Restoring our audio artifacts

Take a look into any basement in America. Squirrelled away among old toys, broken furniture and last season’s clothing, most families have the odd antique or family heirloom.

Interlochen, too, has a basement full of antiques and heirlooms. Tucked under Interlochen Public Radio is a room full of acetate transcription discs, vinyl LPs, open-reel tapes and Digital Audio Tapes (DAT)—antiques by any audiophile’s estimation. These same devices are also Interlochen’s heirlooms, full of music and memories waiting to be decoded for modern audiences.

Like any antiques, however, Interlochen’s heirlooms are subject to the wear and tear of age. Interlochen archivist Leo Gillis is racing the clock in an attempt to save these historic recordings from the scourge of time. In 2016, Interlochen received two grants on IPR’s behalf to begin the process of digitizing Interlochen’s recorded legacy: one from the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) and another from the Hamer D. and Phyllis C. Shafer Foundation.

“The big vision of the digitization project is to create a living archive and use these recordings as content to be shared,” said Emily Culler, director of development for Interlochen Public Radio.

The two new grants are the continuation of a process begun before Gillis came to Interlochen in 2015. An earlier grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was used to catalog all the materials in IPR’s archives. “Everything is ordered by date and barcoded, so we have a sense of what’s there,” said Culler.

The audio archives span nearly 80 years and four different recording media. Consistent with founder Joseph Maddy’s vision, Interlochen Arts Camp began recording audio as early as the Camp’s first performance in 1928 and broadcasting on national networks such as NBC and CBS. The earliest surviving recordings in the archives are a handful of 16-inch acetate transcription discs from the 1930s. The collection also includes 3,000 open-reel tapes, 1,500 DAT recordings, and thousands of LP records.

The two grants were prioritized to the most at-risk items in the archive. The Shafer grant focused on the digitization of the DAT recordings, which Gillis said are the most endangered items in the collection despite their relative modernity. “Sony invented DATs to replace cassettes, and although they never took off with consumers, audio engineers loved them because they were digital,” he said. “Unfortunately, they’re a terrible medium for archival purposes because they’re very fragile. We have 1,500 DATs, and a quarter of them might not play.”

Due to the nature of DAT recordings, Gillis added, those that have already been corrupted will not be able to be restored and digitized.

The ARSC grant was focused on the other most at-risk medium: reel-to-reel tape recordings of historical classical performances. Interlochen began using reel-to-reel in 1955 and continued using them until switching to DAT in the 1990s. About 500 of the archive’s 3,000 reel-to-reel tapes precede the advent of IPR in 1963. IPR used the ARSC grant to hire two audio engineers for eight weeks each to digitize the reel-to-reel tapes. The tapes can only be transferred in real time, meaning that a 45-minute tape takes about an hour to transfer. The process could have been much longer, however, as Gillis explained.

“We’re incredibly lucky,” he said. “Interlochen used top-quality materials, such as Scotch recording tape. Because they used good tape, we don’t have to do any ‘triage,’ or reconstructive surgery on the tapes before we digitize them.”

All together, the IPR archives contain about 10,000 hours of music, which Gillis estimates would take 15,000 to 20,000 hours to digitize. “And that’s just transferring, not editing,” Gillis added. “You could spend a couple of hours editing just one hour of performance.”

Culler noted that, once digitized, all recordings need to be electronically cataloged, tagged with metadata, and checked for copyright infringement, all of which adds to the duration of the process.

Despite the scale of the project, Gillis asserts the importance—and the possibility—of completing the digital archive. “It’s a big project, but it’s a finite project,” he said. “This is the recorded legacy of Interlochen: the programs only tell what was played, not how it was played. It’s of great historical interest to anyone connected to Interlochen.”

Further, Gillis notes that many of Interlochen’s recordings are of interest to classical music fans in general. “Interlochen has always stressed performing a wide variety of repertoire,” he said. “Students have always had a chance to play new music at Interlochen. There are many world premieres and American premieres by famous composers in these recordings.” For example, Gunther Schuller conducted the World Youth Symphony in the world premiere of his “Three Nocturnes for Orchestra,” while Lukas Foss did likewise with the world premiere of his “American Cantata.”

Other works, although not premiered at Interlochen, are of similar importance due to their obscure nature. “If this was all Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, it would be harder to make a case for saving it because so many major orchestras have produced recordings of those pieces,” he said. “Some of these pieces are not often recorded. Interlochen has always been innovating, always sparking creative imagination. Interlochen will take on works that other orchestras won’t take on because students become better-rounded musicians if they play obscure things, but obscure music doesn’t fill the seats that major orchestras are trying to sell.”

DAT and reel-to-reel tapes are only the beginning of the digitization process; Gillis also hopes to digitize the recordings stored on LP records and acetate transcription discs in the future.

The digitization project is one of the key elements of CREATE AMAZING: The Campaign for Interlochen. To learn more about the project, including some of the contents of the archives, or to donate to the archives, please visit https://www.createamazing.org/priorities/programs/interlochen-public-radio/

—Melissa Luby

ARSC Digitization Project Sample Audio

Interlochen Arts Academy Band - May 28, 1987
Duo No. 1 for Violin and Cello — Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Andrea Campos, violin, Brasilia, Brazil
Danna Glaser, cello, Tel Aviv, Israel

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