Digitizing Analogue Sound Recordings At The Smithsonian (In an overview)

Hello readers and followers of the Bare Bones Collective! As a member of this greatly varied and exceptional bunch of folk, I thought I’d start the blog off in a bit of a nerdy but helpful way. To fill you in on a little bit about me, I have spent the last year living in Washington DC, and working at the Smithsonian. In my spare time I have also been exploring the Appalachian music scene of the East Coast of America, playing Banjo any what and where that I can. My idea on writing this blog post is as we offer analogue recording in the way of reel-to-reel tape. I thought some of you may be interested in the details of using and recording onto this tape, it’s benefits, and why it’s so damn cool!

In this article I am going to talk about the experiences, processes, industry standards and best practices that I have learnt and been working with during my time at the Rinzler Archives at the Smithosnian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and Folkways Records. I’ll try not to get too technical and keep it brief, but as I understand I’m sure there’s a lot of you out there who will find all of this quite interesting. A lot of the recordings I’ve been working with have been Bluegrass, forms of Appalachain mountain music, blues, and various recordings from the fourty year history of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I’ll talk about two analogue formats that I have been working with a lot over the past seven months: 78rpm Records and Quarter Inch Magnetic Reel-To-Reel Tape.

Digitizing A 78rpm Record

I had a request from a friend in London a couple of months ago, from Joe Buirski. He had messaged to ask if I could take a look in the archives for a Square Dance Caller named Al Brundage. Joe is a great Banjo player, and also a hell of a caller himself, so I knew the enquiry was going to be a good one.

Upon entering Al's name into the digital database of the archive, it came back that there was a recording of him here at the archives, and that the 1947, 78rpm original copy was apparently housed in the archive in the very next room from me. (Being an archivist in training, this stuff excites me, and the thought of hunting down a piece of history to possibly re-use and revitalize is one of the best parts of the job) The record is called 'County Fair Square Dances' and sounded great. It had Al as the caller, as well as a band with Pete Seeger as the leader. At first the information about where exactly in the archive it was stored seemed vague, with the database displaying a reference number style I hadn't come across before. Needless to say, my first attempts of tracking it down failed. I then consulted with my colleague and audio digitization specialist Dave Walker who confirmed that it was an odd number, and luckily enough during our conversation, archivist Jeff Place walked by and over heard us. Jeff has been head of the archive for almost 30 years, and knows it like the back of his hand, and sure enough took us to directly where it was stored. He also had an interesting story behind it, saying that while at a collectors house not long ago he came across this record, and that the collector had kindly let Jeff take it to be stored here. It's a great looking set consisting of three 78rpm records, displayed and stored like pages from a book inside, and complete with a linear notes booklet to go with it. There are 6 tracks, one on each side of each record, and the booklet contains detailed step-by-step guides on how to do each call that Al does, complete with all of his call lyrics too!

The next step was to digitize the recording to send back to Joe. We cleaned the record as much we could, first using a can of Dust Off compressed air to remove dust and lint, followed by a wipe down with a carbon fibre anti static record brush. Next we inserted the appropriate stylus to be used to play back a 78rpm record, with the aim to cause as little damage to the groove walls as possible, preventing loss of quality for future playback. We used one with the needle size of 3.5ct. After connecting the record player to the analogue to digital converter at 96 kHz and 24.Bit, we then outputted the signal into a Tascam DR-100mkII portable recorder at the same sample and bit rate, with a signal of around -6db. Now that it was all set up, all that was left to do was record. It was great listening to the record while recording, with all of the pops and crackles adding to the old sound. Al really was a great caller on there, he even sang some of the calls into the melody of the tunes being played by the band which I thought was quite impressive! We then scanned the pages of the booklet and all was done. Joe was thoroughly impressed and happy with the recordings, and I'm sure will probably go off and use some of these calls for his own gigs which is a nice thought.

Thinking about it in a linear way, it makes you realize that some things go on quite the journeys in life. By linear, I mean from Al making these calls at dances to audiences in the 1940's, then to being recorded to make this record, to it ending up in a collectors house for many years, then passed to the Rinzler Archives here at the Smithsonian, to now being digitized and sent over to London almost 70 years later to no doubt be learnt and heard by a new generation of callers, dancers and musicians and have new life breathed into it. It really is a funny thought.

Digitizing Quarter Inch Magnetic Reel-to-Reel Tape

When approaching reel-to-reel tapes at the Rinzler archives, the first thing to always be done is an evaluation of the condition of the tape itself. Due to the age of the majority of the tapes there, these conditions vary from extremely fragile and almost unplayable, to being in perfect working order. When finding a tape that has experienced major oxide loss due to the build up of moisture in the binder (or sticky shed as it’s nicknamed), this results in fragments of the magnetic layer coming away from the tape backing, and physically and visibly falling off. If this is the case, the tape is then needed to be baked in a scientific oven at a low temperature for around eight hours, to remove the moisture and temporarily strengthen it again. Other conditions include tape that has become loosely wound inside the reel due to how long it has been stored, resulting in the warping of the tape itself. If this is the case the tape is to be fast forwarded and rewound several times to tighten it once more, and bring back the tapes original physical shape (If a tape is played back that has been warped, it will sound wobbly when playing back across the tape heads on the tape machine).

Once this evaluation has been done, we then add leader tape to the beginning and end of the tape so we can successfully record everything at both ends of the tape when playing back. A magnetic viewer is then put over the tape itself to view what kind of track position is on the tape. This is done so that the tape heads on the tape machine can be adjusted to being correctly positioned over where on the tape the sound was recorded. Once this has all been set up, the tape machines outputs are then put through an analogue to digital converter to replicate the analogue signal in a digital format, and then sent to the computer. The Rinzler archives use Stienbergs ‘Wavelab’ program, which is one of the worlds top mastering and audio editing software. Here we can adjust the gain correctly against the original signal from the tape machine, to replicate the output of the tape as closely as possible. All that is left then is to hit record, sit back, and listen to the whole of the tape in real time.

One of my favourite collections of tape that I worked with were the Doc Watson family tapes. If you haven’t heard those albums already, go out and listen to them right now! In the early sixties Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger went to Docs house and recorded him and his family playing tunes and singing songs, this resulted in dozens of tapes that are now stored at the Rinzler archives. The main master tapes had already been digitized, but it was with great honour that I was entrusted in digitizing the outtakes of these recording sessions, which hadn’t been digitized yet, and are on the verge of being unplayable in the near future due to their conditions. There were around twelve tapes altogether, consisting of tons of tunes and songs not featured on the commercially released albums, a real treat to the ears!

Anyhow I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the way that the Smithsonian go about digitizing their sound collection. If you have any questions please feel free to email me at benmcmanus338@hotmail.com, and check out my website for further things I’ve been up to here at www.benmcmanus.org

Ben McManus