Monday, February 27, 2006

Sound Directions update

On Thursday afternoon, I attended the session on "Sound Preservation Practices" presented by the Preservation Committee. This year's invited guest was Michael T. Casey, Associate Director for Recording Services at the Archives of Traditional Music (Indiana University). Mike was my internship supervisor at the ATM, and continues to be a valued friend and mentor. He updated the MLA on the NEH-supported Sound Directions Project between Indiana and Harvard Universities.

He began with a brief outline of audio preservation since 1989, when Dietrich Schuller voiced the statement that the content of a recording was more important than its carrier. Why does this make in sense, in light of all the good conservation work done to that point with books and paper? Readers of this blog know that there are two inherent problems in audio preservation:

1) the irreparable loss of audio data due to deterioration of discs and tapes because of physical/chemical instability, storage, handling, or playback.
2) the obsolescence of recording and playback equipment with each new generation of carrier.

The goal is to move from the "eternal carrier" towards the "eternal file." This is a process which demands a digital solution in order to keep bits "alive and understandable." There must be a system in place to monitor data integrity, to refresh that data, and to migrate it when needed to new carriers. The most difficult (and critical) part of this process is the analog to digital conversion. The Harvard/IU project aims to create an interoperable system for preservation of audio objects so that different institutions can use different methods, but still arrive at solutions that can be shared. Casey mentioned following the international standards (TC03, TC04) promulgated by IASA (International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives). They would be used as a point of departure upon which to create better (and more realistic) standards for archives large and small.

I won't go too deep into what Mike said about technical metadata, the workflow, or equipment used. It was impressive on all accounts. He recounted the FACET tool he created last year to select and rank materials based on preservation need (along with research value). The Sound Directions project is using the program WaveLab to save materials in the Broadcast Wave format (BWAV or BWF), a format developed and utilized by the European Broadcasting Corporation since 1996. Saving this data with the sound file is not the only method used to record metadata. In fact, he refers to this information as "catastrophic metadata," which would serve engineers in the future if all other context was lost. He hopes to add an additional Broadcast Wave editor in the future to capture this information more efficiently. The technical metadata schema used is known as AES SC-03-06, which allows for the "documentation of sound recording derivatives" and the "digitization process."

He outlined the various tasks of the project staff, which includes two workers hired by Indiana for the project: project engineer and project assistant. The project uses an NAS (Networked Attached Storage) device to run a RAID server (Redundant Array of Independent Discs). He described the signal chain, which includes the use of a program called Spectrafoo which monitors the output through the signal chain.

As I've learned, some of the biggest challenges associated with projects of this type include: a) having the right equipment for the size of the job; b) having the right people with the relevant training and experience working for you; and c) having the time and resources to do the job (and continue it in some fashion after the grant money runs out).

There are only so many engineers that can perform preservation-quality work on this level, and there needs to be more training and outreach to the engineering community to bring them in.

I was pleased with Mike's report to the MLA meeting and am glad to hear the project is progressing well thus far. He also gave a presentation on Wednesday afternoon at the pre-conference workshop on digitizing music.


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