Monday, February 7, 2011

That Old Tape Recorder in the Basement...

(The third entry in a six-part series on audio preservation.)

Sometimes I write things that make preservation professionals shudder.  For instance, I’m afraid I may have made Cassandra Gallegos, Preservation Administrator at George Blood Audio and Video, involuntarily shudder when I sent her the following question:

When we went to listen to these tapes, we had trouble finding a working tape cassette player.  We eventually found an old Panasonic SlimLine player that worked.  Should we be concerned about old playback systems damaging the tape when we listen to them?

If this conjures up a scene of me carelessly popping an audio cassette into a dusty tape recorder manufactured a quarter of a century ago…  Well, not only am I guilty this time but I’ve even been through this before with other valued tapes, such as the audio cassette of my wife’s and my wedding service from 23 years ago.  Finding a tape recorder that works is always a hassle.  Our basement is something of a graveyard of unusable tape recorders from years past.  I should have been more careful – both times.

Answering the questions above, Cassandra responded with good information and recommendations.  And I think I sense a gasp in her response as well, as she imagines me popping in the tape and recklessly pressing the “Play” button.

“There is potential for damage every time a tape is played back.  A cassette tape is most vulnerable as the machine pulls the tape from the cassette towards the playback head.  This is the reason that it is suggested that tapes be stored with the tape wound onto one hub.

“It is a real concern that you tried an old playback system that could have potentially damaged the tape.  Do not use old playback equipment or tape recorders without putting them through a thorough inspection, preferably by an expert.  At the very least, test the equipment in various modes (fast forward, play, stop, etc.) with a cassette that is not collection material.  Another concern is that you may accidentally record over the audio when attempting to play back the cassette.  The machines at our
studios always have the record button
removed to ensure this never happens.”

The problem of aging and obsolescent playback equipment is becoming ever more serious as each new generation of audio technology enters the market.  There are relatively few people qualified to repair the old machines and replacement parts can be hard to find.  This being the case, the best solution may be to migrate the audio information to a newer format (say, audio cassette to CD) and then only listen to it in the new version.  Preserve the original, of course.  But only use the new copy.

© 2010 Lee Price

1 comment:

  1. In our defense: we have only used a copy of our wedding tape for a number of years, and have had it copied to CD (which we will use in the future)since our last anniversary. And I DID test the tape player on a less important tape before we used it this time.