In 1903, Huddie William Ledbetter was one of the strongest voices in American folk and blues. Known as Lead Belly, Ledbetter was known as the King of the Twelve String Guitar, but he also played the piano, the mandolin, the harmonica, and the violin. He wrote songs about racism and politics. His songs have been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Nirvana. They tell hard stories about what it was like to be black and a musician in the early 1930s. They are treasures.
But many of Lead Belly's original recordings no longer exist. The tapes that held his last sessions were beyond saving after the oxide on the top of the record fell off rendering it unplayable. Because conservators couldn't get to them earlier, those songs are lost forever. Let's repeat that — some of these songs, among the most significant in music history, are less than 100 years old but still lost to us for all time.
All sound recordings are equally at risk of disintegrating. Before digital technology, record companies created reels for albums by recording different sections of songs, then splicing those sections together using tape. Some of those original tapes are stored in several collections at the Smithsonian Museum.
"You can only imagine what has happened to these pieces of tapes," Jeff Place, an archivist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage told me. "Over time, every one of those tape breaks is going to break, and it's going to take an hour to transfer three minutes of a recording into a digital format where we can store it. So there are albums that take a whole day to save."
Place's job is to save sounds by whatever means necessary, so that recordings from 50 years ago sound as clear as they did when they were made — and sometimes even better. This means preserving the original recordings in the best possible condition, and for many albums, it means transferring the sound of the original recording to a digital format that will be easily accessible in the future.
Without sound archivists, we would not only lose access to early recordings of Elvis and R&B, as albums decayed and technology changed, but we'd also lose radio broadcasts from 50 years ago and oral histories of lost neighborhoods of New York City. Without archivists, we would be losing sound rapidly; instead, we're gaining it.
Keeping Up the Classics
The most important actions for establishing a great library of sound are collection, storage, and preservation. Collection varies by institution. At the Library of Congress, when an album is produced and copyrighted by Sony or Universal or a tiny indie publisher in the United States, a copy enters the library. At the Smithsonian, the museum collects specialty items, like limited-edition vinyl albums and rare recordings.
"We certainly take in digital recordings of contemporary music and upload them to servers. But we are more in a race against time with the older pieces in our collection, so those take up most of our time," Matthew Barton, the curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress, told me.
Curators try to fill out their collections with sounds from the past they might have missed, and they try to make sure that those sounds stay preserved for future generations to enjoy. That's where storage comes in. To keep the recordings safe, physical copies of sound (like vinyl, cassettes, and CDs) are kept in moisture-controlled and temperature-controlled climates.
"The thing about archives is we are thinking 50 years from now," Place told me. What format — be it vinyl or high quality digital recordings — conservators decide to save new music in, then, has a lot to do with what kinds of machines they think will be readily available in the future.
Vinyl, Place told me, is a prime example of a good medium for conservators. Keeping vinyl albums playable is easier than cassettes, because turntables are highly abundant. There is no worry that in 30 years, people won't be able to find a way to play an old vinyl album, the way there is with more obscure mediums such as laserdiscs or micro-cassettes.
"LPs don't need much. It's a very stable format, so long as you don't abuse it by exposing it to heat or something like that," Barton told me. "Things like wax cylinders and tape are different stories." Those are the sounds curators worry about losing.
Barton told me about a recent situation: a recording by a 1940s bluegrass mandolinist Bill Monroe that was done on a lacquer disc, a form of vinyl popular just before the advent of the cassette tape. One of the problems with lacquer discs is that they start to separate. The recording of the sound on the outer layer will start to peel away from the disc that makes it playable.
"That was starting to happen with the Monroe disc," Barton told me. "To get it recorded, we had to tack down that one disc using a coin and get a few grooves at a time." The archivists would then painstakingly move the coin to get the next few grooves, and so on, until the entire disc was preserved.
But conservation is only part of the job for curators; they also have to try and make these old albums accessible to researchers, which is where the importance of preservation and digitization comes in.
Finding a digital groove
"Preserving found archives is all about redundancy, so that if something turns out to be a total screw-up, you have it in another form," Place said. "Right now, with digital, we have everything. We can embed metadata in the recording, so then you can go through the system and search. We can add keywords to albums to help researchers, and we can back up our recordings in physical and digital formats."
Transferring albums to digital formats helps archivists create multiple versions of the same song. On top of preserving music and sound for the future, transferring it to a digital format makes it easier for the public to access and study it.
This has limitations, of course. Libraries cannot make digital music available to stream or use by the public for free without owning the copyright to those items. But the digitization of sound has another benefit as well.
Archivists can also make old albums sound better in a digital format than they do on a turntable. They will change the width or the geometry of the record player's stylus so that the song plays more clearly and can be recorded at a higher quality.
"That's a process of the engineer's knowledge and experience. It's very important to know how good an old recording can sound. Even before high fidelity, excellent recordings were being made," Barton said. "In some cases, what we have is better playback than what was available at the time. The turntables we use are much better than anything that was available to users back in the day."
Some of the best examples of this work are in the Library of Congress's National Jukebox, an online digitization of over 10,000 historical sound recordings from between 1901 and 1925 that anyone can listen to. "All of these things were recorded without microphones, and some things recorded better than others," Barton said.
In the National Jukebox, the variance between the recordings shows just how much archivists can do with old sounds. Even the grainiest recordings can be understood, and the best recordings sound almost as clear as any single released today.
"That whole era of recordings was lost, except to collectors," Barton told me. Now, due to proper storage and a team of highly qualified sound engineers, those songs and radio recordings can be downloaded by anyone, anywhere.
But conservators still worry that what they're doing now might become obsolete in the future. When artists were recording on vinyl, the medium seemed stable and high-quality. No one could have predicted the rise of computers and digital media, yet here we are. Music is being archived today as MP3s and Advanced Audio Coding in the smallest formats available. "There will be new systems, but there is too much digital info in the world. They will have to be able to be migrated," Place told me. The technologies used to record them are also being archived, in case they are needed later to replay an old file.
Migrating digital content, Place expects, will be easier than trying to migrate physical albums to a digital format. But just in case, Place continues to back up music in physical formats, because there is the fear that a digital drive will fail or get wiped — and all of that music will be lost.
"We're almost always to salvage something from a recording," Barton told me. "In recent years, with the equipment now available to us, we've been able to greatly improve on earlier transfers of historical recordings — one more reason why it is so important to keep them."
Conservators are working to recover old albums that they might have missed their first time around — while trying to find the sounds that need to be archived today.
"We are catching up on many fronts. I'm sure we'll be catching up with so many fronts forever," Place said.
Archivists don't quite have plans in place yet to deal with the amount of digital sound being produced today on the internet. How do you archive YouTube? Or Soundcloud? Or Spotify? A song that seems insignificant today could influence the biggest new band in 20 years, but by then it's possible that those songs could have morphed and disappeared from the internet. Archiving is a constant race against both the past and the future. Here's hoping the preservationists win it.