Archive for June, 2008|Monthly archive page

Central Southern England ILR Digitisation Project – techinical report

Projects managed by the Centre for Broadcasting History, Bournemouth University, have been incredibly lucky to be able to draw on expert knowledge from the Project Team members. As the South Southern England ILR project moves to its final phase, John Moxley our Technical Consultant shares some of the challenges in digitising open reel audio tape.

Introduction

A total of 1343 items were copied, initially to CD, from four ILR Stations in the South of England – Radio Victory (now defunct) in the Portsmouth area; Ocean Sound (Victory’s successor) covering Hampshire and the Isle of Wight; Radio 210 in the Thames Valley; and Two Counties Radio (2CR) in Dorset and West Hampshire. The material dates from 1975 to 1990 and is held at the Wessex Film & Sound Archive in Winchester.

Technical issues

Sticky Tape

In the 1970s and 1980s recording engineers favoured the Ampex brand of audio (reel-to-reel) tape. Ampex has since become well known for its principle flaw – sticky syndrome. Sticky tape causes the player’s transport system to slow resulting in pitch variation and other incongruities. Sticky tapes deposit oxide residue on the tape heads and transport system which then require regular cleaning. In some cases effected tapes can be baked in a laboratory convection oven. This conditions the tape so that it can be played once, giving a single opportunity to recover the audio content. Even with this, a number of Ampex tapes were too sticky to copy successfully. Associated with this problem was that some programme tapes contained various formulas including Ampex, and this often resulted in a poor CD transfer. It was not possible to know about this variation in format until the tape was played, and in some cases retakes were necessary.

Edits

In the analogue open reel era recordings were edited by cutting and joining the parts with glued strips. Over the years some of this glue has dried out causing the tape to break and also damaging the machine heads. In addition to this there were different thicknesses of tape. Broadcast recordings were usually made using the best quality materials, but occasionally very thin tape was used which gave an impaired audibility and was prone to breaking. Not infrequently a tape broke or the machine heads became clogged with bad tape during transport, and the CD had to be aborted.

Tracks and bands

Most programme tapes were divided into bands with coloured leader tape denoting advertisement and other breaks, and their CDs could easily be recorded with corresponding tracks. However many tapes, mainly compilation news reports and unedited rushes, were not banded in this way and for research purposes it was thought useful to transfer each report to a separate CD track. Before doing this, the tape had to be listened to so that tracks could be incremented at the correct places. Sometimes cue sheets were available to help, but often this was not the case. The CD tracking process was further prolonged because the Fostex CD recorder bought for the Project did not permit erasing a track, even on a rewritable disc. If an error was made in writing track 5, that track could not be undone and re-recorded; the entire CD had to be erased and re-formatted.

Pitch and Speed

Some tapes varied in speed and pitch. For example, a Radio 210 news compilation that must have been originally recorded on a faulty machine; the pitch had to be constantly varied and the resulting CD, though not perfect, is the best sound achievable. In another example, Radio Victory compilation of advertisements at different speeds that enhance or impair the quality. Both these examples required CD tracking as described above. A few tapes played at speeds slower than usual broadcast quality, and for these other machines were required. The slow speed had been used so that the programme would fit on to one tape. But it would not fit on to one CD. Another 2 tapes contained recordings of a four-hour Ocean Sound sports fixture, each tape producing two CDs. Among the Radio Victory collection was a number of logging tapes that ran at ultra-low speeds recording an entire day’s programme output. For these a specially modified machine had to be purchased and a number of CDs produced from each tape. The digitisation of these logging tapes was a long process.

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Selection, Digitisation and Technological Determinism

Technological determinism (1) was the accusation directed at this blogger by a media academic, prompted by the suggestion in a conference paper that it would soon be possible and desirable to digitse everything – negating the need for any selection of material for digitisation. While the capacity to store and serve data could probably now accommodate this proposal, other factors such as finance and human resources that are placing limits on the scale of digitisation.

At some point digitisation projects have to engage with selection to fit the volume of digitisation (measured in this case as the number of reeel-to-reel tapes) to the budget. Two of the independent radio projects have applied an explicit selection policy, The South Southern Local Radio Digitisation Project and the LBC/IRN Project. Policies combine qualitative judgment of senior radio academics with broad brush criteria. For example priority was given to news and current affairs, and material from the 1970’s where very little survives. The other project The Independent Local Radio Programme Sharing Project: Felicity Wells Memorial Archive was itself a product of selection, the best local radio from around United Kingdom and has been digitised in its entirety.

However, before collections get as far as being digitised they have been subject to the attrition of random choices and accidents. The LBC/IRN archive was occasionally weeded to physically reduce the size of the collection. The archiving of local radio is notoriously unreliable, only the pro-active intervention of the Wessex Film and Sound Archive [WFSA] saved much of the material that forms the South Southern Local Radio Digitisation Project.

Selection is not the end of the story. The reel-to-reel tapes in these projects have not been destroyed but archived or returned to their original location. However, the motivation to revisit these collections and complete the digitisation process – and all the work that entails in raising finance – may not be as strong as the first impetus to create a digitisation project. Selection rightly or wrongly implies the best material has been digitised.

Where does that leave us? Well, it might be contingent on those making bids for digitisation to leave the door open for further bids. However, funding bodies, and you can see their point of view, are by their nature not incremental. Bids have to have a complete package with one shot at delivering a complete and polished product to end users. This means that money that might be used to digitise material that no end user might hear (or see or read), has to be used to buy the capability to deliver material over the web. Ultimately we rely on libraries, universities and archives to see the value (as Bournemouth University has done) in retaining analogue material for the future.

(1) “until the mid-1980s, technological determinism was the most popular and influential theory of the relationship between technology and society. Technological determinism views the development and diffusion of technology as developing independently of society, but producing societal effects.” (Shade 2007, line 1, papa 1).

Shade, L.R., 2007. Technological Determinism. Encyclopedia of New Media. 2007. London: SAGE. Available from: http://www.sage-ereference.com/newmedia/Article_n226.html [Accessed: 11 June 2008].

Why is the LBC/IRN Archive important?

Hugh Chignell’s* article ( 2008 ) in Twentieth Century British History looks at the history of LBC/IRN archive and its importance to the study of British History in the period 1973-1990. If you follow this link you can read the abstract or the full text if your institution has access.

Reference

Chignell, H., 2008. The London Broadcasting Company (LBC) and Independent Radio News (IRN) Archive. Twentieth Century British History. 18 (4), 514-525. Available from: http://tcbh.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/18/4/514 [ Accessed: 05 June 2008].

Dr Hugh Chignell is Reader in Radio at The Media School, Bournemouth University and Associate Director of the Centre for Broadcasting History Research

Please complete our survey

The independent radio project aims to join together 3 collections of independent radio, The Independent Local Radio Programme Sharing Archive: The Felicity Wells Memorial Collection [AHRC], the South Southern Local Radio Digitisation Project [AHRC] and the LBC/IRN Digitisation Project [JISC].

We are fortunate to already have one of these database up and running in a beta form  – The Independent Local Radio Programme Sharing Archive: The Felicity Wells Memorial Collection – also with a link from the Resources section of this blog. We are asking you to login to this resource, have a look at the collection and give us your feedback. There is a link to the Survey on the  The Independent Local Radio Programme Sharing Archive home page. You will need a current ATHENS Personal Account to access.