Not just a typical day in the office... er, studio

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Tape remediation expert Kelly Pribble dives deep into more tape remediation issues, including the “Spaghetti Western” and salt damage.

Kelly Pribble
Kelly Pribble
Director, Media Preservation Technology | Iron Mountain Media & Archive Services
October 13, 20217 mins
Not just a typical day in the office
You know the term, “Just another day at the office?” More than once, I have chuckled when I think of it since many days are NOT just a typical day at our studio “offices” and we have to think outside the box when working with our customers’ assets.  

I've been remediating and restoring old music assets for a long time, but every once in a while, I find a substance - or what looks like a substance - that stumps me. The remediation process is never the same twice. 

For example, once we received a collection that was moldy with significant water damage. There was a white substance on the tapes that just wouldn't budge when we applied our normal cleaning processes. In fact, it looked like someone shot a can of white spray paint onto the tapes. Puzzled by something we’d never seen, nor could explain, we eventually started looking into the boxes the tapes were stored in, talking to manufacturers and former tape company employees.

A veteran gentleman from a tape company told me that, "Back in the sixties and seventies, the dye that we used in the box manufacturing had metal in it, something that was later banned." 

I noticed that tapes with windows in the flanges just had the white substance on the exposed tape edges. We thus concluded that the boxes were degrading and deteriorating: the pigment of the white metallic box dye had come off and was attracted to the magnetic field of the tape, adhering to the tape itself.

As we tried to unreel the tapes, they started to tear where the layers had been stuck together. We were pulling our hair out, worrying about being able to get the tapes safely to the point where they could be played and preserved. Through careful experimentation I was able to come up with a proprietary solution that safely removed the dye and was able to preserve the tapes. I had a lot of sleepless nights during this tedious process, worried about every detail of the process, but now we have it down to a science. As time moves on, I believe we will see more of what I’ve come to call the “adhesion syndrome.”

Another favorite scenario that is “not your typical day at the office” occurs when a tape has become unraveled from its flangeless pancake. Perhaps you have seen it, too. Here at the studio we’ve named it, “The Spaghetti Western” since it looks like a giant bowl of spaghetti noodles.
Not a typical day in the office spaghetti

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When it becomes unraveled, it’s possible to extend a half mile in length! This is a situation with an easy though time-consuming solution that can take hours, or even a few days. Once we find the start of the tape, we walk it out every 30 feet to feed it into a machine, section by section to unravel it into a format that can be wound back into the pancake.  It can take a couple of days with a white glove and steady hand.  

A more troublesome issue I have encountered has been tapes  stored in non-climate controlled places close to the ocean. I’ve worked on assets from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Miami, finding salt residue that had built up over many years. The salt builds up underneath the flanges, eating into the metal. And if it's eating into the metal, then what is it doing to the tape?    

For example, a particular artist’s estate sent me thirty-five 2-inch masters that all had salt damage.  There was no metadata on the boxes and the estate had no idea what was on the tapes. Not knowing what the substance was originally, I started to get whiffs of salt in the air as I  worked on this issue. After I was able to safely remove the salt build up, I proceeded to rewind a tape for playback. I noticed immediately that the edges of the tapes were bound and the tape was disintegrating while going through the rollers of the tape machine. 
Not just a typical day in the office salt
Just like the “adhesion syndrome” I have previously blogged and presented about, this was a new variety: salt adhesion. The only safe way to move forward was to use the adhesion syndrome process to unbind the tapes. I actually designed and built a machine to safely rewind the tape while at the same time unbinding it. With this new machine, the tape oxide side only touches one roller in the process. This new combination process gave us a chance to get one more play out of all thirty-five tapes - and in some cases their last play, before their final disintegration. We also discovered the tapes were live multi-track recordings of this famous pioneering artist’s tour, just a few years before their passing. It was an incredible feeling knowing these recordings have now been preserved for future generations to enjoy. 
 
I love acting like a detective to figure out the cause of the problem so we can figure out the best solution. Whether it’s deciphering a foreign substance, unraveling spaghetti-like tape or treating salt adhesion, we want to remediate or restore and then protect our customers’ assets and ensure that their musical creations are available for years to come.