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Old Music Archives: Why Physical Storage Is Still In High Demand

17th January 2020

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We think of digital files as being eternal and infallible. The photos we take will be drifting around the internet for all eternity, and our folders of low quality MP3s and Word docs will be around for decades to come. What few of us appreciate is that digital data isn’t just fallible – it’s actually harder to protect than physical media. Copies can be imperfect, and the physical hardware that supports them can crash and burn at any second.

We see this on a small scale in our personal and work lives, as backups are kept on external hard drives or USB sticks. In the music industry, where almost everything has transitioned to digital, this issue is more pressing than almost anywhere else. The digital masters of humanity’s most treasured recording are already becoming lost, corrupted and outdated – and the industry has responded by relying on old fashioned options.


A digital dilemma

Turf out your attic, and you might find photos from family members who have long since passed away. The same is true of music recordings – thanks to physical media, we still have recorded sounds from the Victorian era. Records, tapes and CDs only have to be protected from heat, physical damage and sunlight to last for hundreds of years. Hard drives on the other hand have so many moving parts that they have a much more limited lifespan, which both degrades with use and varies wildly based on production.

Digital backups are seen as easier and more reliable, and are a natural choice when you’re creating music in a digital environment. Yet storing digital backups means one of two things: you either keep the backups yourself, or you essentially contract them out to cloud storage providers. In the first instance, the burden of keeping those backups safe is entirely yours. You alone will have to maintain multiple hard drives or servers with copies of the files, in case one of them breaks. Storing multiple masters on these systems raises the possibility of losing them all at once – a harder scenario to prevent than say, a fire in an archive facility.

With cloud storage, the company will store your data across multiple servers, ensuring its integrity. However, any number of scenarios could see this data deleted: they might go bankrupt, or cancel your account, or be compelled by the law to impound and delete the data. Your precious archives are entirely contingent on that company being responsible and staying in business – and because your files are stored online, they’re susceptible to being hacked. And even if your passwords are super secure, you only need to lose them – or lose the person who knows them – to lose access to your archive.


Finding a file format

There’s also a recurrent issue with file formats. The hardware to play and use old music formats is easy to keep and maintain, and we still have the means to make new players. But file formats can encounter compatibility issues between two software revisions or operating systems. What was deemed to be an ideal archival format five or ten years ago might be completely outdated now, with the software used to open and manipulate these files having not been updated to run on newer systems.

Master files recorded in a certain piece of software might not be compatible with the newer version of that software. The plugins used to create an element of the track – say, a drumbeat – might also be missing, meaning that the entire drum track has to be re-recorded. This is an increasingly prominent issue as record labels mine their archives for remasters and re-releases, such as we’ve seen with the recent Beatles remasters.

The master is the important bit here. Analogue masters exist on tapes, which can still be preserved and read on modern hardware. But digital masters exist in software environments that are highly susceptible to change. If you want to change any element of the tracks or use them in a complex manner – such as removing the vocals for karaoke, or separating out the guitar line for Guitar Hero – this just isn’t possible with a CD backup of the finished recording.

This uncertainty around file formats means that, for many physical media archives, it simply isn’t worth the cost of transferring many files to digital. As well as being time and cost intensive, there’s a risk that by the time the process is complete – a number of years in the case of many archives – there may be a new favourite file format that’s superseded the old one.


Getting it on tape

For this reason, physical media is still widely used to back-up vital masters of audio and video in archives around the world. This doesn’t take the form of vinyl, of course, but magnetic tapes. Our perception of cassette tapes is of low-quality audio, but this was a product of both the time they were released and the quality of these cheap consumer products.

In reality, high quality magnetic tape has been the standard for archive storage for decades, and is actually continuing to evolve. The most popular choice for audio storage is the open standard format Linear-Tape Open, or LTO. The open standard part is critical, as it means everyone has access to the format, meaning that anyone can make the tapes and the hardware to use them, ensuring compatibility and longevity.

In use since the 1990s, the latest revision of LTO came out in 2017, with a standard LTO tape now storing up to 12 terabytes of data. This is equivalent to some of the largest traditional hard drives commercially available, although larger solid state drives have been produced. Solid state drives do not have any moving parts, making them more reliable than traditional hard drives; however, they are currently much more expensive, and still do not solve the issue of file format deprecation.


Safer music storage

As well as physical master tapes, numerous archives exist of music and sound recordings which have substantial cultural value. Take this example of a British Library project in Nepal, which funded the preservation of traditional music that might otherwise have been lost to history. Another more famous example is the BBC Archive: although the corporation did not keep most audio and video recordings until decades later, artefacts such as recordings of Florence Nightingale are kept secure and safe from damage in its specially built facility.

Archive storage for delicate physical media such as this requires careful planning, taking into account local environmental conditions and usage scenarios. The climate of the storage areas needs to be controlled to keep them cool and dry, while access must be both secure and easy. Mobile shelving is often desirable, as it is space efficient, can be easily secured and offers friction-free movement of shelves. However, static shelving is also widely used to guarantee that there is no damage due to movement, and to cater to different sized media.

It’s possible that the latest development in physical storage may outlast them all. In the past few years, scientists have invented a reliable means of writing data to DNA, the proteins which provide the instructions that program our bodies. While we’ve only managed to store a few albums so far, DNA has the potential to store 215 million gigabytes per gram, and last for tens of thousands of years. Thankfully for us, this means of storage would still require a cool and dry archive storage environment to keep the DNA from deteriorating.

It’s possible that we will reach a point where DNA – or some more reliable, consistent form of digital storage – take the reins from physical media. For now, though, the magnetic tape is still king when it comes to backing up the original recording of music and other media. Archive storage plays a crucial role in this, and we’re proud to have contributed to the preservation of the world’s cultural heritage.

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