durable audio media
April 9, 2005 11:55 PM   Subscribe

On what should you record something that you want to be easily playable in 20 or 30 years?

A friend of mine has a blind daughter, and he wants to provide her with a record of her childhood that she can listen to when she's grown up. Think along the lines of family photos, but in audio. Being aware that audio formats, unlike photos, require mechanical or electronic translation to be experienced, and that technology changes so fast in this area, he's feeling a bit lost. What is his best bet for a durable, future-compatible medium?
posted by Nothing to Technology (24 answers total)
Well, records can be played with a needle and a plastic cup, but that's probably not your speed.

I haven't any doubt that CDs will become the records of 2030, but just like today's records are simple to find players for (really, they are, you just have to ask at RadioShack or elsewhere) I wouldn't doubt CDs would be just as easy to play.

Your biggest problem is finding a media that will LAST 20 - 30 years without being ruined. Some CD-Rs might last that long, but you should check with the manufacturer first. You'll probably find that CD-Rs that are certified to last this long won't be cheap...

Of course, an original aluminum pressed CD should last forever. Heh.
posted by shepd at 12:16 AM on April 10, 2005

Don't rely on any physical medium lasting that long. Keep uncompressed audio files on the well-backed-up hard drive of whatever your current computer is at the time (at least one offsite backup), copying them over as you upgrade. Review everything you have at least once a year, e.g. on her birthday.

It's your continued attention to what you have that will keep it playable. To just put something in a box, never look at it, and hope it works 20 years later is risky, no matter what the format or medium.
posted by mcguirk at 12:35 AM on April 10, 2005

It's kind of interesting that the absolute best mass-produced material for long term storage is still good ol' fashioned paper. Acid neutral paper will last you many hundreds if not thousands of years. Take that, technology!

I wonder how paper compares to etchings in fired clay.
posted by Justinian at 12:46 AM on April 10, 2005

several things
posted by scarabic at 12:56 AM on April 10, 2005

No single archival method will be safe enough for this amount of time. I'd reccommend multiple copies in the following places.

1. Gold standard CD-R. These (should) last 300 years, but don't believe the hype. Copy the files in as uncompressed format as you can. (e.g. as audio)

2. On your PC (As reccomended by mcguik)

3. Get some webspace from a company you can see being around in 40 years time. e.g. Microsoft or Rackspace or 1&1, and upload the music to this webspace.

4. To be extra cautious, I'd also copy the Audio onto an Audio Cassette, and keep a Cassette player. The quality may degrade, but you should be able to hear it.
posted by seanyboy at 1:04 AM on April 10, 2005

Finally. If you're copying it onto CD, copy it onto a couple of CDs just to be sure.
posted by seanyboy at 1:10 AM on April 10, 2005

If you're worried about CD players being hard to get a hold of in the far future, consider buying some $9.99 CD player and wrapping it up and putting it with the media.

Or.. get a Flash memory based device and wrap it up real good. Make sure it has non-volatile memory though.
posted by wackybrit at 3:43 AM on April 10, 2005

I respectfully disagree with the other posters here. Your question specified that the medium be durable and future-compatible.

- Uncompressed audio files are not durable (they can be lost in as much time as it takes for a hard drive to fail or a server to crash); they might be future-compatible, but will probably require frequent updating and translation.

- CDs are not durable (they will definitely degrade within a few years), and very likely will not be future-compatible.

Certainly your friend should make copies of .wav files and sprinkle them across a bunch of different storage media. But if he really wants a medium that he can make a recording of, store away somewhere, and then forget about for thirty years, I recommend vinyl. It is more durable than any of the other media mentioned (its impervious to magnetic fields, minor water damage, and power outages), and it looks to be plenty future-compatible (it will get progressively more difficult to purchase turntables, but now that they have found a second life as a DJ instrument, they will continue to hang around).

Yes, it will require some more effort and expense on the part of your friend to find a place to press a record or two. But it will be worth it. Think of how cool it will be to be able to give his daughter a box set of records and a Technics turntable on her 30th birthday. Way cooler than a flash drive with a few .wav files.
posted by googly at 6:51 AM on April 10, 2005

if you go with a digital method, and aren't forced to use compression because of the media, try to use .wav format. it's very simple - even if people have forgotten what the format is, it's pretty much guessable, and easy to write code to use it.

also, there's both the signal itself and the metadata (things like the date, location). i believe there's an xml format for archiving digital multimedia metadata. you might want to use that (in fact, thinking about it, if you could find out what that was, googling for its name might turn up similar discussions elsewhere).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:57 AM on April 10, 2005

could you publish it and let the library of congress deal with the problem?
posted by andrew cooke at 6:59 AM on April 10, 2005

Andrew -- Great suggestion !
posted by curtm at 7:18 AM on April 10, 2005

If the data is very important to you, have a number of CDs pressed, as opposed to burning them yourself. I've yet to lose a factory pressed CD to anything but scratches.

It wouldn't hurt to keep live copies on a hard drive, but remember that digital data requires babysitting. I have a lot of digital only data (mostly pictures) of my kids, and it takes effort to keep it future proof. I have multiple copies in multiple places.

I wouldn't be concerned about not being able to read a CD in 20 or 30 years. The industry seems to like to form factor of the current CDs and DVDs, and I've yet to see a reader that isn't backwards compatible.
posted by bh at 7:31 AM on April 10, 2005

I'd suggest that regardless of objective, a good futureproofing for data is to group together copies of all the things you want to keep, perhaps in a box or something, and then every 2-5 years, spend a few hours copying the stuff onto new media to replace the old, then put the box away again and forget about it for another 2-5 years. If you want, the old media could becomes an extra backup for the next 2-5 years, to be stored somewhere else. Whenever you have something new that you want to keep, just chuck it in the box with the rest.

But I like Andrew Cookes suggestion of (ab)using the library of Congress - the above 2-5 years update scheme is reliable on the "if you want something done, do it yourself" principle, but could be unreliable because we sometimes die at inconvenient times (so you have ensure that kin know about the media boxes and backup locations).
posted by -harlequin- at 8:09 AM on April 10, 2005

Two other advantages of getting vinyl records pressed:

You don't absolutely need a working player to hear them - putting a pin in your mouth and touching the surface with it while the record is spinning at the right speed allows you to hear the sound (very poorly, but still - that's significant futureproofing :) I suspect with some practise, you could hand-turn the record at the correct speed.

For the price of getting one pressed, it probably costs only a few extra dollars to get 100 pressed, meaning lots of backups to scatter around (since vinyl warps without good storage, scratches without good handling, etc

Unfortunately, all I know about getting records made is that an associate of mine paid to have records pressed of her band about 7 years ago because they couldn't afford CDs. They had very little money so I don't think it was a huge expense. (It was a big expense for them, but that was because they fitted into both the "poor student" bracket and the "starving artist" bracket simultaniously :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:35 AM on April 10, 2005

they might be future-compatible, but will probably require frequent updating and translation

I disagree. There are a finite number of [sensible] ways to store uncompressed audio as a stream of bytes. Even if the header that describes what method was used can't be decoded by future software, it's still possible to try out all the combinations and extract the audio, with zero knowledge beyond knowing it's octets of sampled audio of some kind.
posted by cillit bang at 10:24 AM on April 10, 2005

Disadvantages of vinyl: you suffer an immediate loss of quality compared to the original recording; you can't edit what you have without resampling it; it can still be damaged or destroyed by fire, theft, flood, heat, accident, etc.; the medium degrades just by playing it. And presumably you will be making new recordings on a regular basis as she grows up; do you want to have vinyl pressed every year?

At the time you present this as a gift, you'll probably want to edit it in some way to say, "Here is the time when you did for the first time," not just to hand over 30 hours of unedited audio and say, "There you go, try to find the interesting parts."

But in any case, I still think it's regular maintenance of what you have that will make the difference more than any specific technical choice.

posted by mcguirk at 12:43 PM on April 10, 2005

Not Vinyl.
It may be cool, and you will be able to get old machines that can play it, but it's gonna be hard to convert that to a format that other people can use.
Gold Standard CD-R, and keep it in a cool, dry, dark place.
You will be able to play CDs in 30 years time.
posted by seanyboy at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2005

Good idea, andrew cooke. I'd actually recommended he contact the LoC for advice when he first asked me, but did think about having them actually do the work. And thanks everyone for the ideas and input. I will forward this thread to him.
posted by Nothing at 1:42 PM on April 10, 2005

Gold standard CD-R + $9.99 CD player (with batteries that will last--not sure about those) + cheap headphones.

Seal the above in a box.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 3:54 PM on April 10, 2005

The "let the Library of Congress worry about it" thing reminds me of Story Corps, whereby you interview someone and it goes in the LoC's folk history archives. Then it is their problem, and they will take care of it, as they have taken care of the (written) 1930's WPA interviews which inspired this project. May not be what you're looking for for your daughter, but it is an easy way to throw an oral record at the LoC with a fair expectation that it will be preserved for generations.
posted by xueexueg at 5:37 PM on April 10, 2005

Why not write it all down (or print it out, or whatever) and enclose money for someone to read it? Depending on her visual impairment and the size of the writing, she may be able to read it herself. The film from when movies first had talking are turning into dust, but the classics from centuries back are still among us.
posted by Monday at 7:25 PM on April 10, 2005

"with batteries that will last--not sure about those"

I wouldn't worry about it. It might be an inconvenience, but if civilization isn't destroyed there's no way you're going to have any trouble at all finding a 5 Volts DC source.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:34 PM on April 10, 2005

I wouldn't count on DJs still spinning vinyl 30 years from now.
posted by mischief at 5:39 AM on April 11, 2005

You should probably also record in DAISY, the allegedly-standardized format for electronic talking books (with or without E-text; they can be nothing more than voice recordings). At present there aren't a lot of DAISY readers, but it's a published format and should, in theory, be reconstructible by a future civilization.
posted by joeclark at 2:44 PM on April 26, 2005

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