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Sound archives decaying

05 Mar 03 - 03:57 AM (#903801)
Subject: Sound archives decaying
From: Steve Parkes

We all know about wax cylinders disintegrating and old movie film turning to jelly (jell-o, if you're over there!), but shellac 78s, vinyl discs and audio tapes are also starting to die too.

There's an article in this week's UK New Scientist about it. Unfotunatey, it's not on their website so I can't link to it; it will be in the archive, but you need to be a subscriber to access that. It's far too long for me to attempt to copy out, so I'll try and make a préis.

"Acetate" discs were used for personal recordings from 30s to the 50s. They comprised a glass or aluminium disc with a coating of cellulose nitrate into which the gramophone recording was made. The coating hardens as it dries out, eventaully turning to white powder. [I have a couple, and it's not a pretty sight.] If they are stored without jackets they can stick together.

Magnetic audio tape even as little as thirty years old can go soft as the binder oozes out of the base. Even when the tape doesn't break, the binder can stick the turns together on the reel and gum up the tape machine. The master for The Eagles' "Hotel California" has gone that way. The only solution is to bake the tape for up to eight hours at 55 degrees C, but the tape can only be played once after that.

The signal can fade in the oxide, even if the tape is intact; and can "print through" to adjacent sections of tape, if stored for long periods.

Even CDs "aren;t as permanent as archivists had hoped", although they don't go into details. I'mm planning to digitally record my collection of 78s and mag tapes in the near future -- although what I'll have to do to to maintain the CDs, I don't know!

There's a couple of links from the article: Save Our Sounds at the Smithsonian (there's an interesting interview with Jerry Garcia on another page) and the National Sound Archive in Britain.

If you have any old recordings, start thinking about saving them!


05 Mar 03 - 04:01 AM (#903802)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying

I've started recording my old tapes onto minidisc. Its quick and cheap to do. Just a line out from a tape player (from the headphone socket) into the line-in of the minidisc recorder. The quality is very good.

05 Mar 03 - 04:07 AM (#903805)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Roger the Skiffler piano rolls will no doubt get brittle with time but they're standing up OK at the moment,the oldest and most played show wear at the holes as you'd expect.


05 Mar 03 - 04:48 AM (#903823)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: JohnInKansas

Some good points here. Another thread discussing this issue is at How Well Do CDs last?, if you'd like to take a look at what some of us thought about it about a year ago.

"Premium" CD blank manufacturers are claiming "hundred year" life now, although I don't know of any who've had CDs around long enough to be sure. That's an extrapolation from "accelerated aging" tests which can give a fair indication of whether one medium is better than another, but putting a precise "life" on it is like saying how long one of us is going to last.

Conversion of old analog stuff to digital will probably help, because you can still pull up the same "bits" even if the individual bits get a little warped. The question of what media to put the bits on to archive them is still something of a puzzle. The only thing certain is that there's no such thing as a "permanent" medium. Any archiving method will require maintenance if we want the longest possible access to the "original" sounds.


05 Mar 03 - 05:07 AM (#903827)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Nigel Parsons

It seems to be a case of archive to CD now, and re-copy at suitable intervals. Presumably 2nd 3rd ...nth generation copies will show some information degradation, but if copies of the initial CDs are re-copied onto top of the range CDs (say) every 10 years then once we get to that century claim we will have copies of the CD's at decade intervals (although it is a logarithmic scale, it would help to re-copy the CDs from decade 2 during decades 3 4 & 5, and likewise the CDs from Decade 3 in decades 4 5 & 6 etc.,).
If this (or something similar) is done then we will be able to identify which discs suffer greater degradation, and the life expectancy of a CD.
Is the recording kept better on the original disc (after 100 years)?
or, Is the 10th gen. copy in better condition ?
Or is the answer somewhere in between, such as the 4th gen. copy (from yr 9) of the copy made in Yr 6, which was a copy of the original CD made in Yr 3 ?
Whatever the answer to this problem, the sooner it is started the better (probably!!!)

Just to qualify that "probably" above, old books and paintings which have been carefully photocopied, patched or 'restored' may sometimes have had a better chance of a long life if they had been kept carefully until today's experts could have a go at them. Although it is unlikely that a single playing of the older forms of recording media (for recording) will cause irretrievable damage.


05 Mar 03 - 05:09 AM (#903828)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Steve Parkes

I've just read over that thread again, John (and thanks for the reminder -- I'd forgotten it). It prompted the thought: I might reasonably expect my CD archive to last twenty-thirty years; but in twenty-thirty years, I might reasonably expect to be dead (I'm 51 now). Who am I keeping it for?

P.S. I started the project so I could listen to the music!

05 Mar 03 - 05:23 AM (#903832)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: JohnInKansas

Steve -

You missed my warning to leave instructions and your index with your executor.


05 Mar 03 - 08:07 AM (#903889)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Pied Piper

I see that no one has mentioned Vinyl, which I think will last a 1000 years, no problem.

05 Mar 03 - 09:44 AM (#903939)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: GUEST,Arkie

The vinyl may last if you do not play it. I've been led to believe that a diamond needle scratching the surface of the vinyl each time it is played will eventually damage the recording.

05 Mar 03 - 10:09 AM (#903955)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: GUEST,vectis

My problem is that I've got hours of reel to reel tape that I no longer have a machine capable of playing them back on. This is because, as a broke student, I recorded them at 1-and-a-bit inches per second. The slowest tape deck I've found plays at twice that speed. I'm stumped and stymied.
Any ideas out there???
I'm based in southern England.

05 Mar 03 - 10:14 AM (#903960)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Steve Parkes

... and provided you store them properly, upright, in acid- and lignin-free sleeves, with due regard to temperature and relative humidity, avoiding mould, etc. etc. ...

You can get a laser disc-player, which will play any kind of grooved disc, shellac, vinyl or whatever: they cost around $2,000 for the basic kind! Much cheaper to get a good quality conventional deck and copy them to CD (purely for your own personal use, of course). Re-record the CDs every few years before they deteriorate. (It ought to be possible to find software that will compare your different generations of digital audio files and show how much they've deteriorated; not that it's much help after the event.) When the next-generation storage medium comes along, transfer to that. (I expect it will be molecular or quantum, or something similar out of Star Trek!)


05 Mar 03 - 10:19 AM (#903966)
Subject: Preserving recordings
From: Steve Parkes

From the Library of Congress: Preserving Sound Recordings by Stephanie A. Hall, and Caring for Your Collections.


05 Mar 03 - 11:06 AM (#903990)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: GUEST,Mr Red @ library

Steve Parkes
I have an NS subscription and can usually get any article. I will try to get the text when I get to my machine (pasword is not memorable or changeable) But I guess the links above will tell the story.

Cheap CD's have a shelf life in year(s), VHS tape used by the record industry has about 10 years before the binder starts glueing the tape to itself (digital archives) and has print-though, gold CD's are all but impossible to find. We had this discussion about archiving a very important body of work in Gloucestershire from several collectors like Paul Oliver et al - it was considered a long-termm nightmare but vynil was considered the safest given the years of experience we can actually call on for evidence.

There is only one certain thing in life - Change and for those who cite death as another certainty - consider how big a change that is!

05 Mar 03 - 01:47 PM (#904112)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Charley Noble

Well, I'll just have to memorize more songs and not count on them CD's as back-up. I suppose it might help if I actually taught the songs I love to someone else, maybe even someone else who is younger. Why in tht way those songs might even become a folk songs and be collected by someone esle who would engrave the lyrics on slate.

Charley Noble

05 Mar 03 - 04:49 PM (#904217)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: JohnInKansas

As I believe was mentioned in the other thread that was linked above, I've got a number of 60s era vinyl that have been in very safe storage, unplayed, since about then. Most of them show more deterioration just from storage than the tapes I made in the 60s/70s and which have been played fairly often.

I'm not sure that vinyl is the absolute answer, although as with any process it will depend on using the best materials, and the best methods, and controlled storage.

Much has been made of the "supposed" stability of CDs, and those burned on "commercial" equipment are probably fairly durable; but the "home brew" burners are so limited in their laser power levels that extremely sensitive chemical layers must used to record the information. If they "switch" easily with the exposure given in a PC burner, then the cumulative effects of exposure to light and temperature are likely to have a - cumulative effect. Much like old photographs.


05 Mar 03 - 05:10 PM (#904236)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Bob Bolton


Your old 4.75 cm / 1 7/8" per second tapes can be played into your computer sound card at double speed (9.5 cm / 3¾" per second) and recorded ... you can shrink them to 50% of length, adjusting pitch ... and voila! ... you have your old tapes ready to burn to CD.

Along the way, you can take a sample of blank 'tape noise' - and remove it from everything ... and even fudge the speed/pitch to adjust for any perceived inaccuracies in the original cheap recorder's tape speed.

Then you can start worrying about how long the CD-Rs are going to last (as above!).

I had to have a bundle of studio tapes baked and transcribed onto CD-R. Fortunately, all the important material has proceeded from there to a small issue on pressed CDs ... so there are 500 sets of silver based CDs preserving the material - including 2 sets in the National Library of Australia.

How long other material will last on CD-Rs is another worry! I just bought a newer computer ... with a newer CD/CD-R drive ... and it won't read some older CD-Rs from only 5 years ago. I'll have to move over the older, slower, but less picky, CD reader from my old box - at least it still reads older-dye based tracks. I'll also be backing up a lot of this material to large hard disk drives in my new portable HDD housing, so that will be an alternative storage medium (... ?).


Bob Bolton

05 Mar 03 - 05:18 PM (#904246)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: GUEST, Dale

Vectis, some of the more sophisticated programs can change the speed, so if you have 1 7/8, go ahead and record it to your hard drive at the 3 3/4.   Then you can digitally halve the speed and it SHOULD sound OK.

05 Mar 03 - 07:42 PM (#904338)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: robomatic

Guest vectis:
Bob Bolton said it for me, although I can tell you exactly what I've done. My family used to buy reel to reel pre-recorded classics and broadway show tunes. Our family reel to reel tape recorder died ages ago, and when I tried to fix it I put the lid on its coffin. So I called the local radio stations, which often have some old reel-to-reels lying around and acquired one, and play it directly into the line-in of my computer, using a program called 'Cool Edit' which is well worth the money. I use Cool Edit Light, one of the most intuitive programs around. My tape recorder has a minimum feed rate of 3-3/4 ips, but as Bob Bolton says, go ahead and digitize it at twice the normal sample rate and you should be able to adapt the data stream to the proper playback rate. I haven't had to actually do this but it should be pretty easy.

As for storage, I've found that my family's reel to reel tapes, at 7-1/2 ips, mostly produced in the US by Columbia, are in first rate condition, and superior to LPs of the time in having no clicks. We also have some Gilbert & Sullivan on the London label (made in US), and there has been some degradation of the tape, mainly brittleness.
This was ameliorated by baking the tapes in the oven for several hours at about 100 deg. Fahrenheit 40 deg Centigrade.

Steve Parkes, I'm very interested in the laster disk player, presumably a laser LP (vinyl) player. I'd heard about these, but didn't know any were on the market. I heard that in theory they can sample the vinyl at levels within the groove un-eroded by needles, so that they could make an old clicky burned out record sound like new. Any truth to that?

05 Mar 03 - 07:51 PM (#904348)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: robomatic

Recording medium and formats:

It's just not a case of the durability of the media. The chances are very good (except in the case of those early film footages done on nitro-cellulose) that the medium will outlast the format.

I have a considerable amount of music stored as mp3's, a considerable amount on CDs, a collection of hundreds of cassettes, LPs and about fifty reel to reels that I mentioned in the last post.

None of them will last forever. All but the real cheap tapes have lasted okay for up to 40 years. Probably untouched vinyl is the best of the lot if it is stored properly. CDs were touted as good forever but too many of them can't stand being bent or written on.

I think a good medium might be a big ol' hard drive. A gig is good for over an hour of music, and you can get a 120 gigs for $100 bucks if you watch for a sale.

I'm looking into DVD's but they haven't stabilized down to a good price or format yet.

But all the records in the world won't do you any good if you don't have a good turntable, and that is already becoming obvious with the reel to reels.

05 Mar 03 - 08:03 PM (#904359)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: GUEST, Dale

I wasn't trying to be repetitive of what Bob said ~~ if I had, I would have done a better job. I had the thread open quite a while before I got around to sending it. In the meantime, Bob said essentially what I said, only a whole lot better.

05 Mar 03 - 09:50 PM (#904436)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Bob Bolton

G'day again Steve (et al),

Yout paragraph:

Magnetic audio tape even as little as thirty years old can go soft as the binder oozes out of the base. Even when the tape doesn't break, the binder can stick the turns together on the reel and gum up the tape machine ... solution is to bake the tape ... tape can only be played once ...

does need a quick explanation.

This is not a general problem of all old tapes, but a specific problem with "high quality" (studio mastering, &c), usually the larger reels (7" or 10") from a certain group of manufacturers who went over to a 'great new tape substrate' that delivered the flexibilty needed for the new (stand-alone) video recording suites along with improved lubricating properties. Unfortunately ... it turned out that they hydrolised badly in a few years (or a few weeks, in New Guinea!)

It took a while before the problem was noticed ... and even longer before the manufacturer admitted that there was a problem. The tapes I refer to above were recorded 6 or 7 years after the new formula was introduced ... and by that time some alarm bells were ringing, but nobody was putting out the fire!

Anyway, older tapes ... and newer tapes ... are much more stable. Cheaper tapes that didn't opt for the new formula are (relatively) fine. The basic risk area for this particular problem is any studio or professional recordings from (~) the mid '70s to the late '80s. Someone working in the recording industry in the following decades, could probably refine this warning considerably.

vectis and Dale: On the complete speed switch adjustment: I haven't needed to do this one, decreasing speed by 50% and lowering pitch, (although I once had to do the equivalent by re-copying and speed-shifting to get a 3¾ ips dub of a collector's field recording out on a radio programme - where everything ran at 7½ ips or 15 ips), however I have made a (~) 30% slowdown of a waltz track ... retaining pitch ... to adapt a brisk waltz for a more stately style. Fortunately, the playing stood up to the increased scrutiny!

I must suspect that such an extreme change could restrict your high frequencies to only 10 KHz ... but your 4.75 cm / 1 7/8" per second tapes have probably already done that!


Bob Bolton

05 Mar 03 - 10:50 PM (#904465)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: GUEST,.gargoyle

Thank you for the heads-up!

It is a "wake-up-call" for me to begin archiving...been "meaning to do it" for at least six years.


05 Mar 03 - 11:54 PM (#904499)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Mark Clark

If you have recordings that simply can't be replaced but really must be preserved, there are services such as LP2CD that will work hard to clean and restore the recordings and put them on CD for you. The key here isn't just that they save them but they claim to really restore the sound quality as well.

I have some old demo platters that I need to preserve and have been thinking that a service like this may be just the ticket.

      - Mark

11 Mar 03 - 08:58 AM (#907242)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Steve Parkes

Thanks for the link, Mark ... although if they're in the US it will be a bit expensive for me! I see LP2CD have a laser transcription service: that's the bee's knees for anything really precious. But I haven't checked out the prices ...

I managed to get a reasonably priced modern turntable and stylus that will play 78s (and 33/45 with the conventional stylus) last year and I've made a few test recordings. I've put all the discs in an accessible place and part-sorted them, so I shall make a start very soon on the archiving.


11 Mar 03 - 10:14 AM (#907308)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Pied Piper

The best way to preserve a given recording is to convert it into Digital format and chisel the numbers on to some monolithic piece of rock. Retrieving the performance however, might take some time.
All the best PP

11 Mar 03 - 10:22 AM (#907319)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: trayton


You only had to ask, I have an old but still working Philips reel to reel that will do all speeds up to 7 ½ ips .
(2 postings in 1 day doubles my life time total, see Dog Days for the other)

11 Mar 03 - 01:08 PM (#907488)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying

I've been working with Northwest Folklife to preserve the tapes that we have accumulated over 30+ years of festivals. I've also reviewed some grant proposals for funding preservation of other folk music collections.

It's a complicated problem. Up to now, there is no single, universally accepted archival storage medium for sound recordings -- some people are making new analog copies of their old tapes, while others are making digital copies on Audio CDs or other digital media.
Within the preservation community, it's understood that anything that we do today will probably be obsolete in 20 years or less, because the technology will have moved forward.

For example, audio CDs use a 16-bit/44.1 Kbps format. The best current digital converters use 24-bit/196 Kbps. In non-technical terms, that means that each second of recorded sound occupies a lot more digital bits. I don't want to get into a discussion of whetehr or not you or I can hear the difference, but the point is that an archive ought to use the highest possible quality.

Some digital formats, such as ZIP disks and the DBX digital audio-on-VHS-tapes system that was popular for a couple of years require playback equipment made by only one manufacturer. Will they be available fifty years from now? Other formats (such as DAT tapes) are notorious for mechanical breakdown. An archived recording on a format that you can't play is as good as lost.

Equally important for those of us who are trying to preserve old tapes of folk music, there are several access issues. Many of us have tapes that we've been saving for years, some of which is unique--live concerts and jam sessions, field recordings and so forth--but nobody else knows what the tapes contain. Unless the recordings are cataloged, and the catalog is available to the rest of the world, it's likely to be lost when the original owner dies.

And then there's the whole question of copyright. Who owns the rights to the music on your tapes? And who owns the rights to the performance and to the recording itself? Those could be three separate people or organizations. What are you as a public or private archive legally allowed to do with the recordings in your collection?

If you have old tapes, or wire recordings, or acetates or other unique recordings, do consider making digital copies, but don't throw away the originals. It's entirely possible that the next generation of preservationists will have new and better tools for recovering the sounds from those old media. And please, please make sure that somebody else knows what you have.

11 Mar 03 - 01:51 PM (#907527)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Steve Benbows protege

There is a package called " Audio cleaning lab" from a company called e-dream. you line a record player/tape deck/ c.d player into your p.c and then can remaster your records. I PERSONALLY CANNOT DO THIS. I have the package but: A) my computer did not like it when i tried and B) I don't have the technical knowledge of computers.
   However, if you are computer minded; a mate of mine has the exact package i've got and he says that it is brilliant. It burns tapes, records etc to c.d. It can take out crackles, hisses, you can add reverb/ effects but JUST DON'T ASK ME HOW TO DO IT.

11 Mar 03 - 03:09 PM (#907604)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: JohnInKansas

An addition to GUEST comment:

Save the original, as noted.

If you convert to some other format, save the original unaltered conversion separately. It may provide something that can be cleaned up to better quality later, as technology advances, if the original deteriorates or is lost.

Make changes - removing hiss, blurps, farts and other noise ONLY on a second copy. You can't really remove the "noise" without throwing away part of the original, and if you add a little reverb or other effects, they may be harder to get rid of later than the original static.


11 Mar 03 - 04:42 PM (#907672)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Bob Bolton

G'day GUEST (11 Mar 03 - 01:08 PM)

Your Paragraph:
" ... and the DBX digital audio-on-VHS-tapes system that was popular for a couple of years require playback equipment made by only one manufacturer. Will they be available fifty years from now?"

The situation for this particular technology is even worse (here in Australia, anyway!). I have a box full of Beta(Cam?) tapes recorded by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission [now Corporation])at '90s Bush Music Festivals. These have been encoded via a PCM (Pulse Code Modulator) ... into a Beta machine. It is reasonably possible to find a good Beta or BetaCam player - but PCMs make rocking horse droppings look common!

My usual retieval/conversion service, Archival Revival, can happily extract sound from a wax Edison cylinder from 1900 ... or bake up sticky studio tapes from 1980 to remaster ... but they can't locate a PCM to retrieve digital recordings from 1995! (I must admit that I have now tracked down an acquaintance who made up PCMs, from scratch, for special medical research recorders ... if he can still get the parts ... and the spec for the PCM conversion ... he might be able to decode this one - but we are talking about a process still in use little more than a decade ago.)

Copy it all now, if you have the appropriate technology. Store it on the best media you can reasonably obtain. Detail all the tracks, informants/performers/events/dates and attach that to both originals and new format copies. Store the originals - and the data -under the best possible archival conditions.

Maybe it will survive!


Bob Bolton

11 Mar 03 - 11:52 PM (#907928)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: johnross

That long GUEST posting was from me. I've been cleaning cookies and must have lost my Mudcat login in the process.

In general, I agree with johninkansas about not adding processing to the archival copies. However, I am willing to apply some gentle noise filtering to hissy tapes during the transfer from analog to digital. The emphasis is on gentle. Proper application of a professional-quality analog or digital noise reduction system (such as the Dynafex) is pretty good at removing noise without degrading content.

I should add that our own archiving plan is to make hig-definition digital copies (as WAV files) on duplicate hard drives, and a third set of audio CDs for listening. We'll probably use two different brands of hard drives, as further protection against mechanical failure.

As for Bob's Beta/PCM tapes, you might want to join the ARSC (Association for Recorded Sound Collections) mailing list and ask if anybody there has the requisite equipment. For information, see

If you do plan to conserve a collection of tapes, please spend some time learning what other people are doing before you start. The Library of Congress, ARSC and many other archives around the world are already working on these projects, and it's been my experience that most of the technical experts are happy to offer advice.Learning from somebody else's mistakes is a lot cheaper than repeating them.

12 Mar 03 - 12:17 AM (#907937)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Podger

the oldest and most played show wear at the holes as you'd expect.

kinda like my old girlfriends

12 Mar 03 - 07:30 AM (#908094)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Bob Bolton

G'day johnross,

I'll follow up your link ... Hre in Australia, I am in contact with the sound boffins at the National Library of Australia / ScreenSound Archive. My main contact has been in the area of field collected music, but the preservation of ageing recordings important concerts and 'revival' folksingers is becoming urgent!


Bob Bolton

19 May 03 - 06:37 PM (#955750)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: diesel

As a thought, would it not be better to copy onto the the most readily available (ie. popular) format, rather than onto the best.

I think of the Betamax/VHS formats, Beta was supposed to be the best but vhs got the market. VHS is only now coming against digital competition but is still readily available, but harder to find the beta-players.

Just a thought


18 Jul 03 - 05:25 AM (#985762)
Subject: RE: Sound archives decaying
From: Steve Parkes

... and see Sound restoration