George Massenburg: The Archival Process

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This blog is part of Iron Mountain Media & Archive Services' “Protecting Legacies” series, featuring guest authors’ perspectives on archiving in pro audio. George Massenburg, producer, engineer, educator, inventor, and designer, joins us as guest author for this blog.

George Massenburg
George Massenburg
GRAMMY® award-winning recording engineer
18 August 20227 mins
George Massenburg

George Massenburg is a producer, engineer, educator, inventor and designer whose career spans 50 years. He has participated (individually and collaboratively) in over four hundred records, including projects from Earth, Wind & Fire, Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat, Lyle Lovett, Aaron Neville, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Natasha Bedingfield, Herbie Hancock, Arlo Guthrie, Billy Joel, The Chicks and many more. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Sound Recording and Director of Video Production at McGill University. He is also the principal of two technology companies: Massenburg DesignWorks LLC and George Massenburg Labs LLC, which is a renowned purveyor of newly constructed analogue gear. A multi-GRAMMY® Award winner, Massenburg received his latest GRAMMY in 2022 for Best Immersive Audio Album for his work on the album Alicia (Alicia Keys). Additionally, he is a prominent member of the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing, where he contributes to multiple standards and technical guideline recommendations committees, and is a founding member of METAlliance. The recipient of an AES Fellowship and Gold Medal Award, he is also a frequent contributor to the Audio Engineering Society’s initiatives and events.


I don’t think I will ruffle any feathers or generate any controversy by saying that preservation and archiving are of the utmost importance for so many reasons. This is basically consensus among everybody working at a professional level in the recording and film industries. But the proper way to go about it is a topic that sparks healthy debate, and every recording and film professional can benefit from checking in on methodologies that lead to cleaner, more efficient, more comprehensive workflows in terms of data backup, preservation and archiving. 

Proper archiving is crucial for so many reasons. First of all, it is necessary so that we are able to repurpose the master recordings in different, perhaps better formats. To generate an immersive mix, for instance, we need to have access to multi-track masters. If a stereo master is all that exists, there is a lot less we can do to create something great in an immersive format. It is also valuable to have classic materials available for education. And in the day-to-day production of a record, it’s important to be able to find the elements of the production process that you need at any time. 

I was fortunate enough to work on the song “September” for Earth, Wind & Fire when they originally recorded it in 1976. It’s obviously a classic, and every few years it gets re-released in a new format. Recently we were working on a new immersive mix, and luckily we had access to the original masters, and luckily they were quite good quality. It’s a good thing the masters were preserved so this classic recording can continue to have new life. And I like to point out the distinction between archival and preservation – the recording and/or session had been archived in dozens of formats over the years, but what we needed was the original first-generation tapes, which were properly preserved. Both are important, but in this case, preservation is what gave us access to those pristine analogue tapes, and it is what will generate an immersive mix that contains all the detail that that format needs.

A key element is something very simple: the project’s name. If you have multiple stakeholders or participants labeling assets with different designations, it will inevitably lead to confusion. Try to pick a name at the project’s outset, and stick to it. I also like to have everything clearly labeled with a date and version number, which gives each element a discrete indicator and prevents countless mixups. 

The whole process, from the very start to the deep archiving after the project is wrapped, should be coordinated. Beyond the naming process, verification is important. Have you really copied everything? Do you know where all of the various assets are, so that you are positive that you’re copying everything? Are you practising good backup hygiene? Are you taking fingerprints of large files and large directories? (We usually use MD5). You must make sure that the transfer copying is immaculate. Keep spreadsheets were possible. Keep track of dates and times, version numbers, participants and stakeholders. No detail is too small.

I choose to back up my personal assets with a commercial program on an open-standard tape format called LTFS, which is an LTO hardware-based software approach. If you have the option, try to pick formats that work across different platforms and operating systems.

Looking at the industry as a whole and its history over the decades, I would say that there are many examples where mistakes have been made, and questionable decisions have been arrived at. Countless important historical projects, both in audio and visual content, have been either lost or not entirely preserved in their full data set. Sometimes it is an error, but just as often it is a compromise or a decision not to spend the resources for the server space. And I understand – productions, especially when video is involved, can run into the terabytes. However, as server space gets more affordable and accessible, there is less and less downside to doing it right. And I think that our industries are starting to really recognize the importance of preserving these assets. Entities like the Recording Academy, DDEX, AES and Iron Mountain Entertainment Services are taking a very deep view on how to do it correctly, and they are able to offer not only strong advocacy, but everyday advice to record companies, producers or anyone else who is concerned about these things. I can personally vouch for a document generated by the Producers & Engineers Wing, titled “Delivery Recommendations for Recorded Music Projects,” which details best practices for archiving and other aspects of the recording process. This is an invaluable resource for anyone working in the recording industry.

In summation, my advice is to be diligent, be meticulous, and be attentive to every detail. It is important for both the short-term process of your project and the long-term viability of your assets.

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