From: Patent Tactics, George Brock-Nannestad

A scenario for sound archives?

The essentials of a paper (with a different title) that I read at the IAML-
IASA Congress 8-13 August 2004, Oslo, Norway

Copyright (c) 2004 George Brock-Nannestad

The sound archives compete with commercial re-issues of early material. There
is no doubt that the archives have the material in-house, but getting access
to it may be both time-consuming and expensive and copyright has not even
been mentioned. Commercial re-issues occur of a very narrow and commercially
viable selection of the vast repertoire, and the price is very, very low;
mostly less than 30 US cents per minute. The other problem with commercial re-
issues is that they may disappear again when they are sold out.

If I want to defend academic standards, I must be the end user that requests
access to originals - at the higher cost per item than commercial copies. I
must represent the reason for at all having archives and museums: I must be
the end user who will ask questions that cannot be imagined today, but who
must not go empty-handed from the archive. In an attempt to provide an
answer, while at the same time avoiding being swamped with material, all
archives have traditionally had to resort to selection, because they could
not physically store everything and index it to facilitate access. Still,
selection hits the future user very hard. My personal saddest example is from
the Public Records office in the UK, where I wanted to read details from
court cases that involved the Gramophone Co. about 1913. I got as far as the
handwritten ledgers that proved that the cases had indeed taken place, but
the bundles of original documents were from a period in which only sample
bundles were kept - and these samples did not comprise my cases. Bad luck,
but life goes on.

Looking back at first-hand experience with sound archives over 20 years, I
have noticed that they have moved from a reasonably stable situation to a
rather turbulent one, where the media for preservation change materially,
frequently, and require heavy investments. It may be noticed that in that
period the emphasis has been on preservation and accessibility and now
turning towards meta-data rather than on fidelity to the source in
reproduction. Simultaneously, first-hand experience with the analogue media
and their influence on the desired content has been reduced. There is good
reason to believe that the ongoing transfer from analogue to digital will be
the last transfer ever, at least as regards some analogue carriers.

The backlog is still stupendous, and if the transfer is made only with the
guiding principle of "least interference", then the burden of correctly
reproducing the by then digital signal will rest on the future technical
persons of the archive, and they will have neither time nor knowledge to
present a proper sound to an end user. For this reason, it may be argued that
knowledge about the content and the expected future use of each individual
recording should be the guiding factor for their last analogue replay. Doing
it this way, which is more expensive, will maintain know-how in the technical
staff, at least as long as conversion to digital takes place. We hence have
two approaches:

a)       "quick and dirty", with a bandwidth and resolution capable of
supporting post-production to any desired quality in the digital domain,
however without certainty that similarity to the output from the original
carrier can be approached ,


b)       "context-oriented", which is an investment in know-how.

The experience in archives is that there is plenty of good will, but rarely
the funding to make a "context-oriented" digitization. We create
recommendations that prescribe calibration. Calibration is an an activity
where you change only one variable and record the result. Archives who know
their holdings and have long-term budgets will be able to perform some sort
of calibration - certainly on more recent media, such as analog magnetic
tape, but less likely on earlier media. And we must not forget that every
minute that a tape recorder is used to reproduce a calibration tape is one
minute less for transfer work, due to the accumulating wear on the tone
heads, and because the tone heads are getting more and more difficult to get.
If we get to mechanical media, such as lacquer or instantaneous discs,
phonograph cylinders, or commercial records, calibration is slightly more
difficult, not to say impossible. Let us take an example.

I  tried to run an informal guessing competition "which transfer from analog
is usually not subject to calibration", but I had no reply. The prize was a
calibration record that I devised in 1982 for inter-archival exchange of
content. It was described in the Phonographic Bulletin at the time and it
provoked two archives in the US to acquire it. Two archives in the whole
membership of IASA! That should have told me something already then.

The answer to the competition is deduced by a strange fact: I have yet to
encounter a calibrating cylinder. This means that cylinder transfer world-
wide does not get calibrated in a manner that reproduces the replay
conditions of cylinders. It is rarely admitted, but such is the case. I would
like to make it known that I expect to be able to deliver calibrating
cylinders for vertically wired pickups in the course of the winter of this
year. They will be made to order only.

Speaking of calibration: a few persons including myself have been involved in
the creation on behalf of the Audio Engineering Society a set of calibration
records for lateral pickups. It is a long drawn-out process, and I fear that
unless we can have an impression of how much archives world-wide will spend
on calibration records that do suffer wear during calibration and so need to
be replaced on a regular basis, they may never come into existance. In the
worst case we would need to have a sort of subscription before the AES will
dare to put the money up for their manufacture. I shall put the question
openly on the iasaweb, and I hope to receive answers. If no calibration
records appear, we shall know that there will in practice be no calibration,
and the work we have been doing in the IASA Technical Committee will only
serve to give archives a bad conscience. That is not a good reason for
working in a Technical Committee.

Let us get back to the investment of time in the transfer. We know that for a
mechanical record there could well be a factor 30 if it is a difficult case,
and for a good tape typically a factor 2. What on earth is the time used for?
Well, apart from pure handling there is a lot of adjustment of equipment
(azimuth, stylus) and there is a lot of creation of process data that has to
be kept with the transfer, as metadata, so that we know what was done. If the
data has been conserved to a sufficient resolution, the signal manipulation
may occur in connection with the use of the data. However, who will have the
knowledge to be able to interpret the metadata generated regarding transfer
conditions and convert it into variables that may be operated on? In other
words, who will be able to create a context-oriented replay for the end user?

In reality it may not matter much for most users. Nobody will care about the
"real sound", because each age will have its own pre-conceived opinion on
"period sound". We see it already today: the sounds that are added to all the
early silent documentary footage is designed, not authentic. So, the only
real use of sound recordings will be as evidence - of occurences, of language
development, of soundscapes. And for this you need as much and as diverse
recorded material as possible.

The most reasonable approach - in my view - is to transfer more hours
including indexing rather than making context-oriented transfers. That is
because I as the end user would rather have a large selection than a few
samples. Do not mind that I originally called it "quick-and-dirty" - it is
for the long-term good. Doing it quick-and-dirty means that you can get
between 5 and 10 times as much digitized per month.

The scenario I envisage for sound archives is one where the sound is
disembodied from any carrier, and any sound archive worth the definition must
surely follow the sound, or rather the digital embodiment of the sound. For a
brief period the sound archive will be permitted to maintain for symbolic
reasons the original carriers, but they will surely fall into oblivion, in
particular if there is no demand for orignal sound from the users. For some
time it will be possible to argue that the original recordings are needed to
document authenticity, because even if they are not able to provide more than
degraded sound compared to the digital signal presently captured in the
course of digitization programmes, they will for many, many years still have
the capacity to authenticate. Alas, inevitably a simple certificate that is
embedded in the metadata will at some stage be considered sufficient
authentication, and the last argument for maintenance of a collection of
analog originals will have been entirely removed. Finances will see to that.

The consequence of this is definitely the final dying out of the knowledge
surrounding the early media and their analogue reproduction, and it does not
matter in the long run that some knowledge was preserved for some time
because of the use of context-oriented transfers. Furthermore, there is no
reason why a sound archive in the post-modern sense should have the
responsibility to know these things. They should stick to what they have
become good at: storage of digital data. A much more economical way would be
to have museum-like centres-of-excellence where the knowledge of this type is
maintained through study, experiment, and reconstruction, just as it is done
in some technical museums and World Heritage Sites. In Sweden you may find
the world's only surviving and active Very Low Frequency transmitter, an
Alexandersson alternator construction from General Electric in 1924. That is
on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since July 2004.  This proves that
remnants from our industrialised 20th century are indeed elegible and
accepted. I have yet to determine the principles of their conservation

In quite a parallel development I do not see why the craftlike knowledge that
went into early analog recording could not be preserved per se for humanity
in a facility separate from a sound archive. An internationally recognized
facility that would have both early equipment and early recordings. A
facility, in which there would be a need for audio technicians trained in the
early techniques and for conservation technicians of the type that I educated
at the School of Conservation in Copenhagen in the mid 1990s.

It would remove the archives' worries about sufficiency, because they would
only have a strenuous decade doing relatively simple quick-and-dirty
transfers, and from then on they could maintain the corresponding data and
the influx of the digitally generated data. Any specialized needs as well as
assistance in context-oriented reproduction of digitized signals would be
referred to the internationally recognized centre, which we may call "Centre
Charles Cros" or "the Edison Center", but which I would prefer to call
"Centre Léon Scott", to honor the first person to fix an arbitrary sound on a
medium with a time axis. The centre or centres would gradually absorb the
superfluous original carriers and the superfluous analogue equipment, or at
least coordinate national and regional repositories or Centres of Excellence.

Remember that all development of pickup cartridges for the reproduction of
the coarse-groove record stopped when the Long Playing record penetrated the
market about 1952, and the technology for the reproduction of magnetic wires
froze when the domestic tape recorder took off in 1954. Development of
necessary improvements could take place in dedicated centres. I know it can
be done, because I have done it small-scale with some assistance on the
chemical side for the last 20 years.

Access to such centres would also be the answer for the very many small
research archives dealing with collections that were created specifically for
academic end users on the most diverse media imaginable. If international
projects of cooperation such as those presently under discussion are to have
a long-term effect, it is necessary that such centres of excellence are
created simultaneously with a long term view. In other words, I offer this
solution to the problem of Safeguarding the Documentary Heritage of Cultural
and Linguistic Diversity. Sad experience in the world of cultural history
shows, however, that projects usually only create short term prestigious
focus and create a misplaced feel-good effect in politicians.

If we do not want to throw the knowledge and experience related to the
recording and reproduction technology of the 20th century out with the bath
water, meaning digitization, we had better start now. Let us have some
permanence of knowledge for a change!