The A/V Cable Bible

Once upon a time, the cables in the MIAP lab were organized. I have a spreadsheet and everything to prove it. Video cables were neatly separated from audio-only cables, while patch cables and computer cables inhabited their own particular niches. Order and stability reigned.

Was it a long, slow descent into chaos over the years, as various staff, faculty and students picked one cable off from its carefully arranged post and then flung it back, willy-nilly, into the fray? Was I trolled by the Joker?

cables

Who can say. But for a while now, XLR cables have fraternized with 9-pin remote data controllers, USB 2.0 co-mingling with S-Video. Madness and miscegenation, I say.

It didn’t take long to wrangle our peg board cable storage units back into something resembling structure. Start from scratch, sort by type (video, audio, patch, data), make sure every single cable is at least adequately coiled and has its own tie, and we’ve made it so that at least I will be able to find, say, a 1/4″ TRS jack-to-male RCA cable if I so need one. The addition of labels to the peg board is nominally so that other people, too, might be able to find what they need without too much of a head-scratching search – but the truth is it’s just as much to scare people into realizing that there is, in fact, SOME sort of system in place.

IMG_2207

 

IMG_2208
Progress, of a sort

Why am I talking about a minor organization project, that, really, only took about an hour of work? Well, this bout of spring cleaning inspired a sort of The More You Know moment – one of my attempts at self-education that comes (constantly) with the territory. With about 90% of the cables on the board, I was already familiar with their purpose and nomenclature – for instance, that a BNC-to-video-patch cable could be used to hook up the composite video output from one of our auxiliary decks (DVCam, S-VHS, Betamax, various formats that we don’t use enough to merit being mounted into our more permanent racks) into our digitization workflow. There were others that I had never used, and was somewhat flummoxed as to what equipment they were used with or even what kind of signal they were intended to carry. This one in particular was an old-school stumper:

IMG_2232
And also weighs about as much as a tree stump, by the way

So I started to write up a guide, originally intended for my own use. A Cable Bible, if you will, detailing all (or at least the most common) connections that I would have to make and some context for what kinds of cables tend to appear where. Because once I started looking up some of these things, I realized what a rabbit hole A/V cabling is. See, every cable you use in media production and preservation is actually a jumbled design of wire material, signal types, encodings and interfaces, physical connectors, etc. etc. You can say you have a hard drive you need to connect to a computer and you need a USB cable, but what does that really mean? Is the interface USB 2.0, 3.0 or 3.1? What kind of connecting port does the computer have – Type A? Type B? Type C? Or the hard drive itself – is its port Type Micro-A? Micro-B? Micro-B SuperSpeed?

usbc-connector-explained-150310b
I mean this isn’t even comprehensive!

There’s also the fact that the standard for discussing cable connections is to differentiate between connectors with pins as “male” and connections with ports as “female.” For instance, in order to recently set up a DVCam deck for digitization, I needed a female RCA-to-male XLR adapter in order to get a male-to-male RCA cable to hook up with a female XLR port. Perhaps I’m just being phenomenally PC about this, but I’ve never cared for the way I sound vaguely like a pervy teenager when I’m just trying to make a video deck play. And I can’t help but think that only a historically male-dominated profession would decide to make such a common part of its work a giant dick joke.*

41-ngs9jfnl-_sx300_
I know archives are sexy but come on guys.

When all’s said and done, I hope the Cable Bible will be a shareable document, easily navigable by categories that consider the broad goals of the connections purpose before burrowing down into the specific protocols and connections necessary for particular equipment (with examples listed). Do you need to make a video or audio connection? If video, does it need to carry an analog or digital signal? If analog, is the signal composite or component? If component, how are the luminance and chrominance portions of the signal divided? Into two channels, Y and C? Then you’re looking for an S-Video cable, available with mini-DIN 4-pin connectors, or perhaps a SCART connector if you’re dealing with European equipment. Is it in three channels, Y, Pb and Pr? You’re looking for “component” cables, the more-familiar three-pronged cable(s) traditionally available with red, green and blue RCA connectors, though professional or broadcast equipment might require BNC instead (or, again in Europe, SCART).

300px-scart_20050724_002
When it came to analog video, Europe was crazypants.

Or maybe the Cable Bible will let you work backwards instead: let’s take for instance, that mystery monster of a cable I found while reorganizing the lab. What we have at one end is an 8-pin monitor connector, and at the other, a 5-pin DIN and two UHF connectors. UHF was a WWII-era connection originally developed for conveying radio frequency signals (including video) within a certain range; DIN 5-pin had some applications in professional audio. 8-pin was a very specific protocol intended to carry analog video output and input over the same connection. So what we have here is likely a cable intended to carry both the analog composite video and analog, unbalanced audio signal back and forth from a very old video monitor to a very old video deck (at a guess, possibly 1/2″ open reel).

IMG_2231
An 8-pin monitor connection on the back of a Sony 3/4″ U-matic deck – I don’t have any equipment that would take the UHF/DIN end of the cable.

Even as I work on this blog post, the Cable Bible is spiraling slightly out of control in the Google Doc where I started it, as I add pictures and pinouts. It’s possible that this project would work better as some sort of Wiki, where one could more easily navigate the different layers that cables operate on and branch out to explore from there – others would also potentially be able to contribute and document more obscure or unique types of connections and protocols. Much of this information already exists on the internet, even on Wikipedia itself – but it’s a matter of consolidation and making it at least somewhat specific to archival context. I will update everyone if anything public develops!

vector-shapes-audio-video-connectors
Something like this is just the start.

 

*Upon writing this I went back and remembered that I opened this very post with a fairly unnecessary, though (I hope) innocuous miscegenation joke. I’m keeping it in as this blog is meant to be an honest reflection of my thoughts, and this little contradictory exchange with myself is evidence that even self-reflection and good intention doesn’t change the fact that I am still a straight cis white man in tech and these are the sort of weird little obstacles that still mine the field for others.

 

Cassette Deck Repair, Round 2

When last I left you, dear readers, I was stymied in my attempts to transplant a broken gear in a Tascam 112MKII audio cassette deck with a healthy replacement. A few tiny, inconveniently placed screws were stripped such as to prevent getting to the heart of the matter (or the deck). I investigated some options for purchasing screw extraction bits for our power drill, and have indeed added those to my box of toys (*cough* I mean tools) since.

But I am not a patient man, which meant I went in for another round of futility because hey, what am I going to do, break the deck more? (I mean yes, I absolutely could do that but THAT IS NOT WHAT THIS BLOG IS ALL ABOUT). After failing at the so-called “rubber band method” (I just have a bunch of rubber bands with screwdriver-tip-shaped holes in them now), I took the suggestion of one of our Cinema Studies PhD candidates and applied a vice grip.

IMG_2194
Pictured: overkill.

Leverage was near-impossible when trying to turn a 3mm-wide screw with a giant vice grip at a weird 45-degree angle. Yet somehow, yes, I was able to loosen the stripped screw enough to get in there and manually twist the dang thing out. Surgery back on track!

IMG_2191
Before….
IMG_2193
…and after! Note that this is actually gear assembly cover removed from the “healthy” 122 mechanism, because I took that apart first because I do sometimes learn things.

Now able to remove the cover housing the gears for the playback mechanism, I could finally get to the clearly offending piece of the puzzle. Yes, it is difficult for your cassette deck to keep running when one of the delicate plastic pieces inside literally cracks in half:

IMG_2195
I know you guys might not know a lot about audio cassette decks but surprisingly this is a problem. Whoda thunk.

At first, since it was such a clean break, I did idly wonder if I could just super glue the broken gear back into place, and even made a quick stop at the hardware store around the corner over my lunch break (as is my approach to most tools or supplies, I tend to just try to buy whatever I can think of, under the assumption that even if I end up not needing it now, it will almost certainly prove useful at some point later). I don’t know how archivally sound the combination of Krazy Glue adhesive is with whatever plastic this gear is made out of (it almost surely wouldn’t have held up for another couple hundred tapes), I realized that the point was kind of moot, because even past the obvious, giant chunk of the gear that had snapped clean off, less noticeably the teeth on the smaller inner part of the piece had also been totally worn down, and were also likely not catching properly in the mechanism.

IMG_2213
The cassette deck just CASSETTED SO HARD this gear couldn’t take it

So, back to the replacement part then. Going back over I tried to take out the healthy gear from our backup 122MKIII…

…a process that literally took about 30 minutes. See, all I had the do was lift the gear out – but whatever lubricant had been placed on the gear shaft of this deck had morphed, over years of disuse, into a pretty strong adhesive. That gear was stuck tight, and, considering the broken-in-half example right at my disposal, I had a hunch this piece was kind of fragile. It would be pretty useless to snap a gear while in the middle of replacing a snapped gear, so I had to be extreeeemely patient and just ever…so…gently…wiggle the gear off the shaft, most of the time never apparently doing anything at all (in fact, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the broken gear lifted out so easily of the 112, I probably would’ve assumed I was doing something wrong with the intact one).

IMG_2196
Now stop – Wiggle Time.

But, once that finally came free and I took a minute or two to revel in the satisfaction, I was finally able to piece back together the gear assembly on the 112, and a few manual turns seemed to confirm that the motor would now spin correctly. By all outward appearances, this was a successful transplant and I hurriedly packed the tape transport unit back into place to test my handiwork. For one brief, shining moment, as I pressed the Play button, the motor whirred, the gears turned, and all sounded healthy as the tape started moving forward at normal speed and the meters bounced.

Then a second later, the head assembly kicked out of playback mode. Trying again, the same thing: playing back fine for a second, then the system automatically refused to keep going.

Sigh.

Unlike last time, there were no hideous noises emanating from the deck, and the lights on the transport buttons on the front panel were not freaking out. The lights on the programmable buttons (RTZ, LOC1, LOC2, etc.) were now constantly on – but I could not tell when exactly that had happened, and in any case they still appeared to be responsive (I could set a zero location, fast-forward the tape, and then automatically return to that location, for instance). So that seemed unrelated to the tape refusing to stay in playback mode.

IMG_2203

After a few more repeated tries I still couldn’t figure out what was happening, so I hit eject to remove the tape and take another look at the transport mechanism in case I missed something – which is when I saw this:

IMG_2201
Bad tape! You’re not supposed to stay outside your cassette past curfew. You’re grounded!

Hmm. Why was the tape loose in the cassette? Winding the tape back tight (oh how long has it been since I had to manually wind a cassette with my finger? too long, for this ’90s kid), I took a closer look at the cassette itself as I attempted playback. At which point I saw that when I hit Play, the supply spindle (the side of the cassette on which the tape is wound) on the cassette would start spinning, but the take-up spindle (where the tape winds after passing over the heads and playing) refused to budge – meaning that after passing over the playback head and through a pinch roller, the tape would just sort of loosely dump into the cassette for a second or two, until the pinch roller presumably detected that it had lost tension and automatically kicked the head assembly out of playback mode, to protect the cassette and the deck from getting damaged by out-of-control tape.

12vds3

And that, essentially, is where I am stuck right now. The take-up spindle has no obvious motor driving it, and I am pretty confident I didn’t damage that part of the transport unit during disassembly – although, given the fact that the 122, which I am essentially using as a model of what the mechanism on the 112 should look like, doesn’t spin at all, I can’t say that for sure. So why is it not turning during playback? The only thing I can think of is that somewhere in the transport unit is a sensor that communicates with the take-up spindle that I somehow mucked up – although, again, the spindle turns completely normally during fast forward and rewind. And if I actually sit there and manually spin the take-up spindle, playback continues normally. But that is not exactly the most practical solution, since I have, you know, at least some other work to do.

If anyone has further suggestions, I’m all ears, but at this point I’m further investigating backup decks and probably bringing in a more experienced audio technician to perform a repair – at this point I would at least have a very specific issue to bring to them, which would hopefully keep the repair quick and therefore relatively inexpensive, since freelancers charge by the hour.

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.