Old Cassette tapes - keep 'em or chuck 'em?
August 17, 2012 6:17 PM   Subscribe

40 + years of sermons on cassette tape - now all converted to .WAV. Throw away the tapes or keep them?

We completed a project where 40-something years of sermon audio was converted into .WAV, and then the sermon portion of the audio was converted to MP3 and published on our website. Now that nobody has cassette players - and especially since we now have every single tape in digital format... should we throw out the originals? Why or why not?
posted by brownrd to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Make sure you have some other backups of the audio (maybe 1 digital -- on a different hard drive or in the cloud -- and 1 physical -- a few hard copies on data DVDs or something), and toss the cassettes -- they're an obsolete format that nobody can play, and what you really care about is the content, which you now have.
posted by brainmouse at 6:24 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep unless the cost of storage space becomes prohibitive, in which case come up with an alternative plan for permanent archival media in case your digital archive vanishes. In 20 years (or 40, or 80) I bet your church website and all its MP3's are long gone, and the hard drives where the WAV files are stored have long failed, and unless money is spent up-front on a long-term preservation strategy there will simply be no archive... unless you keep the tapes. You could burn them to CD and save a lot of space, but will CDs last 40 years? Will CD players? Will USB drives? It's problematic. Sonascope had a nice comment about this.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:37 PM on August 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
posted by 4ster at 6:42 PM on August 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

there will simply be no archive... unless you keep the tapes.

The issue is that magnetic tape is no more reliable a long-term storage medium than any of the things you mention. Hanging on to the tapes is no substitute for a good preservation strategy, any more than a backup in the cloud or on a USB. It is, in fact, potentially worse than some newer options. Keeping or throwing away probably isn't the real issue, rather how brownrd's project puts in place systems to ensure that the work of preservation is carried on.
posted by howfar at 6:57 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep them. There’s a good chance you’ll have them after the files are gone. But think about how you’ll feel if you get rid of the tapes and then lose the files.
posted by bongo_x at 7:01 PM on August 17, 2012

unless money is spent up-front on a long-term preservation strategy there will simply be no archive... unless you keep the tapes.

But there's no guarantee that old cassette tapes are going to last, either, especially if they're just off-the-shelf C60s that haven't been kept (and aren't necessarily going to be kept) in archival environments. We're not talking about the kind of tape archiving used in server rooms here.

There are reasons to keep original media in a lot of circumstances: sonascope's comment about microfilm is entirely valid for visual archives, where what you want is to preserve is something that can be looked at; that doesn't apply to analogue audio, where there has to be some kind of intermediary technology to allow the recording to be heard. Given that need, I suspect that keeping the cassettes would provide a false sense of security, and that you should consider the approach that brainmouse suggests.

(And which is also to say that the very best very-long-term archive is probably a complete transcript printed on acid-free paper.)
posted by holgate at 7:05 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to elaborate further: the history of audio recording and archiving has been marked by format changes and the risk of degradation or obsolescence since wax cylinders ga. To preserve audio over extended periods requires more work than letters or photographs or other visual media.

I'd have more confidence in a well-archived set of WAVs -- that is, stored with parity files in multiple locations, with a schedule and procedure for checking their integrity and distributing additional copies -- than a stack of boxes of consumer-grade audio cassettes.
posted by holgate at 7:28 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are the cassettes the first-generation master recordings of these sermons? Then keep them if you have room. Best practice for sound archives is dual-stream, preserving both the original artifact and the high-quality, archivally stable copy.
posted by in278s at 8:19 PM on August 17, 2012

If the size of the WAV files has you balking, or at least double-thinking backing them all up on high-quality archival media, you ask yourself and your fellow archive team members, are you valuing the words or the audio? As holgate said, acid-free paper copies of transcripts are reliable and easily reproducible, and if you scan them with OCR (or keep digital copies of the transcripts), you can search through the sermons with ease.

But if you want the audio, you could go with FLAC to compress the audio, and you are likely to cut the file sizes in half, and FLAC is one of the most widely used free, open source lossless codec, meaning it has the highest chance of being decipherable in the years to come. Add in some parity files and copy the audio in multiple locations, and you're good.

Or if you're really pinched for archival monies, go with 320 kbps MP3s. While this is a lossy audio compression format, that only matters if you want to re-encode the audio to a different lossy format, and even then, you don't need pristine audio if you're only working with speech.

As for the cassettes, you can recycle them with GreenDisk, give them away on CraigsList or Freecycle, or use the magnetic tape in the garden to tie up plants or cut it into strips and use them to scare away pesky birds.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:21 PM on August 17, 2012

Seconding several hard copies printed on acid free paper.

Are these things that might be of interest historically or to someone doing research? You could donate them to a historical society or university. They would have a better chance of keeping them under archival conditions.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:46 PM on August 17, 2012

OH, forgot. Store your hard copies in several different locations for safety.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:47 PM on August 17, 2012

That's several hundred cassettes? What are the chances of an error in the conversion somewhere? (One side skipped, the date on the label miscopied, bad settings used that lose some of the audio?). Or what are the chances something interesting was overlooked? (Notes for a sermon stored with one of the tapes?). How important would such problems be, and how expensive is it to store the tapes?
posted by bfields at 3:59 AM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the comments above about the durability of analog audio on cassette tape are dead on, and are a good nutshell view of the challenges archivists face...and yet, I personally have a bunch of crappy drugstore-quality C60s made over twenty-five years ago. They have sat in dusty workshops, hot garages and been played in aging boomboxes. They're mostly spoken word (Joe Frank!) and to this day they are completely intelligible, and very usable. Which isn't to discount the information above, but just to say...keep the tapes.

You might want to store a nice cassette deck, or two, with them as well.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:08 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

archivist/audio engineer here...

Best practices:

1) NEVER "throw away" any original source material! EVER! Technically all you've done is made a low resolution copy of the originals (crude analogy: you've taken a blurry photograph of a priceless work of art), .wav and .mp3 files are not anywhere near the best duplication of audio that can be done and some audio quality is lost using those files formats. By saving the originals, if someone wants to revisit this project in the future to make better or the best possible audio transfers, they can do that from the original source material.

2) Long-term storage of cassette tapes should be done in an environment that is free of magnetic fields of any kind or stored near anything that would produce magnetic fields. Tapes should be stored in appropriate cases and kept in a dust free environment out of harms way from sunlight as well as in a place with stable air temperatures (that is, no extremes of heat or cold) and average humidity. Another person already pointed out preserving a cassette deck on which to play the saved tapes. This is very important to do as well!

All advice aside, at this point it sounds like you've done what is most practical for ease of use and accessibility in the present and for the short term future. No need to redo what you've done, but by preserving the original cassettes as best you can, you insure that they are available for future preservation endeavors if someone wants or needs to make a better capture of the audio data on the tapes.

I'm also putting this out there to counter a lot of this "I can just throw it out because I've transferred it" mentality I've seen in other preservation efforts that only leads to heartbreak down the line. I cannot stress enough to never throw away original material of any kind! The place I've seen it the most is in preservation of photos and movie film. For example, those 8mm movies from the 1950s - 1980s were often duplicated to VHS tape and the films tossed. Well, with the advent of digital technology, there is an amazing quality that can be captured from the original films that wasn't technically feasible on VHS tape. 8mm films that are transferred to digital format are far superior in quality to any VHS reproduction made in the 1980s or 1990s. Without the original movie film, the best you can get is digitizing the VHS tape quality which is a degraded copy of the original.
posted by kuppajava at 8:19 AM on August 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, my older audio tapes have held up comparatively well, though I doubt that my cassette-based 8-bit software collection from the mid-80s is in as good a state, and I'm grateful for the people who created digital archives.

You can pick up high-end consumer tape decks for pocket change from Craigslist (or Goodwill) these days as people divest themselves of their old hi-fi gear.
posted by holgate at 8:32 AM on August 18, 2012

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