An Interlude: My Superhero Origin Story

While you all await with bated breath the outcome of my riveting attempts to fix an audio cassette deck, this seems a relevant moment to share an email that my father sent to me after reading my first post here on The Patch Bay earlier this week. It possibly explains some things.

When you were about 2 we experienced technical difficulties with our VCR. It made ungodly noises when rewinding, and soon ceased operation altogether.
Ware [, Massachusetts] being Ware in those days (which is to say, a town in the 1990s which much resembled a town in the 1960s), there was an appliance store on Main Street which advertised TV and radio repairs.  I took the VCR in.  “What’s wrong with it?” asked the guy.  “Dunno,” I said.  “It doesn’t work.”
Since the VCR had become an indispensable part of our family existence by that time, the notion of being without one for a week was daunting.  I borrowed the church VCR and hooked it up in the rectory.
The next day you and I were in the family room.  You were puttering around. As I watched, spellbound, you grabbed a fistful of marbles from the marble run, toddled across the room to the VCR, poked in the flap of the tape-insert slot, and were on the verge of emptying your handful of marbles into the unit.
I lunged.
We had a heart-to-heart.
A few days later I returned to the shop to pick up the resurrected unit.  “You’ll never guess what was wrong with it,” said the guy with a sly grin.  “Marbles,” said I.  Half-crestfallen, half-annoyed, he demanded, “If you knew that, why didn’t you tell me when you brought it in?!”  “I didn’t know that when I brought it in,” I said, “It came in subsequent revelation.”  He shrugged and asked for 15 bucks.
Watch out for marbles, guys.

Cassette Deck Repair, Round 1

A lot of the equipment I work with is shared between the MIAP program and the Cinema Studies department’s Film Study Center archive. As one of oldest film studies programs in the country, NYU has been acquiring movies for screening and teaching purposes for decades, so we’ve amassed a considerable collection in a variety of formats (though the content may not be overly unique – there’s a lot of copies of, say, Taxi Driver). We also house the department’s internal records, which includes a lot of audio and video recordings of lectures, conferences, and other events hosted by Cinema Studies over the years. These archival materials often offer me a sort of testing ground for equipment and resources that will end up getting demonstrated in MIAP classes. This is extremely helpful, given that archival education needs to be very hands-on, and as much as MIAP does a fantastic job of teaming up with other cultural institutions to get that direct experience, having in-house opportunities to practice what we preach is invaluable.

We’ve been slowly reformatting our audio cassette collection for at least a few years now on our Digital Audio Workstation (nicknamed “Bigfoot” with affection?). We run on a workhorse Tascam 112MKII cassette deck, patched into an Analog-to-Digital Converter and capturing preservation-level audio files (uncompressed WAV at bit depth of 24 bits and 96kHz sample rate) in WaveLab 8. It’s slow going, since you have to capture audio in real time and we’re only running the one deck, but it’s a great project and there’s some really cool material I hope we’ll be able to make available some day.

But we hit a hitch last week when our reliable old Tascam deck broke down. Tapes would still safely rewind and fast forward, but hitting the play or pause buttons started producing discouraging sounds and a full-fledged freakout from the lights on the front panel display, after which the tape would either come to a full stop or start playing through at high speed.

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Doooooooooooooooooooom

The loud clattering noise and the fact that the buttons were still responding, if not functioning normally, gave me hope that this was a mechanical issue and not electronic – as I mentioned in my first post, I’m woefully inexperienced with circuit boards or sussing out electronic signal issues, but mechanical issues are usually far more visible and therefore diagnosable, if you’ve got the bravery and some spare parts (or creativity).

But this was nothing that I could fix as long as the Tascam was still mounted on our DAW, so my first priority was to set up the students working on this digitization project with an alternative deck while I took out the Tascam for some TLC.

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I’m sorry, Bigfoot.

We had a spare Tascam CC-222 in one of our back rooms, which was originally intended as a cassette-to-CD dubbing machine. The transport worked fine and the signal was acceptable (we’re not overly concerned with preserving the quality of these tapes per se – honestly they’re pretty rough recordings to begin with – but the content is super), so all I needed was some RCA-to-TT patch cables to get this auxiliary deck running. The digital meters are unideal for monitoring compared to the Tascam’s analog meters, and it’s essentially impossible to calibrate (there’s no easy way to adjust the angle of azimuth on the playback head, for instance), but it’ll do for now.

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That “No Disc” warning has probably been on since 1999.

Meanwhile I did some more digging and found we had a Tascam 122MKIII sitting in storage – a model almost exactly the same in mechanical design as the 112. When I hooked up this deck it was completely unresponsive, meaning there’s probably an electrical issue and I could feel pretty safe in condemning it for scrap – with luck whatever mechanical parts were broken in the original 112 would still be intact on this spare 122. Time for a transplant!

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swag

Opening up the cover on the 112, I could now visibly observe the issue with the transport unit rather than just listening. The clattering sound was mostly coming from a fitful spring, but that didn’t actually seem to be the problem – tracing the motion back through the unit, I could finally see that indeed, one of the gears connecting the transport unit’s motor to this spring (which in turn lifted the deck’s playback head up to make contact with the tape path during normal “play” or “pause” mode) was broken. Glancing over at the 122, it had the same gear – in one piece.

So far so good – but now, how to get this gear out?

I wish I could be a little more specific here, but honestly even with a service manual at my disposal, the only strategy ahead seemed to be to start methodically unscrewing everything in sight – or even out of sight – while at least avoiding messing with the motors.

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This asshole right here took a solid 10 minutes alone.

Now someone with a little more foresight might have started disassembling the backup 122 deck first. After all, that’s the scrapped deck anyway, right? I could mess up that machine however I wanted and it would make no difference. But no, for some reason I plowed ahead, fiddling with the 112, apparently operating as if the broken gear was literally cancerous and the disease would spread to the other gears if I didn’t get it out IMMEDIATELY.

What this meant is that halfway through disassembly, which was already a laborious process thanks to my apparently less-than-steady hands and their tendency to drop tiny screws into the bowels of the deck…

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*Is it water on the knee? Oooooperaaation…*

…I realized that I was entirely unsure if I would ever be able to put this thing back together correctly even if I did manage to reach and replace the broken gear. Indeed, just idly trying to fit the transport unit back into its original place in the deck, the eject mechanism was now stuck, and it was entirely unclear if the pressure pads (which sense a tape is in the deck and allow the transport buttons to work) were still functional.

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Hard to see, but this thin metal piece should not be there. Why is is there now? Absalom, my son, what have I done?

So that meant a couple painstaking hours of, essentially, reassembling the deck in order to fix the damage I myself had impatiently inflicted – never mind the original problem that I had set out to deal with. Which, by the way, it turns out I couldn’t have dealt with today even if I’d wanted to – one of the most essential-to-remove screws, holding the gear mechanism in place, is totally stripped, and in a very awkward position to get any leverage with a screwdriver. So the upshot of all that is a detour while I try to purchase a screw extractor drill bet set for our power drill.

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I mean for real how did this even happen?

Chalk that up as a learning day. At the end of it all, I at least now have a much clearer idea of how to remove the transport unit as a solo piece from the deck without interfering with its mechanical function. That is, I should be able to access the broken gear this time without taking away the machine’s ability to eject or communicate with the front panel buttons. And I will do it all on the 122 first – to make sure I have a healthy heart before cutting out the bad one.

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“Kali maaaaa…kali ma shakti de….”

Under the Hood

It’s a common theme in moving image archiving and preservation that we are always running out of time. Tapes shed, files corrupt, bits rot, film reels turn into whatever the hell this monstrosity is (image credit: David Neary). Our job as archivists is a never-ending struggle against fundamental and inexorable forces that will, eeeeeeever so slowly (or, really, not so slowly), pummel the materials we have been charged with protecting for future generations into fine-grained, slightly dank dust.

It has also become something of an open secret lately that the problem of time is not just an issue for audiovisual objects themselves. The legacy equipment necessary to archive A/V content (whether to play back the original material for identification, or to reformat to a digital format for preservation and access) is also becoming increasingly rare, as manufacturers have long since moved past analog technology. You can stockpile as many 3/4″ U-matic tapes as you want in perfect, climate-controlled storage, but if all of a sudden your Sony BVU-950 breaks a gear and the tape transport mechanism refuses to budge, those tapes are now as useless to you as they are to the modern consumer. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have another deck lying around that you can cannibalize for that one particular gear – maybe some oblivious sap happens to be selling the 2-cent piece of plastic you need on eBay for $85. Odds are, unless you can find someone who really knows what they’re doing with this equipment and has connections to the materials necessary for repair, you’re out of commission.

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Pictured: Sony BVU-950 with no broken gears, thank god.

And that in turn leads us to the last item in the Trifecta of Things Archivists Are Really Really Scared to Lose: the people who actually know how to maintain and fix legacy equipment. Technicians who know how to properly calibrate an audio cassette deck are getting fewer and farther between, not to mention far more rare and specialized tech like a 2-inch Quad machine or an obscure Time Base Corrector.  In fact this pool of collective knowledge might be getting even smaller than we think, and without them other archivists, even those who know how to use this stuff, are going to be increasingly grappling in the dark when it comes to peeking under the hood.

I was slightly sensitive about this when I was hired last fall as the technician for NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program. I am not one of those few industry veterans hanging around with expert opinions and decades of hands-on experience; I have never soldered a circuit board or clipped cables for a terminal block. Thanks to graduating from this program myself, I have a broad familiarity with a very wide range of A/V preservation technology, from 16mm film projectors to the latest disk imaging software, but the idea of maintaining all of the legacy and contemporary media equipment owned by our department and used in our curriculum is daunting, particularly when faced with that dwindling community of possible support.

On the other hand, the first few months of the job have given me hope that we may, at least ever so slightly, be overstating the extent of the crisis (it is, after all, a bit of a habit in the preservation field to hyperbolize – it tends to help when trying to get someone to give us money to do our jobs). Yes, the number of expert A/V technicians out there is getting smaller – but, if we do this right (and by “this” I mean archival education and professional training), so is the number of archivists with no tech ability at all. And that is no small thing, because I now firmly believe that a great deal can be accomplished and learned by archivists (whether professional or amateur) who are willing to just dive in and get their hands dirty.

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Maybe more dusty than dirty.

Because at the end of the day, “troubleshooting” is a fancy word for “trying stuff and watching what happens.” The tech who has been at your institution for 40+ years? He/she (probably he, but that’s another conversation) was not born knowing how to adjust the azimuth on a 1/4″-tape recorder. There was no mystical rite of passage involving secret readings from the Gospel of Alexander M. Poniatoff. They read manuals. They pushed a button. They tightened a screw, then pushed the button again. They went back to the manual. Then they pushed a different button. And on and on and on, until it worked.

I want to demystify the technical side of preservation, whether it’s working with analog or digital equipment. I want to be more transparent about the things I’m trying, even (especially!) the efforts that don’t work. I want to be able to ask others what they’ve tried, and why. I want my peers in the field, and our students here at NYU, to be unafraid to lift up the hood.

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Hoods aren’t always physical, by the way.

So that’s why I’ve started The Patch Bay. If all goes to plan, I’ll be posting what and when I can about my projects here in NYU-MIAP – about equipment and tech requests I get from our students and faculty, and what I do, step-by-step, based on my resources and abilities, to fulfill those requests. Maybe I’ll throw a problem out there to the wider community, when I come across a total stumper. I hope, if I can, to write and illustrate my posts in a way that’s accessible to professionals, students of moving image archiving, and maybe even interested layfolk. If you have any questions about my processes, please don’t hesitate to get in contact – in the end, it’s all just about trying to make connections.

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It’s like a pun or something geddit