Once upon a time, in the last couple weeks at the close of the 20th century, I did some work that had nothing to do with music, and everything to do with life.
One of my co-workers, an IT dev manager (I’ll call her “Mindy” for the purposes of this story) called me into her office, and pulled out a small 1/4″ open-reel tape. She knew I was taking studio engineering night classes at Columbia Academy, and doing things like tape work. She had found this tape in her attic, and didn’t know exactly what it was, but had a vague idea, and knew it was extremely important.
So I took it, and brought it with me to my next night class in the tape lab. It was the week before Christmas, 1999. When I got to the lab, I hauled the tape out, and got to work.
I had to carefully trim the ragged ends of it, and splice a few feet of head and tail on it, so I could thread it without losing anything. Everything with this tape was laborious, because it was so ancient, I didn’t want to risk damaging it, or even playing it more than once or twice because of potential tape shed.
I hooked up my portable MD recorder to one of the nicer open reel machines in the lab, threaded the tape, donned a pair of AKG K240s, went into record monitor, and hit play. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was probably one of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever heard…but I’m getting to that. I only listened to a few seconds, because as I said, I was concerned about damaging this historical artifact.
Technical part (skip this, if you only care about the human story): The tape was recorded at 15 ips, as two mono tracks (ie. two “sides”). It was about 9 minutes long, per side. So after some playback head alignment (with a jeweler’s screwdriver), and some quick level setting, I recorded it to a digital stereo track on the MD recorder, while playing the tape back at half-speed (7.5 ips), to get the best audio quality possible. Basically, this meant sitting and listening to voices and sounds at half speed…forward in the left ear, and backwards in the right, for 18 minutes. It was maddening, because of how odd it sounded, and how carefully I needed to monitor it all in case anything bad happened. But also because I desperately wanted to listen to what this actually sounded like properly.
That didn’t happen until I got home. I transferred the digital files from the MD recording into audio software on my PC. This would have been CoolEdit Pro running on Windows 98 at the time. It was an exciting exercise, as I got closer to finally listening to what it all was. I split the file into two mono tracks, reversed one, doubled the base sample rate (to effectively play it back at the correct “double speed”), and did adjustments. The least possible noise reduction, to filter out some of the tape hiss, without introducing any digital artifacts, and some spot level adjustments, to make it more comfortably listenable.
I was lucky about one thing, and I almost think that the person who recorded it did this on purpose, just for me…reaching out across the decades to lend a helping hand to that unknown stranger who would one day be doing all this. On this tape, at the start of side two, there was a short clip, about 12 seconds, of Booker T. and the MGs – Green Eggs and Ham. I was able to use that as a pitch/timing reference, to figure out that the actual recording speed was about 8% shy of the standard 7.5 ips, and use that fact to pitch adjust the recording so it was exactly right. Go figure…
I took the final results, burned it to CD, and brought it in to work the next day, after an “almost-all-nighter”. I went to see Mindy, with this CD in my Discman, and she sat down and started listening. I’ll never forget the look of complete shock on her face, and how she started crying. Of course, I did too.
Her father, who had died a little over a decade earlier, had a really fascinating career. He had started as a journalist in the 60s, and worked a lot with field recording…interviews with people, including one with Roosevelt Douglas, after the Sir George Williams Affair (read it, it’s a fascinating piece of Canadian history). I got that recording too, a few months later, by the way. He also served in the Canadian military, stationed all over the place, and doing various recordings for them. He used a field recorder very much like this:
At some point, circa 1968, one of Mindy’s nieces was born, and her dad decided to make a “welcome to the world” tape for her. It has a lengthy chunk of him talking, recounting family stories, as well as greetings from a whole slew of other relatives, many of whom were long passed away by the time this recording was finally heard. It even includes Mindy herself, at about 5-6 years old, saying a few things. It has all the charm you can imagine, with people who are nervous and awkward about being recorded, and everything else that you’d expect in the audio equivalent of an old home movie. It is a beautiful 18 minutes, that I am so honoured to have helped bring back to life, I can’t even describe that feeling.
Mindy insisted on paying me for it. I’ve never less wanted money for anything I’ve ever done. In fact, I might even still have that cheque around here somewhere, uncashed.
This recording actually ended up being the centerpiece for a large family reunion, with far-flung relatives flying in from all over the world to all sit down together and listen to it. I want to say I couldn’t believe how much of an impact it had, but of course I do. This is the kind of thing that rarely happens, but when it does, it reminds me why I care so much.
So that’s the full story about one of my “greatest hits”. Thanks for reading!