Reel2Bytes: Digitizing 1950s-era analog tape
February 23rd, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Of all the work I do, I think dealing with older formats, and just figuring out how they work, is the most interesting aspect.

A few weeks ago, a stack of old open real tapes arrived, along with a similar-vintage tape player.  The recordings were done in the early 1950s, as part of a project to record the oral histories of various labor officials who were active in the early 20th century.  The recordings made it unequivocally clear that the intent was to allow students and researchers from decades into the future to get insight on the history of the labor movement in the state.

Well, for quite a few years, these tapes remained shelved and seldom accessed, until a faculty member from the School of Management and Labor Relations learned of their existence and wanted to use them in his courses.  Owing to the age of the recording format, the scarcity of playback equipment, and the condition of the tapes, there is no way that multiple students would practically access the tapes and have them survive.  But, that doesn’t mean the content should stay inaccessible.

And so, after getting a demonstration from out Special Collections staff on the best way to handle the tapes, and after mustering the courage to risk handling them, the player was hooked up to more modern digital recording equipment, and the digitization had begun:

I’ve always heard people talk about what wonderful sound fidelity the old open reel tape formats had, and they’re right; the sound quality is great, particularly for 55+ year old recordings. The physical condition of the tapes left much to be desired though: one reel had a paper backing, and was extremely fragile. Just playing it back was a white-knuckle experience. It’s a shame too, because one thing you do miss in the migration of old content to digital formats is the experience of handling these old things, and getting them working again. The operation of the tape deck; threading the tape, feeling the very mechanical-ness of the format and how it worked… these are things that modern digital formats have yet been unable to duplicate or preserve.

Additional photos of the setup and the reels themselves appear below the cut.

One Response  
  • Matthew Beland writes:
    March 12th, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Thanks for a tour of your workplace today, 3/12/2010. I’ve subscribed to your feed and plan to follow it!

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