The Flying Nun Project: Tally Ho!

Back in July 2018, we announced that the tape archive of renowned music label Flying Nun Records had been donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library. See our original announcement from July 2018.

This news received media coverage from TVNZ, Radio NZ, Stuff, NZ Herald, The Spinoff and other outlets, as well as inspiring discussion on blogs and social media. Much interest stemmed from the plan to digitise the archive over three years – an urgent task given the global challenge of preserving magnetic tape AV media.

Ten months on, the time is ripe for an update about how the Flying Nun Project is getting on, together with some exciting (new) news – and two unreleased recordings to whet your appetite!

Hon Tracey Martin (Minister of DIA), Hon Grant Robertson (Associate Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage) with Flying Nun Records directors Ben Howe and Roger Shepherd. Photo: Mark BeattyHon Tracey Martin (Minister of DIA), Hon Grant Robertson (Associate Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage) with Flying Nun Records directors Ben Howe and Roger Shepherd. Photo: Mark Beatty

A Three-Year Plan

How does one describe, preserve, and make accessible a music collection with almost 1200 items, spanning dozens of obsolete audio-visual formats?

Shortly after last year’s announcement, the Library established an internal working group to plan and implement this rather challenging task. The team’s makeup reflects the scale and complexity of the job, including representatives from almost all Turnbull teams: Curatorial Services, Collection Care, Arrangement & Description (A&D), Imaging Services, Digital Collection Strategy, and Research Access. 

Shows staff from The Flying Nun Project working group sitting around a long white table. From L to R: Michael Brown (Curatorial), Nick Guy (Collection Care), Keith McEwing (Curatorial), Pamela Lovis (A&D), Matt Steindl (Research Access), Jessica Moran (Digital Collection Services), Jay Buzenberg (Research Access), Susan Skudder (A&D), Ariana Tikao (A&D), Mark Crookston (Associate Chief Librarian), and Claire Viskovic (Imaging Services). Photo: Llewe JonesThe Flying Nun Project working group: Michael Brown (Curatorial), Nick Guy (Collection Care), Keith McEwing (Curatorial), Pamela Lovis (A&D), Matt Steindl (Research Access), Jessica Moran (Digital Collection Services), Jay Buzenberg (Research Access), Susan Skudder (A&D), Ariana Tikao (A&D), Mark Crookston (Associate Chief Librarian), and Claire Viskovic (Imaging Services). Photo: Llewe Jones

One of the first tasks was accessioning Flying Nun’s archive: formally recording its addition to the Library’s collections. It now has its own title, reference identifier, and high-level description in Tiaki, our online database for unpublished collections: Flying Nun Records Ltd.: Records (ATL-Group-00353). (NB: the second “Records” in this title is how the Library archivally categorises the collections of businesses, organisations and other corporate bodies – for a more detailed discussion, see here.)

The group then worked together to devise an overarching workflow for the Flying Nun Project. Good planning was essential at this stage, as early decisions have implications down the track.

Our ideal scenario was to devise a flexible order of work, anticipate and resolve potential issues early, and minimise double-handling. This sometimes meant changing our usual modus operandi. For instance, Arrangement & Description (creating the finding aid) normally comes first, before digitisation. But A&D often involves separating different formats for rehousing, such as tapes from paper notes. For this project, we wanted to photograph these components together as part of our digitisation and digital preservation process. So rather than separate such materials early on, reunite them later to photograph, then re-separate, we decided to defer most of the descriptive and rehousing work to the end of the workflow.

Our basic ten-stage workflow reflects our approach to a range of similar conundrums created by this large collection:

  1. Create basic descriptive records (based on Flying Nun’s own spreadsheet) so that each item has basic metadata and can be tracked across the workflow via a unique identifier
  2. Perform urgent physical conservation work on tape housings where needed, such as reattaching labels and repairing boxes
  3. Photograph the housings, inserts and tapes from multiple angles to capture textual and visual information prior to Library labels being attached and other processing
  4. Perform any AV conservation treatments required, such as cleaning off mould spores, incubating tapes (“baking”), and repairing splices
  5. Digitise AV media
  6. Deposit digital files of photographs and AV into the National Digital Heritage Archive (NDHA), attaching these to the scant Tiaki records
  7. Enhance the descriptive records for each item, adding information to relevant metadata fields and flagging discrepancies for further investigation
  8. Separate paper inserts to be flattened and stored in manuscript housings, create cross-reference links back to original items and attach Library labels
  9. Perform quality checking on descriptive records, then publish them so they are online and discoverable via the Library catalogues.
  10. Store original items in permanent location in the climate-controlled storage area

Each part of the workflow is already informed by further background research, protocols and standards to be followed within each team’s area of expertise.

Given the diversity of formats in the Flying Nun collection (see the collection record), our next question was: where to start?

Here we took our cue from the fundamental archival principle of “original order”: the way that Flying Nun had themselves organised the collection both physically, at the label’s Auckland office, and intellectually, in a master spreadsheet. At the most basic level, we found the collection had been ordered by format (open-reel tape, cassette, DAT, PCM digital audio, etc.), then alphabetically by band or artist name, and in some cases a reference numbering system was also used. To preserve this original order, each recording format will be given its own self-contained “series” within the Library’s finding aid for the collection.

Shows the tapes in their original order in a closet at Flying Nun Records offices, Auckland. Photo: Nick GuyTapes in their original order at Flying Nun Records offices, Auckland. Photo: Nick Guy

The working group agreed that we would cut our teeth, as it were, on some relatively simple formats: cassettes, of which there are 162 in the collection, followed by video tapes, of which there are 42. We are now up to Stage 7 for the cassettes, with the videos well along.

The experience thus far has prepared us to move next to the most crucial collection material: the open-reel tapes containing master audio. These are the original, highest-quality recordings from which Flying Nun releases have derived, although there are also open reels with outtakes, alternate mixes and other unreleased material.

Now for a delve into some nitty gritty of the Project work…

Photographing the collection

Alongside the AV content on them, unpublished media such as tapes, cassettes, and videos, have research value as physical objects.

The box an open-reel tape is housed in can feature written annotations about the content: technical settings for the recording, draft song titles, personnel info, hieroglyphic-looking reference codes, sometimes drawings and doodles. Within the box might be found all manner of technical data sheets, label copy, cutting notes, and even correspondence between people involved in the production process. The box and its paper content are original archives in their own right and need to be valued and preserved as such.

Llewe Jones, Imaging Technician/Photographer, photographing Flying Nun cassettes in a studio environment. Photo: Mark BeattyLlewe Jones, Imaging Technician/Photographer, photographing Flying Nun cassettes. Photo: Mark Beatty

In the past, we’ve devised workarounds (such as photocopying inserts) to provide researchers with access to the “manuscript” component of these hybrid archival objects.

With the Flying Nun Project, we decided to up the ante by comprehensively photographing the tapes, so that all their textual and visual qualities could be readily accessed from our reading room workstations, in conjunction with the digitised audio.

The Imaging Services team have been responsible for how to approach photographing the tapes. There are surprisingly few archival precedents in this area (one example being the University of Calgary’s new EMI Music Canada archive). The task has therefore involved clarifying some underlying principles and then building photographic schema for each type of object, along with protocols to deal with the inevitable questions that crop up along the way, such as: From what angle to photograph text with mixed orientation? What to do about sticky notes? Should we photograph blank sides of paper inserts?

The set of master photographs below illustrates some of the basic imaging elements that will feature across the collection:

  • “Hero” image: The object in three dimensions
  • Component image: The separated parts of each object
  • Flattened insert: Capturing all text and graphics on both sides
  • Media object: The tape itself
  • Reference shot: Including photographic target for scale and colour comparison

Composite of images of cassette of live recording by The Bats at Club Lingerie, Hollywood, 30 July 1988 (ref. FLYC-014).Composite of images of cassette of live recording by The Bats at Club Lingerie, Hollywood, 30 July 1988 (ref. FLYC-014).

To maintain consistency across the collection, a neutral background colour is being used, along with standard camera angles, registration guides, and lighting settings. Photographing three-dimensional, and sometimes shiny objects, presents technical challenges, and to address some of these we’re using a light tent to avoid shadows and diffuse glare highlights that could obscure content.

In just over two years, the result will be full visual documentation of the Flying Nun Records collection. The images will be available through the Library’s reading room workstations to support research and give clues to people wanted to listen to specific items. We hope these images might have other uses too. In 1995, the Velvet Underground’s Peel Slowly and See reissue boxset featured extensive photographs of original master tape boxes and such images has become increasingly common with remastered music releases. The Turnbull images could potentially serve this purpose for Flying Nun, as well as being available with appropriate clearances for articles, books and other projects.

AV Digitisation

Digitisation of the Flying Nun tapes is perhaps the most technically challenging part of the Project, given the fragility of media carriers and the sheer breadth of formats represented.

A technical survey has shown that the open-reels include four different width tapes – 1/4-inch, 1/2-inch, 1 inch, and 2 inch – and a wide variety of track configurations, two-track (stereo) right up to 24-track. Dolby noise reduction treatments have also been applied to some tapes. Forward planning for digitising these tapes is well advanced and we’ll generally follow the principle of working from less to more complex formats. Two-track tapes will be first off the block, with multitrack digitisation planned for later next year.

Cassettes awaiting digitisation. Photo: Llewe JonesCassettes awaiting digitisation. Photos: Mark Beatty

Thus far we’ve focused on 1/8” cassette tapes (the kind once played in many a car stereo). As covered in a recent NLNZ blog, cassettes were an important medium down the more DIY end of music production during the 1980s and 1990s. Cassettes in the Flying Nun collection contain demos, rough mixes, live sets, and radio interviews, among other reference material preserved by the label.

Although relatively straightforward to digitise (unless the tape is broken, seized up, mouldy, hydrolysised, or otherwise problematic!) many steps are methodically taken before a collection item is ready to be digitally captured.

Some cleaning and calibration equipment used for cassette audio digitisation. Photo: Llewe JonesSome cleaning and calibration equipment used for cassette audio digitisation. Photo: Mark Beatty

For playback, the Library uses Tascam 122 MK III cassette decks, a high-end professional machine. Before each session, the decks are calibrated using test tapes to finetune playback speed and levels. The heads are then thoroughly cleaned before the tape gets an initial test-drive while the azimuth is adjusted to ensure the angle of the tape-head is correctly aligned for each tape.

Senior AV Conservator, Nick Guy, adjusts the azimuth for cassette playback. Photo: Llewe JonesSenior AV Conservator, Nick Guy, adjusts the azimuth for cassette playback. Photo: Mark Beatty

Once all is ready, digital capture is initiated using the Cube-Tec Quadriga system which both controls the tape deck operation and automatically logs technical metadata to flag anomalies.

For Nick Guy, Senior AV Conservator, one of the bonuses of this work is getting to hear these recordings before anybody else at the Library. Among his top personal cassette highlights are:

  • A pre-Snapper version of ‘Buddy’ performed by The Phroms (ref: FLYC-117)
  • The unreleased Bailter Space track ‘A.G.M.’ (ref: FLYC-007)
  • Sneaky Feelings live at the Gladstone Hotel (Christchurch) in Easter 1985 (ref: FLYC-123)
  • A Chills live-to-air on VPRO Radio (Holland) in February 1987 (ref: FLYC-044)
  • A New Zealand music special on Radio Newfunkland (Tübingen, Germany) in 1991 (ref: FLYC-148)

We are also excited to treat you to a taste of what these cassettes contain by presenting a couple of tracks! First is a wonderfully energised live-to-air performance by the Able Tasmans of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (originally released on The Shape of Dolls EP):

Listen to The Big Bang Theory (4 min):

Able Tasmans, ‘The Big Bang Theory’, from live-to-air on Radio One (Dunedin), ca. 1993-94 (ref: FLYC-003). By courtesy of Able Tasmans. All Rights Reserved.

Next up is a lovely semi-acoustic version of The Bats’ classic ‘Block of Wood’, performed during a live-to-air broadcast during the 1993 ‘Noisyland’ tour of the USA:

Listen to Block of Wood (3 min):

The Bats, ‘Block of Wood’, from live-to-air on WFMU (East Orange, NJ), 1993 (ref: FLYC-013). By courtesy of The Bats and Mushroom Music. All Rights Reserved.

We expect to have the entire FNR cassette series, including digitised content, available for researchers to access at the National Library by July or August 2019.

News!

The last ten months have seen further exciting new developments with the Flying Nun Records collection.

The production history behind many of the master tapes in the Flying Nun archive now lies several decades in the past. In some cases, there is little documentation of what happened, with some boxes revealing little about their contents apart from the band’s name or, as in the image below, even less. During the label’s consultation with its artists last year, it was mooted that interviews could be a useful way to capture important information about the original recording contexts.

Shows a tape reel without any identifying information written on the outside.A mystery recording without any identifying information written on the outside.

Label founder Roger Shepherd has subsequently gone on to conduct a series of 14 interviews, which will soon be added as another series to the Flying Nun collection. These include conversations with audio engineers Rex Visible, Doug Hood, and Matthew Heine, plus musicians including Graeme Jefferies, Jay Clarkson, Paul Kean, Graeme Downes, Chris Matthews, Matthew Bannister and Robert Scott. Once processing is complete, all will be openly accessible to researchers in the Library’s Katherine Mansfield Reading Room, to assist with research into the rest of the collection.

There have also been fresh discussions between Flying Nun Records and its artists, and with the Library, about finding a way to secure the long-term preservation of further master tapes. We’re delighted to announce that several hundred more recordings – mostly open-reel masters – will soon join the collection at the Turnbull Library. As with the original transfer of tapes from Auckland, this has involved some complex logistical moves over recent months. In some cases, considerable conservation work was necessary once the tapes arrived at the Library and before they could be placed in interim storage.

The tapes include a tranche relating to founding Flying Nun band The Clean and other groups featuring David Kilgour. The Clean material features mixes for their first single, ‘Tally Ho!’, early production masters, and a live multitrack recording from 1988.

7” open reel tape containing two mixes of The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho!’.7” open reel tape containing two mixes of The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho!’.

Other bands represented by the new accruals include Able Tasmans, The Cakekitchen, Ghost Club, Headless Chickens, Look Blue Go Purple, Netherworld Dancing Toys, Sneaky Feelings, Solid Gold Hell, S.P.U.D., The Subliminals, The 3Ds, and The Verlaines. The tapes include a diverse array of recordings. Some have already undergone digital preservation as part of Flying Nun’s own reissue activities, so AV digitisation will not be as urgent for these tapes. But others will be preserved within three years of their acceptance by the Library, around mid-2022.

7” open reel tape containing the original 4-track master of The Verlaine’s ‘Death and the Maiden’.7” open reel tape containing the original 4-track master of The Verlaine’s ‘Death and the Maiden’.

Keep an eye out too over coming weeks for some photo-essays on the National Library Facebook page illustrating in more detail what’s been happening.

Photos of the Flying Nun Records archive transfer to Wellington: Part 1

Photos of the Flying Nun Records archive transfer to Wellington: Part 2

Thanks to Roger Shepherd, the Able Tasmans, the Bats, Mushroom Music, Mark Beatty, Llewe Jones, and the Flying Nun Project working group.

By Michael Brown

Michael Brown is Music Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Julian White May 10th at 12:03AM

This is astonishingly great work! Thank you so much for your dedication and attention to detail in preserving these treasures.

Nick Peters July 4th at 12:06AM

Amazing work. So pleased these treasures are getting the treatment and respect they deserve. Some much needed good news in the wake of the Universal Masters fire revelations.

Mark Skelton July 4th at 3:01AM

Thank you :) This is so very impressive!

Josh Shepperd July 4th at 6:47AM

This is immediately one of my favorite sound preservation projects in the world.

Ben July 11th at 9:19AM

Amazing attention to detail and thoroughness. This program should be considered a model for other audio preservation efforts.