Until three years ago, I was the John Henry of radio – a steel-drivin’ man with a hammer in each hand, holding off the incursions of the new, inhuman technology. By which I mean, I was still using analog tape and razor blades in an industry that used only digital recording and editing.
“Soundcheck” listeners know that the show is live, but my other WNYC program, “New Sounds,” is usually on tape, since I’d rather not be here live between 11pm and midnight seven nights a week. And those shows were always put together with razor blades and splicing tape. Even when digital audio began taking over, and then pretty well completed the job of taking over, I would still sit in the studio hunched over the editing block on the old Studer A-80 reel-to-reel decks, which WNYC had to keep simply because I kept using them.
A few years before we moved from our old studios, I was in my familiar position in the studio: back to the door, facing the tape machine, razor blade in hand, when I heard someone walk in. I was in mid-edit, so I didn’t turn around; but after a moment, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a German voice behind me said, “I am glad to see that you still like my machines.” Our chief engineer was taking Mr. Studer, head of the famed company that made all those great Studer tape decks, on a studio tour. So we had a brief conversation, dinosaur to dinosaur.
Anyway, I know all about the problem of our disappearing audio heritage. “New Sounds” tapes from the 1980s have to be baked in a convection oven before they can be played back, because the oxide on the tape is falling off and the baking reaffixes it. It’s a pain in the neck, and you never really get used to saying "you know what I should do now? I'm gonna go bake a tape" (the oven, by the way, can not be used for food – it has to be kept separate and is used solely for baking audio tapes), but at least it works. Then, the theory goes, you play back the tape and record it digitally, where you don’t have to worry about the tape shedding.
Except digital files, it turns out, degrade even quicker than the 1980s audio tape, which in turn isn’t nearly as durable as the audio tape from the 1950s and 60s, much of which still sounds pretty good. It’s like we’ve been moving backwards in terms of creating long-form storage for music and other audio recordings. And baking doesn’t do squat for digital forms.
Some people may ask, how much do we need to store? Do we need to keep everything? Well, history consists of us telling ourselves a story based on the fragments of written material that was lucky enough to survive the centuries, or millennia. The more fragments we have, the better the history. And right now, we’re losing lots of fragments of our audio history – even though it’s not even 150 years old.
What historic audio would you like to see preserved? Leave a comment.