Baking Tape

Ampex_tape

“You young whippersnappers have no idea how lucky you are,” said in a shaky old voice by an old radio fart pointing a cane, menacingly, in your direction.

I hope I never have to go back to the days of editing audio on reel-to-reel tape. While I sometimes miss the tactile nature of moving the tape back and forth manually and cutting with a razor blade, I oh-so-much-prefer “highlight and delete” on a digital editor. What took minutes, now takes seconds.

On top of the trials and tribulations of editing, tape was fragile and needed to be handled and stored with care. And, eventually, despite your best preservation efforts, tape gets old — dried-out, brittle, squeaky… What a pain!

Believe it or not, one method of salvaging old tape is baking. For reals. If you stick the tape in an oven following some very specific instructions, you stand a chance of  hearing what’s on the tape again.

On this edition of HowSound, a trip down memory…. okay, I’m not going to finish that…. a story about baking tape from Audiobrien, a commercial production house in Sydney, Australia. After listening, you’ll wipe your brow and say “Whew! Glad I don’t have to mess with tape.”

Cheers, Rob

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6 comments to Baking Tape

  • This episode brought back memories. I recently told some young colleagues how we did things in the “old days” – razor blades and splicing tape. They were unimpressed. I thought it was a real art form myself.

    By the way, I held the razor blade between my teeth many a time.

  • Dan Epstein

    I learned editing on open reel tape also, splicing two and four-track 1/4 inch tape. It is an art form and I while really, really like digital editing, I miss the feel of tape in my hands. I have a closet full of reels and I still have my Tascam 4 and 2 track machines. I’m out of razor blades and yellow grease pencils, though.

    And now I must, and no joke here, figure out why my modern digital editing application won’t work. I think it’s going to be a case of just dumping it and getting something else. The downside of modern digital editing is managing the hardware-software compatibility complexities.

  • Thom

    I am a sound archivist in a large recorded sound archive in the United States.

    It’s an awesome thing you guys are talking about legacy tape formats, which house the bulk of audio heritage from the late 1940s until the early 2000′s. The earliest tapes had a backing which was paper, which was then replaced by cellulose acetate, before polyester urethane became the norm in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Acetate tape is the tape that becomes the most dried out and brittle, and unlike polyester tape, will conveniently snap and can be spliced back together. But, acetate-backed tape should not be baked. There were many kinds of backings and binders in use in the 1970s, but the quickest way (and largely most accurate) way to tell if a tape is acetate-backed or polyester-backed is to hold the reel up to a light. If you can see the light through the tape pack (that is, it is translucent), what you have is a tape which is acetate. If no light comes through, it is probably polyester-backed. There is a lot of myth around tape baking, so if you have a large collection I’d suggest reading up on some of the literature of preservation and digitization of audiovisual carriers. (And actually, video formats can be audio-only, analog or digital). Also, check the splices (which are still tape), to make sure they’re in good shape. Good storage involves maintenance of the original tape on a stable hub (with no slots), slow winding to maintain an even pack with no windowing or ridges in cool conditions with low humidity.

    There are a number of resources that describe how to store and handle audio carriers on the Web, put together largely by libraries and archives and preservation studios which service their collections. A basic guide can be found at the Library of Congress Recorded Sound Reference Center website at http://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/record.html. There are also a number of publications published by IASA (the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives) [esp. IASA TC-04, Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects) and reports published by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) at http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports. The COOL website (Conservation Online at Stanford) also gives more resources. And if you don’t want to do it yourself, there is a small industry who works with the digitization of audio and video formats, and libaries and archives who may want your collections. The Association of Recorded Sound Collections Technical Committee has put together a directory of vendors which can be found at http://www.arsc-audio.org/audiopreservation.html. And since we’re talking about radio content, you should know that there are many initiatives to preserve the legacy of public radio, such as the American Archive and the Pop Up Archive. Working together audio producers and stations can help meet the goal of the recently published Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan (http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub156) to save America’s recorded sound heritage for future generations.

    • Thom — You are incredibly generous! Thanks so much for taking the time to write and provide this information. It’s an excellent resource for folks interested in preserving tape. Hats off to you! Do you by chance happen to know of organizations that fund preservation projects? Again, thanks! — r

      • Thom

        Yes, there are some private foundations who provide grants for preservation and access of archival collections, as well as organizations like CLIR, NEH, IMLS, and ARSC. I think there are links in some of the resources I’ve given above.

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