Audio Preservation Engineer Duncan Harrison talks about digitising, summarising and becoming familiar with a small collection of audio tapes from the archive of Salisbury film maker Eda Moore.
When looking after sound collections the words ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you listen’ are constantly guiding principles. Even in the case of well documented and nicely organised collections it is common for our cataloguers to discover that a cassette tape they expected to contain one thing, in fact contains another. It’s a frequent enough occurrence to find that ‘Interview with Mrs. Smith 12.08.88’ turns out to actually contain 5 seconds of somebody testing a microphone followed by half of a Guns N’ Roses live album. This can happen for a number of reasons and is all part of what made tape such an interesting, adaptable format, but a useful analogy here is to think of tape as being like a notebook. In much the same way as we might scribble and jot down notes on a nearby piece of paper over a span of time, tape provided an equivalent of such a sketchpad for capturing sound. Sometimes, depending on the collection, we can have a real job on our hands making sense of what’s in there but we are fortunate that most of the collections we work on here at the Keep originate from well managed educational or cultural institutions that were wary of preventing these future issues. These recordings are made by trained professionals who are aware of good practices in the organisation and cataloguing of their materials and, as such, we may only average around 2 or 3 instances of these complications for every 50-60 perfectly organised items. Even the best of us are prone to occasional error!
What happens then, when we receive a collection of tapes made not by a university department or museum but a private individual? Tapes with recordings made for creative and personal use in the life time of the recordist rather than the aim of long term documentation?
‘Eda Moore Films’ (UTK032 the Keep/AV509 WFSA) is just such a collection.
What is the Eda Moore collection?
It is not our intention to spend too much time detailing the life and output of Eda Moore. The best description of known information around her life can be found in the catalogue of the Hampshire Archives, so here are a few key points: Eda Moore (1908 – 1995) was born in Johannesburg and moved to England to study at the Royal Academy of Music. She relocated to Salisbury with her family when her father became an Alderman and, armed with her Cinefilm cameras, recorded several short films mostly focused on the people, events and places of the local area. These films are held by the Wessex Film and Sound Archive (within the Hampshire Archives) alongside her obituary, some photographs and the audio tapes we received to digitise and catalogue as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.
Consisting of 34 tapes (all open reel besides a single compact cassette) the audio collection does not have a great deal of documentation to go with it, leaving us with only some very general ideas of what to expect were on them. It was understood that some reels contained audio accompaniments to Moore’s films but revealed a great deal more varied and in some cases unpredictable content, giving us a complex job of sorting through and understanding the recordings.
Collections such as these, though challenging, are actually very common. Therefore we thought it would be a good exercise to illustrate some of the processes and decisions we undertook during work on the tapes. This article will detail some of the challenges we encountered whilst digitising and creating summaries of the tapes, hopefully serving as a case study in handling similar collections as well as an overview of a very charming, valuable set of recordings.
A key difference between tapes from institutions vs private individuals is often evident in the physical character of the tapes themselves. In the case of, for example, a university oral history project you can reasonably expect to find recordings that were made on a single brand of good quality tape, having been clearly labelled and documented by the institution. Common protocol at the time of initial recording would require as separate access copy to be dubbed from the master tape, meaning that the original items see relatively little use and wear throughout the intervening years. Even when the number of tapes within such a collection amounts to many dozens, it remains commonplace to find a uniformity among them which is incredibly useful for all aspects of digitisation and cataloguing.
This is not so in the case of the Eda Moore collection where we can see a range of different sizes, brands, designs and quality of tape represented; all of which show clear signs of continued use and domestic storage throughout their original ownership. Many of the tapes were somewhat worn and crinkled where no leader was applied for threading into the tape recorder. The boxes, often a little dog eared and faded, do helpfully contain some hand written notes which indicate recording contents, yet these can often be difficult to read and have in some cases been crossed out and annotated where the tape has evidently been re-recorded over. When this happens it is typical that some of the older content remains on the tape, putting us in the position of having to identify that audio as well as what Eda Moore would probably have considered the most relevant recordings. As you may imagine this all presents us with quite a challenge in figuring out what to make of the collection as a whole.
Even so, it should be mentioned that the recordings held on these tapes have survived in considerably good health considering their age and condition. Of the entire collection only 3 reels required baking to temporarily resolve sticky shed syndrome and there were no broken splices nor any badly damaged sections of tape effecting the audio in drastic ways. The issues that did effect the quality of audio were in most cases related to the original recording conditions and while there is little that can be done to address this at the digitisation stage, the job of identifying and documenting those probably conditions is an essential part of the process.
Extract of the Moore’s in musical mode. Fairly typical of the audio quality throughout the collection. Not bad for 1960’s home made recordings!
From UTK032/11 and AV509/74
The Technical Part: Considerations and Challenges During Digitisation
The most immediate challenge we first encountered during digitisation was the discovery that certain recordings appeared to be made on quarter track machines. Quarter track machines allow up to 4 channels of audio to be captured on a tape as opposed to 2, so to best digitise tapes recorded in this fashion we would need access to similar machines we unfortunately we do not have! This puts us in a position where we must make decisions about whether we can successfully capture any audio on those tapes and if so, how much.
At its worst, digitising quarter track tapes on our machines results in chaotically overlapping sound sources that were not intended to be heard in tandem, giving us no way to separate them out. In these instances there isn’t much we can do besides accept and document our inability to work with the material, hoping that a means to digitise with a quarter track machine arises sometime in the tape’s future. In most cases in the Eda Moore collection though, the placement of the audio across the 4 tracks was fortunately coincidental, allowing most or all of certain tapes to be legibly captured even as a 2 track transfer. This was true with the tapes made to soundtrack Moore’s films as music, narration and location sounds were arranged on the tape to work in tandem with the visual accompaniment. The result is perhaps not as good as we could have achieved with a quarter track machine, but none the less gives us a linear sequence of sounds which make sense in 2 track a stereo form.
An extract of the audio pictured above; the Soundtrack to Moore’s ‘Heart of England’ film. The transfer on a 2 track machine means each channel sits in opposite sides of the stereo field. From UTK032/3 and AV509/65
Outside of the film making context, Moore’s use of the quarter track was possibly a matter of maximising use of a single tape, reflecting an approach many home recordists would have taken in similar circumstances – tape could be expensive, after all! For example, some of the worst effected recordings were collections of musical pieces found on a tape simply labeled ‘Dancing’. It is unlikely any of this audio will be useful to us in 2 track form, however we can gather that it was something of a utilitarian tape for Moore; compiled for the specific purpose of dance. Since most of the content here is commercially available recorded music it needn’t be considered as high a priority as other unique recordings. Although we could not digitise these tapes confidently, perhaps their key value is simply in how they demonstrate one of the ways in which Eda Moore recorded and utilised audio.
Certain things we may learn from one set of tapes can lead us to important contextual understanding informing how we listen to others. Even just the knowledge that Eda Moore used a quarter track recorder became valuable to us in this sense too, as it lead us to be additionally cautious of any audio which sounded out of place or overdubbed on top of another recording. This became a big consideration where, for example, content such as a poetry reading or religious sermon would occasionally be underpinned by a piece of music. Though the likelihood was that these moments were intentional, such instances still needed to be marked for their possibility of resulting from a quarter track recording. Having worked through many of the tapes with this awareness, eventually a fragment of conversation between Eda Moore and her sister Mary featuring on one recording shone light on large sections of the collection. During a poetry reading with loud sections of music also audible, we can occasionally hear Eda and Mary quietly discussing the songs in between recitals. At one point while a piece of music continues as Mary speaks, she reminds Eda that she hasn’t remembered to switch off the record, to which we hear Eda reply ‘do you like that bit of music?’
This subtle. easy to miss moment resulted gave us far more confidence in understanding the recording circumstances and thus allowed us transfer and document accordingly. We never know where the clues may be found and so must listen carefully at all times.
Recording of music with audible speech beneath. The reference to this piece of music at the end of the clip, though said very much in passing, gives us confidence that the piece is placed deliberately into the recording and related to the rest of its content. From UTK032/18 and WFSA AV509/81
We also gained a sense that elsewhere in the collection some of the musical content could likely have been recorded with a microphone through a speaker. This results in some poor quality audio at times where voices, room noises and interference with the microphone are frequently audible beneath the main content. There is of course nothing we can do about this without dramatically intervening in the original recordings, however the observation helped us to understand a lot about Eda Moore’s potentially limited resources for recording and how this would inevitably influence the sound quality of whole collection and what we might expect to listen out for as we progressed through the tapes.
Thankfully, Eda herself was also occasionally on hand to explain the circumstances behind some recordings…
Extracts from the beginnings of two tapes. From UTK032/5 & UTK032/7 and WFSA AV509/67 & AV509/70)
The final point to make about digitisation is actually something incredibly common in collections of this nature. Though thankfully a rarer occurrence than may have been expected, some tapes had sections recorded at different speeds or with the azimuth position of the playback head set to differing angles. Perhaps more so than any of the other specifics mentioned so far, these problems best exemplify the ‘tape as notepad’ analogy we began with. As you might imagine, we do not want to make do with a transfer wherein certain sections play at the wrong speed or are missing their higher frequencies (if we can help it!) In these cases numerous different transfers of the tapes were required at varying speeds and adjustments in order to capture the best quality version we could. This is a time consuming and occasionally complex matter of identifying distinct sections of audio and making multiple new files and it also places additional stress on the often fragile tape as we find ourselves winding it back and forth, playing different sections at different times.
In all cases, actions and decisions taken were documented in depth for the future use of cataloguers and listeners alike, giving a clear picture of exactly what was on the tapes and how it was interpreted into its corresponding digital file. In the end, digitisation resulted in 72 separate wav files.
Summarising the Recordings
When cataloguing we aim to capture lots of details according to set criteria and standards. For example, the names of all speakers should ideally be identified in order of appearance, while titles, performers and versions of any musical pieces are accounted for in as much detail we can achieve. Where possible we also aim to create good descriptions of the overall content of a given recording, marking down names mentioned, works or events cited and subjects discussed. This is a time consuming job which requires close listening in real time to the audio in order to catch onto relevant information which will help us build the fullest picture of what’s going on in the recording.
With collections such as Eda Moore’s it was very common for one piece of audio to begin, end or interrupt another with no warning. This often presents a difficult task in deriving any firm logic or context from the sequence of sounds captured. To tackle this, we decided to make time coded summaries of each tape which run through events on each side of each tape in a linear fashion. These summaries do not yet constitute the finished job of cataloguing as it will take place later on in the project, however they allow us to install several time saving measures for the future work that will be done.
An immediate benefit of the summaries was the ability to pre-identify any commercial music recordings which Moore had recorded on her tapes. In most cases these will not fall within the scope of our project, so marking out these sections with time codes allows cataloguers to focus on more relevant areas. A lack of summaries would mean that even where tapes were mostly commercial music, cataloguers would still need to comb through the recordings one by one in order to ensure no additional materials were held elsewhere within. Similarly, the summaries also made efforts to identify the names of texts such as poems or play extracts being read throughout the tapes which will also hopefully put the cataloguers in a position to simply import these details into their documents and dedicate more of their time on identifying important background or contextual information..
As discussed earlier, Eda Moore appears to have made notes on the tape boxes which are in some cases quite useful. However, this information cannot be relied upon to wholly and accurately describe the content of the tapes and must be used in tandem with the recordings. As we said at the beginning, you never know what you’ve got until you listen and sure enough, there were occasionally inaccuracies found when the notes on some items were compared against what was found during digitisation. Occurrences such as this as well as the issue of hard to read or partially erased writing make even very basic initial summaries incredibly helpful in matching up audio to what is written on the boxes. A task that would typically be done item by item can now be viewed a little bit more broadly and in context of the wider collection. Where notes do correlate with recordings, the summaries give us a good basis to build more detailed, descriptive cataloguing.
Finally, the summaries allow for inclusion of engineer’s notes which identify potential issues with sound quality and whether or not this stems from the original recording or digitisation process. Anomalies in sound quality (irregular speeds, sudden cuts to new recordings, room noise or low volume) can be documented in summaries before the audio reaches the cataloguers, saving lots of time spent reviewing files to diagnose audio issues or even checking back over original tapes to confirm that these problems were not a fault that could be mitigated during transfer.
Listening to the Life & Times of Eda Moore
The time spent on untangling materials of this nature and arranging them into new contexts is ultimately time we spend engaging with a small part of the original owner’s life and times. Eda Moore remains a somewhat elusive figure from today’s perspectives, with a limited amount of information about her available in searches. Through working with this collection we not only come to hear what Eda Moore’s voice sounded like, but gain a deeper sense of her working process, relationships and living arrangements. Many names and voices appear throughout these tapes, most commonly those of her sister Mary and Mother Belle. In fact, Mary Moore’s voice might populate more of these recordings than Eda’s herself, with several tapes dedicated to capturing excerpts from Mary Moore’s speech, drama and literature classes.
Elsewhere, various audio letters sent back and forth between England and South Africa contain songs, poetry, prayers and conversation from larger family gatherings. One interesting recording sees Eda Moore bringing her tape recorder along whilst visiting her friend Phoebe Dunford, capturing the sounds as she recalls memories and dialect from her early life in Somerset. Similarly, moments on other tapes find Moore encouraging her sister and various other family members to speak in Zulu. Each new tape has the potential to bring us deeper into familiarity with a cast of characters near and dear to Moore until we almost feel as though we somewhat known them ourselves.
Extract from a recording made of family and friends celebrating Christmas Eve in 1966. From UTK032/8 and WFSA AV509/71
But what does it tell us that Eda Moore strove to capture these sounds on tape in the first place? What was it all for? Here, some historical context provides an interesting perspective.
The collection, which dates predominantly to the 1960’s, comes from an era which saw the tape recorder enjoy a boom in technological and industrial development. The result was a far greater domestic availability of such devices where expense and scarcity just a few years prior had confined sound recording more to the professional or institutional settings which could afford to invest in it. Knowing this, the time, place and home made nature of Moore’s collection surely reflects experiments common among the generations who lived through this boom; with instincts to turn cameras and tape recorders toward immediate surroundings resulting in audible documents of creative and technical discovery.
As with Moore’s films, much of her audio explores Salisbury and surrounding areas, with one recording featuring a ‘journey in sound’ through the town while another captures the opening night of its new Playhouse. A frequent presence across many of the tapes also are the bells and choir of Salisbury Cathedral. These recordings give the listener a vivid picture of the area and tell us much about the times in which they were made, but always we see the subject through the eyes of Moore and her family. Her take on the local surroundings was not just documentary but also poetic; comprised of and embellished by she and her family’s love of literature, music, prayer and speech – resourcefully created using just the few simple domestic devices to hand.
Extract from Eda Moore’s audio tour of Salisbury. Listen to how she combines recordings made in these various locations with her own narration recorded separately.
From UTK032/6 and WFSA AV509/68)
Exercises such as making summaries, recording technical processes and even writing articles such as this allow us to take a few steps back from our broader workload to gain a different perspective on sound collections; one which allows us to appreciate the way tapes like Eda Moore’s represent a form of homemade creativity unique to a distinctly vibrant era in the history of sound recording. Like lots of similar collections which come from private individuals we have only very little background information and the worlds which reveal themselves in the audio to work with. Where are able to solve some of the mysteries within we might reveal important new details around the life of that individual. Where we cannot do so we may still derive much from the sounds of times gone by that they hold.
Eda Moore’s work sits squarely within a particular geographical and technological reality common to her era. Ultimately, we do not have the information to know what long term plans she may have had for her recordings. Even if a simple enthusiasm for creative pursuits or the pleasure of family and friends was her primary motivator, we might still view her today as something of an unknowing historian; a (semi) silent recordist at the helm of her tape machines, unable to know that merely for having thought to capture the sounds and movement of her own world, she would do so for the benefit of the world yet to come.
References UTK032 are from the British Library catalogue
References AV509 are from the Hampshire Archives catalogue