As Laurie Spiegel, electronic music composer and pioneer of experimental sound inventions, once said “To really get into the essence of what an instrument can do you have to understand it deeply and thoroughly. Otherwise you risk failing to perceive what its real strengths and character are.”
[Laurie Spiegel – genius and inspiration to us all – working on various synthesizers and reel-to-reel tape recorders in 1970]
In the audiovisual preservation lab of the UCLA Library, we have our own instruments. The process of transporting analog recordings into the digital realm is dependent on obsolete, neglected, and complex machines. A usual day in the lab can include replacing the belt of a Umatic video deck or re-wiring a cascading sea of cables while crouched behind a digitization rack (see patchbaytech.wordpress.com for solidarity in the troubleshooting of digitization stations). As an AV specialist who grew up during the rise of digital, analog isn’t so much of an alien concept but a familiar fascination that calls for constant revisiting. Nostalgia, a prerequisite to the archivist’s career, rises as I work on machines at the lab. I remember my parents’ boombox, the family Sony camcorder, and my first Walkman with the Punk-o-Rama CD that saved me in middle school. But in preservation we’re not just operating machines, we’re servicing them with all the documentation and expertise we have. Caring for and understanding our equipment is a continuous journey whether we’re scanning schematics, watching poorly shot tutorial videos made in someone’s garage, or making calls to our colleagues for advice.
“Unlike people machines can’t tell you where it hurts. They just suddenly or intermittently cease to function. When this happens, Patience not panic is the approach to take”
[Cosmic troubleshooting tips from Charles Bensinger’s The Video Guide.]
AV machines are unpredictable, especially analog. Some days there’s an arbitrary break in the signal path and you can’t get a read on your scopes or you’ll go to power on your time-based corrector and just hear a clicking noise. With so many components, a digitization station can break down, blow, snag, flicker, and even smoke at any given time. Usually these issues are due to human error, mechanical or electronic malfunctions, or perhaps cosmic interference. Some theorize that machines respond through an internal intelligence to the negative or positive emotional energy of the humans that operate them. So, if you start a project thinking your equipment is going to break, it probably will. Is this theory true? I’m not sure, but I have experienced some unusual fluctations.
[Yasmin Dessem and I changing the rubber belts of a Umatic video deck. Photo by Walter Urie]
In the AV Preservation Lab, we have six digitization stations set up for film, grooved media, reel-to-reel audio, audiocassette, and video. That’s a lot to manage with a full-time staff of 3! Thanks to our student assistants and interns for their invaluable help. We’re regularly digitizing collections from various departments within UCLA and collaborating with international partners, classes, and colleagues. Our machines are always running in the lab with staff rotating from station to station.
[Working with Ahmad Sanduka from the Palestinian Museum on cleaning video playback heads on a Umatic deck.]
[Chloe Patton digitizing 16mm film on the Lasergraphics Scan Station.]
[Student assistants Elisabeth Asher and Casey Winkleman assign unique identifiers in preparation for their first audio digitization project.]
The original video and audio digitization stations were set-up at the lab in 2013. By 2017, the hardware and signal configuration of these stations needed some updates.
The video station was somewhat unstable with a path bringing in signals to several often-malfunctioning Aja mini converters that randomly failed to power on. The station used two analog-to-digital converters to send a signal from a chosen playback deck to the computer, Aja converters and Blackmagic. We made numerous attempts to understand why the station was set-up with two AD converters and what equipment was causing us the most trouble. Since the mini converters were consistently failing, we mostly found ourselves crunched behind a rack disconnecting and re-connecting cables in hopes to find a working ADC. By the end, we weren’t even using the switchers anymore and every time you changed a video format you were right back behind the rack switching the composite and XLR cables between decks. This set-up just wasn’t working. We had research requests coming in as well as grant funded and time sensitive projects in our queue. Sometimes it took hours to get the station running with the eventual likelihood that a bunch of tapes would have sticky shed syndrome causing further delays. I started by reconfiguring the signal path to run the signal straight from the TBC to the Blackmagic, eliminating the Aja converters. But each time you wanted to use a different deck you had to change the input cable on the TBC so you had to climb behind the rack once again. This temporary solution helped but wasn’t the fix we needed.
[Life behind the original video rack in 2015 (The complete redesign was completed in 2017). Swapping cables and hoping to connect to a working Aja mini converter. The rack was situated about 1 foot from the wall in a very small room. Yasmin and I spent many hours back there. You can imagine.]
The audio station could handle one open reel, one audiocassette, and DAT using two Benchmark converters. We could digitize one tape at a time, in real time. UCLA has a massive audiotape collection on various formats of open reel, audiocassette, microcassette, and DAT. Using this set-up, we couldn’t meet the preservation needs with the time and staff available. AV Preservation was expanding and the stations were holding us back. We realized we needed an upgrade and a total redesign.
[The original audio transfer station. Fully functional for transferring one tape at a time but we wanted more!]
We started with a wish list, going through everything we wanted for the digitization stations.
For the video station we wanted:
- 2 x 12 video patchbay with a BNC rear interface
- 16 channel audio patchbay with XLR connectors
- Streamlined signal path using the Blackmagic UltraStudio 4K analog-to-digital converter
- 12 TB G-RAID with Thunderbolt 2 + USB
- Composite cables with RCA and BNC connectors
- RCA to BNC/ RCA to XLR adaptors
- More decks
Our goal: Build an efficient, reliable, and flexible rack on wheels that could easily be used to digitize several formats. Then, when everything is up and running, build another!
For the audio station we wanted:
- Antelope Orion 32 Channel Analog to Digital Converter
- 4 XLR female to DB25 Hosa Snakes
- 1 RCA male to DB25 Hosa Snake
- Mackie Mixer
- 12 TB G-RAID with Thunderbolt 2 + USB
- More Tascams
- RCA, XLR, and digital coaxial cables
- RCA to XLR Adaptors
Our goal: Build out the existing audio station to a parallel transfer machine for audiocassette, microcassette, and DAT. Build a separate digitization station for the open reel station and in a few months expand that station for parallel transfers.
Step 1 was an inventory of all the equipment we already had to decide what could be reused or repurposed.
We’d just inherited a bunch of analog machines including open reel decks, mixers, turntables, converters, and other digitization equipment. After testing the machines to see which ones still functioned and which needed to be set aside for repair, we prepared a budget for the equipment we needed to buy – two patch bays, decks, cables, and converters. For the equipment that needed to be repaired, we went on the search for local vendors. Shipping heavy, fragile equipment for repairs was an expensive and complicated process with a high risk of the repaired machine getting damaged on the way back to the lab. We found a local vendor in Burbank called SD Video Engineering and have continued to use their services for equipment maintenance and work with their technicians to learn about what repairs are conducted so we can execute some of these fixes ourselves. But it’s common knowledge engineers aren’t always willing to share their secrets, so we take what we can get and find the rest on YouTube tutorials (some of my favorite channels are 12voltvids and Obsolete Video).
[From Thomas Worthington’s How to Keep Your VCR Alive: VCR Repair for the Total Klutz]
Step 2 was drafting up the signal paths.
I started by imagining components and a clear route for the video and audio signals. I wanted the path to be as short as possible, going through only the necessary components to assure an uninterrupted signal. I surveyed stations at other archives, had colleagues send me their set-ups, and researched the specifications of new equipment and software.
Step 3 was bringing the stations to life.
For video, the signal would be routed from the decks through the analog and digital components and into the Mac. I knew I could utilize a daisy chain to link the machines, a technique commonly used to connect the waveform and vectorscope to the TBC. At first some of the machines were malfunctioning and I started to realize I’d need some adaptors and longer cables. Through a process of building the steel rack, installing the shelves (that are very heavy and a pain to put together), loading the equipment, connecting the equipment, troubleshooting the connections, connecting the rack to the computer, troubleshooting the software, testing the station, finding a flaw and reconfiguring the path, and testing the station again - I finally had the video rack up and running. I drew out the signal path, made a workflow, and in a few months built a second rack following the same model. Now we have two video digitization stations, doubling our output and cutting the amount of time spent digitizing in half. This was huge! Looking back at our former workflow and our former selves crouched behind the rack, these new stations were such an exciting relief.
[Video Stations 1 and 2. Rack 2 is equipped with a viewing CRT for testing tapes while others are digitized. The gap usually holds our VCR that’s currently at the shop.]
For the audio station we prioritized expansion. Audio has more flexibility when it comes to digitization with software and hardware capable of handling multiple recording channels at a time. Previously I’d worked on a parallel audiocassette station at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. When I came back to work at the UCLA lab, my goal was to set up a comparable station. Thanks to Brian Paulson, UNC Sound Preservation Engineer, for really helping me out.
[Installing microcassettes to the audio station.]
I started exploring different software, I’d used Cubase Wavelab, Audition, and Audacity before and was considering switching to ProTools for this station. In the end, I chose Cubase Wavelab because I was familiar with the program and knew it was reliable. We ordered the rack and later got a second rack when we expanded the station to include microcassettes and more Tascams. I then got to work building the station and installing the equipment. Using Hosa DB25 to XLR snakes, I routed each deck to the Orion ADC through analog inputs. Then, I fed the signal to the Mackie Mixer and speakers for listening through an analog output. And finally routed the digital signal to the Mac via Thunderbolt. Once the hardware was wired, I programmed the software routing the signals to their corresponding channels in Cubase and Orion. I spent some time on the phone with Orion support trying to route the channels and thought I had everything figured out. Nope. Every time I tried to record I got an error “Too many tracks recording”. I realized the Orion ADC and RAID storage were both connected via USB. The Mac didn’t have enough RAM to power both at the same time. Once I switched the RAID to Thunderbolt, we were in action. We can now digitize up to 10 audiocassettes, 5 microcassettes, and DAT at the same time. A pretty major move forward from the single tape method we were using before. The upgrades to the digitization stations were a long time coming but once complete the shift in efficiency made all the troubleshooting worth it.
[The audio station: (left to right) 5 microcassette decks, 10 audiocassette decks, Orion ADC, and DAT]
Our stations are all up and running now and we're currently working on a parallel station for open reel audio digitization. At the lab, our work is dependent on the function of analog and digital machines. We're continuously working to maintain, repair, and study their operations and perhaps their *cosmic intelligence*.
Please get in touch with me about any questions, comments, collaborations, or just to talk about gear: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A weblog about preservation, conservation, and the stewardship of the UCLA Library's collections.
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