Digitisation project 2: open reel video, VCR, Betamax, audio CD-R, magnetic wire and wax cylinder
For our second digitisation project in collaboration with PACKED VZW, we have selected six audio and video formats for which the playback equipment was mainly at risk, as well as the format of the carrier itself. The carriers in question are open reel video, VCR, Betamax, audio-CD-R, magnetic wire and wax cylinders.
Open reel video
Between October 2014 and September 2015, we digitised 854 carriers from nine cultural heritage institutions. At the end of 2017, Vectracom digitised an extra batch for meemoo containing 840 carriers from eight different cultural heritage institutions.
Open reel video is a collective term for various video formats on open reels. Mechanically, they work in the same way as audio tapes but, due to lack of standardisation, they can be found in various forms. The width varies from a quarter of an inch to two inches wide and the tapes are almost never compatible with players by another brand. Not only the rareness of specific types of players but also the loss of signal and the stickiness of the tapes form a risk. During the first years of the new millennium, the complete VRT collection of more than 26,000 one-inch wide carriers was digitised. After this we only needed to digitise the tapes from the cultural heritage sector, such as broadcasts by third parties and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s video art.
Between July 2015 and July 2016, we digitised 594 carriers from 12 cultural heritage institutions and one broadcaster together with Sonim Production. Mid 2018, a second round of about 100 VCR cassettes followed.
VCR or ‘Video Cassette Recording’ by Philips was the first video format to enjoy commercial, but short-lived success in the 1970s. There are few of these large rectangular cassettes but, despite the small number, they formed a major challenge for meemoo. VCR players are difficult to find and the cassettes themselves demonstrate every possible form of damage: stickiness, peeling or flaking, oxidation, breakage, residue deposits on the read heads etc. In consultation with the content partners, we have based our selection of the VCR cassettes to be digitised primarily on content. Due to the high cost, feature films or recordings of television programmes available in the VRT archive have not yet been digitised. VCR cassettes were digitised by Picturae, who were also involved in the digitisation of Betamax, audio-CD-R and digitisation project 6, which concerns 22 rare carrier types.
Between October 2015 and July 2016, we digitised 53 carriers from five cultural heritage institutions together with the French organisation LARHRA.
Magnetic wire recording was invented in 1898 but did not become a popular choice for recording sound until after the Second World War, and then only for a short period of time. Magnetised wire or wire recording is thinner than a human hair and can be up to two kilometres long. This is very vulnerable to breakage, can easily become tangled and rusts quickly. The playback equipment can still be found on specialised forums in the United States but tuning and repair has become an expert skill. Magnetic wire was the first recording technique with which you could record sound easily and affordably, even at home. Magnetic wires often contain recordings of radio programmes, events and so on.
Between October 2014 and September 2015, we took care of the digital transfer of 1,209 carriers from 16 cultural heritage institutions.
Audio-CD-R had a short-lived but significant success from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Not the playback technology but the carriers themselves are at risk as they eventually turned out not to be a reliable storage medium – although they were marketed as such. You can quickly and cheaply burn audio-CD-Rs, but the carrier is very sensitive to scratches and disk rot, or the physical and chemical degradation of the data layer. Audiovisual archivists are wary about storing data on these optical disks. The content is very diverse: from various music recordings to oral history interviews and recorded radio broadcasts. In the course of 2019, meemoo wrote out a new tender for this carrier type, along with the CDs and DVDs in digitisation project 9., for a quantiy of around 4,000 extra audio-CD-R's, which will again be digitised by Picturae.
Between October 2014 and July 2015, we digitised 834 carriers from nine cultural heritage institutions and one broadcaster together with Picturae. At the end of 2017, Vectracom digitised an extra batch from meemoo of 840 carriers from eight different cultural heritage institutions.
With its associated home video system, Betamax was the second most successful audiovisual carrier in 1975; with the Philips VCR system at number one. A year later, JVC introduced the VHS format and, in 1979, Grundig followed with Video2000: a cheaper but also less technically advanced alternative. Betamax cassettes are vulnerable to the same problems as other magnetic tape cassettes: they get sticky and can become stuck in the player or suffer signal loss due to demagnetisation. The playback equipment is also at risk of disappearing, even though 18 million Betamax players have been sold. The home video system was mainly used at home and this is reflected in the Betamax collections held by the cultural heritage institutions. In the VRT archive there were another few hundred Betamax cassettes from 1986. This compliance recording collection contains the then statutory permanent recording of television channels’ antenna signal. This was necessary in order to respond to the complaints of viewers invoking ‘the right of reply’. In 1987, VRT switched to VHS cassettes for this.
Between October 2015 and July 2016, we digitised 422 carriers of 7 cultural heritage institutions together with LARHRA.
Apart from tin foil, the wax roll is the oldest medium to record sound. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented this technology. It did not disappear until the end of the 1920s, when shellac records began their rise. A wax roll consists of several materials and exists in different formats. Wax rolls are susceptible to mould, scratches and cracks. The very first copies can even break by the warmth of a hand, holding the roll. Old playback equipment that collectors like to display are unfortunately not suitable for digitisation. Fortunately, Meemoo could count on Henri Chamoux for the digitisation. He developed the Archéophone and made it possible to digitise wax rolls. Many wax rolls contain commercial music recordings (which are unique due to the small number of recordings), jokes (comedy avant-la-lettre) or speeches. One collection is extra special and is owned by the Department of African studies at Ghent University. On those 92 wax rolls, you can listen to ethno-linguistic field recordings, made by the professor Amaat Burssens of Ghent in 1937 in Belgian-Congo.