Preserving the Grammys, and More

(The following is a guest post written by Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation.)

Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, located in Culpeper, Va.

Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, located in Culpeper, Va.

With this year’s Grammy Awards event coming this weekend, it seems a good time to talk about recorded sound preservation. While you may not be on the edge of your seat about whether Daft Punk will win Album of The Year over Taylor Swift, you might be interested in the preservation of recordings made by past Grammy nominees. For example, in 1958 – the first year of the awards ceremony – “The Music From Peter Gunn,” by Henry Mancini, won Best Album. That record was named to the Library of Congress’ 2010 National Recording Registry, and we expect to acquire the original master tapes soon as a gift from the Mancini family. Those tapes will serve as the source recordings for Recorded Sound Section audio engineers at the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation to create archival-quality digital preservation files, which in turn will be stored and sustained in the campus’ multi-petabyte digital archive.

That scenario for Mancini’s landmark soundtrack album is as good as it gets in audio preservation. Unfortunately, it isn’t the norm. At the Packard Campus, the Library holds one of the largest and most comprehensive audio collections in the world. Formats range from brown wax cylinders recorded in the 1890s, before mass-production molding methods were invented, to digital files arriving on hard drives. In all, that’s more than 3 million recordings – and all in need of some kind of preservation treatment.

In fact, it may surprise you that some digital formats are more at risk of loss than the 120-year-old cylinders. Some early digital formats were proprietary, requiring a specific manufacturer’s machine to record and play them back. It took only a few years for most of these technologies to become obsolete, and now, 20 years later, finding operational decks to play them is very difficult. So, though the recordings themselves may survive in good physical condition, they are unplayable. Technological obsolescence is one of the major obstacles to preserving audio.

Another challenge is sheer volume. Recordings are time-based media, and they must be played to be preserved, one at a time. Well, not always one at a time. Two of our transfer rooms in the Recorded Sound Section’s audio lab are designed for high-throughput digitization. Audiocassettes and some tape-reel formats can be digitized using simultaneous, multi-channel playback. In simpler terms, by running multiple tape players at the same time through a digital audio workstation, we can drastically increase our productivity. In this process, the engineers can’t listen to everything – only parts of each tape are sampled. Problems could be missed, as the process isn’t perfect. It is in fact a compromise made in the face of overwhelming numbers of recordings that will otherwise physically degrade before they can be digitized. For the 150,000 cassettes in the collections of the Library, it is the only viable approach to save them for future listeners.

Physical degradation is the primary threat to magnetic-tape recording formats and lacquer discs (a widely used professional recording technology developed in the early 1930s, used for recording radio broadcasts, field recordings and studio sessions). Some good news is that when properly stored, even these formats seem to stabilize considerably, and the vaults at the Packard Campus are state-of-the-art. But the clock is ticking even for materials kept in ideal storage conditions. And the scary truth is that there are millions of magnetic tapes, many unique, one-of-a-kind recordings, being stored in basements, garages and attics everywhere. On a recent visit to New Orleans I saw one of the most remarkable collections of sports interviews anywhere – rare recordings of hundreds of sports figures, being stored in a garage. That these tapes made it through Hurricane Katrina was a miracle, but how many more Louisiana summers can they survive?

The challenges are complex and daunting. But great progress has been made. Thanks to David Woodley Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute, we now have the Packard Campus facility. Anyone can listen to what we’ve preserved in the Library’s Recorded Sound Research Center in Washington, D.C. And, speaking of the Grammys, the Library was bestowed an honorary Grammy Award last year for its work over the past decade in preserving historic audio recordings.

We also have one of the best free streaming audio websites ever, the National Jukebox.

And finally, we have a “plan.” For more information about the challenges and solutions to preserving our miraculous, world-changing recorded sound legacy, check out the Library’s National Recording Preservation Plan, published in December of 2012. You can download a free PDF here.

One Comment

  1. Charles Stanhope
    January 28, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Gene and Culpeper colleagues, you continue a very important responsibility, preserving the sound legacies of the Nation and the world. I fill with pride to remember the small role I may have played along the way to where the Library is now. I really enjoyed this post. Keep up the good work. The US taxpayers’ dollars are being put to very good use there. Thanks for this update.

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