With Johnny Carson’s passing this past year, you might have noticed something missing from the tributes bombarding the airwaves: footage of Carson’s first shows from NBC studios in New York. Before the value of archival tapes was recognized, NBC destroyed most of these Tonight Show tapes, opting to recycle reels rather than confront the awesome task of storing thousands of hours of television. It was, they thought, just a TV show.
The problem of archival storage isn’t TV’s alone though; if you’re having trouble managing all of the recordings you’ve done over the years what the hell’s happening at Sony BMG, Universal, and CBS? With hundreds of thousands of recordings in their catalogues, the job of housing, organizing, preserving, and gaining easy access to stored material is nothing short of monumental. Historically, the big studios had to choose between expensive local storage and more affordable but hard-to-reach archives.
Enter: Ken Caillat, Edwin Outwater, Claus Trelby, and the creation of Xepa Digital.
About an hour north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the three founders, with more than 80 years’ worth of total technical and studio know-how, are giving the people what they want: immediate access and stable long-term storage.
Outwater, who worked for Polygram and Warner Brothers, specializes in the archiving. Caillat cut his teeth recording landmark albums, including Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and Tusk. And, in addition to session engineering, Trelby had been doing archival and 5.1 mixes for Warner, EMI, Rhino, Interscope and Sanctuary Records. Not only are they well acquainted with the ins and outs of the biz, they’re also sensitive to the awesome task of not just preserving recordings, but our audio-cultural history.
THE EARLY SOLUTION: NEAR LINE STORAGE
Originally record (and film) companies stored source materials in local warehouses or back-lot buildings. When a copy was required, the master tape was couriered back to the studio for transfer. This is called Near Line Storage.
There are several concerns with this approach. First, it’s expensive to maintain. Back-lot buildings sit on prime real estate that could be sold, developed, or used for additional production space. Many metropolitan warehouses are pricy, and few are climate controlled, putting humidity and temperature sensitive materials like film and tape at risk for permanent damage. Second, the policy of moving tapes via courier or common carrier (e.g., major shipping vendors) is neither secure nor reliable (remember, we’re talking about the ONLY copy of irreplaceable masters). Finally, as years passed, the sheer quantity of source tapes began to outpace the storage and catalogue capacity.
GOING DEEP, DEEP, DEEP
As the sheer volume of tapes and other media increased, large organizations could no longer afford to keep every media asset in expensive local storage. As with the case of the remaining Tonight Show footage, deep archive storage became the answer. Following the lead of the public sector and financial industries, assets were shipped to rural storage houses, which often had significantly lower costs. From a stability standpoint, deep archives are usually located underground in secure facilities with state-of-the-art humidity and temperature control. While the tapes are much safer in deep storage, getting access to a copy is a hassle. Locating the tapes takes time and once they’re found, they have to be sent back to a studio via courier or common carrier, once again exposing irreplaceable materials to shipping risks.
Meanwhile, in 2002, Caillat and Trelby were working on a re-mix for a major DVD release and requested that the master tapes be sent to them. Coming back to their studio the pair found an uncomfortable reminder about the vulnerability of their work: having found no one onsite, the courier had left the tapes sitting outside on their front porch. Even more distressing, this probably wasn’t the first time this had happened to a master tape. After talking to Edwin Outwater, the three decided to start an archival company that could help studios protect their assets during the storage process and beyond.
The first task was to choose a location. The trio considered options in LA, Nashville, and New York, sites that seemed reasonable given the volume of recordings generated in these cities. But it was Outwater who first suggested a place north of Pittsburgh called Iron Mountain. Located hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, the facility had been providing environmentally stable archival storage since 1951 and offered the highest level of security available at any non-governmental facility. Some major studios were already keeping assets at Iron Mountain, so the location seemed ideal.
Of course, there was still one problem: getting the source materials back to the studios without having to place the original masters at risk. The solution came with the advent of high-speed networks. Using a secure private network, they figured they could send data over dedicated, secure, super wide-band networks to remote locations. Presently, they can send one gigabyte of data every 45 to 55 minutes. Since a 24-track 2" reel takes up about 9 gigabytes when converted to 24-bit 96k PCM audio, they can get a high-res copy to a studio faster than a same-day courier. Depending on program length, once they have tape in hand, it can be anywhere in the world in five hours.
ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
The recording and film industries are not the only ones facing preservation issues. There are literally hundreds of thousands of hours of spoken word, oral history, and other important recordings from institutions, religious organizations, and private collections. And few have been archived.
Philadelphia-based Safe Sound Archive (SSA) has been helping such groups for years. Often strapped by limited budgets, most groups can’t afford deep storage or comprehensive restoration projects. SSA owner George Blood notes, “A key thing for these institutions is to identify the assets that are most important to them, and work on archiving them first.” When presented with the issue of shipping master tapes to Philadelphia for processing, Blood explains, “These groups have to evaluate the importance of each recording, and assume risk accordingly.”
For example, SSA archived some treasured recordings from the archives of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Because of the irreplaceable nature of these recordings, the church opted to have an elder drive the tapes to Pennsylvania. Although it took 10 trips, the project was completed without incident. Of course, other options remain. FedEx offers Custom Critical Service, which is a door-to-door courier. Likewise, various dedicated antique and art moving companies can be retained to move treasured items.
Of course, it does you no good to have a state-of-the-art solution to the transmission problem if you can’t get your hands on a recording to begin with. When an asset is received, it’s processed at Xepa in a number of ways. When a tape is received, it’s logged and the original ID, if any, is noted. Likewise, the item is assigned a new internal ID, which makes retrieval quick and easy. The media data department creates high-res scans of all sides of the box, documentation, engineer’s notes, track sheets, and absolutely anything else included with the materials. Not only do these scans preserve important information, but they allow Xepa to make publication-ready reproductions without having to handle the original documents. The image files are archived in the metadata to a secure wrap-around database that also stores preliminary physical information and final technical information such as the number of tracks on a recording.
Currently they’re using a high-speed hardware secure line. This method is fine as long as the recipient has access to a secure line and an appropriate decoding server. However, Xepa is in the process of implementing a highly encrypted software solution, which would allow download from anywhere in the world and would quintuple the rate of transfer. That means you’d be able to move a whopping four gigabytes of encrypted data per hour. In addition to expanding bandwidth, live streaming of video and audio simultaneously in uncompressed, DV50 and WMV files will soon be possible. With the knowledge that their tape assets are within realtime reach, broadcasting stations may be able to realistically consider all-digital, tape-less transmissions, which would be more stable, archive-wise, and could greatly reduce the burden on storage facilities in the future.
As the entertainment industry grows and branches out into new mediums, the need to manage media assets grows daily. With respect to Iron Mountain, Sony BMG currently has many of its assets onsite, and is looking to add additional items. Universal already stores between 30 and 40 percent of its archives there but is looking to expand. Likewise, CBS keeps a significant log onsite.
“Face it, these guys would be major players in any city if they chose to open up shop as a recording studio,” says Senior Director of North American Vault Services at Universal Randy Aronson. “But instead, they opted to devote their expertise to rescuing media assets for future generations. They truly are my eyes, ears, and hands in Iron Mountain, and I’m thankful for that.” And Xepa audio engineer Heath Condiotte adds, when asked about their so-called “mission” of saving our sounds, “every day I touch history. Not many people can say that about their jobs.”
While the impact is already evident in their efforts to preserve our recent history, the true value of groups like Xepa Digital and Safe Sound Archive won’t be felt until future generations get the chance to experience a wealth of material that might otherwise have been lost to unstable media, environmentally unsound storage facilities, and the sort of human logic that sees a historic moment in recording, television, or film as just another tape.