1) What is the restoration work that is being done on the project? What were the challenges.?
As with many busy radio stations, a tape archive of material was not kept. Therefore, when the documentary went into production in 2006, it became an "open source" project (later called "crowd sourced") where audio recordings of the station came to us from many contributors.
Some were 10" metal reels from WBCN on-air staff, along with tapes from station listeners who taped WBCN off the air, and captured many moments that were not known to exist on tape anywhere else.
Understandably, the condition of the tapes we received varied greatly. Due to their age and sometimes less than optimum storage conditions (heat, cold, humidity), tapes were often either sticky, or badly warped. The sticky tapes were baked in a special heating unit to dry them out before playback.
Many of the reels had splices in them, because cutting up the tape with a razor blade, and then taping the pieces together was how tape was edited back then. In many case, the splices had dried out, which caused the tapes to fall apart when playing back or rewinding. I had to replace most tape splices and then put the tapes back together again.
There were some important recordings where the tape had been unevenly wound on the reel for decades and therefore the tape was very wavy. A proper transfer could not occur without somehow flattening the tape. I took the simplest approach to the problem. I applied pressure to the tape as it passed over the play head with either my finger or a q-tip. This kept the tape laying flat enough to play back one more time.
Cassette tapes were sometimes more challenging, because cassette recording was fairly new at the time (cassettes were introduced around 1970.) Many of the cassettes we received were broken, had warped or dried out tape shells, and often times the tiny pressure pad made of felt had dried out or had fallen out.
My first step was to pry the cassettes apart, transplant the tape into a new plastic shell, and splice them back together in the process.
For the documentary we acquired and had restored what many think is the best cassette tape deck ever made: the Nakamichi CR-7. This deck has a unique ability to adjust the placement of the tape playback head, called an azimuth control. This allowed me to carefully adjust the alignment of the playback head to match the audio track on the tape cassette.
This was critical, as many tape cassettes were recorded with the record heads in different locations on the tape, resulting in an audio signal on the tape that is way out of alignment. Thanks to the Nakamichi cassette deck, when playing tapes that sounded flat and muddy on other cassette playback machines, I was able to adjust the playback head to match the alignment of the decks they were recorded on.
Some of the cassettes were sticky as well. Some did not respond to the usual baking methods. After hours of baking some, they were still squealing, which caused the audio to break up and sound like nails on a chalkboard. After consulting with some well-known audio engineer friends, we came up with a rather creative solution: applying tiny pieces of Teflon tape to key areas in the tape transport path! It seemed pretty extreme, but it actually worked quite well. As a result, cassettes that were otherwise unplayable, glided through like new and played back well!
Not surprisingly, as a result I went through many bottles of tape head cleaner, and enough cotton tipped cleaning swabs to build a fort with!
2) What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced?
Besides the challenges of getting the tapes to play back, many of them also had audio levels that were all over the map, as well as segments that were spliced into the reels backwards!
I had to constantly adjust volume levels, and often had to digitize tapes in segments. I was able to digitize the tapes backwards, and then "flip" them later using the computer rather than having to turn the tape around during playback. Also, many of the reels were unlabeled or incorrectly labeled. We had box-loads of recordings that we had no idea what was on the tapes! Producer Bill Lichtenstein and I spent an entire day in my studio pulling out "mystery tapes" that had been shared with us, and putting them on to see what they were. There were many "jaw dropping" moments when we put on a beat up old tape reel to discover it was a one of a kind sound recording of a radio show or a live concert that had aired over the radio station!
3) How much of what you do is art and how much is science?
I am not sure if you could call the restoration work I do "art" but there is a lot of science to it. Understanding the physics of old magnetic tape recordings is critical for coming up with solutions to bringing them back to playable condition without harming or destroying the tapes in the process. I spend many many hours online doing research. Wikipedia and many other websites provide me with a lot of historical information about old sound recordings. There are White Papers from the Library of Congress that contain tape archive methods and standards. The White Papers can get quite technical, and you need to get out a calculator and pocket protector to understand them! I am an active member of several audio engineer online forums where we post messages to each other. It's great because I can reach out to retired audio engineers twice my age whom invented and worked with audio tape for decades. Many are happy to share what they did in the "old days." They often provide valuable insights as to how the recordings were done, and often give me the names and phone numbers of associates whom share even more information with me, and I have spent many delightful hours chatting on the phone with sound engineers. I can't take credit for everything that I do, as it's often the result of combining ideas and "tricks" I learned from those whom came before me. I take what I have learned about old sound recording technology, and combine it with my information technology background to bridge the two. I can then preserve the precious audio contained on these reels to modern digital audio files.
From here, anything can be done with them. Most importantly, it's now easy to make duplicate copies of the digital files without any generation loss. Copies of the files can be stored in multiple locations on various digital media to ensure the recording will not be lost.
4) What else would be interesting to people?
I think people would be fascinated to know just how much human history is preserved on these old sound recordings. Its so critical for them to be salvaged! Sadly not everyone understands this and consider them "old junk" because they no longer have the equipment to play them back.Therefore many important recordings are not cared for or simply thrown out. It breaks my heart when I hear horror stories of record labels, libraries, and college archives who want to save money and space and toss out old master tapes! Staff members at at a major record label archive once saved original recordings of Louis Armstrong and others from the dumpster! (See: Bit.Ly/tapearchives) Now they are out on CD for the world to enjoy. We are very thankful that many individuals had the foresight to kept these tapes from WBCN and other sources all these years, because otherwise the "The American Revolution" documentary could not happen! What good would be a silent film about a radio station?!