Flying Nun in the spotlight

May 14th, 2021 By Claire Viskovic

In the first of two NZ Music Month blogs, we look at progress on the Flying Nun Project to completely digitise and preserve the label’s master tapes donated to the Library in 2018. Claire Viskovic charts the digitisation of these precious collection items.

NZ’s iconic indie label Flying Nun Records

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of New Zealand’s iconic indie record label Flying Nun Records. Celebrations are well underway and the Turnbull Library has some offerings to bring to the party! Here is the first of two NZ Music Month blogs that take a detailed look at progress on the Flying Nun Project to completely digitise and preserve the label’s master tapes donated to the Library in 2018.

Since October 2018, the Imaging Services Team at the Alexander Turnbull Library has been plugging away, creating digital image files of the physical objects from the Flying Nun Records (FNR) music collection.

The physical items in the FNR collection are being documented (digital image capture) because of the significance of this collection to New Zealand music and music history within Aotearoa New Zealand.

Items we’ve photographed include DAT tapes, cassettes and open reels in 5”, 7”, and 10”. To date, over 800 physical items have been photographed, comprising over 4,000 images. And this work is done between other image requests; both public and internal, for exhibitions and publications or research purposes.

A small purple DAT tape with plastic cover and paper insert are being displayed neatly on grey hardboard in preparation for being photographed.
A view of the purple DAT tape preparing to be photographed from further away, includes photographer smiling up at the camera.
A reel of magnetic tape is displayed on grey hardboard being positioned by photographer wearing white gloves.
A reel of magnetic tape sitting inside its cardboard box with the technicians hands shown wearing blue rubber gloves.

Creating digital facsimiles of the audio and object

Only after the conservation assessment of the physical condition of the items and the careful arrangement and description process (so that each item has a descriptive record) can digital capture of images take place.

Following the photography and post-capture edit QA (Quality Assurance), the physical items and the image files are passed to the Audio Visual Conservators, Nick Guy and Zach Webber.

After all of those steps, they begin to work their magic in creating the digital audio files from the sound recordings (something we'll explore more in our next blog).

Together, the sound and pictures create digital facsimiles of this historical collection; so that Flying Nun aficionados and kiwi-music enthusiasts of the past, present and future can find, see, hear and enjoy the Flying Nun Collection.

A flat box containing magnetic tape, on the cover it reads: 'Maxwell UD 50-120 sound recording tape'.
Back of box with magnetic tape, there is handwritten words and notes in blue and black ink.
Box is open to display reel of magnetic tape inside with note card laying beside it.
An image of a forest scene in red and yellow tones.
A reel of magnetic tape with the label '406 Ampex'.
Cover of magnetic tape reel box.
Adhesive label with handwritten words in black ink.
Detached spine label from The Stones / Another Disc, Another Dollar E.P. Masters (ref: FLYT10-335). A letter written on the reverse of the painting reproduction shown above, is below.

Letter from Chris Knox to Frank Douglas (engineer at EMI pressing plant, Lower Hutt) enclosed with The Stones / Another Disc, Another Dollar E.P. Masters (ref: FLYT10-335). Letter reproduced by kind permission.

A tidy, handwritten letter on white paper and black ink.

Photography and image capture

Initially, the Imaging team had a rotating capture set up in our large format photo studio, where most heritage material is photographed; which meant setting up and breaking down Flying Nun set-up each time we changed between FNR capture and our other imaging work.

The set-up we used until recently entailed bits and pieces we had to hand in the studio — some from when the studio was film-based, such as old backdrops and diffusion fabric (affectionately known as ‘the shower curtain’); and a piece of chain to help hold up our light tent, now less resilient because we’d chopped it around a bit to customise it for using both front and overhead camera capture. But then most photographers are pretty resourceful, and use/re-use whatever is close to hand so that they can make fit for the purpose required!

Photographer stands in the studio with camera on tripod and special lights illuminating the subject hidden inside a light tent.
Llewelyn Jones in the large format studio with the makeshift FN set up, including the slightly droopy light tent chained up to a beam. A tripod is used to capture angled ‘object shots’ of the Flying Nun items from the front. The camera stand is then moved in from the back of the light tent, to capture overhead shots of the individual components of each item.

Dedicated capture studio for Flying Nun Records

Some months into the project we realised we needed to make a dedicated space for the Flying Nun capture work; to streamline production and increase our throughput of images. Less changing around of studio set-ups (when working with other formats and heritage items) would save us quite a bit of time.

We moved our FNR capture set up into the next room over, our existing small-format studio, which we have now dedicated for that work. New flash lights and power pack have been purchased, and our legacy Hi-Glide rail system has been brought out of retirement. This helps to maximise the space in our small studio by fixing the lights to the ceiling avoiding the need for extra stands.

We also purchased a 2nd camera stand (for the large capture studio) – so that we could repurpose our existing camera stand solely for the Flying Nun studio set up.

Imaging technician stands in the studio with camera, tripod and light tent in background, using specially calibrated computer monitor to check and modify images.
Mark Beatty in the newly established dedicated Flying Nun image capture studio; but still using the tripod; awaiting the arrival of the 2nd camera stand. New diffusion panels (to replace ‘the shower curtain’) are currently still on the way.

Made to order Manfrotto camera stand

Ordered in April 2020, the shiny new Manfrotto camera stand (coming from Italy and made to order) got caught up in the escalation of the global Covid-19 pandemic. This meant delays, missing parts and complexities for the manufacturing process firstly; and then secondly, difficulties with the availability of a ship to deliver it to New Zealand.

We were relieved when the stand did arrive safely in New Zealand, in late Feb 2021. One of the two packages containing the stand parts managed to get lost, just for a bit, on its way from Auckland to Wellington. But the complete stand finally arrived here in March 2021; almost a year from when we placed our order.

Wide box with 'Made in Italy' on side.
The packaging around this 90kg stand was looking a bit worse for wear, from its long and complicated journey to the Library all the way from Italy.
Two staff members opening the large cardboard box on the ground, revealing contents inside.
Llewe and Alicia unpacking the boxes containing the camera stand in the studio. Luckily the stand is a very solid item!
A very large, long cardboard box has arrived at the Library and staff member is taking it to the studio.
The contents of the boxes is all set up showing the completed camera stand.

Adjustable height baseboard aka B:ARK

Another purchase (yet to arrive) is a set of diffusion panels on stands, which can be positioned close to the capture area, but will allow the photographer better access into the space to set up and remove the items being shot. They will also allow us to use the full width of our backdrop rather than being restricted by the droopy chopped-about light tent. Plus, no more shower curtain!

The pièce de résistance was a Pet Grooming Table to be utilised as a capture table. The idea for this came from Andrew Bruce at The National Gallery in the UK. We have referred to it as the P.E.T. table – so as not to cause undue stress to our conservators or clients, who might wonder ‘what on earth we are using…?!’ Let me stress: it is brand new and completely unused until it got to us. I also like Andrew’s suggestion for us to name it B:ARK short for Bench: Ascending Robot Kinetic.

This table works exceptionally well as an adjustable height baseboard, on which to set up the backdrops, light tents or diffusion panels, and the Flying Nun heritage items! It has an electric motor and moves smoothly between floor height up to 95cm. It is very stable, so good in fact that our colleagues at Archives NZ also purchased one for their digitisation studio.

A technician crouches before a large, metal platform that can be raised and lowered mechanically.

We take great care to ensure anything remotely magnetic is kept far away from the tapes, as we’re photographing them; so as not to cause any (irreversible) damage to the magnetic tapes which carry the sound recording of the FNR collection items.

Having a dedicated space for the FNR set-up has enabled us to increase our digitisation numbers. We can now have one of our small but enthusiastic team of Imaging Tech/Photographers ‘assigned’ to work on the project at any time, so the throughput of FNR items and creation of images is running smoothly and keeping up with expected targets and outputs.

Memorable items

Here are some of the more memorable Flying Nun items digitised by our dedicated Imaging Services team:

Boodle, Boodle, Boodle (12"EP) 1981

Llewelyn Jones liked this illustration on a little 5” reel box containing a recording by The Clean. It is kinda cute and creepy at the same time. Chris Knox is well known for his illustrations and visual artwork related to Flying Nun as much as for his musical work. With his artwork being so integral to the music it is not surprising that these little doodles also appear occasionally throughout the collection.

On the back of a cardboard magnetic tape reel box is a line drawing in black ink showing a character with stubby arms, human legs and feet and a large bald head chasing after a snail and saying the words, 'Two clean tracks' which appear in a speech bubble.
Image of tape box for Clean / Boodle (ref: FLYT5-032) with drawing by Chris Knox. Reproduced by kind permission.

Although these ephemeral illustrations are uncredited they bear Chris’s distinctive style.

Hidden leader tape for the 3D's EP no. 2

Alicia Tolley chose this 3D’s 7” reel, which was a bit unusual in that it includes the EP information on the leader tape: “Tail. Side One. 3D’s EP No2. Fish St Studios DN NZ”.

A magnetic tape reel with white leader tape extended and faint writing on it.
A closer shot of the leader tape with the words written in black ink.
Image of leader for The 3Ds / EP II A (ref: FLYT7-004).

Leader tape is nonmagnetic tape used to mark the beginning, end and occasionally between songs of a magnetic tape recording. This text was picked up by Audio Video Conservator Nick Guy, who returned the item to the imaging studios for this additional photographic documentation.

The master tapes for this EP contain the only hidden leader tape text we have come across so far.

Token psychedelic freeform freakout

Mark Beatty chose the inside cover of this 7” reel by The Puddle titled Pop Lib as a favourite. I like how they have personalised it with some final words that connect to each song or reveal the inspiration. Any song with “token psychedelic freeform freakout” has to be listened to, in my book.

Inside a magnetic tape reel box with hand written words in blue ink.
Image of tape box of The Puddle / Pop Lib (ref: FLYT7-076).
A view of blue cassette tape with black writing on outside alongside paper insert and plastic case with blue back.
A close-up of the blue cassette with the words, 'Look blue go purple' and 'rough mixes' written on outside in black ink.
Close-up of the cassette cover with paper insert and blue back.
Images of Look Blue Go Purple / Rough Mixes 2nd EP (ref: FLYC-098).
The inside of the paper insert shows a blue, red, yellow and black album cover with a tuatara and other graphics and words.
Including this repurposed cassette liner for the FNR Tuatara compilation.

Look Blue Go Purple

I chose these Look Blue Go Purple items as a favourite because I have fond memories of listening to LBGP when I was at design school back in the 80s!

I still have some of these songs on my iPod now.

Magnetic tape reel with small hand written labels affixed to the front and the words, 'Ampex 456' and 'Grand master'
Cardboard magnetic tape box with handwritten notes on the back describing what is contained on the tape.
Tape and box for the master copy for Look Blue Go Purple / Bewitched (ref: FLYT10-259).

An iconic collection

When we mention we are digitising the FNR collection, people outside the Library are often quite envious that we get to see and work with such an iconic music collection. There is definitely something special about Flying Nun Records, which began at a time when New Zealand was striving to have a voice of our own and not just a replication of overseas music sound or trends.

FNR music reflected an independent, somewhat rebellious time creatively that was also found in the politics and protests of the day (think Rainbow Warrior and Nuclear Free NZ). The music also heralded the distinctive ‘Dunedin Sound’. It reflected who we were (or wanted to be) as Kiwis at that time. And beneath the societal changes and struggle, of course, it was still about the music, which continued into the 90s and beyond.

The Flying Nun Records collection provides New Zealanders with a record (no pun intended) of that past and will be an inspiration for the future, for musicians to continue to produce different and amazing music! The subsequent transformation of recording technology to digital formats, streaming and mixing provide many new possibilities.

The FNR collection is held in perpetuity at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Its digitisation means it is no longer at risk of loss due to tape degradation and technological obsolescence. Who wouldn’t want that as their day job? It’s perhaps not as glamourous as it might sound, but it’s a great project to be a part of.

A team photo taken in the studio with four technicians showing three colourful posters along with the camera gear and stand they use for the photography.
Brought to you by the very dedicated Imaging Team at the Alexander Turnbull Library! Claire, Llewe, Alicia and Mark.

Thanks to Michael Brown, Nick Guy, Denise Roughan, Barbara Ward, David Kilgour and Flying Nun Records - for their permission, input, expertise and enthusiasm in helping make this blog happen. And to you too Jay!

Read part two of this series of blogs about the Flying Nun project: Flying Nun in the studio.

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