Archiving Radio

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

A few months ago, I got involved with my university’s radio station. It happened unexpectedly. I was out with some friends in the city and two of us made our way back to the school campus. My friend, a member of the station, had to run inside to check something out and ended up calling me in because there was some older gear that he wanted me to take a look at. I was walked past walls of posters and sticker-covered doors to the engineering closet. The small space was half the size of an average bedroom, but was packed to the brim with decades of electronics. Needless to say, I was instantly excited to be there and started digging through components and old part boxes. A few weeks later, after emailing back and forth with a few people, I became something of an adjunct member with a focus in engineering. This meant anything from fixing the doorbell to troubleshooting server issues, the modified light fixtures, the broken Ms. Pac-Man arcade machine, or a loose tone-arm on a turntable. There are tons of opportunities for something to do, all of which I have found enjoyment in so far.

Let’s take a step back. This radio station isn’t a new fixture by any means. I feel that when people think of college radio these days they imagine a mostly empty room with a sound board and a computer. Young DJ’s, come in, hook up their iPod, and go to work.

This station is a different animal. Being over 50 years old means a lot has come and gone in the way of popular culture as well as technology. When I first came in and saw the record library contained (at a rough estimate) over 40,000 vinyl records, I knew I was in the right place. I began to explore. I helped clean out the engineering room, looked through the production studio, and learned the basics of how the station operated. After a few weeks, I learned that the station aimed to put out a compilation on cassette tape for the holiday season. One of the first tasks would be to get some 50 station identifications off of a minidisc to use between songs. Up to the task, I brought in my portable player and with the help of a male/male 3.5mm stereo cable and another member’s laptop, got all the identifications recorded. While the station borrowed a cassette duplicator for the compilation, it would still take a long time to produce all the copies, so I brought in a few decks of my own and tested some of the older decks situated around the station. It was my first time doing any sort of mass duplication, but I quickly fell into a grove of copying, sound checking, head and roller cleaning, and packaging. If felt good contributing to the project knowing I had something of a skill with, and large supply of old hardware.

A little later, I took notice of several dust-coated reels in the station’s master control room containing old syndicated current-event shows from the ’80s and ’90s. I took these home to see if I could transfer them over to digital. I ran into some problems early one with getting my hardware to simply work. I have, at the time of writing, six reel-to-reel decks, all of which have some little quirk or issue except one off-brand model from Germany. I plugged it in, wired it to my computer via RCA to 3.5mm stereo cable, and hit record in Audacity. The end result was a recording in nice quality.

Stacks of incoming reels

Stacks of incoming reels.

I decided to go a little further and use this to start something of an archive for the radio station. I saved the files using PCM signed 16 bit WAV, and also encoded a 192kbps MP3 file for ease of use and then scanned the reel (or box it was in) for information on the recording, paying attention to any additional paper inserts. I scanned these in 600dpi TIFF files which I then compressed down to JPG (again, for ease of use). Any interesting info from the label or technical abnormalities were placed in the file names, along with as much relevant information I could find. I also made sure to stick this information in the correct places for the ID3 tags. Lastly, I threw these all into a directory on a server I rent so anyone with the address can access them. I also started asking for donations of recordings, of which I received a few, and put them up as well.

What's up next?

What’s up next?

After I transferred all the reels I could find (about 10), I went on the hunt for more. Now, until this point, I had broadcast quality 7-inch reels that ran at 7.5ips (inches per second) with a 1/4-inch tape width. A lot of higher quality recordings are done on 10.5-inch reels that run at 15ips, though sometimes 7-inch reels are used for 15ips recordings. Reel-to-reel tape can also be recorded at other speeds (such as 30ips or 3.75ips), but I haven’t come across any of these besides recordings I have made. Now, while my decks can fit 7-inch reels okay, they can’t handle any 10.5-inch reels without special adapters (called NAB hubs) to mount them on the spindles which I currently don’t have. Additionally, there are other tape widths such as 1/2-inch which I don’t have any equipment to play. The last problem I encounter is that I don’t have any machines that can run at 15ips.

Next up...

In progress.

Doing more exploratory work, I got my hands on several more 7-inch reels and also saw some 10.5-inch reels housing tape of various widths. Some of the 7-inch reels I found run at 15ips, and while I don’t have a machine that does this natively, I’ve found great success in recording at 7.5ips and speeding up the track by 100% so the resulting audio plays twice as fast. As for the larger reels, I may be able to find some newly-produced NAB hubs for cheap, but they come with usage complaints. While original hubs would be better to use, they come with a steep price tag. There is more here to consider than might be thought at first. Additionally, there is a reel-to-reel unit at the station that though unused for years is reported to work and be able to handle larger reels and higher speeds. However, it is also missing a hub and the one it has doesn’t seem to come close to fitting a 10.5-inch reel properly. At the moment, there doesn’t look to be anything I can use to play 1/2-inch width tape, but I’m always on the hunt for more hardware.

There are literally hundreds of reels at the station that haven’t been touched in years and need to be gone through, it’s a long process but it yields rewarding results. I’ve found strange ephemera: people messing with the recorder, old advertisements, and forgotten talk shows. I’ve also found rare recordings featuring interviews with bands as well as them performing. This is stuff that likely hasn’t seen any life beyond these reels tucked away in storage. So back to transferring I go, never knowing what I will find along the way

Digitizing in process

Digitizing.

From this transferring process I learned a lot. Old tape can be gummy and gunk up the deck’s heads (along with other components in the path). While it is recommended to “bake” (like you would a cake in an oven) tape that may be gummy, it can be difficult to determine when it is needed until you see the tape jamming in the machine. Baking a tape also requires that it is on a metal reel while most I have encountered are on plastic. Additionally, not all tape has been stored properly. While I’ve been lucky not to find anything too brittle, I’ve seen some tape separating in chunks from its backing or chewed up to the point that it doesn’t even look like tape anymore. More interesting can be some of the haphazard splices which may riddle a tape in more than one inopportune spot or be made with non-standard types of tape. I’ve also noticed imperfections in recording, whether that means the levels are far too low, there’s signs of a grounding loop, or the tape speed is changed midway through the recording. For some reels there is also a complete lack of documentation. I have no idea what I’m listening to.

I try to remedy these problems best I can. I clean my deck regularly: heads, rollers, and feed guides. I also do my best to document what I’ve recorded. I listen to see if I can determine what the audio is, determine the proper tape speed, figure out if the recording is half track (single direction, “Side A” only) or quarter track (both directions, “Side A + B”), and determine if the recording is in mono or stereo. Each tape that goes through me is labelled with said information and any information about defects in the recording that I couldn’t help mitigate.

After dealing with a bad splice that came undone, I’ve also gone ahead and purchased a tape splicer/trimmer to hopefully help out if this is to happen again. As for additional hardware, I’m always on the lookout for better equipment with more features or capabilities. I don’t know what I’ll ultimately get my hands on, but I know that anything I happen to obtain will lend a hand in this archiving adventure and help preserve some long-forgotten recordings.

After doing this enough times, I’ve started to nail down a workflow. I put all the tapes in a pile for intake, and choose one to transfer. I then feed it into the machine, hit record in Audacity, and hit play on the deck. After recording, I trim any lead-in silence, speed correct, and save my audio files. At this point, I also play the tape in the other direction to wind it back to its original reel and see if there are any other tracks on it. From here, I label my files, and go on to make scans of the reels or boxes before then loading these images into Photoshop for cropping and JPG exporting.

All done.

All done.

It is a lot of work, but I can easily crank out a few reels a day by setting one and going about with my normal activities, coming back periodically to check progress. I have many more reels to sift through, but I hope one day to get everything transferred over – or at least as much as I can. Along the way, I’ve come across other physical media to archive. There are zines, cassette tapes, and even 4-track carts that are also sitting away in a corner, being saved for a rainy day.

I’ll keep archiving and uncovering these long forgotten recordings. All I can hope for is that some time, somewhere, someone finds these recordings just as interesting as I do.

Even if nobody does, I sure have learned a lot. With any luck, I’ll refine my skills and build something truly awesome in the process.

The Summer Backlog

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Every Summer I speculate that I’m going to have an unbelievable amount free time. It will always be so fantastic and freeing. I’ll be done school, working a stress-free job, and there will be so much unscheduled time that I’ll just get bored and come up with hundreds of new tasks for myself.

This never happens.

Well, the having-free-time-thing never happens but I do take on new activities anyway. After enough time, I end up with a bunch of things I’ve been meaning to do, and work on them impulsively at sporadic intervals. Everything moves forward, slow and steady, but in an agonizing and chaotic fashion.

I do make time for my projects, but the available time is fluctuating as the years go by. When I started these projects all I had was time and energy, but no money. Now, I seem to find myself with a modest amount of money and energy, but no time. Eventually, I’m doomed to have time and money, but no energy. This is the vicious cycle, and here I find myself in the second stage.

Without organization, every project falls on its face. I’m a big proponent of organization, especially when I have so much going on. After a while, you just need to keep track and work smarter (or risk meeting some men who want to put you in a straitjacket). Below, I’ve outlined (to the best of my ability) the various projects I’m working on, and where they need to go next. Hopefully this not only helps me stay on track but also gives you something to yell at me about the next time you see me.

Obsoleet
I’ve actually had most of an episode filmed for a long time by this point. The only problem that I faced was the audio cut out at the end of one of the shots. After I redo it, which I wanted to do anyway, the footage should be mostly set to go into editing. Additionally, I’d like to film a little skit for the intro if I can manage it. Editing usually doesn’t take a whole lot of time, though I do want to try out some new software and I have to cut a brand new introduction. High definition video also proves to be more of a hassle and take some more (read unplanned) time.

Anarchivism
This one is going along pretty well, especially recently. On the scanning side of things, I have plenty of stuff coming in but not a lot going up. The scanner I have is awful when it comes down to conducting magazine scans and I’ll have to look for something beefier before going full tilt on my library. As an aside, I’ve more or less created the most complete wiki of hacker magazines complete with information on them as far as I can tell. With my current rig, I can pump out some more Blacklisted! 411 issues without much hesitation.

Going after Revision3 has slowed a little, but I can get back into it with some one-liners soon. Getting to other odds and ends comes and goes as I find them. The only section that could have hours poured into it is the hacker con category. The videos I find not only have different ways of being obtained but also get updated with a new crop annually, so everything is constantly in flux. I’m trying to hunt down some of the more difficult stuff as well as fill in actual information about the conferences. If you want to help out, please do.

TechTat
This one is more or less dead due to lack of interest. While it was cool having a collaboration site for retro tech, it lost its luster after a few months. I considered turning TechTat into an audio podcast but I’m not sure how that would turn out. I’m certain I can find some use for the concept.

ChannelEM
ChannelEM keeps trucking on, but is prone to frequent crashing. It does seem to get more stable after software updates, but still ultimately hangs. I want to take a look at the scripting done to run the station and see if I can put in any fail-safes to stop the crashing. CEM also needs a rotation update with any new episodes. Further, the idea of getting new shows to join up is a bit fruitless now, but the site does well as it stands. For no real reason at all, I’d like to see if I can add on to the existing scripts and create a JSON API with scheduling information.

Moonlit has also been working on some very interesting video projects that I’d like to integrate which would completely change the look and feel of both the site and the content.

Raunchy Taco
More or less in a standstill. The stability fluctuates and there isn’t that much going on there anyway. The IRC server is really only kept up if Ethan, Pat, and myself need a place to chat. For a network that has been off-and-on for 6-7 years, we have empty periods like this all the time. I’d like to just keep it up if I can.

The IPTV Archive
More or less in waiting. I put up a hefty amount of content, and then ultimately mirrored it to Internet Archive where it can live forever. If I had the time, I’d spend it doing more detective work for the missing shows- there is always more detective work to do. There are probably a half dozen more smaller shows I could throw up at some point but nothing too pressing.

Additionally, when I started the site I used Blip because it had (arguably) the best quality at the time. Now, YouTube has eclipsed it. There was a bit of panic a few months back about some Blip channels being closed down for no reason and I have to entertain the idea that this could happen to me. If that happens, the whole library would likely need to be moved to YouTube. A big move, but likely a nice one for the content.

Moreover, I’ve also considered moving the content over to Anarchivism as it would be a much more flexible platform.

House Keeping and Solo Projects
I enjoy writing and I’d to do more of it. Besides just being more active here, I’d like to get back into writing for other outlets. I’m thinking of more for The New Tech, and another for my local 2600 group. I’ve also been playing around with Medium (I like the concept but it still might be pretentious dribble) and would like to publish another article through it. I’m looking into 2-3 print publications as well if I can come up with the right topics and go into those pieces with the right energy.

Aside from my web work, I have a bunch of little, lower-profile things going on that I need to get out of the way.

I recently got a display for my Apple G5, so I can let it run as a capture PC for video transfers. I already have an ADVC box hooked up and the machine captures great… but it needs a monitor hooked up to run. Then, I can do more video transfers which can ultimately pop up in other places (Maybe a found footage section on Anarchivism).

I want to set up a dedicated headless Linux server for staging web projects amongst other things. I might also have it just run wget scripts all day or some custom web crawlers or who knows what else.

I have an old cocktail arcade cabinet that needs some love. If the original electronics are beyond repair, it would be nice to outfit the cab with new hardware and set up a MAME machine.

More Raspberry Pi projects would be nice. I like having the Incredible Pi set up as a PBX but I feel like I could do more with it. I have another Pi set up as a media center that I use often. I’m currently on setting up a Bitcoin mining rig with another and still have many more ideas. Raspberry Pi cluster? Telnet BBS? BBS hooked into the PBX? The possibilities are endless.

Paranoia kicks in with regard to my data. I have a dozen or so terabytes worth and I need to clean data off of old drives, sort it, duplicate it, and duplicate the data that’s already there. To make matters worse, I’m constantly downloading more.

A CJDNS Meshnet node has also been in the works for a long time. I tried to set up my first one on a PogoPlug and while I eventually got the software to compile, I couldn’t connect to anybody. It may be time for another try, and possibly on a “normal” box before adapting it to the PogoPlug.

I’m experimenting with a few more programming languages and development environments. Recently, I’ve looked into running some Go, and am learning a great deal of JavaScript. I’d like to look into C# and also play with the Unity engine. Aside from these, I’m reasonably proficient at Android development and might be tying this in with another project of a friend’s.

And the list goes on.

 

There’s a lot of things here- a hell of a lot of things. I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t going to be even more. Hopefully, as I now have a nice little outline, I’ll be able to zero-in my focus and get some work done.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the show.

Hacker Zines

Friday, February 8th, 2013

I have many projects. Too many, one might argue. Either way, they exist and I enjoy doing them.

For a long time, I’ve had something of a collection of magazines that I usually refrain from talking about simply because it doesn’t come up a lot in normal conversation. A few months ago when it was announced that Nintendo Power was halting production, someone told me that the cover of the last issue was a throwback to the very first issue from 1988. I was asked if I had the first issue (people tend to wonder just how much old stuff I have) and I do. Here’s a picture of it.

Nintendo Power #1

Nintendo Power #1

What you don’t see in this picture is the rest of my magazines. I have a lot. Hundreds. Most of them are video game magazines from the 1990′s and I’ve been accumulating them for over ten years. That isn’t to say that these sum up my entire collection. I have an almost complete run of 2600, six or seven years of Wired, a few dozen issues of MAD Magazine from the 1970′s bundled away, 10 or so issues of High Times from the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, and a few years of some more modern things. Besides those, I have a few other random magazines here and there and most likely some I’ve forgotten.

Magazine Shelf

Magazine Shelf

While I have a few current subscriptions, I’ve recently re-opened my magazine obsession. Why now? I don’t really know, but it was bound to happen. Every once in a while you get one of those “I should really do that, wouldn’t that be great?” ideas and they really start to stack up. One or two of those ideas end up toppling off the pile sooner or later and you just run with them. This particular idea started with Blacklisted! 411.

If you haven’t heard of Blacklisted! 411, I don’t hold it against you. If you know what 2600: The Hacker Quarterly is, then think of Blacklisted! 411 as a lower budget version of that. If you don’t know what 2600 is, it’s the most popular and longest running independent print hacker magazine. Blacklisted! has something of an interesting past. There are a lot of politics involving the magazine that are still something of a hot issue even for people today. There’s no doubt that it left a sour taste in the mouths of many. To briefly go through things, the zine started as a cheap black and white publication in the early 90′s. Initially monthly, the magazine switched to a quarterly release schedule to allow for more articles per issue (mirroring 2600 in this regard). Many criticized the quality of the articles and the publication in general, but it had a loyal group of fans and writers. In the mid 1990′s, the magazine up and disappeared (angering many) and reappeared in the early 2000′s. Throughout the life of Blacklisted!, a lot of people claim to have been treated unfairly by it and promised compensation for their articles which they never received  I wasn’t there, and I don’t know all the details for sure. Defending nor attacking the magazine are not my goals either way.

Issues of 2600

Issues of 2600

For as long as I had known about 2600, I had also known about Blacklisted!. While I could easily get back issues of 2600 through their website, Blacklisted! was far more elusive as it went out of print. I was less likely to come across old issues out at book sales or flea markets when compared to something more popular like Wired. So, I forgot about it for a while and chalked it up to a boat that I had missed.

Fast forward to now. I’ve decided to take it upon myself to start gobbling up every issue of Blacklisted! 411 ever produced. Normally when you see someone take on a pie-in-the-sky task like collecting all of something from scratch you dismiss them with an “oh, that’s nice” and pat them on the head while taking bets on how quickly they tire of the project and go home. I already know it’s not something that will happen overnight, and will probably take years if I’m ever able to complete it at all. It’s a bit of a turn-key project either way, so it’s not much of a hassle. Initially,  I set up some aggregation online to see if any issues go up for sale, at most I might dig through a few more bins at the punk rock flea market. It’s something of a slow burn.

Blacklisted! 411

Blacklisted! 411

As I started doing research on Blacklisted! I came upon a few other hacker or hacker-related magazines that went into print. For example, I discovered Mondo 2000 (and its other incarnations), bOING bOING, THUD, Grey Areas, Binary Revolution,  and more. These were also low-number interdependent physical magazines that lived a short life of usually fewer than 20 issues. So, I expanded my scope. If I can find them for the right price, I’ll snatch these up as well. Are there more out there? Probably (And please, let me know what I missed). I can’t get to everything, but I have a pretty good idea of what print zines we had just by asking around.

IMG_0735

Mondo 2000

IMG_0737

Gray Areas

IMG_0738

bOING bOING

IMG_0739

THUD & Binary Revolution

You may raise the issue of me going after physical magazines exclusively. Where’s the love for the electronic zines? While I do have a fondness for ezines, I don’t consider them nearly as endangered a species as the print-only zines. While an electronic zine may have been copied hundreds of thousands of times with little effort, when a physical magazine goes out of print it can only slip further into obscurity. Some copies get mistreated and trashed, while others are packed away and forgotten. These are the ones I want to save. Right now at least.

So the next logical question is what am I doing with all of these magazines? While I admit that I do get a nice warm, fuzzy feeling from physical magazines, I have bigger plans than simple self-satisfaction. Scanning is the name of the game. I’m currently in the process of scanning in all these old issues I’ve already found, compiling each issue into a single document, and uploading the documents online to share with everyone. Through this whole scanning process, I’ve already learned a lot. Enough to write something on it actually, but it would fare better as its own article. My scanning workflow works well enough to actually yield results, which you can check out here and here. If you want to check out my overall progress on how I’m doing with all the zines I hope to find, you can visit this page. You might notice that in some cases, I’ve found magazines already scanned by people. These are few and far between, but save me a little work considering they are usually of good quality.

While my scanner might be slow and I might be busy, I’m happy to say that the wheels are in motion. Things would probably move a little faster if I had a more portable scanner, but for the time being I’m keeping things slow and steady. That all said, if you have some of these magazines and feel like donating to the cause, I’ll serve as a home for your wayward magazines (and I’m probably a decent alternative to the trash if anything). If you feel like scanning, you can contribute that way as well. The Anarchivism wiki linked above is editable if you create an account.

So as I’m picking up older magazines, I’m also starting to focus on newer ones. Consider something like Bitcoin Magazine. An independent publication about a decentralized digital currency? Who knows how much longer this will stick around. It’s important to apply a little foresight for things like this. Otherwise, who knows what you’ll be able to get your hands on down the line. Luckily, many current publications have bridged the digital divide and offer both physical and electronic copies. Other magazines are now entirely based online. Still, there are those holdouts that are only available on paper. These are what I’m after. These are what I want to save before time runs out.

 

Jenny, Jenny

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Every once in a while, I’ll see this conversation:

<CMack> whoa whoa WHOA
<CMack> there was a project to find Jenny by dialing 867-5309 at every area code in the US
<CMack> http://www.oldskoolphreak.com/tfiles/phreak/jenny07.txt
<CMack> That’s not the wild bit
<CMack> The crazy part is just a bit down
<CMack> Area
<CMack> Code Findings(scanned by Famicoman)
<CMack> —- ——————————
<gameman73> HA
<Pat> lol
<CMack> O_O
<!Moonlit> Famicoman_ is a bit of a dark horse like that
<CMack> Did I just win at Six Degrees of Thinstack?

Believe it or not, this basic exchange has happened more than once. I usually end up coming in a day or so after to dispense a few key details. I figured I should take a shot going through how I became involved with this document, so feel free to take off if you’ve heard this one. For everyone still left, read on.

The quote above already covers the main idea of what went on. For a few years here and there, there were some small projects to scan the number 867-5309 with all the prefixes and see who picks up. That’s a lot of numbers. A little under 1000.

The symbolism of the scan is in the number. In 1982, power pop band Tommy Tutone released the song “867-5309/Jenny” which describes a guy finding a girl’s phone number on (presumably) a bathroom wall. The band claims the number was made up, but the song became a one hit wonder. People everywhere started calling the number, asking for “Jenny,” causing thousands if not millions of unwanted calls.

For some perspective, all this was about ten years before I was born.

The band got into a big dispute over using a real (callable) number, and over the years most of these numbers ended up becoming disconnected outright. Even right now, thirty years later, the song still gets airtime. And, or course, someone out there gets tempted to call it.

As I touched on earlier, over the years there were a few scans done of all these numbers just to see what was still out there. Just for fun. A lot of the big names of the scanning scene contributed to these, and they were pretty cool little files to browse through. There wasn’t any schedule to these, they were just sort of done on a whim. In 2006, I saw a forum posting over at BinRev for “Jenny07″ and decided to sign up.

In 2006, I was 15 years old and sort of branching out on the internet a bit more than I had before. I got into the historical side of computer hacking and phone phreaking, and set myself up modestly on an IRC channel or two. I didn’t know much but I knew I wanted to get my feet wet. Participating in a scan was a nifty idea to me. I’d put myself back in time 25 years and do things the old fashioned way. I’ve always followed the ideology of looking back at what’s been done to know how one should advance.

So I signed up for the 600 block, which contained my own area code. Now at this time, I didn’t have a cell phone. I also sure as hell was not going to dial 100 numbers and tie up the family land-line  What was a kid to do? You might remember an important promotion for a relatively young piece of VOIP software back in 2006. Skype was trying to get people to register, and were offering free calling credits if you signed up. So here I was with a handful of Skype credits and a few hours of free time on an evening after school. One by one I called the numbers and recorded what I heard on the line (if anything).

It took longer than you’d think. So much so that I didn’t want to do another block even though I had been planning to. It wasn’t difficult, just exhaustive. Still, it was a lot of fun seeing what would happen when connecting to each new number. I submitted my findings back to the forum post along with a few others and eventually my results were rolled into the document which was released to a few sites. There were plans to do this scan again every year or so, but it never seemed to materialize after this one.

So where are we now? Six years later, it’s a nice little reminder of one of my first collaborations in the internet world. It’s a pretty nice feeling seeing my name up there with some “famous” names and knowing I was part of something that was swapped all around the web, ending up on dozens of servers.

It’s a funny conversation starter and I honestly forget about it until someone brings it up and asks what they’re looking at. It’s one of those “Oh yeah, THAT” conversations usually followed by a “Let me explain.” While the file still floats around out there, I decided to toss it up over at the Internet Archive so it can be found always, by anyone. A nice little insurance policy.

Take a look, and have a laugh. I know I did.