The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 23, Number 3

Sound Recording in the Digital Age:
Notes from the Field, Part 2

by Charles Hardy III

The author ( is an oral historian in the Department of History at West Chester University, Pennsylvania. He first gave this paper at the August 1997 SAA conference in Chicago. Ten months later he gave it again at an American Library Association Preconference at the National Archives, before an audience made up mainly of sound archivists.

In Part I, which appeared in the last issue, the author discussed the problems faced when attempting to preserve oral histories recorded on low-fidelity equipment, and stressed the need for higher recording standards as we enter the new digital age.

What About DAT ?

For close to a decade now I have heard oral historians and archivists tell me that they will not purchase a DAT [Digital Audio Tape] recorder because the medium will not last. But despite endless reports of its imminent demise, DAT is still here, manufacturers continue to introduce more affordable and reliable recorders, more and more sound documentarians and oral historians replace their analog cassette with DAT recorders, and according to the engineers and manufacturing representatives I have talked to, DAT will remain the digital recorder of choice for the foreseeable future.

In addition to gorgeous sound, DAT has operational advantages over analog cassette: sound quality undiminished when dubbed; a real-time counter in hours, minutes and seconds; high-speed fast forward and rewind; a facility for placing markers on the tape, which enables them to go directly to preselected locations; and an SMPTE time coding option for video documentary production and other time-critical work. DAT cassettes, now comparable in price to high-bias analog cassettes, also permit up to two hours of continuous recording, eliminating the need to turn the cassette over every half hour or forty-five minutes.

Most DAT users know little if anything about sound archivists' dislike of the medium, with the small size of the tape and its "insanely small" data path width, the complexity of the tape mechanisms, a rotary tape head that abrades the tape, and a binder that breaks down under high humidity conditions. Some know about the problems with the error correction features of DAT recording technology, but the possibility of the catastrophic data loss "cliff effect," with the plunge from perfect fidelity to complete loss of information, doesn't particularly disturb them since they expect to have completed their use of the tape long before these problems emerge.

Most DAT users have fumed at tapes recorded on one machine that will not play back on another. They also know from hard experience that a crease or bend on a DAT tape creates electronic noise that makes those segments unusable. Burned by bad machines and blank tapes, DAT users accept the quirks of the medium because it is better than anything else they can afford, and because it has served them well. DAT recorders have performed reliably in the deserts of West Africa and jungles of Southeast Asia. Those who are concerned about lost recordings cover their bases by chaining two DAT recorders together, or linking their DAT to an analog cassette recorder, making two simultaneous recordings in case one fails. But even this practice is extremely rare. DAT may have serious problems, but until a better digital field recording format comes along, the number of sound gatherers using it will continue to grow.

The Next Digital Format

We would all love a better digital-sound mousetrap. A few weeks ago I learned that Marantz is introducing a digital chip recorder that can record one hour of uncompressed stereo audio on a standard PCMCIA 350 megabyte PC Card. (Marantz also boasts that more than 24 hours of audio can be stored on a single Hard Disk PC Card). With no moving parts this sounds great, but it does not solve the question of what media the information will be downloaded onto and stored on. A CD or DVD [digital video disc] field recorder might also be great. Disc recording would also eliminate the problems associated with any tape format. Most sound documentarians have until now avoided using disc recorders because of sound compression systems that impair fidelity. But last week I was told to look at the specs on the new Philips minidisk recorder which boasts uncompressed audio.

A number of sound archivists have joined the sound studios and preservation-conscious sound documentarians who have already chosen CDR [compact disc recorder] as a now very affordable, even if temporary, digital alternative to open-reel tape. Today one can purchase a stand-alone CD recorder for under $600, and gold-dye discs at a price competitive with analog cassettes.

I was thrilled last year to read about the introduction of DVD, and how a single five-inch disc can simultaneously carry 133 minutes of video that is three times the resolution of a VHS cassette. That five-inch disc can also carry six-track Dolby Digital sound, dialogue in eight languages, and alternative movie endings, and it can display the same scene from as many as nine remote-controlled viewing angles. For audiophiles, DVD, with a storage capacity of close to 500 minutes of CD-quality stereo sound, also seemed to have the potential to revolutionize CD-ROM and digital audio. Here was an affordable medium that accelerated media convergence.

I then learned, however, that its quick acceptance could mean even greater headaches for archivists, since DVD might soon switch to a laser that would permit even greater storage, but would not be backward compatible to current CD.

At this point, although I pay more attention to emerging digital formats than most sound recordists do, I am very confused. So for the time being I will be one of those who stick with DAT, however upsetting this may be to the community of sound archivists who will receive and have to deal with our recordings.

The Users of Sound Documents

Now I would like to switch hats and speak for the growing number of documentary producers, television stations, website authors and others eager to use sound documents from and about the nation's past. We desperately need high-fidelity sound documents that are readily accessible, affordable, and legal to use. Today, finding such documents is a laborious, time consuming, expensive, and all too often disappointing venture.

Archivists like you need to make these documents easier to obtain. I know that intellectual properties and multimedia are "a lawyer's nightmare," as Georgia Harper, General Counsel for the University of Texas, has so aptly put it, but it sure would help if you folks gave a bit more thought to access. We don't mind paying. But we do need the material fairly quickly and we really need a system of rights clearance that does not lock up sound and moving image documents in a byzantine world of confusion and inefficiency.

Here, too, I know that exciting innovations are on the horizon, especially on-line services that might make the process, as Harper has written, "more like buying building materials at a hardware store than it could ever be in the print environment." It is equally important to keep the sound and moving image documents that record the nation's past from falling into private hands. Since we may well lose the ongoing world war over intellectual property rights, it is essential that archivists become much more aggressive in the collection of records that will otherwise become the property of media moguls and multinational corporations with huge reservoirs of money.


If I have any advice for the sound preservation and archival communities, it is that you need to do a much better job disseminating information about appropriate recording and storage media, about the importance of capturing high-fidelity stereo sound documents that include more than just the spoken word, and about the importance of placing tapes and supporting materials on permanent deposit. Someone needs to sift through the competing technologies and get the word out to oral historians and others about what equipment to use. This information is simply not getting out there to the vast majority of people who actually record interviews and other sound documents in the field.

You need to build better bridges to the different sound gathering professionals and their associations. Independent sound documentary producers are sitting on thousands of hours of historically valuable tapes that date back to the 1950s. Let me use Steve Rowland, again, as an example. All the high-fidelity interviews, high-fidelity stereo rehearsals and other sound events that he recorded for the Miles Davis Project, more than a hundred of them, continue to sit in a box in his attic. Sound documents like these will remain in closets and basements until producers become aware of their historical value, and begin to place them in repositories that know how to care for them and make them accessible.

Positive Signs:

At the SAA meeting I learned of an appreciation of sound documents that was more widespread than I had believed. A growing number of oral history collections are concerned about sound quality and preservation of sound documents. The Columbia University Oral History Research Office, the world's oldest and largest oral history archive, now has two HHB11 DAT recorders with SMPTE2 time coding, and has for the first time begun to videotape some of its interviewees. At its 1998 annual meeting the Oral History Association (OHA) approved revisions to its official Principles and Standards embracing the concept that interviewers and programs have certain responsibilities to interviewees, namely to use the best recording equipment within their means to accurately reproduce the interviewee's voice; to collect and record other still, moving image and sound documents; to keep abreast of developing technologies for the preservation and dissemination of oral history interviews; and to provide interviewers with basic instruction in choice of appropriate recording equipment, media, and field recording techniques. We have added a new section on Tape Preservation Guidelines, premised on a recognition of the historical significance of the recording and acknowledging the potential use of oral history interviews in non-print media.

I am hopeful that the OHA will soon formally acknowledge the tape as a historical document equal in value to the printed transcription, and embrace the concept of a sound document that reproduces the actual sound event(s) as accurately as possible.

In conclusion, I am delighted to see archivists devoting so much attention to these issues, but dismayed that it is taking so long for others to get on board. Today in Philadelphia, more than a hundred years after the introduction of the motion picture and phonograph, and more than fifty years since the arrival of television and analog tape recorders, no archive or library in the city systematically collects the sound recordings, film or videotape that document its history in the twentieth century.

I am delighted to see so many people thinking seriously about the ongoing media revolution, and the impact it must sooner or later have upon institutions dedicated to the preservation of the nation's heritage. My thanks to those of you who are opening your doors and embracing the electronic media rather than refusing it or converting it all to print.


1. HHB is a company name.

2. SMPTE is the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

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