Interview with Paul Mahern
by Jim Manion
Paul Mahern is an engineer on a mission: facilitate the analog-to-digital archiving process in any way he can. Sparked by his experience with Indiana University’s Sound Directions project, Mahern has launched Mahern Archival Preservation (MAP) to provide these critical services to all.
“This is an important issue we all have with our analog recordings,” Mahern says, “and we have to decide if we want to keep them. These old tape machines are breaking down. The machines are dying; a lot of the tapes need to be baked. The next ten years are going to be very critical for this material.”
Mahern’s eyes were opened to the audio archiving process and the overwhelming demand for it while on the staff of Indiana University.
“I started working at IU three years ago on the Sound Directions project,” he explains, “where I got involved in the process of digitizing old analog carriers. I knew a lot about magnetic tape recording already, but I didn’t know a whole lot about discs. My eyes were opened to the amount of stuff out there that is worth preserving.
The longtime Indiana engineer/producer/punk rocker discovered there was enough material at IU in the Archives of Traditional Music that, “if I had stayed there it would have kept me busy for four lifetimes, just digitizing the collection at the A.T.M. We’re way behind on this. There’s millions and millions of hours of audio worth preserving in the world. I started Mahern Archival Preservation because I felt I could provide an important service. ”
The opportunity to break out his new service on a major real-world project was right in front of Mahern, waiting somewhat impatiently. Indiana rocker John Mellencamp, who Mahern has done engineering and production work for years, has a vault full of aging tapes. Besides Mellencamp’s general need for digital archiving, a box set is calling.
“John Mellencamp has his own archival vault”, Mahern explains, “They built a vault out at his Belmont studio a few years ago and started gathering all the pieces. It made sense to do the digitizing process out there – doing the archiving and doing the digitizing. John’s box set that has been coming for years is approaching rapidly.”
On a quiet county road in the hills east of Bloomington is Mellencamp’s recording headquarters for years, Belmont Mall. The facility now has an annex that resembles a science lab on a critical mission.
Like any archival process for a prolific artist with decades of work, there is much Mellencamp material to sort through - with multiple tape formats, vintage noise reduction systems, and the challenge of decaying analog tape stock providing an array of hurdles to the archival process.
“In John’s collection it’s mostly analog recordings that start sometime in the late 70s,” says Mahern. “A couple of records were done mostly in digital, but are still partly analog. We have a lot of big two-inch tapes that are either twenty-four track or sixteen-track. Half-inch tapes that are mix-downs. Some quarter-inch tapes that are mix-downs. Fortunately, John has maintained machines and still uses machines that play back these different formats .There are variations in speed. And, we’re also dealing with period systems like Dolby encoding and DBX noise reduction.”
Like many rock artists of the eighties and nineties, most of Mellencamp’s masters were recorded on Ampex 456 – a magnetic tape formulation that was flawed, with faster than expected deterioration of the tape.
“The good news is it can be baked and it plays,” explains Mahern. “It’s not a problem. It doesn’t seem to impact the sonic quality, it’s a simple process, it holds together for months after the process. When we did the Farm Aid release we had to come back to the tapes months after we baked them and they played back fine.”
“We bought an oven, a scientific incubator, you can do five or six tapes at a time, which is usually about a days worth of archiving work. We’re baking tapes at the same time as we’re digitizing tapes from the day before. We’ve had to fix the machines out there three of four times in this process, you have these old machines that are now being asked to play day after day in this process. There’s also regular work that goes into aligning the tape machines. Each tape or series of tapes is different.”
As each tape box is pulled for archiving, a bit of detective work is required to sort out speed and noise reduction issues. “Usually, with a collection like John’s, you have world-class engineers and producers and the notes are fairly good. But every once in awhile you’ll come across something with very little information on the box. If noise reduction was used, you can tell by listening - there’s definitely a sonic footprint that noise reduction makes, but that doesn’t clue you in to what kind of noise reduction it is.”
“When there are clear notes, we transfer through a noise reduction unit. If we are unclear, we transfer without, and do post-production in the digital domain to create the noise reduction unit’s effect. If we are not sure, we default to hands-off. That goes for all archival processes. You don’t mess with something if you are not sure. The basic process is running an analog tape machine into an analog-to-digital converter, creating 24-bit, 96K frequency sound files. There are separate sound files for each individual track on a multi-track tape.”
“If we have a two-inch tape with twenty-four different tracks on it - let’s say it’s ‘Jack and Diane’ and a bunch of out-takes - we take the whole reel. If someone did want to remix it, or down the line maybe do a 5.1 mix for a film, then you could use it, mix it for that format.”
The opportunity came up to do just that, right after Mahern’s archival project for Mellencamp got underway.
“During this process, the video game Guitar Hero wanted to use “Hurts So Good”, and we got the multi-track master, digitized it, and I did a remix – but, a remix that was specifically for the way that game plays it back. When you play that game, the part you are playing suddenly becomes louder. I created stem-mixes so the game engine could mix on the fly. It was an interesting process that clued us all in, in a more concrete way, to the fact that we don’t really know how this material will be used in the future.”
As with any archival dig into the past, there are jewels to be discovered.
“One of the discoveries in the Mellencamp process is a bunch of songwriting demo cassettes of John in the mid-70s, just him with his guitar in his kitchen. There’s one piece that’s like an archeological find, a song called ‘Jenny at Sixteen’ that starts off with two or three lines that ended up in ‘Small Town’ and then it turns into a part of ‘Jack and Diane’ and it goes into this chorus about Jenny at sixteen. Then a couple of cassettes later, the ‘Jenny at Sixteen’ thing falls away and it’s ‘Jack and Diane’. And, then there’s a cassette of ‘Small Town’. So that sequence was digitized and will be on the box set, which will be another look at John Mellencamp as a songwriter.”
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