Audio Digitization in the Film & Media Archive

14 Mar
Manuscript from the James Merrill Collection.  Photo credit: Washington University Libraries

Manuscript from the James Merrill Collection.
Photo credit: Washington University Libraries

In conjunction with a recent St. Louis Magazine article, Yes & No by Stefene Russell and the James Merrill Digital Archive , Jim Hone, Film & Media Digital Archivist, digitized a recording from the Merrill Collection, James Merrill, An Evening of Words and Music.

The performance was recorded on April 26, 1985 and featured readings by Merrill, including excerpts from “The Changing Light at Sandover,” his epic poem. Other performers included Michael Beckerman, Harold Blumenfeld, Michael Ludwig, David Patterson, John McIvor Perkins and Rhian Samuel. Drafts of “The Changing Light at Sandover,” were originally written during nightly sessions as Merrill and his partner, David Jackson consulted a Ouija board. These notebooks and drafts are all housed at the Manuscript Department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.

Jim Hone, Film & Media Digital Archivist, collaborated with Special Collections and was able to capture and digitize this special evening to make the audio available to the public. Using Audacity, an audio editing program, Hone captured the analog recording, imported it into his system, and then created various digital copies. Several factors can influence the quality of the audio and what the archivist has to work with, including the recording equipment, the quality of the microphone, the space where it was recorded, and the placement of the microphones. Speaking about the Merrill recording, Hone said,

There can be enormous dynamic shifts in the sound. One of the poems read at the evening was about the birth of Merrill’s great-nephew and that is accompanied by a performance on a toy piano.

Hone had to adjust the levels by listening carefully to the entire tape and making adjustments from moment to moment as the audio levels went from soft (Merrill’s reading) to loud (the musical performances). Hone said,

Some of the music  is up at the highest levels. At other times if the speaker is not close to the microphone and is moving around the stage the recording becomes softer and quieter. When dealing with this type of media [an audio cassette] I have to live with the fact that if I pushed the volume it would sound terrible. You have to accept how it was recorded, the limitations of the process, where it was recorded, and the limitations of the space.

In general, as a film and audio preservationist, Hone applies very minimal processing. He leaves a certain amount of room tone and hiss, approaching the work as a straight preservationist. In the case where an audio technician is working with a production or a client then they might remove certain aspects of the original recording. In this case, the aim is to capture and preserve the original recording in an uncompressed format, usually a .wav file. Hone can then create an intermediate file and access copies (an mp3) that can be easily uploaded and shared via the web. Hone said,

The best I can do when there are problems is to find something in the signal that makes it coherent. Every cassette, every piece of media is an adventure and has its challenges.

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