the way, so make sure you catch them at a show soon!

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

1/2 inch EIAJ skipfield reel to reel videos transferred for Stephen Bell

We recently digitised a collection of 1/2 inch EIAJ skipfield reel to reel videos for Dr Stephen Bell, Lecturer in Computer Animation at Bournemouth University.

CLEWS SB 01 from Stephen Bell on Vimeo.

Stephen wrote about the piece:

‘The participatory art installation that I called “Clews” took place in “The White Room”, a bookable studio space at the Slade School of Art, over three days in 1979. People entering the space found that the room had been divided in half by a wooden wall that they could not see beyond, but they could enter the part nearest the entrance. In that half of the room there was a video monitor on a table with a camera above it pointing in the direction of anyone viewing the screen. There was also some seating so that they could comfortably view the monitor. Pinned to the wall next to the monitor was a notice including cryptic instructions that referred to part of a maze that could be seen on the screen. Participants could instruct the person with the video camera to change the view by giving simple verbal instructions, such as ‘up’, “down”, “left”, “right”, “stop”, etc. until they found a symbol that indicated an “exit”.’

My plan was to edit the video recordings of the event into a separate, dual screen piece but it was too technically challenging for me at the time. I kept the tapes though, with the intention of completing the piece when time and resources became available. This eventually happened in 2012 when, researching ways to get the tapes digitized, I discovered Greatbear in Bristol. They have done a great job of digitizing the material and this is the first version of piece I envisaged all those years ago.’

Nice to have a satisfied customer!

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

Measuring signals – challenges for the digitisation of sound and video

In a 2012 report entitled ‘Preserving Sound and Moving Pictures’ for the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Technology Watch Report series, Richard Wright outlines the unique challenges involved in digitising audio and audiovisual material. ‘Preserving the quality of the digitized signal’ across a range of migration processes that can negotiate ‘cycles of lossy encoding, decoding and reformatting is one major digital preservation challenge for audiovisual files’ (1).

Wright highlights a key issue: understanding how data changes as it is played back, or moved from location to location, is important for thinking about digitisation as a long term project. When data is encoded, decoded or reformatted it alters shape, therefore potentially leading to a compromise in quality. This is a technical way of describing how elements of a data object are added to, taken away or otherwise transformed when they are played back across a range of systems and software that are different from the original data object.

Time-Based-Corrector

To think about this in terms which will be familiar to people today, imagine converting an uncompressed WAV into an MP3 file. You then burn your MP3s onto a CD as a WAV file so it will play back on your friend’s CD player. The WAV file you started off with is not the same as the WAV file you end up with – its been squished and squashed, and in terms of data storage, is far smaller. While smaller file size may be a bonus, the loss of quality isn’t. But this is what happens when files are encoded, decoded and reformatted.

Subjecting data to multiple layers of encoding and decoding does not only apply to digital data. Take Betacam video for instance, a component analogue video format introduced by SONY in 1982. If your video was played back using composite output, the circuity within the Betacam video machine would have needed to encode it. The difference may have looked subtle, and you may not have even noticed any change, but the structure of the signal would be altered in a ‘lossy’ way and can not be recovered to it’s original form. The encoding of a component signal, which is split into two or more channels, to a composite signal, which essentially squashes the channels together, is comparable to the lossy compression applied to digital formats such as mp3 audio, mpeg2 video, etc.

UMatic-Time-Based-Corrector

A central part of the work we do at Greatbear is to understand the changes that may have occurred to the signal over time, and try to minimise further losses in the digitisation process. We use a range of specialist equipment so we can carefully measure the quality of the analogue signal, including external time based correctors and wave form monitors. We also make educated decisions about which machine to play back tapes in line with what we expect the original recording was made on.

If we take for granted that any kind of data file, whether analogue or digital, will have been altered in its lifetime in some way, either through changes to the signal, file structure or because of poor storage, an important question arises from an archival point of view. What do we do with the quality of the data customers send us to digitise? If the signal of a video tape is fuzzy, should we try to stabilise the image? If there is hiss and other forms of noise on tape, should we reduce it? Should we apply the same conservation values to audio and film as we do to historic buildings, such as ruins, or great works of art? Should we practice minimal intervention, use appropriate materials and methods that aim to be reversible, while ensuring that full documentation of all work undertaken is made, creating a trail of endless metadata as we go along?

Do we need to preserve the ways magnetic tape, optical media and digital files degrade and deteriorate over time, or are the rules different for media objects that store information which is not necessarily exclusive to them (the same recording can be played back on a vinyl record, a cassette tape, a CD player, an 8 track cartridge or a MP3 file, for example)? Or should we ensure that we can hear and see clearly, and risk altering the original recording so we can watch a digitised VHS on a flat screen HD television, in line with our current expectations of media quality?

Time-Based-Correctors

Richard Wright suggests it is the data, rather than operating facility, which is the important thing about the digital preservation of audio and audiovisual media.

‘These patterns (for film) and signals (for video and audio) are more like data than like artefacts. The preservation requirement is not to keep the original recording media, but to keep the data, the information, recovered from that media’ (3).

Yet it is not always easy to understand what parts of the data should be discarded, and which parts should kept. Audiovisual and audio data are a production of both form and content, and it is worth taking care over the practices we use to preserve our collections in case we overlook the significance of this point and lose something valuable – culturally, historically and technologically.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

Sony V62 EIAJ reel to reel video tape transfer for Barrie Hesketh

We have recently been sent a Sony V62 high density video tape by Barrie Hesketh. Barrie has had an active career in theatre and in 1966 he set up the Mull Little Theatre on the Isle of Mull off the West Coast of Scotland with his late wife Marianne Hesketh. Specialising in what Barrie calls the ‘imaginative use of nothing’ they toured the UK, Germany and Holland and gained a lot of publicity world wide in the process. Both Marianne and Barrie were awarded MBEs for their services to Scottish Theatre.

You can read a more detailed history of the Mull Little Theatre in this book written by Barrie.

Panasonic VTR NV-8030 transferring a tape

Panasonic VTR NV-8030 EIAJ ½” reel to reel video recorder

The video tape Barrie sent us came from when he and Marianne were working as actors in residence at Churchill College at Cambridge University. Barrie and Marianne had what Barrie described as ‘academic leanings,’ gained from their time as students at the Central College of Speech and Drama in London.

In a letter Barrie sent with the tape he wrote:

‘I own a copy of a video tape recording made for me by the University of Cambridge video unit in 1979. I was researching audience/actors responses and the recording shows the audience on the top half of the picture, and the actors on the bottom half – I have not seen the stuff for years, but have recently been asked about it.’

While audience research is a fairly common practice now in the Creative Arts, in 1979 Barrie’s work was pioneering. Barrie was very aware of audience’s interests when he performed, and was keen to identify what he calls ‘the cool part’ of the audience, and find out ways to ‘warm them up.’

Recording audience responses was a means to sharpen the attention of actors. He was particularly interested in the research to identify ‘includers’. These were individuals who influenced the wider audience by picking up intentions of the performers and clearly responding. The movement of this individual (who would look around from time to time to see if other people ‘got it’), would be picked up in the peripheral vision of other audience members and an awareness gradually trickled throughout. Seeing such behaviour helped Barrie to understand how to engage audiences in his subsequent work.

Screenshot of the Audience Reactions

Barrie’s tape would have been recorded on one of the later reel-to-reel tape machines that conformed to the EIAJ Standard.

The EIAJ-1 was developed in 1969 by the Electronic Industries Association of Japan. It was the first standardized format for industrial/non-broadcast video tape recording. Once implemented it enabled video tapes to be played on machines made by different manufacturers.

Prior to the introduction of the standard, tapes could not be interchanged between comparable models made by different manufacturers. The EIAJ standard changed all this, and certainly makes the job of transferring tapes easier for us today! Imagine the difficulties we would face if we had to get exactly the right machine for each tape transfer. It would probably magnify the problem of tape and machine obsolescence effecting magnetic tape collections.

In the Great Bear Studio we have the National Panasonic Time Lapse VTR NV-8030 and Hitachi SV-640.

Diagram of a Panasonic VTR NV-8030

Like Ampex tapes, all the Sony EIAJ tape tend to suffer from sticky shed syndrome caused by absorption of moisture into the binder of the tape. Tapes need to be dehydrated and cleaned before being played back, as we did with Barrie’s tape.

The tape is now being transferred and Barrie intends to give copies to his sons. It will also be used by Dr Richard Trim in an academic research project. In both cases it is gratifying to give the these video tapes a new lease of life through digitisation. No doubt they will be of real interest to Barrie’s family and the wider research community.

Posted by debra in reel to reel video, Video Tape, 2 comments

D1 digital video transfer – new additions and economies of size

A recent addition to the greatear digitising studio is a BTS D1 digital video cassette recorder.

As revolutionary as it was at the time, early digital audio and video tape recording is more threatened with obsolescence than earlier analogue formats.

bts-dcr-300-d1-digital-video-recorder

Introduced in 1986, D-1 was the very first, real-time, digital broadcast-quality tape format. It stored uncompressed digitized component video, had uncompromising picture quality and used enormous bandwidth for its time. The maximum record time on a D-1 tape is 94 minutes.

Enormous is certainly the word for the D1 tape! Compared with the so-called ‘invisible’ nature of today’s digital data and the miniDV introduced in 1998, this tape from 1992 is in comedy proportions.

d1-minidv-tape-comparison-2

D-1 was notoriously expensive and the equipment required large infrastructure changes in facilities which upgraded to this digital recording format.

Early D-1 operations were plagued with difficulties, though the format quickly stabilized and is still renowned for its superb standard definition image quality, sometimes referred to as a ‘no compromise’ format.

D-1 kept the data recorded as uncompressed 8bit 4:2:2, unlike today where compression is required for digital data to save space and time for practical delivery to the home, but sacrificing the picture and sound quality in the process.

D1 was supplanted by subsequent D models that recorded a combination of component (D5) and composite (D3) signals.

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 1 comment

Digitising Ampex U-Matic KCS-20 Video Tapes

We are currently digitising a collection of U-Matic Ampex KCS-20 video tapes for Keith Barnfather, the founder of Reeltime Pictures.

Reeltime Pictures are most well-known for their production of documentaries about the BBC series Doctor Who. They also made Doctor Who spin-off films, a kind of film equivalent of fan fiction, that revived old and often marginal characters from the popular TV series.

The tapes we were sent were Ampex’s U-Matic video tapes. For those of you out there that have recorded material on Ampex tape be it audio or video, we have bad news for you. While much magnetic tape is more robust than most people imagine, this is not true of tape made by Ampex in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nearly all Ampex tape degrades disgracefully with age. A common outcome is ‘sticky shed syndrome,‘ a condition created by the deterioration of the binders in a magnetic tape which hold the iron oxide magnetic coating to its plastic carrier. So common was this problem with Ampex tape that the company patented the process of baking the tape (to be done strictly at the temperature 54 Centrigade, for a period of 16 hours), that would enable the tape to be played back.

ampex-umatic-tapes-dehydrating

In order to migrate the Ampex video tapes to a digital format they have, therefore, to be dehydrated in our incubator. This is careful process where we remove the tape from its outer shell to minimise ‘outgassing‘. Outgassing refers to the release of a gas that has become dissolved, trapped, frozen or absorbed in material. This can have significant effects if the released gas collects in a closed environment where air is stagnant or recirculated. The smell of new cars is a good example of outgassing that most people are familiar with.

When baking a tape in an enclosed incubator, it can therefore be vulnerable to the potential release of gasses from the shell, as well as the tape and its constituent material parts. Removing the shell primarily minimises danger to the tape, as it is difficult to know in advance what chemicals will be released when baking occurs.

It is important to stress that tape dehydration needs to be done in a controlled manner within a specifically designed lab incubator. This enables the temperature to be carefully regulated to the degree. Such precision cannot of course be achieved with domestic ovens (which are designed to cook things!), nor even food dehydrators, because there is very little temperature control.

So if you do have Ampex tapes, whether audio or video, we recommend that you treat them with extreme care, and if what is recorded on them is important to you, migrate them to a digital format before they almost certainly deteriorate.

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 2 comments

Digitise VHS Tape – Martin Smith’s Life Can Be Wonderful

In February 2013 we digitised a VHS tape from Martin Smith, the 1994 documentary Life Can Be Wonderful. The VHS tape was the only copy of the film Smith owned, and it is quite common for Great Bear to digitise projects where the film maker does not have the master copy. This is because original copies are often held by large production companies, and films can be subject to complex distribution and screening conditions.

Life Can Be Wonderful is a film was about the life of his good friend Stanley Forman, a committed communist and major figure in British left-wing cinema, who passed away at the age of 91 on 7 February 2013. Forman’s dedication to communism remained a controversial issue until his death. Smith described his conflicts with his friend which ‘most often they centred on what I saw as his refusal to own up to the enormity of Stalin’s crimes. On camera he told me that I was his dear friend, “but not a dear comrade” and apologised for failing to convey “the spirit of the times”‘.

Stanley Forman is a fascinating figure in terms of the work we do at the Great Bear. He is described on the website Putney Debater as ‘the archive man.’ The site goes on to say

His company, Plato/ Education and Television Films (ETV), held a unique library of left- wing documentaries which amounted to the history of the twentieth century from a socialist perspective. Established in 1950 as Plato Films, the outfit was what would be called in Cold War ideology a front organisation, set up by members of the Communist Party to distribute films from behind the Iron Curtain. Under the slogan ‘See the other half of the world’, Plato provided the movement with a film distributor for documentaries from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, taking in China (until the Sino-Soviet split), Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere, which would otherwise never be seen here.

The Educational and Television Films archive is held at the British Film Institute, and some material is available to view on the JISC Media Hub website.

Posted by debra in VHS Transfer, 0 comments