Restoration Tips & Notes Working with audio media (mostly tape) restoration


New Degrading Tapes page

Filed under: project notes,Tape Aging — Richard L. Hess @ 23:59

We have pulled the list of degrading analog audio tapes out of the blog postings (which age) and put this information into the Formats hierarchy under Analog Audio Tapes, click here. Please note that we have fudged the hierarchy by starting the title with a hyphen, so it sorts to the top of the Analog Audio Tape grouping, above 0.15″ cassettes.

We hope to update this as we come across more types. January 2009 was, sadly, fruitful in finding at least some batch(es) of two tapes from 1990 (Agfa PEM 526) and 2003 (Emtec SM911) are degrading. The Emtec SM911 was thought to be more-or-less immune from this disease. As of this writing, it has been confirmed that batch number B0134007 was involved.

Back-coat turning to powder

Filed under: project notes,Tape Aging — Richard L. Hess @ 23:47

We have just seen a modification on the Sticky Shed Syndrome (SSS) failure mode. This is a case where the back-coat of the tape is turning to powder. The oxide was brown but yet it left a black, non-sticky accumulation of powder on the reproduce head. This accumulation would drastically reduce the high frequency response of the system due to spacing loss. We did bake the tape and we’re not sure that helped significantly, although it did not appear to make the problem worse. We would NOT recommend baking these tapes in the future. Ultimately, Pellon wiping of the mag coat during transfer after several pre-wipes for the length of the tape solved this.

Agfa PEM-526 exhibited this odd behaviour. The tape was recorded in 1990.

There is also a discussion about PEM-469 showing similar behaviour here.

For a current list of degrading analog tapes, click here.


ARSC Journal Tape Degradation article available online

Filed under: archive operations,audio,computer/data,Tape Aging,video — Richard L. Hess @ 22:47

My paper on “Tape Degradation Factors and Challenges in Predicting Tape Life” that was published in the Fall 2008 issue of the ARSC Journal is now available online. Click here.


Peter Copeland Audio Restoration Handbook now available

Filed under: archival practices,audio,education — Richard L. Hess @ 18:59

I consider myself fortunate to have been one of many recipients of Peter Copeland’s generous assistance while working with some challenging tapes. I was saddened by his too-early passing in 2006.

The British Libary has now published his Handbook (click here).


Another way to identify a tape with Sticky Shed Syndrome (SSS)

Filed under: archival practices,reels,Tape Aging — Richard L. Hess @ 00:18

For a current list of degrading analog tapes, click here.

Teaching people how to identify tapes that are suffering from sticky shed syndrome is often difficult.

I would like to propose that a careful inspection of how the tape comes off the pack may be a good way. Please provide comments as to how it’s working for you.

The tape should come off the tape pack at a precise tangent to the tape. If the tape starts to adhere and not pull off straight, that is a sure sign that the tape needs baking.

Of course, don’t bake acetate tapes even if they show this indicator, but on the last batch of questionable SSS tapes, I’ve been looking at this and it’s a fair indicator, and it seems to show at the outer edge of the pack.

More than one “test” or “factor” is needed to be sure, but this one is looking good.

Another almost sure sign of SSS is brown oxide and black back-coat.


Mono and stereo cassettes

Filed under: archival practices,cassettes — Richard L. Hess @ 13:29

The format page for 0.15 inch wide tape has a drawing (click for large version) that clearly shows that mono cassettes have one wide track and stereo cassettes split this track in half and add a small guard band. Most mono cassette recorders follow this format. It turns out that the mono Marantz PMD201 uses a two-channel head and records dual mono. Most other mono recorders seem to follow the standard.

While this is a theoretical problem, few if any good mono recorders are available for reproducing these tapes anyway, so most of us in the domain transfer field use good quality stereo machines for all cassette transfer work.

UPDATE 2012: While it is often possible to sum the channels if the Dragon finds proper azimuth, on many low-quality tapes this proper azimuth is not achieved. Now that azimuth correction (at least the time delay portion) is available for a reasonable price in iZotope RX2 Advanced, I have found that after correcting for time delay between channels that I can now sum both (if they are worthy of it) and reduce the noise prior to applying the noise reduction plug-in. (more…)

CD-DVD printing revisited

Filed under: archive operations,tools — Richard L. Hess @ 13:16

For many years, I had been in favour of the Primera Z1 small optical disc printer. When Primera discontinued this several years ago, I was not pleased and purchased two as spares, hoping at least the ribbons would continue.

It appears that I am not alone in thinking this is a good product as it has resurfaced as the U-Print CDP78, now in black, and available from many online distributors. The cartridges appear to be interchangeable with the Primera. I can now suggest that this is a good alternative for safe, long-lasting, and reasonably attractive text labeling of CDs and DVDs. It appears that the Teac P11 is also similar. The last time I checked, the Casio required manual rotation of the disk, rather than the Primera’s automatic rotation.

Please provide me with any feedback pro or con—preferably as comments to this post.


MD5 Checksums bring peace of mind

Filed under: archival practices,data storage — Richard L. Hess @ 19:35

If you ever worry about a bit error happening to your files and not finding out about it, you should use MD5 checksums (or some similar method) to be able to verify that the file has not changed.

The general theory behind a checksum (or “Message Digest” = “MD”) is that it provides a unique 128-bit number for each and every file, based on its content. If one bit changes, the MD5 checksum (sometimes called “hash”) changes. The checksum is repeatable, does not permit discovery of two different files that produce the same checksum, and is non-reversible (i.e. you can’t create the content from the checksum). (more…)


A solution to reduce spoking in old acetate tapes

Filed under: archival practices,Racal Store 4DS,reels,Tape Aging — Richard L. Hess @ 10:48

It appears that many old acetate tapes when played on high-quality audio recorders will suffer spoking when left in a play wind condition. I have discussed this problem here. Since posting that, I have taken one of my Racal Store 4DS recorders and removed the heads to save them from wear and now use that to re-spool any tape that shows spoking when played on a Studer A80, Sony APR-5000, or Studer A810. (more…)


TAPE Project Audio Tape Digitisation Workflow

Filed under: archival practices,reels — Richard L. Hess @ 19:12

The Training for Audiovisual Preservation in Europe (TAPE) Project has just published an excellent Audio Tape Digitisation Workflow document here. It is authored by Juha Henriksson of the Finnish Jazz & Pop Archive and Nadja Wallaszkovits of Phonogrammarchiv, Austrian Academy of Sciences. It is aimed at the newcomer but still addresses all of the major points without being overwhelming. (more…)


Digital storage file systems and topologies

Filed under: archival practices,audio,data storage,video — Richard L. Hess @ 17:12

Once again, an interesting post on Jill Hurst-Wahl’s Digitization 101 Blog. She started by discussing tape backup issues. In the comments, I discussed my solution of using multiple spinning disks. Another commenter, Ike, provided an extensive review of file system options and his opinions on what works (and doesn’t) for long-term storage. Ike’s comment is fascinating and has lots of food for thought. Here is the post. (more…)


Winding tapes for long-term storage—a quandary

Filed under: archival practices,storage-care-handling — Richard L. Hess @ 17:09

In 2006, I wrote a blog post (here) called “Let Sleeping Tapes Lie: What to do with poorly wound tapes”. For years, tape experts have been suggesting that it is not as good an idea to rewind tapes as was originally thought. This was partially based on the fact that most rewinding in archives was done on the oldest, junkiest machines so as to not wear out the good machines. Unless rewinding is done on high-quality tape transports, it is indeed counter-productive.

We continue to receive poorly wound tapes and are able to play them successfully. So why the quandary now? The reason is that I read portions of another Bharat Bhushan book, Mechanics and Reliability of Flexible Magnetic Media, 2nd Edition, New York, Springer, 2000. Referring to several research papers he makes a compelling case that tapes should be rewound annually if subject to storage environment fluctuations and every 3.5 years if kept in a climate controlled storage area. (more…)


StoryCorps experience including equipment discussion

My friend Susan Kitchens and her brother took their parents to the StoryCorps recording session in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. She blogged it here. One of the neat things is that between her article and the discussion she and I had in the comments, we have a good handle on most of the equipment that was used in the trailer. It’s a good selection in my opinion and shows how simply good-quality recording systems can be set up. Further discussions from a StoryCorps representative have shown how clever the setup is.

Hard disk formats for interchange

Filed under: data storage,storage-care-handling,tools — Richard L. Hess @ 16:11

The question of how to format hard disks (i.e. what file system to use on them) for easy interchange is another FAQ. A recent experience brought home the fact that it is more complex than one might hope. The computer industry is headed towards universal readability, but it is not there yet. The most-able-to-be-read-and-written format appears to be FAT32, although my friend Eric Jacobs makes the point that NTFS is a more robust hard disk file system, and I have to agree. (more…)


Aligning a tape recorder

Filed under: archival practices,cassettes,recording/mastering,reels — Richard L. Hess @ 14:18

It seems some people new to tape are confused over how to align a tape recorder. This is the abbreviated version.

If you want to record on a tape recorder (and I do not recommend doing that these days as you’re just generating more tapes that will need to be transferred later) the first thing to do is get the playback correct.

  1. CLEAN the machine. (more…)


Using the proper tools…and don’t try this at home!

Filed under: archival practices,Racal Store 4DS,recording/mastering — Richard L. Hess @ 22:10

I didn’t think I needed to write this post, but it appears that someone purchased a Racal Store 4DS Instrumentation Recorder at least partially because I mentioned it, hoping that it would work as a four-track recorder for creating music. (more…)


Magnetic Tape Splicing

Filed under: archive operations,cassettes,reels — Richard L. Hess @ 16:36

I received an email asking me to discuss tape splicing. Most of my work is now repairing old splices so I try and butt them together as best I can in an Edi-Tall block and use the blue Quantegy splicing tape (which will become harder to find with Quantegy exiting the business). I will not be evaluating a replacement for several years as I bought a large supply a few years ago. (more…)


How to play 4-track 1.875 in/s tapes…

Filed under: archival practices,Racal Store 4DS,Sony APR-5000 — Richard L. Hess @ 11:25

I received a query from a gentleman in Europe about 1.875 in/s 4-track tapes. He was frustrated in finding a good machine for transferring them. Apparently, they have many of these tapes. Here are my suggestions.

Perhaps the easiest answer is to find a Studer-Revox C274 with low speed options. They were made.

Two other options. (more…)


Studer A80 Covers — protection and more work area

Filed under: archive operations,infrastructure,Studer A80 — Richard L. Hess @ 19:49

A simple, 5-sided box solves two problems:
–Protection of the Studer A80
–Providing more work surface

Studer A80 cover



Success with squealing Shamrock 031 tape

Filed under: project notes,Racal Store 4DS,Tape Aging — Richard L. Hess @ 15:06

I spent days trying to get Shamrock 031 to play without much success. Since this is an Ampex factory budget brand (probably non-spec premium tape) I thought that it might be suffering from Sticky Shed Syndrome. I baked it for 12 hours and it still squealed. I then tried my usually successful cold playing technique and it still squealed. Cold playing has worked successfully with 3M 175 and Sony PR-150.

I was getting rather frustrated and since it was a four-track tape and one of the techniques that is supposed to reduce squeal is to play the tape faster, I dragged out my Racal Store 4DS instrumentation recorder which has a 75,000 Hz bandwidth at 15 in/s and played it at 15 in/s and digitized it at 88,200 samples per second. After slowing it down 4x and ending up with a 10 kHz bandwidth (which I subsequently truncated to 5 kHz since there was no useful information above that, but lots of noise–same as the non-squealing portion of the real-time transfers on a Studer A810).

 Racal Store 4DS playing formerly squealing Shamrock tape



Can I destroy my originals after I digitize them?

Filed under: archival practices — Richard L. Hess @ 15:36

Jill Hurst-Wahl in her excellent blog “Digitization 101” asks this question and provides some good answers with reasons. You can read it here.


Playback of NAB 2-track tapes on a DIN Stereo (Butterfly) head

Filed under: archival practices,matching head to tape,reels — Richard L. Hess @ 10:12

I received a query from Sweden today asking

I have a Studer machine with butterfly heads with which I’d like to reproduce
tapes recorded with normal two track heads. Theoretically, how much more noise,
in dB, would I get from playing the “empty” part of the tape?

Let’s look at the assumptions.



Seeing the tracks II — An improved magnetic viewing system

Filed under: magnetic record viewing,magnetic tape developing,tools — Richard L. Hess @ 21:41

I first wrote about seeing the tracks here in March of 2006. While these solutions work, the Plastiform viewer needs to be kept in a humidor and the Kyread spray is a bit of mess to use and the results are variable. One result of the Kyread treatment can be seen here (please wait for the pictures to load, it’s a big page).

Here is what appears to be a vastly improved solution:

Closeup of the viewer (more…)


Soft Binder Syndrome and Sticky Shed Syndrome

Filed under: storage-care-handling,Tape Aging — Richard L. Hess @ 16:17

For a current list of degrading analog tapes, click here.

For several years, we have been discussing the differences between Sticky Shed Syndrome (SSS) and Loss of Lubricant (LoL). It appears from my latest research (presented at the 2006 Audio Engineering Society’s 121st Convention in San Francisco in October) that LoL does not really factor into the equation for most tapes and that an overarching failure mode is Soft Binder Syndrome, or SBS. Sticky Shed Syndrome appears to be a subset of SBS. (more…)


Securing the end of a tape to the reel

Filed under: reels,storage-care-handling — Richard L. Hess @ 18:41

I receive many tapes that use very creative methods of securing the end of tapes to reels. Some don’t do it at all. Most 1/4-inch tapes are secured as shown below. Sadly, the superior Zebra tape is no longer available. This is the traditional crepe-paper type of tape sold for the application. The picture below should explain all.

Taping a tape to a reel


circa 1943 German acetate tape: anomaly or mine canary?

Filed under: project notes,Tape Aging — Richard L. Hess @ 17:47

A few months ago, I transferred several Tonschreiber tapes which were IG Farben Magnetophonband Typ C manufactured in Germany prior to the end of 1943. These had been stored in their almost-sealed steel cans and stunk. The best description of the smell was old lemon chicken.

We know that the sealed can will accelerate the vinegar syndrome degradation. The big question is are these tapes an anomaly or the mine canary for some (or all) acetate tapes?

The composite photo below shows some of the conditions that we found. Note especially the rolled outer strands showing extreme shrinkage from vinegar syndrome.

Tonschreiber Tape

Click for a larger image.

We were able to transfer these tapes,   but the sound quality suffered due to the unsteadiness of the tape transport. The quality of the sound was due mostly to the fact that this was recorded at 30 in/s (probably 77 cm/s) with a full-track head. Nothing beats areal density for robustness.


Acetate tape buffered by cardboard box

Filed under: storage-care-handling,Tape Aging — Richard L. Hess @ 19:22

I have been suggesting for many years that one of the reasons that acetate audio tapes have not suffered from vinegar syndrome to the extent that acetate films have suffered from this malady is because of differing storage practices. In general, film for many years was stored in sealed cans while tape has generally been stored in cardboard boxes.

I recently came across a 3-inch reel of acetate tape, not in its original box, that showed the following pattern in the box. This tape was recorded in Fall of 1964 and the photo was taken on October 2006, 42 years later. The tape played well, considering it was originally recorded at 1.88 (1-7/8) in/s.

Box discoloured by acetate breakdown products

All of the outgassed material that was absorbed by the cardboard was no longer free to degrade the tape.


Azimuth: Hows and Whys

Filed under: archival practices,education,matching head to tape,recording/mastering — Richard L. Hess @ 11:07

There is a recurring question as to what is the best way to set azimuth for playing a tape. Many people assume that using the test-tape alignment is best. Well, that makes another big assumption: The recorder used a proper test tape alignment. While that can be the case, it usually is not. (more…)


DSS and other compressed digital files in an oral history archive

Filed under: archival practices,computer audio,dss — Richard L. Hess @ 11:09

With budget limitations, it appears that oral histories are being recorded with little thought to their long-term preservation. While this appears to have been the case in the past as well, with purchasing agents buying the cheapest white-box tape that they could find, continuing this into the digital age needs to be reconsidered.

The cost savings in using bargain-basement digital speech recorders are offset by the labour required to reformat these files upon their receipt by an archive and also the fidelity of the recording suffers, and with fidelity, intelligibility also suffers.

DSS was an industry standard agreed upon by Olympus, Grundig, and Philips in 1994. (more…)


Noise reduction plug-ins

Filed under: archival practices,cassettes,Nakamichi Dragon,reels — Richard L. Hess @ 07:37

The question seems to regularly arise on mailing lists and chat rooms about Dolby and dbx plug-ins. I don’t think it will happen and I added that comment and some hopefully helpful operational hints to my noise-reduction page, here.

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