Audio preservation in lockdown

By Esther Gill, Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

A helpful cat: one of the challenges of working from home.

We are living in unprecedented times, a cliche but true. Our project, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, stopped work on site at The Keep archives on March 19th 2020 and since then we’ve been working from home.

Like many people, we are facing a range of work-related challenges, above all the fact that we can’t get into the digitisation studio or use the equipment in it. In addition, we can’t listen to most of our recordings or bring home the archive documentation that provides context to what we are listening to. And all the while the team is juggling work with family responsibilities, the challenges of life in lockdown, caring for loved ones and, most importantly, staying at home.

So, what does it mean for an audio preservation project to be working in a time of lockdown? Well, we’ve had to be flexible about what we do, while maintaining the focus on our project ambition of preserving and improving access to sound recordings across the South East and the wider UK. For us at The Keep is has meant:

Implementing our ‘ideas list

Those ideas that we’ve talked about but not quite got around to finishing are now coming to the fore. Our Engineers have been focussing on a range of tasks including sorting out our image bank – a long-overdue job; creating a sample pack of ‘sounds from the studio’, which can be downloaded and used here; and developing new skills in areas such as cataloguing.

Working around the challenges

The Cataloguers continue to create the catalogue records for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue. This is part of the core work of the project: enabling researchers to find content they want, and ultimately to explore the wealth of sound recordings. Our Rights Officer continues to clear the rights to recordings, essential if they are to be made available online. But not having our usual equipment and documentation means that we have to accept the pace is slow – frustrating at times.

Embracing new technology

Software tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp are transforming our ability to keep in touch and work collaboratively as a team now spread across Brighton, Hove and Lewes. We are embracing this new technology, getting up to speed with what’s possible and sharing a wealth of morale-boosting content, including: cute pets, interesting mugs, ‘what I had for lunch’, along with work queries and software solutions.

However, in embracing this technology, we are also realising its limits: they are very useful, functional tools, but sometimes you just want to share the same space with somebody, to scribble your ideas on a shared piece of paper, and to not have to juggle with the distorted sound of an ‘unstable network connection’.

Looking to the future

We are all living acutely in the moment, with daily updates of news and not knowing what tomorrow will bring. However, for our work, this is also a time to think about what we will learn from this experience to take forward. There has been an out-pouring of digital content from the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector, along with many other cultural organisations, that has contributed to our shared experiences of lockdown. Clearing rights to put sound recordings online and creating resources using archive sound recordings are already part of this process, but what else could we be doing?

We look forward to getting back to The Keep, but we know that we are some of the lucky ones. We are able to work from home with the knowledge that our project and jobs will still be there for the next 18 months, thanks to National Lottery Heritage Fund and Lottery Players.

For now, the process of audio preservation will continue from a network of living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across East Sussex. Stay safe, and we’ll speak to you soon.

picture of the team at unlocking our sound heritage
The Unlocking our Sound Heritage Team

What is a vinyl record player?

By Eli Miller, University of Brighton Student Volunteer

What is a vinyl record player? Well, it’s an electromagnetic devices which we listen to music on. Let’s face it: technology has turned music and listening to sound into more of a utility than an art. This has a lot to do with the amount and ease of access through sites like YouTube and Spotify. Recently, however, vinyl has made a major comeback. But, how do record players work?

The Building Blocks of Vinyl

Every record player has three main parts:

  1. Needle
  2. Cartridge
  3. Tonearm
close of of a vinyl record player. focus on cartridge
Close up image of a vinyl cartridge. (Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash)

Modern records are made of polyvinyl chloride (Vinyl), a type of plastic. They have very small grooves stamped into them which then creates sound waves. The right and left channel of these grooves cause the needle to vibrate. These vibrations then move their way up to the cantilever (which sits inside the cartridge). The cantilever is attached to the needle and a magnet which sends a small electrical signal to the channels. The magnet moves constantly between two coils that generates a signal that moves into the tonearm and then through amplifiers.

Why Have They Become So Popular Again?

Vinyl made its debut comeback in 2008 and is even more popular today. Reasons for this could be the improvement in sound quality; modern vinyl record players sound much better compared to the 1960s. There is also an aesthetical element to vinyl, which digital music lacks. Record sleeves are part of the artistic process in making music. All artwork is carefully selected, which digital music doesn’t appreciate as much. Compare downloading a song on a computer to being in a store and having an incredible image catch your eye! On top of that, who doesn’t want a funky coloured record? Just look at the image below:

Orange coloured vinyl (Photo by Travis Yewell on Unsplash)

Nostalgia is another key reason for vinyl’s popularity. Those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s miss this way of listening to music; so it brings back memories! People have been listening to MP3s for more than a decade but the sound a vinyl produces is much different to digital music, especially through on old record player.

Digital music will never die but it seems to be the same with vinyl records. They are an incredible mark in the history of sound that keeps coming back to play.

Meet the volunteers: Nancy Jones

The more interviews I work on, the bigger my picture of Lewes gets and the more I find threads of the stories interweaving

Nancy Jones, 2019

When I contacted the email address to volunteer at The Keep I wasn’t sure what I would end up doing. A paragraph in The Keep’s newsletter mentioned the start of a new project digitising archived sounds. There would be a small team based in Brighton, part of a larger national project, and they were asking for volunteers. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage was set up to secure the future of analogue audio recordings in archives throughout the country before the means to listen to them is lost. I thought it would be an interesting way to find out more about The Keep and what goes on behind the scenes.

Six months later: I am sitting in a small room, with a high window, on the first floor of The Keep. I’ve been coming to the same room for a few hours every week since the beginning of February. I’m listening to a conversation recorded in the 1990s. The elderly speaker is giggling as she describes eating Welsh rarebit in The Odeon café in Lewes, ‘it would have been the highlight of our evening’ she says, gently making fun of her childhood self. This tape forms part of a project organised in the 1990s by the Lewes U3A History Group who recorded over 200 oral histories; the personal stories of Lewes residents and the changes they saw during their lifetimes. Together the interviews form a detailed portrait of the town over the previous hundred years.

Nancy Jones during her time volunteering at Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

I am helping prepare the information which is supplied with these recordings when they are sent off to the British Library. It’s a big job and in doing it I get to read about every interview in the collection. Each week, the more interviews I work on, the bigger my picture of Lewes gets and the more I find threads of the stories interweaving. In one interview a man talks about serving in the voluntary Fire Brigade in 1943, the night a bomb fell on New Road; he explains how he helped evacuate people and move them to temporary accommodation. In another, a woman describes having to leave her house as a child after a bomb fell in her street, going to stay with her grandmother whilst damage to her house was repaired. It’s only towards the end of her story that I realise she is talking about the same bomb on the same night, these two people were in the same street one night nearly eighty years ago. Perhaps they met. Perhaps they didn’t.

There are anecdotes which stand out from every interview. Some stories reach back to the early years of the last century. I was surprised to learn how important horse racing had been to the town, which seems to have been dotted with racing stables. Many people talk about their memories from that time. In one of the interviews, I learned to my surprise that Lewes trained a Grand National winner. The horse, Shaun Spadah, was the only one not to fall in the event in 1921 – that must have made for quite a race. At a time when horses were transported by rail, local mood was so jubilant following the win that the town band came out to welcome the horse home, marching with him from the train up the High Street to his stables in Spital Road. His jockey, Fred Rees, was a Lewes resident too. I imagine some money was made in Lewes on that win, it was certainly an event for all the local schoolchildren who were each given a shilling to celebrate.

Shaun Spadah’s Grand National victory, reported in the Sussex Daily News the day after the race

On a sunny afternoon early in May I take a walk around Lewes. Streets I’ve passed many times before are now filled with the stories I’ve heard and read. Down a terraced street behind the Castle, two children are playing at the front of a house, watched over by a woman who stands at the doorway. A little further on I spot what I’ve been looking for. There is a subtle difference in the shade of the bricks, the architecture doesn’t quite match; two more recent houses built here fill a gap made one night in 1943. I hadn’t noticed it before.

Volunteer With Us!

Are you interested in taking on something new?

We are looking for people who are:

  • Interested in working with sound recordings
  • Keen to develop their skills in cataloguing and research
  • Curious listeners with a sharp ear for detail
  • Keen to develop their skills in cataloguing and research

Email us at UOSH@sussex.ac.uk to find out more information.

Meet the volunteers: Rebecca Hutt

Rebecca Hutt reflects on her first few months of volunteering

I started with Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) in September 2019, along with a couple of other new volunteers, to help catalogue the BBC Radio Brighton recordings (part of the Royal Pavilion & Museums collections held here at The Keep) for inclusion in the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Our first morning of induction was very helpful because my starting point was knowing absolutely zero about BBC Radio Brighton. Esther Gill, the UOSH South East Hub Project Manager, took us back to the origins of the station and we learned how significant it was in BBC radio history because it was one of their first local radio stations.

Esther played us some clips to get our first taste of the content. The one that resonated with me was about some parents demonstrating outside their school in a plea to drivers to take more care after their Lollipop Man had been killed by an HGV the week before. Some of us are still campaigning for safer streets. For instance, parents from my son’s school have been asking for a new school-crossing officer. Thankfully ours survived but retired more than a year ago.

Rebecca working on Radio Brighton material held at The Keep

The following week, each volunteer settled down with a laptop and headphones to begin our listening and cataloguing mission. Cataloguing an archive is a new experience for me and I am really intrigued and enjoying every minute of it. Fortunately, I am very familiar with the software that we’re using. Microsoft Excel has been a daily feature in my life as a consulting engineer in the construction industry. It may be a bit clumsy with text formatting but it is reliable and versatile, so I’m very pleased that it’s the way that the British Library want to receive the cataloguing data.

The first thing that struck me, listening to a 1972 edition of Newscast, was how dense the content was. I listen to Radio 4 every day so I’m used to talk-radio, but perhaps it’s because I’m actively listening and trying hard to hear and understand everything that is said, rather than letting it wash over me.

The Newscast programme was dominated by the power cuts due to the coal miners’ pay dispute. It illuminated the reality of living through that period. For instance, as well as the usual weather forecast, there was a bulletin (delivered in a soothing shipping-forecast-like manner) giving the power-shutdown notices for various towns in East and West Sussex. These were for three hours at ‘teatime’ with a further ominous warning that these only represented a 15% power reduction and more cuts might be needed if a 20% reduction was needed. I was born in the mid-1970s and it was very fresh in my parents’ memories when I was growing up, so I have second-hand knowledge of it. One of my Mum’s memories is when the lights went out unexpectedly (a further cut for the 20% reduction, perhaps) whilst she was pouring cheese sauce from the pan so she could no longer tell if it had all made it to the dish successfully!

Radio Brighton tapes in The Keep’s repository

When I’m cooking I tend to rely on television to keep my son entertained, so I’m not sure how we’d manage without electricity at teatime. There would also be the worry of him burning the house down with a candle! In 1972, the other serious concern was racketeering in candle prices. To be honest, it was slightly amusing hearing about candles being 18p or even 30p each, but listening to Newscast made me realise it was a serious issue.

I am surprised how much I’m enjoying listening to radio of 50 years ago and I’ve been given a nice mix of news, politics and arts programmes to listen to. You never know who is going to pop up; it could be Kenneth More, the actor, driving a train on the Volk’s Railway, or Barbara Castle talking about her ‘In Place of Strife’ white paper at The Dome.

Over the past few months at home, I have been transferring my old music formats to digital files and scanning hardcopy reference material (to gain space). Volunteering for UOSH at The Keep has given me the confidence I needed to start cataloguing it effectively.

Volunteer With Us!

Are you interested in taking on something new?

UOSH is looking to recruit some more volunteers to continue the work on the BBC Radio Brighton collection, along with the National Motor Museum Trust’s collection and recordings from the Copper Family.

We are looking for people who are:

  • Interested in working with sound recordings
  • Keen to develop their skills in cataloguing and research
  • Curious listeners with a sharp ear for detail
  • Keen to develop their skills in cataloguing and research

Email us at UOSH@sussex.ac.uk to find out more information.

Meet the volunteers: Pei-Ning Lin

As a foreigner, I didn’t expect that The Keep would be willing to accept me as an intern. I’m from Taiwan, and thought the difference in language and culture may cause communication and understanding barriers between us. I also thought that this archive centre would be very serious and not easy for the public to access. So when they sent me a confirmation letter and gave me the opportunity to be their intern, I felt extremely happy.

The reason for being an intern at The Keep was mainly for my MA research, which is related to digitising historical recordings, and my interest in archive work. Luckily, the British Library is working on a national five-year project: Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), and The Keep is one of the institutions involved. The Keep is responsible for digitising sound recordings in the South East. It is an important project, no matter whether it is for the public in the UK or for foreigners like me. The project aims to save historical sound recordings that have been affected by the advancement of technology. Old technologies are degrading or, because of the limitation of preserving time, they may not be able to be played in the future and recognized by the public. These historical recordings may be “locked” in archives or old cassettes. I think this is the reason why the project uses the term “Unlocking” in its project name.

Pei-Ning Lin (left) at The Keep with Caroline Marchant-Wallis (centre) and Karen Watson (right)

Although my internship lasted only three weeks, Esther Gill of UOSH and Karen Watson and Caroline Marchant-Wallis of the University of Sussex Special Collections gave me a lot of opportunities to take part in different tasks and jobs, to help me understand what an archive is, what an archivist is and what they do. For example, for UOSH, I arranged the call sheets for BBC Radio Brighton, which is part of the process of cataloguing files. Call sheets are written documents from the BBC Radio Brighton’s sound recordings and show the tape’s size, the title of the broadcast, hosts, producers, date and a brief introduction to the tape. Another task I was given by Karen and Caroline was to sort fan mail sent to Lord Richard Attenborough. I also got to digitise 500 letters sent to Leonard Woolf from Evangeline Levine, an American fan.

In addition, I took part in PGCE teaching sessions run by Mass Observation Outreach and Education Officer Suzanne Rose, which are for those who are going to be English or history teachers. It is really amazing that history teachers in Britain have this kind of opportunity. They are encouraged to inspire their students’ love of studying history, and to understand the importance of an archive. The Keep is willing to help those teachers doing research, and encourages people to use its resources, no matter what they are planning to do; research, teaching, or just merely out of curiosity. I think it is a good way to introduce an archive to the public, because people learn most things when they are students. Through education, people can really understand what an archive is and what it can be used for.

I also really appreciated that Esther and Karen agreed to be interviewed by me and answered most of my questions. In addition, they provided me a lot of information to help me to develop my research. I think I can bring my internship experience at The Keep to my country and can share this experience with more people

Volunteer With Us!

Are you interested in taking on something new?

We are looking for people who are:

  • Interested in working with sound recordings
  • Keen to develop their skills in cataloguing and research
  • Curious listeners with a sharp ear for detail
  • Keen to develop their skills in cataloguing and research

Email us at UOSH@sussex.ac.uk to find out more information.

Meet the staff: Katie Tavini, Audio Preservation Engineer

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman

This is all new to me – I’ve never worked in archives before! As a child I learned the violin and went on to do a music degree. There was a small recording module on the course which involved time in a studio and I absolutely loved it. I used to stay there for as long as possible and one of the lecturers found me some work in a studio. The producer I was working for was the first person to teach me the importance of preserving sound recordings and my interest began there.

There are four of us based at The Keep; we started in November last year and we form the South-East Hub of the British Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project (UOSH). There are ten regional hubs and we are all involved in digitising cassette and open reel recordings, both to preserve them and eventually provide to better access. Before we play them, however, we have to check the condition of the cassettes and reels. Many of them have been sitting in boxes for years and will need remedial treatment if they are sticky, mouldy or brittle. If we tried to play these straightaway we could possibly end up damaging them. Some items need special treatment before they can be digitised – in fact I feel very sad when I take an open reel tape out of its box only to find that it’s disintegrated.

One of the best things about this job is the huge diversity of content. Since we started at The Keep, we’ve digitised the oral history collections from the Lewes U3A Group and the Ashdown Forest Heathland Project, and have recently completed digitising the Australian Migration Collection, which accompanies the book Ten Pound Poms; Australia’s Invisible Migrants by A James Hammerton and Alistair Thomson (Manchester University Press). We’re currently working on lectures from the Headstrong Club in Lewes and the Raye du Val Archive, and as part of the project, will be digitising material that ranges from motor sounds from the National Motoring Museum Trust’s collection, to birdsong, programmes from the early years of Radio Brighton, and reminiscences for D-Day commemorations.

Katie Tavini working hard to preserve our sounds

Our priority is to make all this material accessible but this currently depends on copyright issues. If the material has rights clearance, it will be uploaded into the British Library Universal Player and this will be available to the public when the Sounds.BL.UK project launches in September. If we have no rights clearance, anyone wanting to access the recordings will need to hear them where they are stored, and this will usually be in regional libraries or archives such as The Keep. We’re in the very early days of the project, so watch this space!

Do I listen to it all? I’d love to, but we digitise two items at a time so I only get to hear a percentage of what’s there. Items can last from three minutes to 13 hours, so it would take forever if I did one item at a time! However, I have managed to listen to some of a U3A oral project which covered the years from the 1980s to 2002 – it’s a fascinating record of social change. And I love knowing that I’m probably the first one to listen to it since it was packed away!

Of course the job has its challenges. One is when you’re presented with a good collection of tapes but you can’t play them – not because of remedial reasons, but because we simply don’t have the correct equipment to play them on. For example, the recordings of Sussex folk music made by the Copper family were originally recorded at a slower speed than our equipment can play, so we have only digitised half of them so far. We can’t leave it at that – somehow we need to get hold of a slow-speed (1.78 ips) open reel machine. There must be one out there somewhere!

Genevieve – the film-star car!

By Esther Gill

On Saturday, 2 November 2019, we had a showing of Genevieve, the classic 1953 British comedy featuring the eponymous car and its travails in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. And the following day, the car herself motored down to Brighton for the 2019 Run. Meanwhile, in the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage audio preservation studio here at The Keep, we were busy working on a unique collection of recordings from the National Motor Museum Trust (NMMT) at Beaulieu, including three about Genevieve!

Just to clarify (for those who are now confused!), Genevieve is a car, built in 1904 by the Darracq Company, an early French manufacturer of cars. She shot to fame in the 1953 film and since 1993, has been a regular participant in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run on the first Sunday of November each year. She is now owned by the Louwman Museum in The Hague, but she’ll be back on UK roads for the Run in a few days’ time.

Promotional image for the 1953 film Genevieve, courtesy Park Circus/ITV Studios

The NMMT collection being digitised includes three recordings about Genevieve, reflecting the particular fondness that people have for her and her significance as a ‘film-star car’ in the world of veteran cars. The three recordings all relate to her return to the UK in 1993 from Australia to be auctioned at Olympia in December 1993, following her participation in the London to Brighton Run. They include a recordings from a Friends Evening at Beaulieu with Genevieve in ‘attendance’ and people’s memories of why the car is special to them.

In one of the recordings, [UTK007/355], Robert Brooks, Auctioneer, comments that Genevieve ‘really is the motor car that trigged the boom in interest that happened for old cars in the 1950s and 1960s. Many people say she was responsible for the popularity of the Brighton run in modern times and I wouldn’t disagree with that’. He goes on to comment that the auction has generated a lot of interest from across the world, mainly due to her film star status. A month later, on 2 December 1993, Genevieve was sold for £143,000 in London.

One of the open-reel tape recordings about Genevieve being digitised at The Keep

The National Motor Museum Trust audio collection is fascinating, but it is also quite a mystery in places as there isn’t much documentation about the actual content of the recordings. We are digitising 625 open reel tapes, cassettes, a digital audio tape (DAT) and a number of tiny mini-cassettes, but we’re going to need help with listing what is actually on the tapes.

So, if you are interested in cars, the social history of motoring, Beaulieu and various related topics, and would like to get involved with Unlocking Our Sound Heritage at  The Keep, do drop us a line. All that is needed is an ability to listen, the curiosity to follow up clues about what may be in the recording and a desire to help save historic sound recordings.

Get in touch through email: uosh@sussex.ac.uk or Twitter @KeepSounds

Our screening of Genevieve, made possible by BFI’s Film Audience Network, with the support of The National Lottery.