Bristol is home to some extraordinary niche businesses, and they don’t come much more specialised than greatbear analogue and digital media ltd, saviour of audio and video tape content. Tucked away in a warren of interconnected offices at The Coach House in St Pauls, owner Adrian Finn specialises in the restoration and digitisation of magnetic tape. In short, he is saving the nation’s memories.
Stepping inside the greatbear studio is like entering Aladdin’s Cave. Rack after rack of electronic equipment lines the walls. The hulking shapes of open-reel tape recorders with their Star Trek-like dials and flashing lights hum gently in the background. Rows of boxy broadcast video machines play long-dead recording formats like 1 inch C Format, u-Matic and Betacam SP. Oscillators and strange monitors ping and whirr away doing whatever it is that they do. It’s hard to imagine that many of these slightly dusty but restored and well-cared-for artefacts would cost tens of thousands of pounds when new. This was the kit that pumped out broadcast TV and radio from the 60s through to the 90s.
The beautiful irony is that the scarcity of this equipment today is what makes it valuable. More than that, people who know how to operate and fix them must as rare as hen’s teeth. That’s where Adrian comes in…
“Magnetic tape has been around since the 1930′s, so there are an awful lot of recordings out there, from domestic to professional on all sorts of shapes, sizes and formats.
“The other day I was sent some amazing master audio recordings from 1952 of a jazz band. It’s an honour to be so close to so much personal history.”
What’s come through the door in the last few months?
“An advertising director asked us to transfer his recordings so he could pitch for new work. It was on 1-inch video tape, the standard for broadcast recordings years in the 1970s and 80s. We were able to extract and digitise the material safely, and give him back a valuable archive. He was delighted.
What about audio?
“Yes, we are asked to preserve a lot of old audio recordings. It could be a middle-aged dad who was in a long-lost punk band. Or recordings of people who have passed away, and the relatives want to keep their voices for posterity. Everybody has a different reason for wanting to get this material onto a useable digital format. These things only have value to the individuals involved, yet they are strangely moving at times.”
What about the local music scene?
“Locally, we work with Mike Darby, who runs Bristol Archive Records. He’s been involved in the Bristol music scene since the 80s. He was in a mod band called The Rimshots and then managed local bands. He gets access to lots of great old music from the 70s onwards. We get the studio master tapes, the vinyl, everything, and we digitise and restore it. He puts it out in digital format through a network of distribution sites, and has started manufacturing limited edition vinyl. There’s a lot of great Bristol reggae bands in that collection.”
What sort of condition are the tapes you are sent?
“It varies, but if the tape has degraded, you need to understand what the problem is and address it before you can even think of transferring it to digital. Due to the design of the recorders, audio tape is more forgiving than video tape.
“Some tape develops ‘binder hydrolysis’ and, over time, becomes sticky. Because of this extra friction it won’t run through a tape machine correctly. Bits of tape can start to rub off, you lose all the high frequencies as the sticky tape coats the heads, and, in the worst cases, the coating will come right off the tape, and you’re left with this awful gummy residue all over the equipment.”
So that’s a non-starter, then?
“Not always. There is a process to save such tapes. We ‘bake’ them!
“The way to solve it is to warm up the tape, very slowly, then hold it at a precise temperature for a long while. This process temporarily solves the problem and allows us to to play a tape again, for a short while. Obviously we use a special oven!”
Don’t you ever worry that something will go wrong?
“I have nightmares about it but nothing’s ever gone wrong. Tape is perceived to be very fragile, but, if you now what you are doing, it is remarkably resilient. Even stuff that is 50, 60 years old.
“Put it another way, I’d hate to try and recover data from a memory stick that has been run over by a car!”
Have you had any interesting video projects?
“Well, recently Bristol City Football Club were in touch as they had a bunch of tapes that had been stuck in a damp store room at Ashton Gate for decades. No-one knew what was on them, but it turned out to be gold-dust. Someone had the idea, back the early 70s, that they would record City games on one of the very early domestic video recorders. The idea was to analyse the team’s performance after the game, see what could be improved and so on. Back then, this idea was genuinely groundbreaking!
“In the process of digitising tape after tape, we hit the jackpot. We’d discovered a very famous 1978 hat-trick by Kevin Mabbutt against Man United at Old Trafford.”
What’s it like working in The Coach House?
“BRAVE, the local enterprise agency that manages the offices, has supported us every step of the way. My business is not a laptop and an internet connection. I need plenty of space to store the kit: we need ‘doubles’ for spares and so on. Then there’s the tapes… Lots and lots of tapes.
“BRAVE have been incredibly flexible and have let us evolve and grow with our space and storage arrangements.”
greatbear really is a gem of a business: niche, distinctive and with a global reach. For Bristolians who stumble across some ancient tapes in the attic, now you know who can bring them back to life.