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Technology Speeds Audio Preservation

 
 

An excerpt of Haft khwān-e Rustam (Seven Exploits of Rostam), recorded in February 1969. The full recording is part of The Stephen Blum Collection of Music from Iranian Khorāsān at Harvard University: original ethnographic sound recordings, 1968-2006. Additional recordings from the collection can be accessed through the finding aid.

 

January 6, 2011 – Students, faculty and researchers can now access audio materials faster than ever before, and audio engineers working in Loeb Music Library’s Audio Preservation Studio (APS) are enjoying streamlined workflows – both are the products of a nearly two-year-long collaboration between APS staff and Harvard College Library’s Information Technology Services (HCL ITS) unit. The end result of the cooperative effort was the installation earlier this year of a computer system designed to allow engineers to seamlessly work with digitized audio on both PCs and Macintosh computers, simplifying what had once been a frustratingly complex preservation process.

“Life is definitely easier now with the new system,” APS Lead Audio Engineer David Ackerman said. “The system we had was something we made work because we had to make it work. The new system is much more efficient, and easier to use.”

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Known as a SAN (short for Storage Area Network) the system is essentially a large shared storage device which serves as the digital workspace for sound engineers. Hardware, however, is only half of the equation. For the storage system to work, software is also needed to ensure engineers can read, write, copy and otherwise manipulate the stored files.

The notion of using a SAN for audio preservation is not new – in fact, the system recently installed in the APS is the studio’s second – rather, it is the way it works that makes it unique. The new system allows engineers to digitize recordings, then read, write, copy and otherwise manipulate the stored files regardless of what type of computer they are using, simplifying many tasks and clearing the way for more and faster preservation work. The previous system, in contrast, relied on a maze of complex workflows and technical workarounds to simply move files from one location to another.

“The real issue was productivity,” Ackerman said. “The complexity inherent in the old system resonated through everything we did. It impacted training; it impacted our ability to get work done, and to troubleshoot problems when they happened.”

The first SAN was installed in the APS more than four years ago, to ensure engineers would have the storage space they needed when working with large audio files. For the software to run the system, ITS and APS staff turned to an outside vendor. Despite ongoing efforts, however, the vendor’s software was never able to deliver the cross-platform functionality APS engineers wanted. Faced with inconsistent results the decision was made to carve that first SAN into two digital pieces – one part for PCs, the other for Macs.

“What we ended up with was a halfway solution,” said Mark Farrar, Assistant Director for Systems Management and Infrastructure, who led the ITS effort to build the system. “We ended up with a situation where Dave and his staff had to shift data around to be able to work on either PCs or Macs at any given time.”

For the next several years, staff members in the APS were forced to make do with an imperfect solution. It wasn’t until last year, when the time came to replace the SAN hardware, that ITS and APS staff saw the opportunity for a second chance at building the system they’d originally hoped for.

“When we started to get close to the hardware replacement window, we began evaluating what our options were in terms of software as well,” Farrar said. “We went to the vendor we had been working with and told them we weren’t satisfied with their product. To get the cross-platform functionality we needed, we decided to explore what other products were out there.”

Over the next several months, ITS and studio staff evaluated a number of products from several vendors. At one point, Farrar, Ackerman and Senior Systems Support Engineer Adam Johnson even travelled to Denver – along with audio material and several workstations from the studio – for a hands-on test of one promising software package.

The results, however, were mixed at best.

“We came away from those tests thinking that this software could be what we were looking for, but the product still had issues that needed to be addressed,” Farrar said. “In the end, we decided to procure the replacement hardware, and conduct our own in-house testing to determine if it would work for us.”

Several additional months of testing were unable to solve the problems, however, leaving the team dejected.

With few options left on the table, the team found themselves returning to a smaller vendor they had examined earlier but decided not to pursue. A series of in-house tests with the company’s software proved promising, prompting them to buy the product. The software was installed in April 2010, and has been working successfully since.

For Virginia Danielson, the Richard F. French Librarian of Loeb Music Library, the project’s success is a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when units work collaboratively.

“Mark Farrar worked hard to understand what the needs of the studio were, and he and Dave worked extremely hard together to meet those demands,” she said. “This is an absolutely stellar collaborative effort, and I appreciate the work both of them put into it.”

Given the complexity of the project, Farrar said, collaboration was crucial in bringing the work to a satisfying close.

“ITS was involved to help Dave identify possible software solutions,” he said. “I can put all the technology together, but at the end of the day, I don’t do Dave’s work, and I don’t deal with his workflow. I’m sure he could probably describe all of the things he does, and I could recreate them, but why would I? Dave does this every day, and if something is not behaving correctly, he’s the one that will notice it.”

Ultimately, though, it is the patrons who will see the benefits of the new system, Ackerman said.

“With our previous system some tasks became impractical once the work progressed past a certain point,” he said. “In the current environment, there is no such impediment. Aside from a few quirks, the new system behaves the way any hard drive on any computer behaves - all the technology is invisible. The cross-platform capability of this new system will benefit library users by allows us to further refine and improve the audio materials we provide to patrons. It’s definitely resulting in better output.”