Monday, October 10, 2005

Preservation of the audio artifact

Today I've been mulling the objects we consume, aural, physical and digital.

In the digital world, we often settle for a copy or representation of an analog original. With physical objects, we mostly know that a copy is a copy, but not always in the digital world. The trouble is that often the digital copy is inferior to the analog, because of compression or encoding. While we might not always want to read from a manuscript of a Charles Dickens novel, someone should preserve it and make it available for researchers. I'm not so certain we shouldn't be doing the same thing with sound recordings. (Of course archives have been, but that's changing).

Yes, we can get the story from a Penguin edition of Oliver Twist, but we'll lose the marginalia, the history of the drafts as they were sent back and forth from Dickens to his publisher, or a coffee stain that could indicate where Dickens got really excited about a new plot he just thought up. [NOTE: This is just an imagined example, and doesn't reflect any personal knowledge about Dickens' working stule or relationship with his publisher].

The fight here: Intellectual content vs. artifactual value. (Read Nicholson Baker's Double Fold for extreme arguments in the second camp). It was also one of the recurring themes in preservation class, as well as doing what you can with the time, money, and staff you have.

Of course another layer to add to all this is that a sound recording is only an instantiation of a live event or a studio session. It is impossible to literally capture what happened there, from the smell of the cigarettes in the sound booth to the tensions between performer and producer on a given day. It's all just representation really. We can record slices of reality, but not the gestalt. But thank goodness we have lots of what we have.

At the ARSC meeting in March was a Maryland native named Charles Richardson. He was developing a "New Magnetic Tape Restoration Process to Eliminate the Sticky Shed Problem from Magnetic Tapes" (U.S. Patent 6,797,072). His presentation was met by much skepticism amongst the audio engineers in the room--and rightfully so. He wasn't very forthright with the evidence he gave on why the process would work.

The sad fact is that our physical sound recordings will deteriorate eventually. They will not last as long as paper, and there will not be the equipment to play them back. I can see why the audio archives community is dedicated to digital preservation of the intellectual content. (As am I). But I think the conservation of the original artifacts is also important for our society and our history. If Mr. Richardson or someone else can find a way to reverse deterioration in the physical media of this material, I would definitely celebrate.

It's late, and I'm also procrastinating some program notes I'm supposed to write for this local musical organization. I'm including a link to my paper on Sticky Shed Syndrome that I did for preservation class last fall.

It was called Problems in Audio Preservation: Binder Hydrolysis (“Sticky Shed Syndrome”) in Open Reel Magnetic Tape." (Word document, 11 pages).


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