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A New Year’s view of at-risk audio formats

Filed under: -general,archive operations,audio,project notes — 2015-01-11 by Richard L. Hess — Last Edit 2015-01-11 by Richard L. Hess

There are many factors that affect the ability of people like us to digitize tapes for you, our clients.

One of the most difficult issues to balance is the physical space that different formats take up, the ongoing maintenance of these formats, and, to be brutally honest, their return on investment.

What we discovered is that some of the machines we were archiving for future use would not work when they were brought out of storage. Rubber parts, capacitors, and lubrication are probably the most prevalent causes of failure. We have said to clients more than once (with a wry smile), “Yes we can probably restore your tape, but first we need to restore a machine.”

Manufacturer and maintenance depot support for various formats is waning or fully discontinued. Parts are hard to come by, and good machinists with an interest in doing this are either non-existent or very expensive.

So, what formats are at risk:

DAT (Digital Audio Tape) – This format was adopted in many professional circles in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. But support for it has vanished. If you have any of these please consider 2015 as the year to transfer them to computer files.We have re-equipped our studio to handle this format with renewed interest since my previous post on the subject and have both a high-end Sony PCM-7030 which includes error logging for those transfers which must be done correctly, and several Tascam DA-20 Mark II machines. A broad spectrum of related formats are documented on this page. Of all of these, we can only transfer standard resolution DATs and the Sony 1/4-inch stereo DASH format. We have sold off the ADAT, DTRS, and DCC machines.

DASH (Digital Audio Stationary Head) – This is a broad category that encompasses most of the open-reel digital audio tape formats from Soundstream to the Sony 3348. These are also documented on this page. Machines, especially the multi-track ones, are being scrapped. The tape is now suffering from Sticky Shed,  but the normal baking process reportedly works well. We can transfer the quarter-inch stereo Sony DASH format and currently have a working PCM-3402, a second backup one and two PCM-3202 machines as further backup for this format. We suspect that barring some catastrophic component failure that these machines will last better than the much smaller and delicate other machines. But, at some point, the storage space taken up by these machines and the infrequent use they are receiving will cause them to go somewhere else. In fact, we would entertain offers from anyone interested in the pair of 3202 machines. The 3402 has been quite reliable for the limited use it has received.

Digital adapter on VCR based audio formats – This group of formats, discussed here are at extreme risk because they rely on obsolete video tape machines to reproduce the data stream which is then decoded into audio. Of all of these, we can only transfer the Sony PCM-F1 on Betamax and VHS. Others can do other formats. The PCM-1630 which was U-matic based, is included in this grouping. But, if there is a CD of the material made from the PCM-1630, it should be the same bits, so why struggle?

Minidisc – As with many consumer/prosumer formats, this morphed into multiple different formats. It appears that Electronics and Software Design Laboratory (ESDL) still has their web page up, but it is in a new format and still has some placeholder text in it. Their principal product still says it was designed for Windows 2000/XP. Please see our page here. In addition to several standard Minidisc recorders, we also have the last model made, the MZ-RH1 which will extract standard and Hi-MD stereo content via a USB connection, but what prompted us to write this article is that we have not used that for several years and just came across the fact that we have to run the XP Virtual Machine on our main Windows 7 audio computer to access the special Sony audio software. If you have anything important on Minidisc, we would strongly urge transferring it to files in 2015.

Audio Cassettes – These are becoming a bit more problematic to transfer at the high end as we have suffered maintenance issues in some of our fleet of Nakamichi Dragons. We are working on bringing them all back to top performance, but it is expensive and time consuming. We have added Nakamichi MR-1 machines (which for all normal purposes provide results indistinguishable from the Dragons after manually adjusting the azimuth). Where the Dragon is needed is on high-quality music recordings. We actually see that oral histories are more likely to be funded than music recordings. One must assume that very few good quality music recordings only exist on cassette, though a few of those have been digitized here, including a bonus track on a commercial CD. The current crop of cassette machines are not all that great as far as we can acertain. It would be nice to surprise us! Consider transferring all the cassettes in your collection that you wish to keep by the end of the decade would be our advice. We still have limited capabilities do transfer four-track cassettes (but we are looking to modify one of the Dragons to do this going forward) but have disposed of our 8-track cassette recorder. If we can place the 0.150 inch wide tape in a standard cassette shell, we can capture the audio. That is the good news about analog. A special player is not needed. This permits high-quality transfers of the 0.150-inch-wide tape-based dictation formats.

Analog Instrumentation Tapes – We are one of the few facilities that can handle 1/2- and 1-inch analog instrumentation tapes. We have transferred a seismic survey of a Montana lake and also multiple seismic tapes of the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980. However, the time between projects is increasing and we do not know how long we can dedicate the space – which is considerable – to maintaining this collection of machines. Please consider transferring these tapes sooner rather than later if they are going to be transferred. We can probably safely say that these machines will be around through 2016, but we are continuing to downsize and focus more on analog audio reels and cassettes which seem to come in a never-ending stream.

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