Friday, March 31, 2017

Across the Analog Divide

Yogicat introduced me to a series of YouTube videos called Techmoan that are just up my Luddite alley. Techmoan features a genial Brit who explores the obsolete dead-ends of consumer technology, including mini-discs, cassettes, 8-track and DAT tapes, and all three forms of large-format optical disk technology: CEV, VHD, and Laserdisc. He typically finds and, if necessary, fixes a player, shows the features of the format, and discusses why it ultimately died out. It's a real treat to see these old players in action; for example, the disc handling mechanism of a VHD player is pretty cool.

Media obsolescence is a well-known problem in computers. Magnetic tape media, in particular, have come and gone with great rapidity: 7-track and then 9-track open-reel tape; LINCtape and DECtape; 36-track tape in various formats; VHS; QIC (1/4 tape); RDAT; Traven; and most recently, Digital Linear Tape (DLT) and Linear Tape Open (LTO), now both on their fifth or sixth generations. In fact, the Wikipedia article on magnetic tape storage lists close to fifty formats since 1952.

The profusion and rapid turnover in tape formats - not to mention deterioration issues in magnetic media, even if properly stored - create serious issues for archival storage and recovery of data. Data does not necessarily become obsolete with the media that stores it. For example, oil seismic shots taken and recorded in the 1950s can be reprocessed today, using vastly improved algorithms and vastly faster computers, to yield new information. But retrieving the data from 7-track open-reel tapes is a serious problem: the last working drives disappeared 30 years ago.

Media obsolescence is an equally challenging problem in popular culture. The near-extinction of vinyl records at the hands of first CDs and then streaming threatened the loss of vast archives of old recordings (LPs as well as 78s) that had never been digitized. Fortunately, thanks to the popularity of DJs and "scratching" - a technique rather difficult to emulate digitally - vinyl has come back from the grave as a niche consumer technology. Today, it's easy to buy new turntables, many of which come with digitizing technology built in.

However, as Techmoan points out, there is no saving grace for most technologies. Analog magnetic audio media, of any form, produced inferior sound to its digital (or vinyl) counterparts. And large-format optical disks, which recorded analog video, produced inferior video to DVDs or Blu-Rays. There's no reason to watch a Laserdisc of Terminator 2 when you can watch the Blu-Ray instead.

He's quite right about any media property that has crossed "the digital divide," as almost all popular movies have. However, there are significant amounts of popular art that remain stranded on the analog side: records and cassettes that were never released on CD; anime and films that were never released on DVD or Blu-Ray. The real value of maintaining and restoring obsolete media players is to be able to play recordings and movies that would otherwise be inaccessible.

The reasons why recordings and films remain on the analog side usually boil down to  commercial considerations. One reason is that it costs money to digitize a media property. Recordings need to be remastered; films need to be scanned frame-by-frame and cleaned up. There may not be enough demand to justify the expense. Another reason may be loss of original materials. Media companies have gone broke or downsized, and archives have been scattered or deliberately destroyed. (It's estimated that more than 75% of silent films have been lost.) And finally, the rights to a media property may be very complicated and difficult, if not impossible, to trace through the mergers and bankruptcies in the media industry.

For anime, the problem of analog-only offerings is very real. A fair number of titles from the era of hand-drawn animation (before 1996-2000, roughly) are only available on VHS or Laserdisc. Occasionally, an old analog-only title may show up unexpectedly on modern media - the Blu-Ray release of Blazing Transfer Student comes to mind - but most shows on the analog side of the divide seem doomed to stay there. Some are utter junk, like Bavi Stock II or Twinkle Nora Rock Me, but others are quite interesting, like Sanctuary, Oz, or Hi-Speed Jecy. There is no systematic program to capture these shows before the ancient playback devices stop working or the media deteriorates beyond usability. We are dependent on "the kindness of strangers" - the collectors who own old media and players and are willing to make the effort to digitize them for long-term preservation. 

Orphan has been fortunate to work with several Laserdisc collectors, who have made digital captures from their media libraries available for encoding. One of our team members in Japan is acquiring a used (and hopefully working) S-VHS deck, so that we can tap into the thriving market there in second-hand tapes. But all of this is subject to chance and happenstance. Two years ago, I was working with a Laserdisc collector in Australia to get new, pristine encodes of the classic OVA Starship Troopers. Then, with no warning, he went off the air. I never knew his real name, so I had no way of  finding out what might have happened... and the project fell through.

So before you junk that working VHS deck or Laserdisc player, think about the problem of media preservation. No new VHS decks or Laserdisc players will ever be built. Every scrapped player is an irremediable loss. And besides, there's probably an anime group somewhere that would like to have it.

1 comment:

  1. Collectr: I've seen newly made VHS players actually as a matter of fact. When I changed players some 2-4 years ago, I bought it from a large electronic store with many stores, atleast in Europe :) That was off-topic: I've replied to your question about encoding: answer is yes - in general, if I get the tapes that is & some other things, I can also rip LaserDiscs, Audio tapes, Vinyls, Dvd's etc + that I've added a mail for my GouNoKen account on
    If you can't find it: refer me to a place for your contact info so we can talk about about the whole thing on mail. My raw rips has/are being used by groups like HnG, Skaro, KingMenu etc