During my recent trip to New York City and the event at Battery Studios, several readers wrote asking about the care and handling of analog master tapes. They posed their questions after seeing photos of the ragged condition of some the boxes containing master tapes. Why are such highly regarded recordings in such bad condition? Isn’t there a rigorous system for making sure that masters are maintained well, checked in and checked out, kept in temperature and humidity controlled vaults, and secured by locks and passwords?
Actually, no. Things have certainly gotten better over the years. But back in the heyday of analog record production, the only thing the record labels cared about was getting the master and a safety copy from the mastering house into their vault. Often the multitracks weren’t even tracked and stored. And it was not uncommon for the analog master tapes to be sent to other production facilities…never to return.
Last summer, I moved the tape vault here at AIX Studios out of its existing location. I rented the space to a remixing engineer and therefore hundreds of boxes containing many thousands of individual tapes had to be moved down the hall to another temporary space. Among the collection are thousands of DLTs (Digital Linear Tapes), DATs (Digital Audio Tapes), videotapes (1″, DigiBeta, 3/4″ Umatic videos, 1/4″ – 2-Channel stereo masters, 2″ 16|24 track tapes, and even some Exabyte archive tapes from my Euphonix R-1 deck.
Do I have a complete list of everything that is in my possession? No. Some of the boxes have a printed list taped to the outside of the box, but most of the materials are not in a database. My own projects are contained in individual boxes but even those aren’t rigorously tracked. When I worked as a second engineer at Mama Jo’s Studio back in the 70s, I was in charge of making sure that the tapes were labeled and stored properly. But the system was not computerized (remember we didn’t have personal computers) or efficient.
In my vault, there are master audio and videotapes that were never tracked or returned to the clients. There are various masters of Todd Rundgren and Utopia, 1″ videotapes of The Doobie Brothers, 2-track analog masters of Herb Ellis, and even 2″ multitrack masters of lesser artists. I have about a dozen boxes that belong to Robert Evans (the famous Hollywood producer/director) with masters of his “The Power of Faith” documentary about Pope John Paul (he stiffed me so those materials are likely headed to the dump). Why do I have these things? Because the clients never made arrangements to have them sent back. I have kept them all these years because they are valuable. I won’t throw them away but I also don’t have the resources to hire a person to contact the owners and arrange to have them sent to a proper vault.
So it should come as no surprise that studios and labels have to engage in some major detective work to locate and verify master tapes. The Nilsson analog master was actually a copy made for the release of the album in the UK. The people at Sony tracked it down and it turned out to be better than the ones that they had.
And then there’s the question of playing these tapes. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.