More Than 100,000 Recordings Have Been Saved, But Time Is Running Out for Magnetic Videotape Archives

The one-year-old Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI), a joint project between Indiana University (IU) and Sony company Memnon, has racked up 100,000 saves so far — that's 100,000 audio and video recordings held by the university that have been digitized before their original carriers could be lost to the ravages of time. Now, Memnon is looking to sign up more clients from broadcast and other industries who can take advantage of what Memnon and IU have built in Bloomington to save their own content archives before it's too late.

Memnon rents space at the IU Innovation Center, a 40,000-square-foot office building adjacent to the IU-Bloomington campus, where the MDPI is working its way through 280,000 audio and video recordings as part of a five-year, $15 million project. 

"It ranges from wax cylinders to your regular 33 1/3 rpm records, but we also have 45s and 78s," says Andrew Dapuzzo, Memnon's director of U.S. operations, when asked about the physical media types involved. "There's a large collection of open-reel tapes, like the old Revox tapes you may have seen in the past, cassette tapes, DATs, and a large collection of videotape, including Beta SP, 3/4-inch U-matic and 1/2-inch VHS."


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Saving Magnetic Tape

Of all those assets, the tapes are the most fragile. As Dapuzzo notes, magnetic media was never meant to survive over many decades. "If you think of tape as magnetic particles suspended in a binder that's glued to a polyester base material, the iron oxide will last forever, but the ability to keep that binder material attached to the polyester base material is degrading over time," he explains. "Quite literally, the tape is falling apart." Some of the tape that's in the worst shape gets the heat treatment. It's literally baked at 54 degrees Celsius (about 130 degrees Fahrenheit) in an incubator in order to remove some of the absorbed moisture that can make the tape sticky and cause it to gum up the heads of tape decks. 

Another challenge is simply finding machines that are capable of playing back the material at high quality. The spinning heads of U-matic decks clog easily, especially when playing tapes that are already in the process of decay, so a professional cleaning device is a first requirement. "The next challenge is a U-Matic machine that works consistently, and then a time-base corrector or frame store synchronizer that works well," Dapuzzo says. "If you can find all of that, then you have to find the mechanics and engineers who can constantly maintain this equipment. It's old, it's tired, and we're constantly shuttling machines in and out of production."

Dapuzzo remembers getting a generous offer in the early days of the project from another university that was willing to donate 12 industrial VHS tape decks to the initiative. "These were beautiful, industrial Panasonic machines with time-base correctors, the whole nine yards," he recalls with a cheerful lilt in his voice. "They were used in a university setting as opposed to an industrial setting at Technicolor or a high-speed duping facility. So I was doing the happy dance."

But when the machines were transported and deployed among Memnon's engineers, none of them worked. The capacitors had simply dried out over years of disuse and no longer held electricity. More than 200 capacitors had to be replaced in each of the machines to get them in working condition.

Archivable Deliverables

Once the audio and video signals have been digitized, what then? It's an interesting question. Dapuzzo says IU originally specified an uncompressed QuickTime file as its archival format, but decided the storage requirements would be too onerous. Instead, they settled on the lossless FFV1 intraframe codec in a Matroska (MKV) wrapper. This appealed both as a high-quality format as well as an open-source solution that would keep them independent from a proprietary vendor. The final package delivered to IU consists of the preservation master (the MKV-wrapped FFV1 file), a master file (such as an IMX50 file), and a proxy MP4, along with a QC file generated using tools developed through the Bay Area Video Coalition and XML metadata.

Digitized files are delivered to Memnon's Information and Communication Technology room, where the deliverable files are made. The package is then placed on an EMC Isilon NAS for QC and, finally, delivery via 10 Gb fiber to the IU data center, where the data is validated through a checksum process and eventually transferred to the IU Scholarly Data Archive, a 42 PB tape library for storing and accessing research data.

Expansion Mode

With the project now actually ahead of schedule, IU has been given the go-ahead to start taking on other clients, which may include more universities, cultural institutions like museums, and even commercial broadcasters. "We have plenty of space here right now," Dapuzzo says. "We're not even at half our capacity at this point. And IU has places to expand our physical footprint as we bring in additional clients and formats." Indeed, Memnon intends to add film to its multifaceted digitization approach by the end of 2016. 

So Sony is trying to get the word out about its success in Indiana so that broadcasters and other facilities sitting on large archives of content might take advantage of what's been built there to mine for gold in their own libraries. "If you just pay to store these things, 10 years from now they'll be useless," Dapuzzo says. "And I don't think U-matics even have that long. We're struggling with them here."

Speak Now, or Forever Hold Your Pieces

At the end of the day, Dapuzzo says the business case for digitization of archives has never been stronger. As it becomes more difficult to recover data from all of those magnetic tapes with each passing year, some operations are in danger of losing large swathes of their longstanding content archives. 

"There are two reasons why broadcasters are considering this," he notes. "There's the heartstring-pulling, cultural-preservation aspect of it, where you don't want to lose these games because future generations would be denied seeing them. But from a business standpoint, a lot of broadcasters are spending large amounts of money on physical storage. If they're doing it right, they might be paying for some of the best physical storage. But a broadcaster can spend a small fortune storing those tapes over 10, 15, 20 years only to find out they are garbage at the end. We're really at the point where something needs to be done."