Three days ago, my 23 month(!) contract with Netflix ended. I now have some time on my hands.

Most of what's on my informal schedule falls into the category of: doing the shit I have neglected for nearly 2 years.

  • bathroom remodelling
  • improving storage
  • cataloging ancestral paperwork

By far, however, the most involved task is to

  • digitize all of the surviving recordings and support documentation from my father's recording studio which he ran in the 70s and 80s.

Explanation.

I have 150 10.5" studio tapes - 1/4" 2-channel sub masters and 1/2" 8-channel original recordings - which are some of the source tapes and some of the sub masters used to make LP records for 700 West Recording

These precious tapes need conservation (old tape splices fixed, mold removed, "sticky shed" baked out of them), and high-resolution (24 bit/196kHz) digitization.

Some of the tapes

This is not the sort of thing one entrusts to "Joe's tape transfer service". This is not the sort of thing one can pop on down to the Kinkos to do.

The machines on which these tapes can be played were last new in the mid 90s, so even the machines to play back these tapes are old and precious - and increasingly expensive.

So.

I have been on a mission to acquire the proper reel-to-reel machines with which I can play and transfer the tapes.

One such machine I was able to source locally.

Also needed: a high-quality analog-to-digital converter. One that can do multiple channels (8) at a time.

My first (expensive) A/D unit proved to be defective, and so I am currently awaiting its replacement. In the meantime I am preparing the tapes for playback.

One cannot simply take a tape out of its box and slap it on the machine. Oh, no. You see, back in the 70's Ampex produced a popular tape formulation called the "Ampex 456 Grandmaster", which had a back-coating to provide smoother playback and to help prevent "print-through" My father ended up using quite a bit of this Ampex tape.

Unfortunately, about 15 years after its introduction, it was noticed that the Ampex 456, when played, would "shed" and clog up tape machines. The back coating absorbed humidity, became "sticky", and would gunk up tape transports and cause playback to foul.

Some smart people, however, realized that if you "baked" these tapes at precisely 130 degrees for about 6 hours... that would be sufficient to drive out the humidity so that the tapes could be played safely. This "fixed" state has a short lifespan, though, so you need to bake a tape, and then digitize it soon after. I try to extend this safe state by placing my baked tapes into large ziplock bags.

This long-winded explanation gets to what my days have become:

  • 9pm - place 5 tapes into a food dehydrator with a thermometer to monitor temp
  • 6am - let tapes cool down
  • 9am - transfer tapes to 1 gallon ziplock bags (which are conveniently the right size
  • throughout the day - use tape machine's "spool mode" to slowly wind tape from one reel to another, pinching the tape between microfibre cloth - with an aim to removing mold and other cruft
  • fix the splices which inevitably come apart - 30 year old splicing tape dries out
  • wind the now slightly-cleaner tape back onto its original spool
  • place the tape back into its ziplock bag
  • repeat for another tape

Each tape takes approximately 30 minutes to shuttle back and forth. Each broken splice takes about 3 minutes to repair. Figure an hour total per tape. I've got 150 of these to get through.

Oh yeah, and you have to continously clean the tape machine, because old dust and magnetic material and mold collects on the lifters. So, have isopropyl alcohol and lots of wooden-handled Q-tips on supply.

I am 3 days into preparing tapes for transfer.

Once the replacement A/D converter arrives, I can actually begin playing the now-restored tapes into the computer.