Operating a Remastering Facility

Notes on the economics

From the start, the remastering center was attractive to funders but presented a knotty business challenge. Remastering is like videotape dubbing: video and audio signals on a source tape are transferred to a new tape. However, remastering is a much riskier venture, because correct playback of the tape is not guaranteed and it often requires extra work. Yet BAVC remastering services must not be priced beyond the market of media artists and nonprofit organizations.

A remastering facility presents a number of concerns relating to the allocation of staff time and fundraising and budgeting.

Transferring a 1/2" open reel tape may take from 2 to 3 hours, if all goes well. The tape must be cleaned (typically at least 5 passes on the cleaning machine), taking about 40-50 minutes. The new master tape is packed (fast forwarded and rewound); color bars, tone and slate are recorded at the head of the tape, and the system is patched for the transfer (about 20-30 minutes). The 1/2" open reel tape is mounted on the playback machine and either played back to check playback audio and video levels (20-30 minutes). Finally, the 1/2" open reel video is recorded onto the new master (40-80 minutes). Cleaning the tape paths for each transfer (10 minutes).

The length of time required can easily increase if the video head clogs on playback, or the tape needs more cleaning, or any number of other tape problems arise during the transfer.

This work is not suitable for interns. A well-trained technician must perform all of these tasks in addition to the task of documentation.

Clients want to know that their tapes are being handled by experienced technicians. Yet, BAVC wanted to keep the costs of transfer down, and insure that the fees also cover other costs. One of BAVC's frustrations is to maintain qualified technicians willing to accept the pay level the center could afford. In the early years, technicians were paid $15 per hour.

What about the costs of maintenance? I always set aside 20% of income for maintenance costs.

Overhead costs include the consulting work done with clients before and after transfers. An lesson we soon learned at BAVC is that our clients may be completely surprised by what is on their tapes. I visited the Minnesota Historical Society after their project was completed to review tapes they had questions about. One video had a herringbone pattern appearing in the picture. We discovered the tape was a copy of the original tape, produced by videotaping a television monitor. Staff of the Historical Society were also surprised by the crudeness of some of the video production techniques. Some of the programs were separated from each other by a few seconds of video noise. I clarified that this was not a result of the transfer, but the way the production was originally recorded on the videotape.

While BAVC has refined its techniques for interviewing clients before and after the remastering process, the managing and delivering of a remastering project is still very time-consuming.

BAVC must also take into account the overhead for every project in order to keep the organization running. In trying to keep costs as low as possible for our low-budget clients, I often regretted having to include the cost of overhead - costs such as equipment, rent, and utilities. The reality is that these costs are necessary to keeping the remastering facility open.

The efforts to make money, keep staff, and maintain quality were wearing. BAVC was very fortunate that Heather Weaver and John Selsey had the interest and ability to sustain the facility as my drive to keep the center functioning was ebbing..

While as a business remastering is a struggle, the services have been a key ingredient in BAVC's successful fundraising for preservation. Along with funding for physical remastering, BAVC was awarded funding to hold a conference of conservators, "Playback 96: Video Roundtable" to address video preservation and its importance to art conservators. "Playback" and BAVC's other preservation-related projects also gave the remastering program credibility and, it was hoped, a broader client base. Also, in the same time period as "Playback", BAVC partnered with the National Initiative to Preserve American Dance (NIPAD) to train dance companies to use video to document dance. All of these related activities strengthen BAVC's ability to secure funding from sources such as the NEA Heritage and Preservation Program.

While video remastering has had a net positive effect on BAVC and the media arts field, there is a great need for BAVC and others to improve remastering techniques. In the following section I include a wish list for projects that I along with other BAVC technicians - current and past - would like to see developed. Also, it seems clear that creating a plan to expand the number of remastering centers is an important next step to sustain the work.

Looking to the future

From a technician's point of view, there are a number of steps which could improve the process of transferring obsolete tape formats.

There must be more attention and funding devoted to video remastering. More support would increase the number of technicians addressing the issue and broaden the technical knowledge-base. In the nonprofit media arts field, remastering has not grown beyond BAVC's model. Even within BAVC, only a tiny pool of talented technicians has maintained the program. New BAVC technicians tend to forgo learning the remastering process, concentrating instead on learning new technologies, such as nonlinear editing systems.

A larger pool of technicians and the funding for their research will increase the quality and frequency of debate and innovation in video remastering. If engineers, conservators and researchers from related disciplines can join technicians in this work, the dialog willbecome more productive. Currently BAVC works with only one engineer who has the expertise and interest to maintain obsolete cleaning machines and video decks, but his relationship is as an independent contractor, not a collaborator interested in advancing the practice of remastering.

In, particular, there is a need for research and experimentation with the preparation and cleaning process. The methods used by BAVC have not changed since BAVC began remastering.

Specifically, BAVC technicians and colleagues in the field would like to explore:

  • Research other preparation techniques such as tape baking or tape washing. Baking is especially interesting, because engineers at 3M and Ampex have already performed this process. While they claim that it may be destructive, allowing for only one transfer, it would be worth further study.
  • Develop a combination cleaning/playback machine (replacing record heads with cleaning modules). By eliminating the cleaning machine, essentially integrating it into the playback tape path, it could: 1) make the remastering process more efficient; 2) reduce the cost of setting up remastering facilities; and 3) reduce the number of machines to learn to operate; and 4) reduce maintenance.
  • Develop a re-designed 1/2" open reel playback machine, including a kinder tape path with a vacuum chamber, and highly adjustable tracking and skew. Creating a new machine to address this issue is the more expensive approach but perhaps the wisest. Currently, technicians are using 30-year-old equipment to remaster tapes. We are not taking advantage of the innovations in tape handling, and we are not taking into consideration the special needs of a remastering project - where tapes have been recorded on machines that may vary widely in terms of maintenance and calibration.
  • Develop a process for transferring the signal from a 1/2" open reel tape magnetically to a new tape. This technology is currently used in high-end VHS tape duplication. A master videotape is run though a machine where it makes physical contact with a new tape and transfers all signals magnetically, without a tape path or video head. If this process could be developed for 1/2" open reel tapes, we could save the wear and tear on the original. The new copy could then be run through the tape path, also saving some wear and tear on playback machines.
  • Explore transfer to an uncompressed nonlinear workstation such as the Avid Symphony. The material would be saved in D1 quality as an intermediary, with possible "touch up" done on marginal frames. This process would maintain the quality of the original but give the facility time to review and approve of the transfer before it is transferred to tape.
  • Research data backup as an adjunct to remastering. Is there a backup medium and file format that has a long-term future and can hold the amount of data contained in a video tape? Is this format DLT, or the D1 data tape developed for storing media? This process could store signals long term while further research is done to develop or agree upon a preservation format for video.
  • Collaborate on such projects as the WGBH's Universal Preservation Format Initiative. If there are better funded projects that are addressing the basic needs of video preservation, the media arts field should be aware of them and, perhaps, participate.