Discovering "Lost" Recordings

If I had a nickel for everyone who send me a link to this story about the lost Bob Marley tapes that lay, forgotten, in a hotel basement for 40 years and turned out to contain original live recordings of his concerts in London and Paris in the mid-1970s... I'd be at least 35 cents richer. 

Of course a bunch of people sent me that link. Because I'm that person. I'm the one you call when you find the musty, moldy tapes in the basement and need someone to clean, digitize and restore them. I've been there: in a barn surrounded by stacks of A-list master tapes; in a basement lined with boxes filled to overflowing with tangles of DATs and cassettes, handwritten labels scribbled with names would make your eyes pop; having a friendly chat with a musician who suddenly recalls that, yes, she might have a few old recordings from early in her prolific career downstairs.

According to a meticulously researched paper published by AV Preserve in 2015, there are an estimated 537 million recordings in collection-holding organizations, the vast majority of which have not been digitized. That's just the stuff in libraries and archives! What wonders still exist in basements, closets and attics? 

That's what motivates me to do this work. That moment of anticipation and joy when you wind a reel on a tape machine, hit play, and hit pay dirt. I still remember when I dropped the needle on the scratched up original promo 45 of Scott Fagan singing "All For the Sake of Love," an utter heartbreaker. And when I popped in the cassette of early Jack Ruby recordings and heard this. There's something about the nearly forgotten that captures us and reminds us how powerful and yet how fleeting a musical performance can be. We are lucky that so many have been recorded, and luckier still that a few get caught into the sifter and are digitized, restored and sent back out into the world to remind us of our musical past.

Still, when I hear about the discovery of "lost" tapes like these Bob Marley masters, I get a little shot of happiness, because I know it's going to happen again. And maybe next time, it might be me crawling around in the basement of an old hotel, scraping off the mud, trying to discern the names on the labels, rescuing a nearly forgotten audio treasure.

Saving Family Heirloom Recordings

A few times this fall, I've gotten calls from people with old, personal recordings of family or friends they want to digitize. These might be songwriting demos on cassette, or someone's grandmother singing on a direct-to-disc recording in 1947. On my last visit to Wyoming, my dad handed me a microcassette and told me it might be the only known recording of his high school band. (Alas, it wasn't).

These historic (heirloom?) audio recordings are locked on the physical media, playable only on machines that, for all intents and purposes, are obsolete in the consumer market. The contents remain a mystery until I come into the picture with my studio stocked with cassette decks, DAT players, turntable and styli, 1/4" tape machine. I digitize the audio content, clean it up, send it off to be shared with families and friends and given as gifts at holidays.

I love these projects. There's enormous joy in helping someone unlock memories. I think that's why I chose to specialize in restoration, preservation and music reissues. I'm an anthropologist and archivist at heart and an audio engineer in practice. It's a good combo.

So, bring them on! I am happy to digitize and preserve your heirloom cassettes, disks, DATs and reels. Let's find out what's on those tapes.

Addendum to Working Class Audio Podcast

I had such a great conversation with Matt Boudreau on the Working Class Audio podcast, and I'm thrilled to have struck a chord with listeners who are interested in learning more about archiving. Of course, as I was riding my bike back to work, I thought of a dozen things I wish I'd said. Here are a few of them:

1. I cautioned about dabbling in mastering and archiving, and this is something about which I feel quite strongly. Mastering requires a specific, learned way of listening and of understanding music, aesthetics, contexts and how they intersect with audio processing technologies. It requires a deep knowledge of delivery methods and a commitment to quality and quality control. Likewise, archiving analog audio requires more than simply knowing how to calibrate a tape machine. You have to understand the history and sonic peculiarities of various media formats, the aesthetics of historic audio, what it sounds like when your heads need to be demagnetized or your azimuth adjusted. You have to be able to intuit what the recording should or could sound like and aim to achieve that. In archiving, the stakes are high. If you do it wrong, then, quite possibly, it will always be wrong. (Aside: this is why I'm so supremely proud of the work I did with Jamie Howarth on Erroll Garner's The Complete Concert By the Sea - because we got it right). The skills that make one an amazing tracking or mixing engineer or a great musician - they are invaluable, but they don't directly translate to mastering and archiving. (The converse is true too - I would not attempt to record your band's next album, and you do not want to hear me play guitar).  I would never dissuade anyone from pursuing a specialty in music that I love and value. But if you want to master records or archive audio, then I urge you commit to doing it fully.

2. For those who are interested, there are lots of resources available for archivists. Check out:

AV Preserve - I use BWF MetaEdit all the time, and they have a treasure trove of open source resources for archivists.

Arnold Magnetic Technologies - There was a lot of interest in the tool I affectionally call "Arnold." It's actually known as the B-1022 Magnetic Viewer, but don't let the boring name fool you. It's awesome.

Here's the AES white paper: Recommendation for delivery of recorded music projects. Learn how to name your digital audio files!

Some brilliant people from Indiana University and Harvard University wrote Sound Directions, 168 pages of information about best practices in audio archiving and preservation. It's a page turner! I'm not kidding.

3. Ask the experts for advice when you need it. I've been doing this for more than a dozen years, but that's a drop in the bucket compared to many experts in this field. I will be the first to admit that there is so much I don't know about archiving and about obsolete recording formats. I've carved a niche for myself as someone who understands the crossover between the music industry and archives, between aesthetics and technology, and can therefore navigate and guide others through the process of archiving their music and curating and preparing it for commercial release. But I will always call for help when I come across something that is beyond the scope of my expertise. 

That said, I love this speciality. I'm grateful I was given opportunities early in my career to develop the skills, mindset, dedication and passion that make me good at what I do. And with that, there are tapes in my baker that need to be transferred.

Thanks to all who listened to the podcast! Always happy to hear from you and chat about the art and science of mastering and archiving.