Magnetic Tape Backup

Magnetic tape was never intended to be a long-term preservation medium. It has been a powerful mode of documentation—from clips and sound bites on the world news to home recordings. But these images and sounds will not last forever without proper preservation. According to the American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), magnetic tape is inherently unstable and fragile. It is subject to “damage and deterioration from exposure to poor environmental conditions and inadequate handling practices. Even if properly cared for, magnetic tape may last only a few decades.”

The problem stems from the medium itself. Audio and videotape consist of three layers: a polyester base, an adhesive binder and metal oxide (magnetic) particles. The polyester base supports the tape and reduces tape friction and static electricity. Although chemically stable, magnetic tape is vulnerable to physical problems that result from conditions such as “tape pack stress” or “poor wind.”

The adhesive binder, a polyurethane material, holds the magnetic particles in place and contains lubricants that aid in smooth playback of the tape. However, this binder is chemically unstable. Through a process known as hydrolysis, tape degrades into more stable molecules that are sticky and soft. This causes the “sticky shed” problem leading to clogged heads that can make playback impossible.

Finally, the metal oxide particles, the magnetic content of the tape itself, are threatened by the binder and base as they expand and contract. If stretched beyond just 1 percent its original size, a tape may be unplayable.

Even when a magnetic tape is stored under the most ideal conditions, if an operational machine is not available, the information stored will be irretrievable. Recording machines rapidly become obsolete and unavailable. Those machines that still exist are often poorly maintained and seldom are able to provide optimal playback. In addition, the expertise needed to maintain and operate this equipment is difficult to find.

VidiPax™ is fully equipped to restore and remaster virtually all magnetic tape formats. Our procedures encompass the entire range of restoration and preservation services, from an initial evaluation of the original tape through the remastering onto a new modern format. Our highly trained technicians monitor each tape though all the stages necessary to ensure that the final result is as faithful a reproduction of the original as possible.

Laboratory

Our laboratory facility in New York is over 8,000 square feet. It is the only facility in the world designed specifically for magnetic media restoration purposes. Quality control is our top priority. As preservers of magnetic media, we provide a “clean” environment for tapes in our care. The laboratory itself is maintained at a constant 68 degrees and 45 percent humidity, considered to be ideal for magnetic media. Air filters provide the laboratory with an environment that is free of dust and other airborne particles that might contaminate tapes.

VidiPax™ also has specialized equipment that is used for the routine maintenance of our playback machines. All heads and guides are cleaned after each playback or transfer to insure that cross-contamination of masters does not occur. Alignment tapes provided by the manufacturer are routinely used to assure that the machines are operating within technical specifications.

Our facility is secured with computer-controlled access passes, CCTV surveillance, burglary alarms and physical security. The building which houses our laboratory has a sprinkler and standpipe system as required by New York City fire codes.

Quality Control

Quality Control is the most important part of any project. In order to manage large projects, VidiPax™ uses a database management system designed specifically to meet our unique needs, as well as those of our customers. At each stage of the process, including initial receipt, cleaning and playback, the restoration technicians make observations about each tape. At the end of the process, the customer is provided with a Tape Condition Report that reflects these observations. For example, upon arrival, the restoration specialist looks for evidence of problems such as dirt, mold and unsuitable packaging. During the cleaning process, tapes are never left unattended.

All customer materials are continuously monitored. Cleaning specialists note any anomalies in the database. Tape Condition Reports also document the transfer process itself. Production technicians record their observations of audio levels, dropout, electronic noise and general tape quality. The database management system provides a means of tracking individual tapes as well. Through our computer system, labels are placed on each master tape with a unique number per batch and per reel that correlates with the information entered in the database. At any stage in the process, each and every tape can be located and identified.