We live in a world where the written word, at least as it is used casually by non-writers, is losing some of its staying power; while blogs continue to proliferate at an astounding rate, fewer and fewer people write paper letters to each other or keep a hard-copy diary. And while we’ve had more than a century of personal photography for people to lose their shyness about posing for snapshots or home movies/videos, the advent of easy-to-use audio recorders came about less than a half-century ago in the mid-1960s, and for some reason, people still feel very awkward when it’s suggested that they record an interview or tell stories for future generations to enjoy?
However, when those who know of an experience, time period or relationship are gone, they’re gone. Photos cannot bring back the voices of our loved ones. As personal historian Gloria Nussbaum puts it,
After someone dies, we put together photos of the person, to honor and remember our loved one. But the voice of a departed loved one may be more powerful than a photo. The voice may be too painful to hear, at least for a time, as voice brings a person to memory more strongly and vividly than any photograph.
How many times do we learn that the only recording remaining after someone is gone is an intro on a voice mail message— “you’ve reached Chris, I’m not home, please leave a message.” People will go to almost any length and expense to keep a voice mail intro or message from being erased. Why? Because hearing that voice is so “real.” And, when the time is right, how wonderful it is to be able to hear that voice again and again.
OK. So you’re convinced that the voices of friends, loved ones, and other important people in your life are worth saving. How can you keep your sounds alive, especially in a world where technologies for recording and replaying have changed repeatedly in the past two generations?
How to Get Your Sounds Digitized
The preservation question is a conundrum in many ways – we can see that the old analog formats are becoming harder and harder to access (anybody still got a reel-to-reel player in their house or an 8-track player in their car?), but it’s not entirely certain that once old sounds are digitized those formats won’t become obsolete too. So a two-part strategy is required: digitize your archival recordings to today’s standard, then plan for the future by thinking about migration to new, as-yet-undiscovered formats.
In terms of digitizing your old sounds – whether personal or commercial – here are a few places to start your research:
This nonprofit organization is dedicated to the preservation and study of sound recordings, in all genres of music and speech, in all formats, and from all periods. It’s open to amateurs as well as professionals. They have an active email listserv with tips on preservation, a public resources area with disaster mitigation tips that might prove handy if your precious recordings have gotten wet, dried out, etc., and educational recordings from their conferences going back to 1998.
If you made a lot of recordings in the 1970s and 80s on standard size cassettes, this is the clearest explanation of how to get them into a digital format. (One caveat: the post author assumes you want to create digital MP3 files of your recordings. That’s fine if you just want to listen to the raw digitized tape, but if you’re thinking about editing your files AT ALL in the future, it’s imperative you create a WAV file copy from which to base your editing. If you edit MP3 files, they degrade quickly and sound awful after about 2 rounds of editing.)
Tested.com provides a more visual guide to digitizing analog sounds (particularly vinyl records or audio cassettes) and adds some advice on how to use filters in the free open-source editing program Audacity (which I use and love) to clean up serious hisses, clicks and pops.
E-MELD provides a nice high-level overview of the digitizing process. If you’re the sort of person who wants to think through all the possible pitfalls and challenges first, this is a good read.
How to Keep Your Digital Sounds Accessible
Once your sounds are digitized, the key to not facing the loss/obsolescence question all over again is “back up, back up, back up.” As noted above, it’s important to have at least one copy of your sounds in loss-less format (like a WAV file) so that you have a way to edit or upgrade the file in the future without automatically consigning it to lower quality by the very act of editing it.
Bertram Lyons, an archivist at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress in Washington, recently answered reader questions in the New York Times about how to preserve sound recordings, and here is his advice on back-up copies and which sort of duplicate copies to make, and where to store them.
Be sure to consider how you will keep the digital files alive into the future (e.g., always have duplicate copies in different physical locations, balance hard drive storage with cloud storage, think about methods of collaborating with friends for shared backup storage scenarios. (I’ll back up yours if you back up mine.) If you’re not there yet, CDs and DVDs may be the best bet. But be aware that CDs and DVDs are fragile storage media and when they fail they often fail totally. Make multiple copies and always store them in their cases in a cool environment out of the rays of the sun.
Here are a few more resources to help you plan the future of your digital sound archives.
This handy tip sheet from the Library of Congress walks you through good archive hygiene to ensure your recordings (which should be in an open source format) will live on for generations to come.
This link is a bit academic and wonky, but if you really want to understand the technical details of digital sound preservation and their implications, this is a pretty interesting essay.
Another wonky link but good reading if you care about the preservation of our nation’s sounds in addition to your own. It provides context for our individual struggles to preserve the audio memories of our own generation and those of our parents and grandparents.
Finally, don’t forget that your analog sound copies ARE back-ups as well. While the specter of broken, obsolete play-back equipment was what prompted the idea for this post in the first place, taking care of your tapes, reels and records and helping them stay healthy enough to be played back if the right equipment is found or devised is also important.