Sounds from Silence
As technology evolves, these forms of media run the risk of being left behind. Each passing year makes it more essential to preserve these recordings to ensure they can be enjoyed by future generations.
So, the problem for the Hall of Fame became this: How could it find the right machines and, more importantly, the right people who could conserve and digitize these valuable pieces of history?
Luckily for the Museum, the answer was found just two-and-a-half hours down the road from Cooperstown.
“Welcome to the hole,” laughed David Schwartz as he welcomed Hall of Fame staff members into his house in Newburgh, N.Y. Together with his wife, Donna, Schwartz is the co-owner of DDS Enterprises-Information Alchemy, an audio restoration company. The husband-and-wife team operate DDS from the comforts of their home, a former optometrist’s office that has been converted in a working museum of sorts for the two passionate audiophiles.
“They would ask me, ‘Do you want all this equipment?” Schwartz laughs, “I was young and stupid, so I said yes.”
Then in the mid-1980s,the assets of renowned recording studio Barclay Crocker Company of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., went up for sale. Along with the equipment, David & Donna brought home the company’s production master tapes. Sensing once again that these valuable pieces would otherwise be destroyed or neglected if they didn’t find a home, David and Donna sought to preserve the collection. But they soon noticed an issue when they put the tapes on a machine.
“We tried to play the tapes and we found they wouldn’t play properly,” David said. “So we had to start researching why they wouldn’t play.”
Unintentionally, the Schwartzes had created a project and, subsequently, a business for themselves. In 1986, they founded DDS Enterprises and formed a powerhouse team. David’s specialty lies in the technical aspects, while Donna, a journalist, handles the information tasks of tracking and cataloging.
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Together, the couple is in lockstep with a common goal of preserving the cleanest sound, extracting the most information and conserving original recordings for optimal chances of survival.
“When we do a restoration process,” said Donna, “we have the expectation that these are going to be the definitive copies that are going to be the historical record.”
By 2013, DDS had large-scale projects for the Loyola Baltimore Jazz Society and CBS Radio (in which it handled somewhere between 5,000-8,000 reels of tape) on its résumé. That’s when David received a phone call from a friend who was an employee at the EMC Corporation, who informed him that EMC had given a grant to the Hall of Fame so it could begin digitizing its vast collection.
“If any material comes off of the tape – if any shedding occurs or if the substrate sticks to the tape ahead of it – that material is lost and there is no way to retrieve it,” Donna said. So she and David unwound each tape and meticulously inspected it for splices and other potential snags. Then the tapes were “baked”, or dehydrated, for anywhere from eight to 24 hours to ensure they are free of any and all moisture.
Once the tapes were dry it was time to place them on the decks for playback and digital recording. But another problem arose: The original copies may have been recorded on devices whose reel heads were worn or off-kilter machines. There’s a risk of damaging the tape or not producing the right sound if the devices don’t mimic the original configuration.
“We hook the reel up to an oscilloscope that helps us maximize the peaks,” David explains, “so even if we have to adjust our tape heads to be slightly off-kilter to match that tape head, then we get the maximum sound fidelity level that we can out of it.”
“The important thing is to preserve the person’s voice as they speak,” Donna added. “You don’t want them to sound like James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman reading a transcript of the interview. You want to hear their thoughts, their recollections and their opinions in their own voice.”
Once they were satisfied with the sound quality, Donna began tracking and cataloging each recording. Given the length of many of these interviews – the discussion with Cool Papa Bell totals roughly seven hours, for instance – these steps prove essential for several reasons.
It doesn’t matter how much of a collection you have if you can’t play the tapes or you don’t know what’s on them. It’s just a lot of stuff to look at on a shelf."
“You could look at a data sheet and say, ‘Cool, we’ve got stuff from Cool Papa Bell,’” said Donna, “but what is he talking about? You want to have this accessible and available to people, and in order to do that you have to know what’s available in those seven hours.”
Donna broke the recordings into searchable tracks that made these massive sound files much easier for the Hall of Fame to digest and share with its audience. One track from the Papa Bell recording, for instance, features the speedster speculating his chances in a footrace against Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. Another features the intriguing label, “Burying Money in a Jar in the Backyard.”
“It’s fantastic to think about a student at some point in the future doing a report on Satchel Paige,” Donna said, “and having the ability to go online and search these recordings and hear Cool Papa Bell say, ‘This guy was able to hit a matchbox with a pitch.’ I mean, that’s a fantastic story!”
“We’re doing this because we love it,” added Donna. “We take our role as conservators very seriously, and we believe that we’re putting out something that is an important part of our history and will be sustained into the future.
“You cannot put a price tag on some of the material we’re working with, because if we’re not working with it and doing it correctly it could disappear. We love the material, and we love working with people who care about preserving history.”
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Matt Kelly is the Communications Specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum