Project Update!: 2 Months into the XFR-METRO Partnership

When it was first established in the Fall of 2013, the XFR Collective was centrally focused on offering very low-cost video digitization services for artists and small organizations. Founding members Julia Kim, Kristin McDonough, Rebecca Fraimow, and Andrea Callard developed an innovative service model wherein the Collective formed short-term partnerships with individuals and organizations. For a small fee, partners could get six analog video tapes transferred. All transfers were performed by Collective members using the equipment that they had assembled and continued to maintain in the home of one of the collective’s members.

The group’s membership has changed in the intervening years, and it’s mission has evolved – but this partner-based service-model still forms the core of our work. We currently have ongoing transfer partnerships with, among others, a Brooklyn-based theater company and an NYU-based anthropologist/filmmaker. We continue to perform analog-to-digital transfers as frequently as we can (usually one night a week). But in the past few years, we have also begun to expand our work to encompass a parallel focus on education and reproducibility. We have lent equipment to community organizations (such as a local folklore/storytelling project called Los Herederos) who wish to conduct in-house digitization projects. And we have partnered with groups (including the Asian American Oral History Collective) that need help managing their mission-critical born-digital audio files. This work advances our goal of demystifying the process of audiovisual archival practice and supporting community groups in their efforts to care for their precious collections. It also  enables us to share what we have learned with others.

Of these new kinds of partnerships, the most ambitious is our ongoing collaboration with the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO). Planning for this partnership began in the winter of 2016-2017, and the work officially commenced this past April. The partnership’s central goal (at least in this initial six-month phase) is to design and build an AV transfer station for METRO’s new 599 Studio space – and to help METRO staff create a plan for ongoing support for, access to, and educational programming around this transfer station.

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We are now two months into the project. Much of the work we have done so far has occurred somewhat out of public sight. There are a few exceptions to this: we tweeted a few times about our ongoing process, and we showed off the rack-in-progress at METRO’s launch party on June 1. We’re hoping to develop more sustained ways to make our process more visible, and to share what we’re learning, as we go. To that end, we’ll be posting intermittent status reports and reflections over the next few months. In this, the first of those posts, I offer an outline of the work we have conducted so far – with one eye on the more general question How does one assemble and build a (preservation-oriented) analog-to-digital audiovisual transfer station?

Step 1: Determine your goals.

Between December and March (that is, before we formally established our partnership), XFR members met with METRO staff to determine the broad outlines and the goals of the collaboration. Establishing these parameters was critically important because there is no one way to build an AV transfer rack. Clearly articulated goals go a long way toward ensuring that the tool we create is effective and on-task. During this stage, XFR members asked METRO to articulate answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this rack?
  2. Who will use it?
  3. What is the budget for this project?
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A drawing of METRO’s rack, by XFR member Mary Kidd.

METRO staff had no trouble answering these questions. For METRO, it is important that the new rack furthers its core mission of supporting essential services for libraries, archives, and information organizations in New York City and Westchester County through professional development, continuing education, software development, and digital services. Thus, the rack’s primary user-base will be staff of METRO’s member organizations and its core purpose will be to support ongoing professional development and digitization services for this community. As a result, METRO’s rack will need to be adaptable – capable of serving both as an easy-to-use training tool and a fully-functional, preservation-oriented digitization station. METRO’s  total project budget was $10,000, nearly all of which was earmarked for equipment purchase.

Step 2: Map out your equipment needs.

Now that we had a sense of METRO’s general goals and budget, we had to figure out what specific equipment would best support these objectives. (This step took place between April and June.) In order to do so, we had to answer a set of additional questions, including: do we have enough money to buy a new Time Base Corrector (TBC), or will we have to find a used model? Does this rack need a switcher or patch bay? But probably the most important questions we had to address at this stage related to video formats: Given METRO’s goals, we asked ourselves, which video formats should its rack have the capacity to handle? In other words, what decks should we seek to acquire?

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A member of the UK-based “Community Programme Unit” uses a Portapak camera to shoot a street scene in 1974.

Answering this question required us to draw on our knowledge of the history of analog video formats. There’s no way to know for sure what the content of a videotape will be just by knowing its format – but the general contours of the analog age make possible some broad generalizations. For instance, you won’t find many home movies or low-budget artist projects recorded on one-inch videotapes – bulky, expensive, and designed to be used by a specific set of very specialized cameras, this format was primarily used in professional television studios. Conversely, ½ inch open reel video (the stock used by the first consumer-grade video camera ever manufactured, the Portapak) was primarily used during the 1960s and 1970s by experimental, activist, and community based artists and organizations. And so on. So while there is no way to know exactly what content any given format will contain, it is possible to use the general history of videotape as a planning guide. Do you want to be able to digitize broadcast television programs from the 1960s? You may wish to include a 1 inch video deck in your rack. Home movies shot in the 1990s? Look for a Hi-8 deck. Masters of edited documentary films from the 1980s? Get yourself a U-matic deck. (For a more detailed guide to analog video formats and their uses, check out the Texas Commission on the Arts’s Videotape Identification and Assessment Guide.)

Making final decisions about which decks to acquire for METRO required flexibility and creativity. Since analog video decks are no longer being manufactured, we knew we would have to seek out and purchase all necessary video decks used. But because METRO serves a diverse community of institutions – and because it has never offered A/V digitization services before – it was virtually impossible for us to determine which format would be most popular among the rack’s potential users. There was one video format we knew for sure that we wanted to be able the rack to include: VHS. We reasoned that since VHS decks are slightly less intimidating than other kinds of equipment and easy(ish) to replace when broken, including one in this new rack would offer baseline support for METRO’s educational objectives. But we chose not to make firm decisions about the rest of the decks up front. Instead, we developed an equipment “wish-list” that could support our search for the right mixture of decks, and enable us to make justifiable, effective decisions on the fly. We listed the various kinds of decks we might include in METRO’s rack (in order of preference) in this spreadsheet. (In determining preferred brands and models, we relied heavily on the indispensable, collectively created, open, Minimum Viable Station documentation that Ashley Blewer initiated last fall.) We decided we would only make final decisions about which specific components to feature in METRO’s rack after we had scanned the current landscape of available used video decks.

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Our initial A/V deck wish-list, ranked in descending order of preference.

Step 3: Seek out used items.

While we worked on developing our equipment wish-list, we simultaneously began putting out the word that we were in search of equipment for the new rack. (As you’ll notice in the screenshot above, we hardly had time to flesh out the audio portion of our wish-list before we started to get some hits on our call out.) Our first port of call was the listserv of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). In early April, we sent a message to the list announcing this new partnership and asking members to let us know if they had any leads on available equipment. Within days, we heard back from John Tariot (owner of the moving image transfer house Film Video Digital, located in New Hampshire) who offered to donate a treasure trove of equipment to the project. Luckily enough, another New Hampshire-based person (a librarian friend of METRO’s) was planning to drive to New York City in late April. He graciously volunteered to pick up the donated gear in Hanover and drive it to METRO’s new studio space in Manhattan. Through this community-based daisy-chain, we acquired several core elements of this new rack – including a CRT monitor, an S-VHS/miniDV deck, and a rare 1/4 inch reel to reel audio player – virtually for free.

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We acquired this 1/4 inch reel to reel audio deck through a generous donation from AMIA member John Tariot. (Photo by Nate Hill.)

Meanwhile, METRO’s Molly Schwartz reached out to the Lower East Side Ecology Center to see if we could schedule a visit to their e-waste recycling/reuse store to see if they had any items of potential use. On a rainy Saturday in May, several of us traveled to the warehouse in search of whatever analog video equipment they might have in storage.

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The Lower East Side Ecology Center’s E-Waste Warehouse (located in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn).

Most of what we found at the warehouse was, sadly, broken. (The warehouse loans a lot of its analog equipment to film and theater productions – and, as production props, the equipment doesn’t need to actually be functional.) But once warehouse manager Yazmine Mihojevich learned the precise nature of our search, she brought us to a corner of the warehouse full of functional analog A/V equipment – including a stack of BetaSP decks. We found a few  professional models, tested them as best we could (given that we didn’t have a Beta tape handy) and selected the one that seemed to be in the best condition. We also snagged a switcher from another corner of the warehouse. With our non-profit discount, the total cost of these items came to $60.

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METRO’s Molly Schwartz with XFR Members Dinah Handel, Ethan Gates, and Caroline Gil inspecting BetaSP decks at the LES Ecology Center’s E-Waste Warehouse. METRO’s Kerri Willette and warehouse manager Yazmine Mihojevich are visible in the background. (Photo by Rachel Mattson.)

We still needed to find a set of scopes. We turned to eBay, where we found the exact all-in-one Tektronix-brand Vectorscope / Waveform Monitor that we were hoping for. It was, happily, on offer for a reasonable price from an eBay seller who was local to New York City. Because we were able to pick them up directly from the seller, we avoided paying for shipping. Finally,  in an attempt to round out the format capacity of this new rack, we acquired one additional deck (an affordably priced, used, U-Matic deck) from another local seller.

[For additional tips on where and how to find used analog video equipment, check out this short piece that our friend and colleague Dorothea Salo recently posted on the Recovering Analog and Digital Data (RADD) website.]

Step 4: Make strategic purchases of new equipment.

With these components in place, we could move on to filling out METRO’s equipment needs through the purchase of brand-new items. It is hard to overstate what a revelation this stage in the process was for many members of the XFR Collective. As an extremely low-budget operation, we rarely have the funds to purchase much new equipment; we rely on donations, we often purchase used items (many of which arrive on our doorstep in need of repair), or we do without. But with METRO’s ample budget, we could afford a few luxuries. Among these was a brand new Time Base Corrector. XFR Collective has historically had a hard time finding used TBCs that are fully functional. Although it is possible to repair broken TBCs (and, in the past, XFR has repaired TBCs for use in our own rack), METRO’s budget was big enough that we could opt for the time-saving strategy of purchasing a brand new TBC for METRO’s rack. We also purchased a new analog to digital converter, a new computer, a new sync generator, a new audio mixer, a new RAID-arrayed storage device, a new rack frame, and enough shelving to support the basic components of the transfer station. Once we had a sense of the core equipment components of METRO’s rack, XFR Member Ethan Gates (creator of the indispensable Cable Bible) developed a list of cables we would need to properly wire the equipment to support optimal digitization and signal transfer. We also purchased these cables new.

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List of cables purchased so far for METRO’s transfer rack. (We haven’t completed the wiring process yet, and may need to augment this collection in the future with a few additional items.)

Step 5: Begin assembly.

Now that we had most of the core components of a digitization station, we could begin to build the basic structure of METRO’s transfer station.

The first order of business was the task of assembling the actual rack frame that would hold most of the components of this transfer station. As I mentioned above, XFR is an extremely low-budget operation, and most of the equipment we use in our own digitization stations comes to us used. As a result, none of us had ever even seen a brand new rack frame, let alone built one from scratch. But if you work with analog equipment in a digital age, you learn very quickly that a)there’s really nothing that can’t be learned; and b)there’s no shame in admitting you’ve never done a thing before. Indeed, as an organization primarily composed of women in a field dominated by white men, we encourage each other to believe in our capacity to tinker and troubleshoot – even when treading into unfamiliar areas. That said, purchasing and building METRO’s rack was…informative. Start to finish, the process assumes a level of familiarity that none of us had. We finally found a vendor who was willing to sell us the components we sought out; but if we hadn’t asked a lot of questions during the ordering process, we wouldn’t have discovered, for instance, that you have to order the screws required to assemble the rack separately. Likewise, the written assembly instructions (especially those pertaining to the sliding shelves we purchased) left a lot to be desired. We relied on a lot of trial and error, and benefited from having five brains and bodies working collaboratively on the project.

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XFR Collective member Mary Kidd works to assemble the rack frame. (Photo by Rachel Mattson.)
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XFR Collective members Dinah Handel, Ethan Gates, and Marie Lascu work to assemble the rack frame. (Photo by Rachel Mattson.)

We assembled the rack, measured out and attached the shelving, placed the equipment on the rack. We plugged in the surge protectors, fired up the computer, and began downloading software. As of today, that’s pretty much as far as we have gotten.

Oh – we did do one other thing. Last Thursday (June 1), we attended METRO’s new space launch party. We hung up our hand-painted banner and stood around the rack-in-progress, talking to anyone with an interest about the magnetic media crisis, the nature of video signal, the process of analog-to-digital conversion, our new XFR-METRO partnership, and the exciting programming this new resource will make possible. We also sold a few tote bags and distributed the zine that XFR member Mary Kidd recently made about the METRO-XFR partnership.

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XFR member Carmel Curtis (and METRO’s Kyle Brown, in the background) with the new transfer station-in-progress in advance of METRO’s June 2017 launch party. (Photo by Rachel Mattson.)

Steps  6, 7, 8, etc.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do to get the transfer station up and running. In the coming weeks, we will download and install a suite of software (including the open-source video capture software vRecord and the quality control platform QCTools); create a rack-specific wiring diagram; connect all the components together in a way that is sensible, flexible, and preservation-oriented; test the system; and troubleshoot.

We’ll tell you all about that next time.

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Equipment Inventory (so far!)

Item Specs Acquired from Cost
CRT Monitor Sony PVM 14L1 14” NTSC Trinitron color Donated $0
Time base corrector AV Toolbox AVT-8710 Amazon.com $269
Analog to digital converter Black Magic Ultrastudio Express Makertek.com $470.25
Sync generator Blackmagic Design Sync Generator Makertek.com $185.25
Computer Mac Pro (Quad-core 3.7ghz processor & min. 12gigs ram & 256 GB SSD drive, including Apple Care) Apple.com $2999
Computer monitor [Details forthcoming]
Keyboard, mouse [Details forthcoming] Donated $0
External storage Pegasus2 R4 RAID storage array Amazon.com $1,099
AV rack Middle Atlantic 5-43 43 Space (75 ¼ Inch) Ready-To-Assemble Rack Frame Dale Pro Audio $323
Shelving + accessories for rack Middle Atlantic Heavy Duty Sliding Shelves (4), Middle Atlantic U2 2 Space (3 ½ Inch) Rackshelf (2), 1 package of screws with washers, 1 set of wheels. Dale Pro Audio $669
Audio Mixer Mackie 402VLZ 4 4-channel mixer Makertek.com $99.99

 

Scopes Tektronix Vectorscope 1420 NTSC Type 528 WaveForm Monitor eBay $49.00
Switcher Panasonic  WJ-SW 104

 

 

LES Ecology Center Reuse Store $10
BetaCamSP Deck Sony BVW-75 LES Ecology Center Reuse Store $50
S-VHS/MiniDV deck JVC Super VHS ET Professional Series Donated $0
U-Matic Sony VO-5850 [Details forthcoming]
1/4 inch reel to reel audio player TEACX-10R 2-track

 

 

 

Donated $0
Cables Assorted BNC, S-Video, RCA, and XLR cables. Makertek.com and Amazon.com $393

 

 

 

 

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