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The Aural Historians

National Sound Archive

Where can you go to listen to your selection of over one million records and tapes, old and new? Read David Etheridge's revealing article on the NSA to find out...

The South Kensington area of London is noted for its museums, and just a stone's throw away from the Victoria & Albert and Science museums lies the National Sound Archive (NSA).

Beginning life as the British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS) in 1950, from 1985 it was incorporated as the National Sound Archive, coming under the auspices of the British Library. From the BIRS's humble beginnings in a building in London's Russell Square, the department moved to their present home in Exhibition Road in 1968, and now comprises two sites in South Kensington and a further annexe in North London. January 1987 saw the re-opening of the enlarged and refurbished premises to the public, and so I took the opportunity to pay a visit and discuss how the Archive began with the head of the NSA, Dr. Jeremy Silver.

"The Archive started life principally as a classical music collection in 1950. At that time, of course, there were very few tape recorders available, so it was largely a matter of storing material on discs. Gradually, as tape recorders became more available, then the sorts of things that were being recorded increased fairly dramatically in range. Our objective now, as it was indeed then, is to collect all carriers - from wax cylinders to compact discs - on all subjects from all countries in the world, although we do take a special responsibility for British recordings."


The Archive currently holds in the region of 1 million discs, and about 45,000 hours of tape recordings. That material is received principally from four distinct sources, as Jeremy explained.

"Firstly, we receive commercially released product - not by statutory deposit, but by voluntary agreement with the BPI (British Phonographic Institute). It includes all the current issues by the major record companies in this country, in theory at least; in practice we achieve around 70-80% of current output.

The second area, which is equally important, is the BBC; we are the principal public access point to the BBC Sound Archive - so any member of the public, anyone doing general research, would tend to be referred to us if they wish to listen to material. We automatically receive whatever material comes into the archive in due course, plus we are the only place in the country where you can actually listen to BBC Transcription Service material.

We also record 'off-air', (we've been doing this for the last twenty years) roughly twenty hours a week, covering the sort of material that would otherwise not be placed into the Archive directly. For example, the live relays of first performances of a new piece of music, or John Peel sessions, which for a long time weren't archived. The reasons for that are that the BBC Sound Archive criteria for selection are not the same as ours; they are an in-house Archive, designed for future programme use, for repeats purposes and producer's use. Our objectives are to be, first and foremost, comprehensive and to collect for history and posterity - so if we have an historic event like a 'first performance', then it's more important to us that we have a copy of it.

Dr. Jeremy Silver, head of the National Sound Archive.

It's worth saying at this point that we don't have the same agreement at the moment with the IBA as we do with the BBC. The reason for this is that the IBA have, as yet, not really firmed up an archival policy in terms of what they expect independent local radio (ILR) stations to do. We receive programmes from a body called the AIRC programme sharing scheme, whereby stations that make radio programmes of national interest syndicate them to other stations in the ILR network, and when those master tapes have gone out of circulation, then they come to us. So we do get a fair amount of IBA material, but mostly documentary material.

The third source of material comes from recordings that we make ourselves. For a long time we've been recording in the major subsidised theatres in the capital, so we record every new production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, and at the Royal Court Theatre. Plus we record things like the Poetry Society, the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the Edinburgh Festival - including the 'fringe' shows there. We also record a fair amount of music, although the care and provision that the Musicians' Union takes in looking after its members, at the moment, means that we are restricted in the recordings that we can make. We are beginning to make headway there in our negotiations. I think that they've begun to realise that we're not here to exploit their members' material - that what we represent is an impartial source of material that anyone can come along and use, and that by recording a performance that normally wouldn't have been recorded, we're actually providing a service not only to the public, but also to the musicians themselves. We recorded at the Commonwealth Institute, for example, as well as all the bands that were on at the WOMAD festival. All that material is available for people to listen to here at the National Sound Archive.

The final source of material comes from gifts, donations and the purchases that we make of special and private collections that come up for auction. We have a very small acquisitions budget, so we don't buy very much, and we aren't in a position to buy as much material as we would like. We recently, for example, bought a collection of 30,000 old 78rpm records which were offered to us, and which filled some fairly substantial gaps in our earlier catalogue. Something of that kind is of significance to us. Obviously, we do check the quality of the discs and that they are actually worth having.

We have a very open policy as regards people making donations and gifts. We frequently have people ringing up and asking, 'I've got a box of good 78s in the attic, are they worth anything?' - and we generally ask them to send us a list of catalogue numbers, and we'll check through them and see what's there. It's surprising what interesting things come up: somebody recently discovered twenty-four Berliner vertical cut discs in their attic, which are worth about £400, and they had no idea!"


Do you store such 78s, or do you use the latest technology to transfer them to a better format, say digital masters, or at least something more easily storable?

"We do both, in fact. As a sound archive, our interest is principally in the sound itself, and to a lesser degree, in the medium on which the sound is carried. We would always consider it essential to keep the original carrier for as long as we can, whether it be a wax cylinder or an acetate or shellac disc. However, we're aware that those carriers are very vulnerable to deterioration or damage of one kind or another, so it is our priority to transfer those to digital format. From an archive point of view, the digital medium has proved a godsend in as much as once we've got it into digital, we've got a signal there whose quality won't degrade, and we can endlessly reproduce it."

With that in mind, do you use today's technology to enhance and improve sounds?

"It's very interesting to discover that the old recording technology - for instance, electric recording onto cylinders - was actually very good and far better than the playback technology available at that time; so there's actually a lot more information on the cylinder than people ever heard. What we do is:

1) Preserve the original carrier as far as we can - keep it in controlled conditions and never play it once we've dubbed it.

2) Then we make two copies of it - the first is a straight 'flat' reproduction of the original; the second is a processed version, where we will use Packburn noise suppression units, and our new Neve digital desk, and various other tricks of the trade that are perhaps somewhat less sophisticated but sometimes more effective - like cleaning the discs!!

Thus we end up with three different versions: the stored original; a raw, unprocessed version of it, because for all we know at some future time we may have technology that can do better than we can now in filtering and processing; and, lastly, the processed version which we put into an as aesthetically pleasing form as we can."

Part of the Archive's off-air broadcast room with its wall of Sony F1/Betamax digital recorders.


Do you still run the course of lectures where people can learn what archiving involves?

"Yes, we do. That's one of the things that I'm responsible for - organising the lectures."

And what sort of people come to the National Sound Archive?

"Absolutely everybody - it's extraordinary. We have two prime concerns: one is to collect and preserve material, and the other is to make it available to people. We run a public listening service, now expanded and refurbished, and that provides facilities for up to fifteen individuals to come along and listen to material free of charge; all they have to do is ring up for an appointment. There are group facilities as well, which involve us in putting on material for schools or drama students, and there is also the Northern listening service in Boston Spa. That's at the British Library's documents supply centre, the intention behind which is that it should be the first in a series of regional listening services, so that people will be able to hear material outside London.

That's one aspect of the public access side of things - the other is a commercial Search and Transcription Service, which is basically geared up for Radio and TV companies, film companies, and theatre companies to an extent; providing them with archive sound of one kind or another. If, say, someone is looking for a particularly authentic sound, or a particular piece of music from a particular part of the country, or an authentic animal sound, then this is the place to come to, as opposed to a commercial 'music library', where they may only get an approximation."


The way that the Sound Archive is organised in terms of subject collections is as follows: particular subjects are the responsibility of individual curators. At the moment there are six curators (hopefully seven, soon). Four are responsible for music: Western Art Music, or classical music as it's known anywhere else; International Music, which is traditional music from all parts of the world; Pop, and Jazz.

"Those last two fields are very new - we've only had curators working full time on those for a year, and it's very much an example of our belief that it's very important to develop people's interest in all forms of music, and not just the so-called 'serious music'. They've certainly been buying an awful lot of material, and our Jazz collection is now very comprehensive."

In addition to the music departments, there is the Wildlife area, and also the Spoken Word. In the Spoken Word department they have one curator, who is responsible for everything from actuality and documentary material, right through to drama and poetry recordings.

"We are currently appointing someone to take care of accents, dialects and linguistics - all the regional differentiations of language as opposed to the literary or dramatic forms. Other fields that we want to develop when circumstances (mainly financial) permit include the historical aspects of broadcasting, and industrial sounds-traffic noise, steam engines, aircraft, etc."


Leaving Jeremy Silver's office, I was then conducted around some of the NSA rooms, where all the main technical work is undertaken. First call was the tape studio, where archive tapes in varying states are copied onto digital and analogue masters via the impressive Neve DSP digital mixing desk. One of the engineers, Noel Sidebottom, explained the hardware and techniques.

"We're gradually putting more and more of our stocks of taped material onto the Sony F1 digital system. It's rather unusual to be using a desk of this quality and mastering onto the PCM format, rather than the more common U-matic system, but being a publicly funded body we don't have the financial resources for a U-matic, so we have to compromise a little bit.

The Neve desk is built to interface directly through a convertor, also made by Neve, onto the Sony F1. There's also an analogue output, as we make copies of material for outside bodies too - given copyright clearance and so on - and we do them usually as 15ips analogue tape copies. In this studio, we don't actually use any outboard noise reduction, as most of this is done on the desk itself with filtering and EQ.

The desk is totally digital, and you can program the exact frequency that you want on the EQ, by using the DM60 spectrum analyser to display what we're actually listening to. Very often, our job is just a case of removing the hiss off old broadcasts or old recordings, which is quite easy - just knock off a bit of the treble above 4.5kHz. With this Neve desk you can be very accurate - you're not just looking for a point between two painted symbols on an EQ pot. We have notch filtering on the desk as well; very steep, in fact, and very useful for knocking out, say, a mains frequency on a recording.

Limiting, compression, expansion, noise gating are here, as you would expect, but they're used rather less than the actual frequency tailoring, although the noise gating can be very useful. The desk can store up to 30 memories on tape, or 600 on a miniature disk, like those used on Amstrad word processors.

The NSA's home-made, but highly effective, machine for replaying old wax cylinders.

Obviously, with our type of work you only need one audio input and a couple of outputs to digital and analogue machines, so the main difference between this mixing desk and most others is the lack of actual mixing facilities, as you're not dealing with multitrack recordings."

Next, we moved on to the cylinder and 78 transcription room, which differed in hardware and facilities.

"In this room we've got an old Soundcraft Series Two desk - it looks quite quaint now, I suppose. It has 12 inputs and 4 groups, but we just use it with various sources on tape in stereo. Again, we're only dealing with one sound source at a time and mastering onto cassette and disc machines. The main piece of outboard gear in here is the Packburn noise reduction unit, which we use on coarse grooved discs.

The cylinder replay machine we have was custom designed and built here at the NSA. Basically, you have a drum on which the wax cylinder fits, which revolves at whatever speed you want. The reason for this is that a lot of cylinders weren't actually cut at the correct speed of 160rpm, especially ones that were done outside 'in the field'. It's just an ordinary Studer motor driving the drum. On top of that you've got a Revox lateral tracking arm, and that works perfectly with a Shure M44 cartridge, for which we get various sizes of styli specially built for us by a firm in Guildford. The sound goes through all that, through the Packburn, then through the Soundcraft desk in the normal way. Various people have, in the past, tried playing cylinders with an ordinary radial arm, but you end up with tracking distortion, as it needs the tracking to be done laterally.

Before this cylinder machine was built, we had to use a veteran machine with an improved cartridge, but we used to get a lot of rumble, vibration and inaccuracy - so it didn't work very satisfactorily. Ours works very well - you can get a very wide bandwidth signal out of it, plus the fact that, as with any carrier, there's an awful lot more on the cylinders than was originally heard.

The other device we have in this room is the Sonograph, which is mostly used by the Wildlife department. It works on the same principle as a Thermograph, in that it gives you a picture of the sound and indicates with colours the time and intensity of the sound you feed into it. It's very useful in identifying birds that are thought to be of a specific family, for instance. It's possible to identify characteristics of the bird's song, and match them up with known members of the same family. We've also used it to identify things like, 'Is this John Coltrane playing sax, or not?'!

On the Soundcraft desk we have a couple of small outboard devices - a small parametric equaliser and a Phase Linear noise reduction unit, which is very good when dealing with tape hiss. Most of the tapes we have here are nothing like studio or broadcast quality. However, we've got an awful lot of off-air recordings which are very good, that we do ourselves, and we also generate recordings of outside events - usually on a Nagra portable recorder with a pair of microphones. We have to maintain a fairly low profile on outside events, as we're dependant on the goodwill of the people we're recording, and we've got to convince them that they want to be 'archived'. Obviously, the more we become known, the more people will begin to see that it is worth getting themselves involved with the Sound Archive.

Upstairs we have the off-air broadcast recording facilities, which we used to do on Studer B62s and 67s until recently. We've now gone over to digitally recording them all on Betamax video tape using the Sony PCM F1 processor. We've got an agreement with the BBC whereby we can record anything that they transmit. In fact, the BBC have started archiving more of their own material, so we now just keep the one copy, based on the theory that if anything were to happen to our copy (we used to keep two), then the BBC Sound Archive are likely to have another one."

Looking upstairs at the NSA's off-air broadcast room, I found that one wall was practically covered in video recorders, with facilities available for taping off several stations at once. In addition, the NSA are trying out the new Sony Video 8 system, which gives up to 15 hours of playing time on a video cassette little larger than an ordinary audio cassette. The NSA say that it's currently not quite as good quality as their existing F1 set-ups. No doubt the Sony boffins will soon sort out any problems in that area!

The National Sound Archive is a fascinating place to visit for all afficionados of both music and recording - for real fans of electronic musical history, they've even got the Percy Grainger/Burnett Cross experimental recordings from the early 1950s! I found the NSA staff courteous and helpful, and learned a lot from the visit - no doubt so will you.

(Many thanks to Dr. Jeremy Silver, Peter Copeland, Noel Sidebottom and all staff members of the NSA for their kind help.)

Contact: The British Library National Sound Archive, (Contact Details).

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Apr 1987

Feature by David Etheridge

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