Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fun with Damaged Tapes

Damaged materials are fun. Looks weird, right? But it’s true. We in the audio staff naturally focus on the conservation and preservation of naturally decaying and obsolete materials. Every so often, however, we come across a very badly damaged item, at which time it can be fun to concentrate on such a freak and fix it.

A recent anomaly was a damaged microcassette. Its shell sides had begun to come apart where they were originally molded together, and somehow the tape got stuck in this space. Although the content is always important, this particular tape included an interview with a recently deceased personage. For any one to hear him again, I had to take drastic measures.

The tape would not budge from the crack. More important, no microcassette machine had been designed to baby the tape, and it would be irresponsible to play it on a regular machine, even if I were able to wind it back inside the shell. Instead, the plan was to transfer the tape to a cassette shell and digitize the interview using our cassette machine, which has far superior tape-handling and output electronics than the standard microcassette machine.

The first step was to house the tape in a new shell. Breaking apart the original shell revealed severely crinkled and very thin tape. With the tape free, I could wind it off the microcassette hubs (the wheels) and onto a standard cassette hub, as illustrated below by manually coaxing the tape off the original hub and onto the new one. It’s not the most glamorous task, but needed to be done.

Preparing for winding. The beginning of the original tape was attached to a new cassette-size hub and leader on a cassette splicing block. The old microcassette hub is on the left.

End of winding: attaching the new cassette-size tail leader and hub. Note the broken, original shell at left.

Ready for transfer.

This, however, is only the first, though hardest, step. The next part is digitizing and manipulating the audio. Because I just created Frankenstein’s tape monster, things didn’t run exactly as one might expect. First, the microcassette format moved the tape in the opposite direction from that of the cassette format, so the interview played in reverse.

Second, the microcassette format plays at roughly 15/16 inches of tape per second, whereas the normal cassette runs at twice that speed; thus the interview played back twice as fast as it should, making it sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks in reverse. I then employed some digital trickery to return the interview to its proper pitch and direction, making it ready for the researcher.

To conclude, this is a good example of the importance of digitizing our audio materials before researchers can use the recordings. Both microcassettes and normal cassettes are often problematic; this includes the far more common split or broken tape. With open-reel tape, we see even worse problems: sticking, shedding, stretching, squealing, etc. (No, not all problems start with the letter “s.”) Discs are worse yet. It would be a shame to have a problem with the original occur during research and permanently damage a recording. This is why access copies are digital.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tackling the Challenges of Audio Archives

Because archival materials are collected to be used (in this case, heard), we'd like to introduce you to the vast array of sound recordings housed at the Hoover Archives. We've got about 80,000 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty recordings of broadcasts to the nations behind the iron curtain and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and several thousand recordings of speeches on public policy issues at the Commonwealth Club of California beginning in 1944. Recordings in many other collections include the prepresidential radio addresses of Ronald Reagan and speeches and lectures by Milton Friedman, and that's only the beginning. Add them all up, and you get a good hundred thousand audio recordings.

A 2004 report by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) discusses the issues involved in making sound recordings available, including having the requisite staff and equipment to access recordings in obsolete formats and
describing the recordings so that people can find them.

Hoover, having contributed that CLIR report, has since been working to overcome the problems. Most notably, we hired a recorded sound archivist and an audio engineer to begin preserving our audio collection. The audio engineer digitizes
decades-old audiotapes to preservation-quality specifications using Studer open-reel tape players and a sophisticated Quadriga digital audio workstation (a quadriga is a chariot drawn by four horses abreast, which is driven by our engineer).

Describing our sound recordings is important because that is how you find out what we have. How can we describe all of our recordings short of actually listening to them, which would take years of our time and require people fluent in dozens of
different languages? Where can we post the descriptions so that people who want recordings can find them? What can we do to encourage people to incorporate audio material in their research? More on these questions later.

Label on a 16-inch transcription disc, Commonwealth Club of California records, Box 1142, Hoover Institution Archives.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jazz at Liberty

Recently I asked a colleague, “How many times have you gone looking for John Kennedy’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate and wound up listening to Phil Woods blowing sax?” I recently posed this odd question to one of my colleagues.

While trying to find Radio Free Europe or Radio Liberty coverage of Kennedy’s June 1963 speech for a researcher, I came across a Radio Liberty tape from June 30 and July 1, 1963. All the accompanying notes, however, were in Russian, leaving this English-only speaker ignorant of the contents. Hoping for the best, I put the tape up on our machine and listened. There was no “Ich bin ein Berliner” but, instead, jazz, lively jazz. With a concurrent, but unrelated, program of poetry on the same tape, it appeared that Radio Liberty was down with some avant-garde material in 1963, until I realized that they were two unrelated programs.

It was a pleasant surprise finding that the jazz program was an interview with—and performance by—the famous jazz saxophonist Phil Woods conducted after a trip to the Soviet Union, when jazz was frowned upon by the Soviet government. In the interview, Woods mentioned a session in New York during which he played numbers from Soviet composers (later issued by Radio Liberty as the Jazz at Liberty LP) and gave his thoughts about the state of jazz in that country. What’s particularly cool about this tape is that it contains the first-ever broadcast of three numbers from the session, “Madrigal #1,” “Madrigal New York,” and “Nyet.” Moreover, in the interview, Woods gave a solo performance of one tune’s theme. Combined with the performances of the New York session, this must have been a treat for listeners behind the Iron Curtain.

Definitely a fascinating tape to stumble upon! Here's a clip of the interview:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Broadcast Records, Russian Service Sound Recordings, Box 4, Hoover Institution Archives.