Sunday, September 5, 2010

Adventures in the Archives

Sometimes there’s a hiccup in the march of progress.

I have tons of records in my garage. Well, it seems like tons—a box of vinyl weighs a lot, and a box of shellac 78’s weighs even more. Records are delicate, fussy to play, and despite what the most ardent audiophiles say, don’t offer any significant sonic advantage over digital media. For the last few years, I’ve been working on transcribing everything to computer files, making for many fewer tons of records in my garage. Mostly, this is a good thing. You can go from thick, heavy, fragile 78’s:

(about half an hour of music)

or the vinyl I grew up with:

(about an hour of music)

or a CD, (about one and a third hours of music), to bright shiny digital:

(about one thousand, seven hundred hours of music--and it's only half full).

Transcription takes a while. Records get digitized in real time, and initially make enormous files. Track divisions have to be added by hand (the automatic track finder programs just don’t work all that well), and then annotated as to title, album, artist, and so forth. CDs go a lot faster, and usually automatically incorporate track information. Nonetheless, some curating is required. There’s no general agreement as to whether the composer should be noted as “Schubert,” “Franz Schubert,” “F. Schubert,” “Schubert, Franz (1797-1828)”, or “Schumbert.” For all albums, it’s nice to find some album art—especially for those I bought mainly on the strength of the artwork.

This is a real challenge for an LP that went out of print in the 1970’s (and by the way, that's an excellent recording). For more recent stuff, the automatic systems often fail, requiring more work to get a good picture. So, that little hard drive there represents a significant investment of time, but one that is for the good.

This is all a repeat of earlier history. My granddaddy told me about a friend of his, an audiophile and music lover, who had an extensive collection of 78 rpm albums back in the late 1940’s. The LP was being introduced, and the 78 faced obsolescence. Rather than discard his collection, my granddaddy’s friend resolved to record his albums for posterity. At the time, there were two options. One was magnetic tape—a brand new invention, with bugs to be worked out, and generally regarded as having terrible fidelity. The other was wire recording. Wire recording works on the same principles as tape recording, but the magnetic signal is stored on a stainless steel wire finer than a hair. At the time, it was a tried-and-true technology, having been around for decades and extensively refined during the war. A wire recorder cost a lot then, a couple of thousand in today’s money, but it was state of the art:

So, at the time, wire recording was the obvious choice. He transferred his entire collection to wire and threw out the 78’s. There’s an irony to this story; he sort of made the right decision, as wire recordings are extremely durable, while magnetic tape crumbles to iron oxide dust after just a couple decades.

Sad to say, I don’t know the end of this story—whether my granddaddy’s friend was happy with his wire recordings, or whether he was driven to despair by their almost immediate uselessness. However, I can almost identify with his tragedy. I’ve spent a huge amount of time recording CDs and LPs to digital storage and curating the collection. We don’t have a lot of space here, so most LPs get tossed or donated to sales as soon as they are recorded. I’m not a total fool, though, so I stored the data on an external hard drive (an Apple Time Machine) and on a back up hard drive (a LaCie; storing the collection on an external drive was necessary as it was big enough to cause my computer to grow constipated).

Our house has a funky electrical system. Like a diseased brain, it suffers periodic blackouts, and the current seems to run unsteadily. It is unable to charge certain rechargeable batteries, and routinely kills 15-year fluorescent light bulbs after a year. Our electrical gremlins killed our back-up hard drive (which, being a back up, we didn’t check all that often, so we didn't notice it when it occurred) and then killed our Time Machine.

I was distressed and distraught. I couldn’t help but think of the things that were lost. But fortunately, help was at hand. B.D., the computer guy in Duva’s department, generously agreed to try to recover the data. The hard drive was totaled by a head crash. However, the Time Machine seemed only to suffer from some sort of programming difficulty—“misjigulation of the frangigating defumitors,” I think B.D. said, but he has a bit of an accent so I may have misunderstood. He set to work on it.

I’m sure that nobody really knows how computers work. There’s a saying attributed to Einstein that insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results. B.D. tried the same time-consuming thing once, and the hard drive didn’t respond. He tried it twice, and it still didn’t respond. He tried it three times, four times, with no results, and called me up to give me the bad news, and I thanked him for his efforts and drove over to pick up the catatonic device. When I got there, B.D. greeted me with a big smile. He had tried the same thing one more time, and it worked. The entire thing was good as new—almost all sixteen hundred hours of music. I have been experiencing a marvelous feeling of relief ever since.

We’ve got stuff triply-backed up now, everything is surge-and-pulse-and-otherwise protected. I am thinking of leaving back-up hard drives at different locations in event of fire or meteorite impact. I still have the last big box of LP's to transcribe, but I think we are set until the next technology comes along. Of course, there’s all my slides that need to be scanned because I don't have a projector any more. And all these books--they take up lots of space, and I can read 'em on an iPad. They need digitizing...

No comments:

Post a Comment