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There is No Future Until We Get to It

The Issues
Points of Failure:
Organization and Metadata
   Software, Obsolescence and DRM
   The Other Side of Software
Up-Converting and Updating
Annex 1: Fixing a Broken Cassette Tape, Including a New Shell
Annex 2: Other Items of Interest
Annex 3: How CDs and DVDs get Ruined
Notes / References
| Biography

The End of the Present has been written. It comes in the guise of replicability, control, and computer amanuensis. Digital perfection has also wrought destruction for a generation of artists. Sound artists — from computer composers through acousmaticians — are invested heavily in technology. Indeed, electronic technology is the entire physical basis of their work’s manifestation.

During a century of analog sound technology, replicability may have suffered but long-term durability suffered much less. Put simply, a smashed shellac, snapped tape, bent vinyl, torn page, or burned circuit could be salvaged with glue, splicers, irons, tape, and soldering tools with a handful of generic parts.

The digital era is friable. Scratch a shiny disk and it’s gone — and if not gone, expensive to recover for artists without strong institutional support. Invisibly encroaching disk rot may be terminal. A hard drive crash is worse. Locked software is the end of the game. There are abandoned operating systems, formats and protocols, encrypted drives, and proprietary devices.

Artists are rarely wealthy, and so it is too late now for most of their work. It has become obsolete. Archiving belongs to the wealthy, powerful and well connected, whether it’s Presidential or Ministerial libraries or universities. Public arts funding rarely includes archiving, just a lot of “please” and “thank you.” Even universities preserve archives not because they have a mission, but because money has been set aside. Universities deal with problems of obsolescence and format migration when they can hire an archiving team and build archiving space funded in perpetuum. The University of New Mexico Center for Southwest Research audio archive was created in 1964 and contains about 1,600 reels of audio tape — less than four times what I have in my own studio. The Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College cobbles together grants to recover recordings dating back to the 1960s. In Montréal, the Fondation Daniel Langlois has archived some 250 electroacoustic compositions from Latin America.

But the individual artists have neither recourse nor resource save their own. This article is for independent artists or small organizations interested in restoring technology-driven artworks or preserving present artwork for future use or study. This article is for those with no preservation budget — and no philosophical objections to archiving. Artists associated with universities should take advantage of their archiving storage and preservation staff, their libraries, and their enthusiasm for receiving bequests for maintenance.

The Issues

Beginning the archiving process means grasping the extent of the issues. The US government cannot read its older census data (see Merrill); the last of the 9-track computer tape itself ceased to be manufactured several years ago. The digitized version of the Domesday Book of 1086, a project undertaken in the UK at the cost of 2.5 million pounds, is now unreadable due to “media decay”. Digital decay has arisen as a serious issue in Hollywood studios as well (see Chute).

Even simple media suffer degradation or obsolescence. Data on floppy disks and cassettes is endangered. Sound environment control software on EPROM erases itself. Analog or partially digital video formats are vanishing: Sony Portapack and U-Matic are gone, and fading away are Beta, VHS, VHS-C and 8mm tapes (including audio-only hi-fi recordings) and large format (capacitive discharge) video discs. Recordings for any machine no longer produced — data in proprietary formats not yet trans-converted, or recordings requiring complex reproduction hardware — are likely gone.

Where will all the digital formats go? Not just CDs or format-flighty DVDs, but hard drives with IDE or SCSI interfaces of just yesterday or 1394 or USB interfaces today? There was once a “standard” S100 bus to which the US government was about to commit just before the IBM PC arrived. Even if the hardware survives, what software will read a dozen PC or Mac formats or data CDs in old formats? Or extract audio from scratched or chemically imbalanced compact discs on the brink of death? Or encourage EPROMs or flash cards to give up their fading contents?

Here is another set of questions. Have you committed to one company’s software? Especially copy-protected software with digital rights management (DRM)? When those companies die, where will the sources of your electroacoustic creations go? Will you protect and maintain your older computers to be able to read that data and use that software? And when your dongle or encrypted hard drive fails? What if you cannot obtain further authorizations from a dead company? Or from Microsoft or Apple when they decide to obsolete the format, software, hardware or interface you depend on?

No digital hardware is safe. Static memory of the flashcard type, now seen as a candidate for archiving, is getting larger and cheaper. But what future machine will provide an interface, read its format and reproduce its contents? Understand the meaning of the data: sound? commands? spatialization? automation? Consider the ubiquitous digital cameras, many of which use proprietary raw formats. Artists who used Konica cameras a decade ago know the feeling when an abandoned product means their documentary photographic work is entombed inside.

Of course, there are distributed networks; more about these later. The Internet as storage might be ideal — depending on the willingness of the storage company to stay in business. Remember the “mp3 lockers”? Will you be a victim of commerce?

This article recommends cataloging, preserving, using the best medium you can for storage, and making up-conversions as soon as the format shows signs of vanishing. It is a massive amount of work.

Points of Failure

Organization and Metadata

If you can bear to archive your own works, do it immediately. Do not believe that a future technology will save you. Unless you are surrounded by Stockhausenian acolytes, your work dies shortly after you do. Begin by getting organized, and identify the failure points.

Organization matters. Not long ago, a performer wanted to premiere my 1973 on nix rest… in china for trombone and tape. Recovery and digitizing a took several days, but finding the recording and its playback information took hardly a minute. Some independent composers treat their own work as a burden, others as a resource. Some divide their musical activities into art and business. I find myself divided but organized.

Organization is a curatorial imperative. Preservation alone is not the issue; libraries are full of material that has sat for years in relatively stable conditions but is simply not curated. It has no indexing and often little identification. Composers are notorious for poor identification of their own works, sketches, source materials, and copies, and for avoiding the painful triage of discarding excess material.

In 1977 the work of playwright Kenneth Sawyer Goodman needed collection and annotation for the Newberry Library. Working one day a week and several weeks on-site in Chicago, I took three years to identify, triage, describe, and cross-reference what were essentially ten boxes of tidy materials, most created from 1911–18 — the full-time equivalent of 30 weeks to properly curate just nine years of a single artist’s work. There was no metadata, and without it, it did not matter if the work existed on a memory stick or in neatly packed boxes. It need a curator.

Similarly, there are several electroacoustic artists whose analog work I have restored and digitized. As committed as the composers were to their work when it was created, details fade. What is on the tape? Is it heads or tails out? Among duplicates, is one a special version or a copy or an edited version? What are the speed, noise reduction, tracks? How was it last packed? Is there a test tone?

Identify your work now. Whether it is analog or digital, include everything you know about it — in hard copy. With digital work, also note its format and structure, attach supporting materials, and describe (and even include) the software and operating system required to read and recreate it. Without details provided, a multichannel environmental installation will be useless if it was made on Cakewalk 2 under Windows 3.1 with two SoundBlasters, packed into a “bun,” and Wavezipped across a pack of floppies.

And in the interim — until truly stable, long-term storage is developed — up-convert formats before they become technologically inaccessible or incur damage that, for digital materials, is fatal. What is merely a blemish on a paper carton is fatal to the entire contents of a disk or memory card. So as you organize, make sure the digital work is up-converted to a more stable (or at least contemporary) format.

Assume nothing. Offering extended metadata is critical — what the works contain, keywords, how the works are identified, the meaning of the terms, the character of their reproduction, stylistic generalities, software and operating systems under which they run, even how to initiate the process of starting, displaying, and playing or performing with the material. Creating an archive of paper scores is not so hard, even given the triage and indexing issues and the sheer time demand of scanning and photography. But graphical and three-dimensional works, performances, improvisations and electroacoustic pieces are not self-contained; a body of metadata is crucial.

There is another reason for annotation. Composer William Osborne writes, “The purpose of the DVD-ROMs… would be for ease of access, transport, reproduction, availability, and quick hyper-linked referencing. It also allows for on-line resources that instantly touch worldwide publics.” It is the metadata that enables the artist to “touch worldwide publics” (New Music Box discussion).

Gilles Yves Bonneau composed some 300-plus works, one of which (Timesweep) is a 12-hour-long oratorio for soloists, chorus, pianos, organ, and large orchestra. Gilles died a few years ago, bequeathing his life’s work to his publisher — me. Seventeen boxes arrived after his death. In looking at the work, so many questions arose. Why keep writing with no audience? Why so much? Why so detailed? He had always said, “Does the violet that blooms in the woods need anyone to appreciate its beauty?” But for Gilles the question had no answer. He was at best a regional composer, private, seldom pursuing performances, strongly advocating for his composer colleagues. The university he attended was not interested. His family was not interested. No libraries wanted the material. Now it sits, wrapped in plastic with rodent-repelling mothballs, in my barn’s hayloft. It has no metadata.

So the real work of archiving (vs. just storing) is finding stuff and making it part of the resulting access tools. The Microsoft Word-style automated book indexing is poor because it cannot assess context — a quality that gets even worse if there is no text to scan, as with manuscripts, or no image at all, as with electroacoustics. Further, the physical nature of the originals can be important. Which draft is it? What corrections were made? For this kind of exploration, one can examine the 1971 annotated The Waste Land, which includes photos of different drafts in typescript and manuscript. The significance of this edition as a guide to digital archivists is twofold: it is not just the final published book, and having paper originals allows examination of changes that would otherwise be invisible.

The process of digitization does not by itself include the data or metadata essential to archiving. Both are still laborious processes. Optical character recognition (OCR) of printed text works well, but is not contextual. Objects that start out in digital format or that can be converted at a high level of content accuracy (unfortunately not the case with pencil or even ink musical manuscripts) are eminently archivable, but their raw form is not an archive.

So as an artist, provide not only metadata about what multitrack software will read these older files, but even consider versions rendered to paper, such as those made with the GRM’s Acousmographe (1). And how about computer notation files? When will PDF as we know it be deprecated? What about costumes, tools, custom instruments and interfaces? Without all of them, the links — physical or virtual — are broken.

Where the technological and artistic push is always forward, there is little occasion to look back. But in the digital realm, the looking-back will not accomplish itself. A box of CD-ROMs is not akin to a box of manuscripts. Furthermore, archiving pre-digital electroacoustics is not so simple as plugging the old TEAC into the SoundBlaster and wailing away. You generate low-fidelity, murky recordings, even if the tape still plays (and mastering tapes from the 1980s probably will not) — and then it ends up in a format that might itself be frangible.


Maintaining older hardware is critical to restoring or archiving older electroacoustic work, but finding a  tech shop is increasingly difficult. So here we get to the grit. Hardware requires maintenance and tools. Hardware failure points depend on the era and the equipment, but there are some generalizations about older equipment below.

Electronic failures require a trip to the repair shop for board-level repair, a dying skill. This list is provided to give an idea of what to expect in terms of time, expense and availability:

Electro-mechanical failures can sometimes be fixed in a well-equipped studio; a web search will locate tutorials:

Mechanical failures can often be fixed by a determined amateur. This is not advice to do so, but if you try, be sure to unplug the unit!


Media failures are legion with old and new media. Proper care and storage of media are critical to their life, whether a century-old shellac, 60-year-old tape, or brand new DVD+R. Here are recommendations to keep media in good shape, and ways of recovering recordings from older media. Additional detailed advice can be found at The Preservation of Recorded Sound Materials website.

Analog Materials

Store originals under good conditions. Use the temperature and humidity that the tape manufacturer recommended — normally a stable low relative humidity (30–50%) and room temperature (15–20°C).

Then make copies into the highest quality digital format now available, and, if possible, use the original machine for playback. Follow the recommendations of the late Michael Gerzon, whose essay is still valid years after his death (published in this issue).

Problematic originals include spliced tapes, poorly stored tapes, bad oxide formulations, and obsolete formats. If the splices are good, leave them alone; but if the splices are separating, replace them with “blue” archival splicing tape.

Poor storage can cause stretch tape and feathered edges, both of which mean dropouts and phase problems. Contact the Electronic Music Foundation for information on how to transfer poorly stored tapes.

Bad tape manufacture has caused nightmares, such as sticky, squealing tapes that clog playback heads (particularly some Ampex mastering tape from the 1980s) and bad binders that cause oxides to flake from their backing. Sticky tapes can be baked (yes, in a dry oven) at low temperatures, and then transferred before they become sticky again. With bad binders, you get one chance at transfer — set up and do it quickly under ideal conditions.

Finally, obsolete formats can create a personal artistic crisis if you no longer have the hardware. Even if you do have it, run — do not walk — to your nearest service shop and have the machine brought back to its original specs… or at least purchase new belts and rollers and do the work yourself (see section above). In any case, transfer obsolete formats immediately and keep the originals in controlled storage.

Additional Recommendations


Store them on-end, not on their sides. Rotate every few months. Older commercial cassettes  and many blank ones were stamped together, and are especially sensitive to sunlight. Replace cassettes en masse with new shells. Shells can be purchased, but it is less expensive to buy 100 cassettes with screw shells from a source such as and remove the tape pack. Not only are new cassette shells precise, but they also have the advantage of fresh components (especially pressure pads and slip sheets).

Cassette splicing blocks remain available, as are leader tape and blue (permanent) non-bleed splicing tape (3M has discontinued splicing tape, but Quantegy makes it). Be sure to remove the record-protection tabs! (Note that cassettes are not from the gummy era; see reels below.)

Annex 1: Fixing a Broken Cassette Tape, Including a New Shell


Reelrecordings dominated the era from 1950–90, and we produced in an enormous number of formulations and formats. Most commonly, tapes were acetate and polyester (Mylar); early tapes were paper and later some were just cheap plastic. Problems with tapes include print-through, mold and mildew, poor or broken splices, and deterioration (gumminess, flaking, and feathering of tape edges). Print-through (pre- and post-echo) is the permanent transfer of magnetic energy between layers of tape, most evident with thin tape and loud bursts of sound. Mold and mildew can be removed by gently fast-winding the tape with a hospital alcohol prep gently held between thumb and forefinger. Splices should be clean and repaired with “blue” archival splicing tape. Feathered tape edges are the result of poor winding or storage, and are also permanent (but can be reduced somewhat by slow-winding and storing the tape for an extended time).

Flaking and gumminess require special treatment. Flaking is unrecoverable and generally should be left to an expert to do the transfers. If no expert is available or affordable, determine the tracking and speed (if it is labeled) first, prepare the recording transfer with a high-quality machine that has been fully maintained, set the controls and test levels with a similar non-flaking tape, load, and copy. Chances are there will be one chance to do so as the oxide flakes off the backing and accumulates on the floor; brush any fallen oxide on the leading edge away from the head as it copies.

Gummy tapes will manifest as literally stopping the forward motion of the machine in play or fast-forward/rewind modes. Stop and clean the lumps of gummy oxide off the tape back, the pinch rollers and guides, and the tape heads (Annex 2: Fig. 12). Then rewind the tapes outside all guides and heads. Gumminess can be cured temporarily. Obtain a standard plastic herb dehydration unit, and put the tape on the top rack at about 40–45°C. Turn the tapes every two hours for 48 hours, turn the unit off and let them cool to room temperature. The tapes can now be transferred — but will return to gumminess within a few days.

Store all reel-to-reel tapes after a slow wind, rotating every few months.

Video and DAT

VHS, VHS-C, Beta, 8mm, DAT, DV, PCM and ADAT tapes are housed in shells similar to cassettes. Their later tape formulations have made them immune (so far) to gumminess or flaking, but because the process of playing these tapes extracts the tape from the shell and winds it around a spinning head, poorly maintained equipment can permanently damage the recording by crumpling the tape on stop/eject, or scoring or feathering it from dirty pinch rollers and guides. A failed eject sequence will always damage the tape, so this equipment must be professionally maintained.

Like reels, the tapes themselves are best stored long-term in played condition. Remember to set the record-protect tab (which is reversed in 8mm tapes). If necessary to salvage it, tape is spliced on the back of the tape (away from the spinning head) with a long, diagonal cut.

Digital Materials

Long-term preservation will be more troublesome, and this is an elementary set of guidelines.

If your material is a simple “final product”, make several digital transfers in audio, video and data formats. The data format will be more exact (more recoverable, with its error checking) but the other formats will likely have a longer life in terms generic playback equipment.

If your creation is a more complex final product (multimedia CD/DVD, interactive presentation, live mixing/diffusion, laptop performance), first annotate the work in detail (see data/metadata above under “Organization”). This is a critical stage, because memory fades. I have forgotten how to run my own interactive work from the 1980s because I did not write down a sufficient description of how to do it, and the (obsolete) hardware involved. Be clear — indicate the hardware (computers and interfaces) and software materials needed, the process of their assembly (including circuit and block diagrams for hardware), the order of connections (with power supply information), software organization (operating systems, software order, libraries, and plugins), the process of presentation (the “score”), and how the piece is to be reproduced/diffused. Ideally, include documentation (text, recordings and photos) from existing satisfactory presentations.

Once it is fully annotated, you will also need a complete archive of software and data. If all of your creations are generated with one set of software, you might believe that one archive of that software should do. But do not depend on it. Because over time software is upgraded or components are changed — and you inevitably forget that has happened — it is best to archive all the software materials for each piece as a bundle: Text and image notes, final creation, software and associated plugins and libraries (including installers, dongles, licenses and license keys — and check with vendors occasionally for key and dongle releases for older software).

Source materials are valuable for you as well as archivists. You might want to dip back into a sample library, extract individual tracks from a ‘thicker’ work, or build existing material into a new composition. I am a habitual archiver of electroacoustic drafts (all drafts, actually). This is no philosophical effort to archive drafts; I simply do not trust my hardware or software not to corrupt files. So I drag copies of source material into a working folder, and save my project in a constant stream of new numbered filenames (QaXing001, QaXing002 … QaXing091 … QaXing179…). This builds a complete data archive in the project folder, all of which is dumped off to CD when I am finished.

Storage and Cleaning

Digital media such as CDs and DVDs are not robust, and should be kept vertically flat, protected, dry, unscratched, and unlabeled. Unlike commercial disks, recordable media have sensitive upper surfaces; adhesive labels gradually pull the reflective layer away from the plastic, and pens and markers can scratch or react with the chemical layer. The lower, clear surface is kept from scratches. My own preference is for paper or Tyvek envelopes with two fresh copies of the same material placed face-to-face in the same envelope. The upper surfaces are surrounded by paper, and the clear surfaces are tightly protected. A third copy is kept for use in its own case.

Cleaning CDs and DVDs is done opposite to the old “follow the grooves” method of cleaning LPs, rather by brushing and wiping along the radius of the disk. The reason offered by manufacturers is that a whole sector of data might be lost if a scratchy bit of grit coincides precisely with the circle; this sounds apocryphal, but I do it anyway.

The life of a CD-R or DVD-R is shorter than typically claimed. A Dutch study (Verhagen 2003) showed some data deteriorating in as little as five years on discs kept in good storage, meaning time and money for transfer to new formats as data degrades. Some manufacturers have developed archival disks, such as Delkin’s “Archival Gold”.

Annex 3: How CDs and DVDs get Ruined

Additional Recommendations

Hard drives

The increased size and reliability of hard drives makes them a likely candidate for storing digital projects. Carefully maintained and upgraded, hard drives can store multiple full projects. External drives (USB or 1394) are fairly stable, though they do not take kindly to being jarred, especially in operation; presently laptop drives and microdrives are less reliable than full-size components.

There is a caveat. Newer drives put data at risk by encrypting it at the hardware level; recovering such data in the case of a partially failed drive can be difficult if impossible, and even simple data recovery from standard drives from professional services is costly ($1,000 or more per drive).

The question becomes how and when to upgrade and up-convert the data on drives. A recent archiving project has suggested a thousand-plus-year life for digital archiving with ordinary hard drives in a self-repairing cluster. However, beyond the media becoming the problem for individual artists, its is formats, connectors, etc. Already less interesting digitized information is being let to “rot” rather than take the time to up-convert to contemporary formats. Once again, the question of personal artistic triage arises.

Flash Memory

The latest storage technology is the flash memory card. Present larger cards (8–16GB) are economical and stable, and able to archive full electroacoustic projects. As archival media, flash memory looks promising — but not definitive. Newer flash memory developed in 2008 promises 100 million write/erase cycles, but even older memory with limited (100,000) write/erase cycles will never be reached in an archiving situation. So the questions become physical reliability, the future of connectors, and data retention.

One poorly documented aspect of flash memory is data retention. Flash memory is presently estimated to have a data retention of ten years — estimated simply because commercial flash memory is not yet old enough to test. Like all erasable memory, flash will lose data, so it should not (yet) be used for long-term storage. Once again, up-conversion and backup comes into play.

See Makwana and Schroder’s “A Nonvolatile Memory Overview” for more information.

Where do you store your digital archives?

Previous formats (floppy disks, Zip disks, backup tapes, etc.) are obsolete. Today’s choices are limited to CD, DVD, hard drive, flash memory, or the Internet. CDs were the medium of choice a few years ago, but their end-of-life is now in sight.


Advantages Disadvantages
DVD Economical storage cost (excluding media taxes, about 30 cents per hour of 24-bit / 96-kHz audio data); cannot be erased (DVD-RW requires user intervention); nearly universal storage medium. Relatively slow transfer of large files; lack of long-term reliability data (especially on DVD-RWs); easily destroyed through scratching and stress fractures; no universal formats for data; fixed size, so need to span multiple DVDs for larger projects; source of pollution.
Hard Drive High transfer speed; economical storage cost (excluding media taxes, also about 30 cents per hour of 24-bit / 96-kHz audio data); very high data density (50 hours of 24-bit / 96kHz audio data on a 1TB drive); no fixed size. Susceptible to erasure (cannot be write-protected); damaged through head crash or hot-swap failure; connection formats may become obsolete; control boards burn out, bearings seize, and head arms freeze; multiple formats may become obsolete/unreadable; source of pollution.
Flash Memory Relatively stable; low power; compact; Compact Flash (CF) cards are difficult to damage physically; manufactured in rapidly increasing storage sizes. Slow transfer speed; high storage cost (about $10 per hour of 24-bit / 96-kHz audio data); lack of long-term lifecycle data; easy to lose.
Internet Highly distributed; relatively future-proof interface; nearly universal access; “digital immortality” for artworks. Slow transfer of large files; high storage costs above basic account level (8GB free in 2008 at Google), and requires remote access; temptation to archive compressed formats; security issues (hacking); dependent on corporate success.
Table 1. Comparison of advantages and disadvantages of digital storage formats.

Use of the Internet for storage brings into play several projects, among them Google Books, which is scanning 3,000 books per day; Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe (LOCKSS), an online server system for digital content; the MetaArchive, a community-based digital preservation cooperative; and the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC, now merged with the Research Libraries Group). The latter organizations call themselves “cultural memory institutions” — an interesting euphemism considering their “cultural memory” includes only “institutions” and excludes individual artists. Nevertheless, each is engaged in a vast attempt to interconnect archives, make them publicly available and, most notably, to gather new content for the archives.

Individuals are not part of the latter archiving process — yet. But the software (particularly that from LOCKSS) can be set up on individual servers, making them part of an overarching, searchable, findable archive. There are no limits on formats other than that they be digitized and available to the server. Archiving may require the judgment of history, which is in short supply (“What do we need these Fifth Symphony sketches for? We have the published version, right?”), but a worldwide archiving system open up new possibilities for reliability, multiple redundancy, and ease of maintenance.

Software, Obsolescence and DRM

Software has become the core of the electroacoustic artist’s tookit. Today it is reliable and relatively portable, platform issues notwithstanding. It becomes obsolete and married to older operating systems and hardware, but — ideally, at least — hardware and operating systems will be effectively archived until they can be fully emulated by future software. It would seem the best of all possible worlds: As software and hardware fall into obsolescence, emulations replace them. But the ideal meets a different reality.

Most pernicious is tethering. Commercial software authors exploit copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and padlocks — with little for the purchaser other than risk, pain, disappointment, and frustration. Indemnified for bugs and driven by operating system changes, vendors rush new versions to market, incompletely tested and with the liability for their use entirely with the buyer.

Corporate copyright owners have developed increasingly complex licenses that provide no recourse to purchasers. Aside from companies’ indemnification by the buyer’s act of slitting the shrinkwrap or clicking on a contract (End User License Agreement, the EULA) before the software can be tested on the host system, companies have included increasingly embedded protection schemes, from the dongle (a hardware key attached to a computer port) through the authorization (a software key created from the computer’s hardware configuration) to hardware digital rights management (DRM). They indenture the purchaser to the seller.

At authorization’s simplest, the buyer installs the program and a copy-protection driver; the driver examines the computer’s hardware and develops a challenge code. The computer ‘calls home’ to provide the challenge and receive an encrypted response. Both challenge and response are required for the software to function, and if some aspect of the computer that the software uses to generate the challenge is altered, challenge and response no longer match. A new one is needed, with the buyer convincing the corporate representative that the paid-for software should run.

Companies believe objections to copy protection are overblown, and for consumers it is a fact of digital life. Ross Bencina writes, “Cycling 74 [sellers of Max/MSP] are doing a great job of developing one of the most powerful music tools on the planet. They are also quite reasonable about supplying new codes. If you don’t want to use their software, fine, but I don’t think there’s any point bitching about whatever decision they have made to try to make their operation financially viable” (AudioMulch list).

The problem here is twofold: No study has proven that financial viability arises from copy protection — it remains anecdotal — and ethical objections are hardly bitching. (Ironically, Bencina’s approach with his own software development, AudioMulch, is simply to provide serial numbers to legal purchasers.)

Copy-protection schemes of the past have encouraged “protection creep” whose latest manifestation is DRM supported by corporate-centric copyright laws in the US, Canada, and the European Union. Not only is DRM built into DVD players, but also into the hardware on Windows Vista-compatible computers. Together with factory-level encrypted disk drives, it puts artists’ creations at the mercy of corporate failure. (Several years ago, I proposed a key escrow system. A key generator would be held by a bonded third party and released should the software company fail or the product’s life cycle end. The key escrow system has never been adopted.)

Most users seem certain their favorite software companies will support products into the future, but no law requires it. In fact, there is a force majeure clause in nearly every software contract, warranty or EULA terminating a license “due to fire, strike, war, civil unrest, terrorist action, government regulations, acts of Nature, or other causes beyond the reasonable control of the party claiming force majeure.”

As archivists are discovering, the unfolding loss of the creative results of our technological near-present history are catastrophic. But because electroacoustic works fade slowly, one by one, leaving tiny piles of rubble visible only to those who choose to notice, we artists — always bustling with progress and building up our new ideas and shucking off the past as, well, the past — have become both the persecutors and the victims of this impending historical disaster, and we unwittingly welcome the dismantling of what we set out to build.

It is also about willingness and economics. Companies record and archive everything — the whole field of “document management” has built up around it — and store vast fields of digital media, microfilm, and other formats, ultimately, in huge underground caverns. If we had document management as a habit for artists — and a modicum of artistic-political will, plus a concern among manufacturers for ease of migration, materials bundled losslessly upward to new cross-platform, and cross-product formats — then one might be less concerned about the neglectful and sometimes willful loss of an era.

One doesn’t have to be obsessive about history to know there is an elephant over there, waiting. By purchasing copy protected software, we are our past’s future’s own undoing.

The Other Side of Software

Artists largely take their work seriously and struggle with details and sensibility, so it is disturbing that some of those same artists believe digital technology is their friend. There is a dismissal of the effects of digitization.

For example, it is not an idle question to ask what is lost during compression. Most compression is psychological, removing elements masked by ear or eye during normal reproduction. Have you ever tried to re-master or re-balance a compressed file? You get an ugly, blotchy monster. Sections that are buried or unclear have been eliminated. You are not getting them back.

These issues arise because aside from being abysmal keepers of their own work, artists are also prey to technological fads. Do not think that because you have stuck your Sibelius files or MP3 recordings or JPEG performance photos & diagrams or QuickTime videos onto a DVD-R or uploaded them to someone else’s service business that you have created an archive. More likely you have created a fragile mess of future-fail information with gaping informational holes that will shortly become inaccessible not only to you but also to future archivists.

If you value your work beyond today, consider these points, some reiterated:

  1. Index your work — identify what it is and where it is located, as well as what has been destroyed.
  2. Use the highest available technological quality, and keep the original.
  3. Annotate it, even if briefly — when it was done, where the sketches are if you keep them, the sources, previous versions, and next steps. Use text and photos and scans, unless you like to preserve the mystery. And do it when you make the work, because you won't remember later.
  4. Make redundant copies — hard drive, CD/DVD, flash card, online, paper, film, vinyl, stone tablet — of the artistic object and its annotations. Keep them in different places, and if you use an online service, use two.
  5. Beware of paper. For that final copy, use acid-free paper and archive-quality (hi-temp laser) printing.
  6. Up-convert. This is a hateful job, but it means recognizing when your technology is about to vanish and copying or converting to a new format, then (again per Gerzon) saving the original.
  7. Use no technologies dependent on digital rights management (DRM) and avoid software that is tethered.
  8. Document. This is a real issue, and some performers are particularly reticent about this. So bootleg if you have to. Only history will know what matters.
  9. Appoint a “curator” and set up a maintenance fund. This might be spouse, friend, child, or institution. Make clear what should be kept and where to find the metadata. Nothing is more overwhelming then shoveling out closets and drawers full of unmarked paper and reels and film and disks and slides and drives. The maintenance fund need not be big, but should cover at least the institutional triage that will follow.

Up-Converting and Updating

The time and dedication required to update to new formats is enormous. I have, for example, many pieces created in multichannel audio within Sonar, running under Windows, using DX plugins and a library of my own samples, with automation. This also includes many experiments and sketches. My 1986 interactive piece In Bocca al Lupo (among others) is already lost, probably forever, even though the hardware, interfaces, software, circuit diagrams, sound samples, etc., are all intact. That is because the computers on which it was created no longer function.

In other words, merely updating information to a new format does not accommodate the actual content, it merely converts the bits from one format to another. Still required is either the maintenance of the original hardware and software to reconstitute the piece, or converting all the material, samples, automation, plugins, and output and control hardware to equivalent new software and hardware (or emulations) that behave identically to the original devices, and can read the contents of the archives correctly.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this assumes the resources for preservation. Even archiving, say, the sketches and drawings of a 19th century artist requires a substantial infusion of money and time. Imagine someone interested in pursuing the career of minor artists like us. How will they turn our information, copied faithfully to new formats, into the works we actually created? Certainly, they will not. And even the greatest artists using technological tools? How will future students learn how they worked if their sketches are either gone or entombed in unusable formats?

This is not really about compulsive composers, or about history recorded from a distant future. It is about the loss of near-present history and still-developing artworks due to fragility of technologies. The Domesday Book disaster and the difficulty of transferring analog originals reveal a deeper problem that merely upgrading to software 4.x or hardware with new output jacks will not fix — a crisis that is already befalling thousands of compositions created on professional tape and equipment in the 1950s-80s.

(There’s always paper, reels of PCM data cleanly stored on acid-free punch tape — though composer Richard Wentk notes that it would take more than 5000km of ECMA-10 tape to store one CD’s worth of 16/44.1 audio.)

Electronics and electroacoustics put us in a new era. The determined authentic original instruments mavens can copy a serpent or stamp out a few thousand copies of harpsichords, but recovering recorded media (analog or digital) is another matter. It is not just about sketchbooks or manuscripts, but also the final creation. It is as if the harpsichord itself contained the music, and only the original ones would play it; new ones would be lovely, but mute.

Yes, today it is already possible to emulate earlier instruments, but that ability does not end the slow destruction of the materials it would emulate if it could only “remember” back that far. How many composers can write an emulation patch for a home-brew synthesizer from 1968? Indeed, many composers’ interactive and live work is meant to be done on very specific hardware. 30 years ago, I built my circuits; 25 years ago, I switched to an Ionic synthesizer. The home-brew circuits are gone (as are the tapes created by them), but this instrument survives, and I have repaired it (Annex 2: Fig. 13).

But how much system-specific content will be lost overall? Live/interactive creations are not just about archiving some sort of final product, but scattering data breadcrumbs along the entire overwhelming trail of hardware and software.


It has been said that there is more music being created today than in all of recorded history. This is an important point, even if it is debatable. Just because there is far more music being distributed or recorded doesn’t mean there’s more being made — only that our attitudes and abilities have changed to make it appear to be more. But it is political, because businesses are more likely to archive trivial memos than are artists the fruits of years’ work.

In “Brick Wall,” Charles D’Ambrosio speaks of ongoing progress and rebuilding in Chicago: “There were piles of rubble such as you imagine in war, but the absence of declared enemies and the lethargic unfolding of time kept people from seeing the scale of the shift as catastrophic.”

It has been my experience that artists — both composers and performers — are sometimes reluctant to document what they have done. Some artworks do not hold up to history, whereas their legends do. Other creations are badly represented by documentation, such as the Happenings of two generations ago. Still others combine serendipity and good luck enough that a clear archive is not possible or desirable; the result is all.

Is digital preservation good? Yes. It is numerically immutable, infinitely replicable and universally transmissible. There are resolution problems but time, connectivity and wider archiving (especially online) will solve these. Until wider archiving catches up to the past, the problem will remain what to preserve (and up-convert) as time escapes. The curatorial problem itself is not improved by digital technology.

Yet where it is possible, and you as an artist believe in your artwork, then preserve the future’s past.


  1. Software developed to listen to and visually represent sound signals. It assists searching, annotating and describing in detail recorded music, in particular electroacoustics or oral traditions.


Chute, David. “Film Preservation At The (Digital) Crossroads.” On author’s website. [Last accessed 12 September 2008.]

Conway, Paul. “Preservation in the Digital World.” A viewpoint from 1996. [Last accessed 12 September 2008.]

D’Ambrosio, Charles. “Brick Wall.” Harper’s Magazine (November 2001).

Levoy, Mark and Hector Garcia-Molina. “Creating Digital Archives of 3D Artworks.” A project from 2000. [Last accessed 12 September 2008.]

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. Edited and with an Introduction by Valerie Eliot. Orlando FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1971. [ISBN 0-15-694870-2]

Horlings, J. “CD-R’s binnen twee jaar onleesbaar.” PC-Active (August 2003).

Makwana, Jitu J. and Dr. Dieter K. Schroder. “A Nonvolatile Memory Overview.” Information and Resources for Unix and Linux Systems Bloggers and the Self-employed. Website. A.P. Lawrence, 2004. [Last accessed 12 September 2008.]

Merrill, Deane W. “Copying Historical Census Data from Tape to MSS.” On author’s website. [Last accessed 12 September 2008.]

Slashdot. “On Data Obsolescence and Media Decay.” Archiving discussion from 2000. [Last accessed 12 September 2008.]

Various authors. Discussion thread about archives and archiving. New Music Box list, April 2008. [Last accessed 12 September 2008.]

Various authors. Discussion thread about PACE Anti-Piracy. AudioMulch list. August 2003. [Last accessed 12 September 2008.]

Other Articles by the Author

“A Language We Already Understand: Noah Creshevsky's Hyperrealism.” New Music Box, June 2007.

“Composers & Productivity: The Embodiment of Discomfort.” New Music Box, 13 September 2006.

“If We Could Write for the Symphony, or, We Are All Mozart.” Greywolf Performing Arts Institute website. March 2006. Available at Article.pdf.

“The Creative Meaning of Laziness and Its Manifestation in Digital Technology, or, How Slug-Boy Found His Groove.” The IDEA #7 (2003–2004). CD-Gazette of the Indian Documentary of the Electronic Arts. New Delhi: Imadjinn!, 2004. Available on the author’s website at

Concordia University / Université Concordia

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