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Author Topic: Tape Preservation?  (Read 13406 times)
Rob Wheeler
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« on: February 28, 2007, 03:20:14 PM »

Hi guys,

I was just wondering, I know there has been guys looking out for Daniel Johnston's interests in terms of getting his material available to the public, and that a lot of tape material was researched in the process of making the "Devil and Daniel Johnston" documentary, but has there actually ever been a coordinated effort to archive and preserve all of his recorded material in a long term format? It just struck me that even with the best will in the world from those acting in his interests, the tapes might not have got the treatment they deserve.

I noticed in the documentary that there has been some modest attempts to correct for wow and flutter, but listening to what is available at the minute there are clearly improvements that could be made. Listening to "Songs of Pain", it seems to come from a really poor generation cassette. I remember in the documentary mention of the fact that at one point Daniel gave away a lot of his masters. Could it be possible that there are people that are unwittingly holding better generation masters of Daniel's records than are currently commercially available? What is more, is it possible that there are people holding alternate performances of his albums provided by Daniel? Might it be be prudent to make a wider appeal to via the site to hunt down some of this material?

The reason I suggest this is foremost that a lot of these tapes are very very old for cassette recordings, and its is probably getting to the stage now where any new transfers would have to have to be conducted under specially controlled circumstances if they are to retain the best possible fidelity. After about five years the average tape compound loses a lot of signal from the top end, and rot progresses from there. 25 year old tapes can often be an  unsalvagable mush.

Also, there have been some serious shifts in tape restoration in the last of years, which could really benefit the sort of recordings Daniel made. For instance, there is a new system about which corrects tape fluctuations by analysing tape azimuth (slighty bitter about that as I think it was an idea of mine that got nicked!). What is more, some of Daniel's recordings are presented out of tune. Now I'm not sure if they were recorded that way, but I gather that for the Yip Jump and Hi How are You, a toy air powered organ was the primary instrument. Now the organ's pipes are not going to change pitch (at least not uniformly) and I can't believe even a toy organ would arrived not tuned to at least the correct pitch, and seeing as the whole instrument appears to be consistently tuned across the keyboard, I would hazard that the tape was running too slowly at record. So actually, some of the final recordings are presented too fast.

This is entirely probable considering the type of recording device that was used, any power fluctuation from the grid, or maybe a fridge switching on in the basement etc. would have caused a change in recording speed. Mastering houses rarely do anything other than play the tape back at the standard speed during the transfer to digital unless otherwise instructed.

Now I know that this might be sacrosanct but I think these tapes (and that means ALL of Daniel's tapes) need a through masterful cataloging and a extensive archival and remastering to the best of modern technology's limits. And I think the man to do that would have to be Jon Astley, who really has respect for artist's work and is a great mastering engineer. The tapes are never going to sound like studio recordings, and the current masters are not terrible, but they just sound like they have received standard mastering house treatment, rather than the lavish attention they deserve...

Anyway, I raised a few points. I've never seen any notes on the tapes and I don't even know what brand's Daniel liked to use, but anyway...

[edit]

Oops, forgot to say that I think the most important reason I think this needs to be done is to ensure that this material is exploited to the best possible extent for Daniel's interest and to help provide for his needs in for years to come.
« Last Edit: February 28, 2007, 03:22:23 PM by Rob Wheeler » Logged
D. Sulpy
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« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2007, 07:17:07 PM »

Hi, Rob
Thank you for your thoughtful post. I don't (can't and wouldn't) presume to speak for the family, but I do know that work has gone on for years to preserve and catalog Daniel's recordings.

You're right about the condition of some of the early tapes - they are obviously generations down the chain, and could sound a lot better if better sources were located. Then again, as some would no doubt argue, Daniel's home recordings are hardly about sound quality - but, I agree with your point... they should sound as good as they can.

I also agree about your observations on the pitch. The pitch of "Retired Boxer," in particular, has always bugged me. I know Dan had a high voice, but he almost sounds like Alvin (of The Chipmunks) on that tape. I had to slow it down just to be able to listen to it without cringing (and I hardly have perfect pitch).

Doug
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notdaniel
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« Reply #2 on: February 28, 2007, 08:58:59 PM »

I don't (can't and wouldn't) presume to speak for the family, but I do know that work has gone on for years to preserve and catalog Daniel's recordings. .

A few notes:

Jeff Tartakov (Stress Records) has borrowed and archived all the audio materials I own not once but twice over the years, as digital technology moved forward. Presumably he did the same with all such materials in his possession.

Jeff Feurzeig ("Devil & DJ" filmmaker) also told me that while HE was in possession of my materials for use in the movie, he would be archiving everything he assembled over the course of the project. (I never got my CD/DVD copies as promised, though!)

Jeff Brivic (art dealer) recently told me that he has painstakingly archived any and all Daniel audio materials he has come across.

Jeff Smith (owner of Matako Mazuri Records) has gladly provided his master tape of Daniel live at Woodshock '85 for preservation use when requested to do so.

(you know, SOMETHING seems strangely coincidental about those names, but I can't put my finger on it...)

  - notdan

By the way, Tartakov's "pure vision" of Daniel's work as released on the Stress tapes doesn't necessarily reflect how *I* would've done things - personally, there are some tape stops & starts that I would've edited out of a couple of songs - I've actually done some experimenting and come up with seamless edits.

Also, since there's not much noticable "stereo" on the tapes prior to "Continued Story", I personally would've either "folded to mono" or chosen to double either the left or right channel in the cases where there are significant drop-outs on one channel or the other.

Nothing that JT or anyone else has done precludes these steps from being taken in the future, of course.

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« Reply #3 on: March 01, 2007, 07:03:23 AM »

"Retired Boxer" is in stereo as well.

Best,

Jeff Sulpy

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Rob Wheeler
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« Reply #4 on: March 01, 2007, 03:16:57 PM »

Ha well, thats a turn up, two of the names I was going to suggest as examples of master catalogers and note writers of note was Mark Lewishon (who is an aquaintance of my nan's Smiley and one Doug Sulpy Smiley. You wouldn't be one and the same would you?

In regards to the very dedicated efforts of those around Daniel Johnston, with all due respect, they can do a very good job in gathering tapes, but they can not offer the expertise and technical understanding of an experienced audio and tape engineer. You could have 14 tapes with exactly the same performance on it, but only a good engineer could work out what was the best generation, then which was the best tape to patch defects in the first, what was the correct pitch for all of them, what noise reduction strategy to use etc. I suspect from what I am hearing the decisions about which tapes to be use have been either arbitary or amateur at best, and then handed over to the mastering house.

I think the guy selecting the tapes should be the same guy that is mastering, and to be honest, no label owner, film maker or even Daniel Johnston or his family should have anything to do with that process because their knowledge in this area will be neglible (unless Daniel can actually physical identify the best generation masters). To get the best out any cassette transfer, an archival mastering engineer, (more like the sort of guy that restores for forensics), should be given the tapes and get total control. The tapes need to be transferred in a temperature controlled enviroment on a specially modified machine. From what I'm hearing in the tapes, this has not happened. And unless a sponsor or backer turned up I don't think it would because its quite an expensive thing to do.

I can fully appreciate Tarkov's "pure" approach to presenting the recordings, but at the end of the day, the clicks and pops and overloaded tape drop ins were limitations of the medium and they don't really enhance the performance. If you are mastering for digital mediums there is no need for them to be there, and they do no good for the overall mastering of the disc because they are the loudest things on the whole album. The standard mastering house is likely just to wallop a load of compression on to even things out, which just make the drops ins even louder. I think its a good example of how a man who has the best intentions and has done great work, and single handedly kept the catalog alive by a thread through thick and thin, should perhaps cede to the experts when it comes to technical decisions.


Anyway, thats what I think Smiley
« Last Edit: March 01, 2007, 03:18:59 PM by Rob Wheeler » Logged
Rob Wheeler
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« Reply #5 on: March 01, 2007, 03:39:10 PM »

Not sure if double posting is a crime on here, but as a reference for the speed issue, I think "Walking The Cow" on as presented on the Discovered/Covered disc is about 4% too fast. With that in mind, I think when shown on UK TV / DVD with a PAL speedup, "Walking the Cow" is presented in the documentary at about 8% too fast!
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Poonhead
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« Reply #6 on: March 01, 2007, 05:31:00 PM »

You sound like you know a lot about this stuff Rob.  Are you volunteering to do the objective archiving?
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zack26
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« Reply #7 on: March 01, 2007, 06:07:20 PM »

I definitely agree wioth you Walking The Cow.  The Hi How Are You recording plays at somewhere around C#, but I'm pretty sure he played it in C (like 90% of the his other songs).  I experimented with slowing it down, and the result definitely sounds closer to his typical singing voice.  And Retired Boxer, as Doug mentioned, is definitely the worst of the problems...

I'm voting for Rob Wheeler for objective archiving!
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D. Sulpy
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« Reply #8 on: March 01, 2007, 08:26:47 PM »

Thanks, Rob - I am, indeed, um... me.
And thank you as well, zack26 - I'm happy to hear I'm not the only one who hears the pitch problem on "Retired Boxer."

Of course, that raises the knotty question... are the speed variances on the tapes just the result of poor equipment somewhere along the chain, or is it possible that Daniel could have purposely changed the pitch of the recording, for whatever reason?

Ugh, I don't even want to go there...
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zack26
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« Reply #9 on: March 01, 2007, 09:37:48 PM »

I remember having a tape recorder that had a speed control on it.  Te tape speed wheel had one of those little grooves atthe "normal" setting, like the center position on the balance knobs on some stereos.  Often when I was recording , the tape speed wheel would get jostled.  When you recorded at a lower speed and played it back at the same low speed, the recording sounded normal.  But as soon as you put the tape into a different tape player, you had the tape speed problem.  Maybe something along those lies happened with some of the tapes...

I thought I remember reading in an interview where he said something along the lines of "I don't know why I sang so high on some of those tapes" but I might have just dreamt that.

One thing I do love about these tapes is sound of the tape recorder being turned on an off.  And the extended moments of tape hiss.  And the strange clacking sounds behind some of the songs on Hi How Are You (Get Yourself Together, Desparate Man Blues, No More Pushing...). 
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Rob Wheeler
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« Reply #10 on: March 02, 2007, 06:11:21 AM »

Actually tape speed issues are a lot more common than you might think, particularly on early 60's UK releases where there was poor regulation of the of the 240v power grid. Doug might be able to support me here, but when recording Please Please Me, a track played in the morning would appear to be in C#, but played in the evening would be C due to the increase load on the grid as everybody switched on to watch Coronation Street etc... As a result, there has never really been a satisfying speed correct release of the early Beatles albums. There might never be either because the Beatles were often dubbing to in one key to a track that had been recorded in another, so there is no true speed for the track, other than the vocal speed, and even then you are not guaranteed that the tape speed was the same when they were all recorded..

In the UK at least, unless highly regulated, domestic tape players are very sensitive to their input voltage and current, and the slightest variance is reproduced in the recording. Recently I tried to recover some 4-track tapes I had recorded a while ago and preserve the on a digital format. However I noticed it was playing out of tune and I couldn't correct it with the pitch wheel. So I took a blank cassette and recorded a pure tone in A on it, and then plugged the output into a digital tuner so I could figure out what was going on. I found that switching off lights, fridges switching on in the house, even the heating switching on made changes in the playback/recording speed. Actually, I have this theory that it is the reason why so many homegrown so-called "cutting edge" artists sing out of tune, because their first performances were singing to backing tracks they had recorded that had drifted out of tune by the time they got to play them back.

Anyway, thats the case in the UK. In the US the mains electricity is wired differently (I think), and it runs on a much lower voltage,  so I'm not sure if the makes equipment more sensitive or otherwise. I suppose its also not impossible that Daniel recorded some tracks with the recorder powered by batteries, which even when fully charged my have resulted in slower movement of the tape past the heads and therefore a higher pitch playback at normal speeds.

I'd love to get my hands on all the tapes I can and spend a few months working on their restoration, but I could only supervise that process. I don't have the skills or equipment to do all that stuff by myself. And I'm certainly not skilled in cataloging Smiley

Just a question, I'm not sure if anyone can fill me in here, but when Daniel recorded this stuff, did he compile them as I suspect by performing each song, one after another, or did he record the songs onto separate tapes and then compile them onto one "master" by copying each track from the various sources? Because potentially true first generation cassettes will sound MUCH better than a compiled master, and is likely to have been played much less as well.

A couple of rules of thumb about tapes in general: Each time you copy a cassette you generally expodentially create about three times as much noise as the previous generation, so a third generation copy with have at least 9 times as much noise as the original recording. Also, each time you play a cassette, a huge amount of the signal is lost due to the action of the head passing over the tape. Typically this has been quoted at around 30% of the signal on the tape. This is the reason why I feel the best generations of these cassette should treated to a high end preservation where the cassettes are played once in a controlled enviroment for transfer and then taken completely out of the process and put away for safe keeping.
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D. Sulpy
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« Reply #11 on: March 02, 2007, 11:32:37 AM »

As for The Beatles' recordings, another thing to factor in is that the pitch was often intentionally bumped up (not an uncommon thing in the industry at that time). Worse, U.S. and U.K. issues of some songs are sometimes at different speeds, as well as mono vs. stereo issues. This leads one into confusing waters, where it's impossible to say anymore which pitch is "right."

I believe Daniel recorded his songs on separate tapes, which were then compiled to create each album. I have no indication, though, that the original "session" tapes still exist, or even Daniel's final compiled master.

As for tape decks, I can tell you from memory - they sucked. I made plenty of cassette recordings around the same time as Daniel, and I clearly remember that tapes recorded on one deck could and did run at a noticeably different speed on another.

On the plus side, I don't think the problem with signal loss is as great as you describe. Daniel used the same lousy tapes the rest of us used (anyone else remember Irish Cassettes? Yikes!), and, from those I've heard, there's not significant damage from dropouts. Also, remember, they're lo-fi recordings to begin with - so while I'm sure you're perfectly correct about signal deterioration, that's only going to matter if there's signal on the tape to deteriorate in the first place.
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Rob Wheeler
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« Reply #12 on: March 02, 2007, 03:12:01 PM »

Hi Doug,

It's a matter of relativity. I'm taking the approach that while they are lofi recordings in the first place, its important to get the most of of them from the best possible source. The average joe might not be able to tell the difference between the master and the third generation, but a mastering engineer might be able to take that first generation cassette and pull out a load of signal in the top end that simply did not exist of the third generation and make a radically different sounding master. Remember as a rule of thumb, the third generation is going to be about 9 times crapper signal wise than the first. The more noise there is on a tape, the less an engineer can do to improve the presented sound.
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« Reply #13 on: March 05, 2007, 01:31:22 PM »

on a semi related note anyone know of a place in houston or austin that copies old cassettes fior a reasonable cost? my mom has some tapes of her mother from the late 70s that the audio  need to be saved if possible
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« Reply #14 on: March 05, 2007, 03:38:08 PM »

I suspect from what I am hearing the decisions about which tapes to be use have been either arbitary or amateur at best..

Well, I can assure you that "The What of Whom" comes from the best source, since I happen to OWN the best (and ONLY) source tape. It was unknown to the public until I made mine available for copying (hence the existence of the Stress cassette), and to this day, it appears that no other source for the majority of the songs on it has ever turned up.

Unfortunately, medical/financial considerations are forcing me to sell the tape (along with a tape of mostly-unreleased material from 1983) within the next week or two. Most likely it will go to the person who's been buying up other choice Johnston memorabilia from me of late; he seems to be the type who will continue to make it available for copying if Daniel were to request it. (For the record, I emailed DualTone and offered them access to the tape after they put out the Songs of Pain/More Songs of Pain CD, but they never responded.)

However, if it ends up on Ebay, I really can't guarantee that it won't disappear into some big spender's private treasure vault forever... Offers, anyone? It's time to band together to "Save the What (of whom)!

  - Not Daniel

BTW: When Homestead Records issued the vinyl LP of "Hi, How Are You" in 1989 or whenever, they hired famed producer Spot (Husker Du, Black Flag) to helm the engineering/mastering/spit-&-polish chores. Not only that - they actually had someone come in and redraw the "frog" for the cover! (If you closely compare the LP and the cassette, you can find several minute differences between the images.)
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They laughed when I sat down at the piano.
They didn't think that I could play.
But their laughter turned to amazement,
When I got back up and carried it away...

  - DJ (message left on answering machine)
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