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Loeb Music Preservation Makes Rare Compositions Available

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Andrew Wilson, Access Services Librarian at Loeb Music Library, demonstrates the library's surround-sound-capable listening room for Lauren T. Brown, '10.

January 4, 2010 – A cutting-edge audio preservation project at Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library will soon make it possible for music composition students to hear – for the first time ever – dozens of one-of-a-kind recordings of original, multi-channel compositions by electronic music composers.

Amassed by Fanny P. Mason Professor of Music Hans Tutschku, the tapes were traded and shared between contemporaries over his more than 20-year composing career. Tutschku’s goal was to use the recordings in his graduate-level composition classes, but he was deterred by technical hurdles. Because the compositions were recorded using a variety of esoteric tape formats, the material simply could not be played on modern equipment. 

While the preservation efforts will transfer the tapes into modern, digital formats which can be used by students and researchers, it will also break new ground in the preservation of multi-channel, or “surround sound” materials, said Virginia Danielson, the Richard F. French Librarian of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library.

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Typically, she said, multi-channel recordings – which can contain eight or more separate channels of audio information – are “mixed down,” or compressed into fewer channels for preservation. While the mixing process eases the preservation work, it comes at a price – namely the destruction of the recording’s surround sound experience. The new project will preserve each audio channel separately, meaning listeners will be able to hear the material as the composer intended.

“The conservation of multi-channel electroacoustic works has presented a huge challenge in the international community of composers,” said Tutschku. “It seems that we now have the elements together to include these works in the preservation program and I'm very grateful for that.”

That preservation work falls to the HCL Audio Preservation Lab, but ensuring multi-channel recordings are preserved so future generations of researchers can hear the surround sound recordings as they were intended is easier said than done.

“Usually, the materials we find in the library are either monophonic or stereo,” HCL Audio Engineer David Ackerman said. “Professor Tutschku’s recordings have between four and eight channels of discrete information – that’s a big difference, so we want to make sure that when we preserve them, we actually preserve the surround sound experience.”

For material with six or fewer channels, Ackerman said, the lab will be able to simply produce DVDs encoded with 5.1-channel, digital surround sound information. Recordings with additional channels – some of Tutschku’s recordings contain eight or more channels – will be preserved digitally, and each channel will be placed in the Digital Repository Service (DRS,) Harvard’s system for preserving and accessing digital content.  Library patrons will be able to download the recording, complete with separate channels, as a digital file which can be manipulated using computer programs.

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Audio Engineers Bruce Gordon, left, and David Ackerman demonstrate some of the technology needed to digitially preserve rare recordings collected by Fanny P. Mason Professor of Music Hans Tutschku.

“We are looking at how we do preservation work, and how we can scale that up to accommodate these extra channels of audio information,” he said. “We’re looking at what kind of additional metadata we need to record and how to package these materials for the Digital Repository Service. One of the largest challenges is the variety of delivery formats – some of it is on DVD-ROM discs, but some of it was recorded using equipment that is out of production. We had to go out and find playback devices that would read those tapes so we could digitally transfer the audio and preserve the surround sound configuration.”

Preserving the tapes, however, is only part of the project. To ensure students would hear the multi-channel recordings as composers intended, the library installed a state-of-the-art surround sound system in one of its listening rooms.

“In working with Professor Tutschku to identify his program’s needs,” Danielson said, “it was evident that we needed to preserve this material, and provide a space where multichannel works can be experienced. Right now, it's a small listening room for one or two people, but in the future, we hope to have a larger space, where an entire class could listen to these works together.”

The next best thing to a front row seat, the system is capable of processing 5.1 channel DTS digital surround sound, said Andrew Wilson, Access Services Librarian at Loeb Music. The system is made up of five main speakers – the five in the system’s 5.1 channels - left, right and center, as well as two rear speakers. A subwoofer rounds out the system’s speakers. DTS stands for “digital theatre sound.”

 “This technology allows the listener to experience these unique recordings in the sound-space created by the composer,” Wilson said. “And as an ancillary benefit, it will enhance the listening environment for the recordings we currently have.”

In addition to the new speakers, the system installed in Loeb Music includes a DVD player capable of translating 5.1 surround sound audio and a master remote to control the system’s volume and acoustically “tune” each speaker. Students and researchers who want to use the room will be assisted by library staff, Wilson said.

“The teaching and research impact was immediate,” Danielson said, of the room. “Professor Tutschku was here using the facility virtually the day after we told him it was available, and he’s very pleased with it. That’s one of the most important aspects of this to me – the support we can offer to the composition faculty and students, and to make sure they are well-served by the library.”