Archiving Analog Masters

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.

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

12 thoughts on “Archiving Analog Masters

  • July 7, 2015 at 2:44 pm
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    What’s the world coming to when a guy gets stiffed by the Pope? :-))

    Sounds like you could benefit from putting your students to work organizing – I’m sure you would run across a couple things that would make you smile!

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    • July 7, 2015 at 4:46 pm
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      It wasn’t the Pope…it was Robert Evans that did the stiffing. I worked for months on a really terrible production on the life of John Paul. In the end, John Paul died before the project was finished (Robert couldn’t make up his mind on lots of things)…so Robert never paid the invoice.

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  • July 7, 2015 at 6:03 pm
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    Let’s get together on a deal for the Todd Rundgren tapes. 😉

    When you started listing them and the names came back to mind, it’s amazing how many and how fast we’ve developed and abandoned digital recording media.

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    • July 8, 2015 at 10:04 am
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      That’s the best thing about analog tapes is that there are still lots of machines that can play them back.

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  • July 7, 2015 at 6:09 pm
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    I would had thought you archived all your studio tapes to hard drive or offsite archival service like Carbonite. Just send Robert Evans all his tapes back to him completely erased.

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    • July 8, 2015 at 10:05 am
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      It’s a very large undertaking to restore all of the Exabyte tapes, transfer them and then place them in the cloud. That’s why there is such a huge problem.

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  • July 7, 2015 at 7:17 pm
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    It’s genuinely concerning to learn of the disjointed way master tapes are often “cared for” – not so far removed from discovering the original Mona Lisa in a dumpster.

    I grew up imagining they were cared for in some underground bunker in Switzerland or somewhere glamorous in temperature and moisture controlled environments. Turns out theses things are all over the place. How many treasures have already been lost.

    More than that, there’s the increasing likelihood that rejigged legacy recordings just cannot match, say, something remastered in the 80s or 90s.

    History, it occurs to me, may not forgive this generation for taking such little care of precious recordings.

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    • July 8, 2015 at 10:13 am
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      The nature of master tapes and the archiving of both analog and digital tapes is a long and twisted road. Sure there are lots of efforts put forth to do it right…but then how do I end up with masters in my vault that no one will ever ask for?

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    • July 8, 2015 at 11:03 am
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      Yep, I came up believing the same. Now that I know the truth I more fully understand why I’ve read many times about how performer X’s original master was missing and probably lost forever. Or how so many masters are unplayable. I know the tapes base ages and leaches its plasticizers but if they had been stored in controlled conditions the damage would have been minimized.
      I wonder how many priceless archives have been forever lost do to neglect.

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  • July 8, 2015 at 12:43 pm
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    If only you had the missing multitrack masters from Steely Dan’s Aja’s ‘Black Cow” and “Aja”…

    How on earth did THOSE tracks get lost?

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    • July 8, 2015 at 1:28 pm
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      Not really a big surprise to me. I’ve been behind the scenes and in the vaults.

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  • July 8, 2015 at 5:53 pm
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    How about Mel Torme and Friends? They lost the entire master tapes. The only thing left is the double LP and a handful of CDs released in Japan. Fortunately I have both. But this is without doubt one of his best recordings and the master tapes are lost to the sands of time. A real shame.

    Reply

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