A word about old sound

Mired as I am now in producing this hour of radio, I thought it was a good time to share the variety of original formats I’ve been working with. When I began my radio career in 1997, I learned to cut tape with a razor blade. We used cassette tapes in the field to record our interviews, but then we dubbed the audio onto reel-to-reel tape during the production process. That required cutting the tape and splicing pieces back together. By the end of that semester, though, we’d started learning digital audio editing. My first job, at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1998, required the razor-blade skills, though not for long.

The material I gathered for Peace Corps Voices includes tiny reel-to-reel tapes recorded on a portable machine nearly 50 years ago. I found an engineer and a studio at WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut where I was able to playback the reels and digitize them. Another Peace Corps volunteer offered me a giant box of similar tiny reels, recorded in Chile in the late 1960s, but I wasn’t able to score time in another studio with the right hardware to fit those tapes into the documentary (I can only spend so long in Hartford, alas, and the studio I found at WMUA in Amherst, Mass. didn’t have a reel-to-reel machine that played back at the right speed).

From the Sierra Leone volunteer who served from 1967-1969 through the Nepal volunteer (1994-1996), I received cassettes (or digital files that the volunteer had created from cassettes). I had the technology in-house to digitize cassette tapes, so that was easy. I also picked up a cast-off VCR (remember those?) and bought a nifty little converter so I could dub the audio off a video cassette—also from the mid-1990s—and into my computer.

By the 2000s, most of the volunteers I heard from had documented their service digitally. There was just one more, who served in Haiti, who tossed me a throwback. He’d recorded his adventures on minidisks. That was the second field recording technology I’d owned (after cassettes). Unfortunately, the minidisks didn’t covert into adequate digital files for broadcast (they were an early effort to improve upon cassettes, but their time was short-lived). All sorts of digital recorders rule the day now—and I, too, have upgraded to a device that records on flash memory cards (just like your digital camera).

Although I’m not nostalgic for razor blades and splicing tape, I did appreciate the fact that I still knew what to do with them. And the fact that it’s increasingly difficult to playback older audio formats is part of what inspired this documentary. Some of the people who sent me cassettes no longer even have a way to hear those (never mind the reel-to-reel tape). So, whenever possible I’ve tried to give the volunteers a CD with their digitized recordings. And I’m reminded of how durable and reliable my old Sony cassette deck is–much more so than either of the minidisk recorders or the digital recorder I’ve had since.

There’s one more outdated field recording technology that I am glad I did not encounter during this project: Digital Audio Tape. Now there’s a technology that never caught on!


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  1. Pingback: A word about old sound | Peace Corps Voices | recordingdigitalaudio.com

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