Old folk at lunch

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Will magnetic media create a black hole in the history of late 20th century creativity?

Apologies for that portentous heading but it does express a fear I have.  Let me explain.  Magnetic media came into their own during the late 20th century.  First there were open reel tape-recorders for sound; then there cassette tapes for sound; then there were floppy disks for computer software, including games; then there were VHS video recorders for a full audio-visual experience.  But all those are now obsolete.  They were an advance for their times but have now been superseded by DVDs etc.

None of that would be any great problem except for one thing:  Magnetic media degrade over time.  That was recently brought home to me when I got out one of my old VCRs and set it up to play some video tapes of two Mozart operas that had been recorded about a quarter of a century ago.  They were a professional production so should have been of good quality.  Unfortunately they were only good in parts, as the curate said.  At their best they reproduced about as well as a DVD but in other parts there was a lot of flicker, "snow" etc.  And it was not the player that was at fault.  More recent recordings were fine.

Yet the performances were good ones that deserved to be preserved. And, probably because they were great works by a very famous composer, they ARE now available on DVD (See here and here). But what of less famous works by less famous composers and performers? They must be on the brink of being lost forever. I think that is a great pity. Hopefully, all of the best of late 20th century creativity will be transferred to optical format before it is too late but I am pessimistic about most of it.

Interestingly, not all old audio-visual technology is so fragile.  Sound and vision recorded on movie film is pretty long lasting, as is music recorded on the old black vinyl LPs.

Hard disks are also of course magnetic media but disk failure is frequent enough for most people to keep backups of everything -- so data on them is less likely to be irretrievably lost. I back up my more recent files onto DVDs several times a year.

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