We've seen some curious studios in SOS over the years, but not many have included a warehouse full of vintage hardware, Pro Tools HD rigs, and thermostatic ovens. But it's all part of the daily routine at FX Copyroom...
Tucked away at the back of a warehouse on an industrial estate in North-west London lies one of the music business's quiet success stories. Once a small offshoot of the FX group of companies that includes equipment-hire company FX Rentals, the FX Copyroom have long since outgrown their humble beginnings as a lowly tape-copying and CD-duplication service, and have become renowned throughout the music industry for their ability to save poorly archived or decaying analogue tapes, restore them to health, and transfer their contents to more modern digital media. At the same time, they've gone from occupying a cable-festooned corner of the FX Rentals warehouse to having four permanent Pro Tools-based studios crammed with a dazzling variety of gear, from obsolete analogue and digital multitrackers and processors to the latest and greatest recording technology has to offer. Reassuringly, though, there are still cables all over the place!
The Copyroom offer their services to everybody from bedroom studio owners right up to the higher echelons of the worldwide music industry — as former studio engineer and current FX Copyroom Manager Kevin Vanbergen proudly puts it, "We've dealt with the tapes of pretty much all the world's top-selling artists, apart from The Beatles — although we're not always allowed to talk about exactly who we've worked with". Clients the Copyroom can talk about, for whom they've rescued and/or transferred material over the course of their six-year history include Led Zeppelin, the Live Aid organisation, producers like Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T Rex), and the Estate of Bob Marley, to say nothing of the many members of the public who have lovingly brought them hissy tapes of weddings, pub gigs, and the Portastudio-based noodlings of long-forgotten sixth-form bands. And they've learned all about the arcane art of analogue tape-baking along the way — of which more later in this article.
The Copyroom's roots lie in an attempt by equipment-hire company FX Rentals to diversify at the end of the '90s. As more and more musicians and producers set up their own computer- and software-based recording systems, the number of professional recording studios began to diminish (a process still continuing today), and the hardware studio-equipment hire business began to slow down. Seeking to formalise their existing ad hoc duplication business, FX Rentals began to market a tape-copying and CD-duplication service, which gradually developed for a year or so before Kevin joined the company. "FX offered me an incentive scheme to expand the Copyroom. The first thing I did was stop doing CD duplication; instead, we targeted other business, mainly multitrack transfer at first, backing up analogue multitracks digitally, either to CD-R or to DAT. When we first started up in 1999, there was a real demand for what was called DATstreaming — that is, backing up all the parts of a multitrack onto DAT one track at a time, with timecode on one stereo channel and one track on the other, maybe 48 times over. That was very profitable for a while, because at that point, people weren't sure how best to back up their multitracks digitally, and stereo DAT seemed like the best option. People were paying 600 quid for 48 tracks of one song!"
Over the first couple of years after Kevin joined the Copyroom, the transfer of analogue multitracks to digital storage media and the backup of existing digital recordings became the company's main business, and a great success. Much of this work came from major record labels, one reason the Copyroom were so successful. In past decades, some record companies would periodically purge their archives, with the result that multitrack tapes by even very famous artists were simply thrown away, but according to Kevin Vanbergen, most major record companies now recognise the value of their archives, and want to preserve them. "Even 10 years ago, record companies were still throwing away a lot of their tapes. They would say, 'well, this group aren't successful any more, and they aren't signed to us now either... let's put the tapes in the skip'. I've seen that happen, and I've seen fans, who get tipped off, come down and fish multitrack tapes by famous artists out of the skip and go home with them. I've done it, too. One time, a record company associated with the studio I was working at went down, and the receivers emptied the shelves into this skip. What they were throwing away was absolutely priceless, so I pulled everything out and returned it to the artists.
"These days, though, it's mainly small companies that do silly things, if they're worried about storage costs. The majors realise that these recordings are their assets — simply put, if you have multitrack tapes full of unreleased takes, the chances are that they will one day make you money — so they want to keep them, and to back them up. We targeted that business, and soon a lot of people were ringing us up and asking how much it would cost to have fresh analogue copies made. The answer, of course, was always an arm and a leg — but doing it digitally was much more affordable, and that business really took off. We do a lot of transfers of live concerts, too. People don't like to record live gigs to hard disk recorders, so they'll put them on to DA98s or something, and then we'll transfer it for them. All studios do a little bit of transferring on the side if they can, but it's always a secondary function, whereas we've always offered a dedicated service.
"We've also been a bit of a help desk to the major record companies over the past few years. A lot of them are given Firewire drives as their final album masters now, and they often ring up and say 'a courier has dropped off some sort of computer drive thing... what is it?' and we'll transfer it for them. But record companies are now getting much better at knowing what needs to be done. One record company sent two team leaders to us, and I spent a morning teaching them to recognise various different formats of hard drive. Sometimes, though, they don't realise that there isn't a backup — I've often asked them if there are copies of these drives with finished albums on them anywhere else, and they say things like, 'Oh... the producer might have a copy, I think'. I usually advise them not to leave it on a Firewire drive, because all it takes is for the disk not to be spun up for a few months, and it could be unplayable."
Unplayable media is a concern at both ends of the transfer process, but even when vintage tapes sent for transfer play back without problems, they're often not what they seem, and documentation about what they contain is frequently inaccurate or missing altogether. Reels claiming to be the production masters for well-known projects can turn out to have different track lineups to the commercially released albums, contain different mixes, or worst of all, have different sections of songs, such as variant bridges or outros, spliced on to them. In order to archive tapes accurately, Kevin often has to resort to buying a commercial CD of an album and then comparing it track by track with the mysterious tapes he's been sent. "It helps if you're a fan, or at least if you know the material — it makes transfer work so much easier. It's a really strange feeling when you've been transferring a tape of loads of unfamiliar takes of, say, U2 playing, and then you hear them counting in to do another one, and you realise it's the master take of 'Pride' or something that you've heard a million times before — you can spot it a mile off."
On the other hand, spotting that all is not what it seems in less familiar material is much harder. "We were sent a one-inch eight-track in a beautiful handmade box that was supposed to be the master to Free's 1970 Fire & Water album to do a high-resolution transfer for 'All Right Now', but when I Iistened to it, something didn't seem quite right. Eventually, it dawned on me that the basic backing track was the same, but that this tape had claves overdubbed on it instead of the famous cowbell. A bigger Free fan would have spotted that straight away."
The fame of an artist is no guarantee that their work will be diligently archived. The Beatles, who nearly always recorded at Abbey Road, and whose tapes were therefore carefully collected and stored in one place, are very much the exception to the rule. While Kevin was collecting Mark Bolan's master tapes for transfer into high-resolution Pro Tools Sessions, so that original producer Tony Visconti could remix Bolan's back catalogue for release on SACD, he found that two songs were missing. The rights to the tapes in question had allegedly passed to third-party companies following Bolan's death, although they were eventually tracked down. Strangest of all, the FX Copyroom were contacted last year by the management behind one of the best-selling bands of all time. The idea was that Kevin would carry out the digital transfer work in preparation for a surround mix of the band's best-known album. Contracts were drawn up, but when the band's management enquired further, they discovered that the company they had believed were securely holding the album's master tapes thought that the management had them — and the entire project ground to a halt. Sadly, Kevin is naming no names! "There were a lot of worried faces. I just wondered how this could possibly happen to the master tapes for one of the biggest albums of all time?"
DAT didn't remain the most popular output medium for the Copyroom's digital transfers for long. Soon customers were asking for audio as WAV files, or in the formats of the major sequencers and DAWs. Early on, Kevin established Digidesign Pro Tools TDM systems as the main digital workhorses in the Copyroom. These have now been upgraded to HD systems, and additional DAWs and sequencers are available for use when clients need or request them, such as Logic, Cubase, Sonar and iZ's RADAR. FX have recently installed a Pyramix system to allow compatibility with even more users. But increasingly, Kevin is being asked to simply output everything as multitrack Pro Tools Sessions. "Everyone just seems to have gone with Pro Tools; Digidesign have got a huge monopoly on the market. Now that HD systems are capable of 96kHz files, you can't really do Sound Designer II files any more. The last few years have been one of those transitional times, but now it's whittling down to a few choices. Broadcast WAV is the other common one."
Of course, the Copyroom's location within the FX Rentals warehouse has proven perfect for their expanding workload, as they've always had the right gear for their immediate needs to hand. Even if old tapes come in to the Copyroom in the strangest of obsolete digital tape formats, the chances are that the right playback machine is lurking somewhere in a forgotten corner of the FX Rentals gear store. And Kevin has deliberately sought out obsolete tape machines over the past few years, so it's now rare for them to encounter tapes they can't play. Looking around the Copyroom's studios, there's a strange mix of gear. Studer and Otari analogue multitrackers the size of washing machines squat next to Mitsubishi X850 and Sony 3348HR digital multitrackers — state of the art in the 1980s, and now literally impossible to give away — and threaten to overshadow the shiny Apple G5s and elegant Prism A-Ds.
Strangest of all, in a corner of the FX Copyroom studios stand three cupboard-like constructions with temperature control panels on their doors: the Copyroom's tape-baking ovens.
If you're unfamiliar with the concept of baking magnetic tape, check out Paul White's article on the subject (see SOS May 1996).
To briefly recap, tape baking is necessary with magnetic recording tape stock of a certain vintage (mid-'70s to early '80s). In such tapes, the adhesive binding the plastic tape to the magnetic oxide that stores the recorded signal dries out or becomes unstable after a few years. It can then absorb moisture from the air, causing the oxide on the tape to become raised and sticky. If the tape is played back while in this condition, the sticky oxide can be pulled from the tape as it passes through the playback heads, resulting in dropouts and/or the complete destruction of the signal recorded on the tape. However, gentle baking for several days in a special oven designed to produce a carefully controlled, uniform heat can drive the absorbed moisture from the adhesive, rendering the tape playable once again.
Shortly after directing the Copyroom into multitrack transfer work, Kevin Vanbergen began to encounter 'sticky' tapes from record companies and members of the public that had to be baked before they could be transferred. At that time, the only tape-baking facility was at the Quantegy (formerly Ampex) tape factory outside Reading, which had been set up by Ampex in the early '80s when the so-called 'sticky shed syndrome' was first noticed in stocks of the company's 456 and 406 tape. Kevin recalls: "Ampex felt they had a responsibility to their customers, so they baked tapes for free for a while, but when they noticed that it was happening to other brands of tape as well, they realised it wasn't necessarily their fault, and handed over reponsibility for baking to this other guy, and started charging for it. I used to send tapes that needed baking to him, but I soon got fed up of sending tapes back and forth to Reading, so I asked Quantegy what kind of oven was required for the job, and we got one here with capacity for about 15 to 20 two-inch tapes. When clients in London realised they didn't have to ship tapes to Reading any more, our baking business took off, and we bought two more ovens, each with room for about 50 tapes.
"We get phone calls every day about tape baking now, and we often have to explain why it's needed. There's a lot of urban myths; I've heard even quite well-respected, technical people say 'Oh, you can bake the tape, but then you get one go at transferring it, and if that doesn't work, it'll be lost forever.' But that's not the case. It usually makes the tape playable for about 20 or 30 days, during which time you can transfer it. Once we've explained this to potential customers, we can either bake the tape and leave the digital transfer to them, or do the whole process for them, in which case the tape baking is free."
The Copyroom's tape-baking clients range from members of the public wanting to transfer low-quality audio recordings of late relatives right up to the top names in the recording industry. One day, following a phone call in which the Copyroom were asked if they could help save 50 unspecified tapes, one such 'name' client dropped by the FX premises in a stretch limo. It turned out to be none other than Rita Marley, widow of Bob. And she bought a crate with her...
"When we got it open, the tapes were covered in mould — at first I thought they were mould. They'd been stored in a hot garage in Jamaica. Moisture's bad, but at least you can bake that away; heat is the real killer. Some of the tapes were fine, but some had just fused into a block. At the time, I had no idea what to do with those, so we had to set them aside. But we managed to bake and clean about 25, with some help from Quantegy.
"It was like archaeology — first the tapes were baked, and then it was a slow process of unwinding them by hand, using paintbrushes and an anti-static lint Quantegy had recommended to clean the mould from the surface of the tape. We worked pretty much around the clock for a couple of weeks, but we managed to get those 25 done. They were all multitrack live recordings — Bob Marley live at the Lyceum, at the Rainbow Theatre, at the Hammersmith Apollo, stuff like that. Rita Marley came back and listened to the finished results, and was very happy and quite emotional about it. I guess it could all have been lost for ever.
"I've actually worked out a way of getting the tapes in the worst condition to play, now. A guy came in off the street one day with a tape of a prominent African artist that wouldn't play, and when I opened the box, the oxide was just falling off, as though the binding had completely dried out. I suggested to the owner that a lubricant might help, and said I could try soaking it in de-ionised water, but there was no guarantee it would work. The tape was completely unplayable as it was, though, so he had nothing to lose. I soaked the tape for about two hours — it absorbed water like a sponge at first — until I could see the outer layers beginning to peel away. It was a judgement call, as I didn't want to leave it too long and cause it to swell. It took several more attempts before the water penetrated to the middle of the tape, and only then could I safely unwind it by hand without ripping the oxide off. And after that, it had to be baked six times before it was playable. It took about a month in all. But finally, it played — and it sounded absolutely fine.
"After that, I did the same for the master of Althea and Donna's 'Uptown Top Ranking'. That tape was the same, but having tried it once, I was more confident, and it worked. We'll do that for anyone with badly fused tapes now, but we have to charge a lot for it — over a thousand pounds a tape in some cases — because it takes so many man-hours to get the tape to the point where you can transfer it, and it's painstaking, careful work. Obviously, some people decide it's not worth it."
Aged splicing and leader tape, it seems, can be the bane of Kevin's life, especially when he's trying to encourage a sticky tape to spool. "When tapes with splices in them have been baked, and you're slow-winding them, sometimes the tape can stick to the back of the splices. You can hear it happening. There's a kind of clicking as the tape is pulled apart, and some of the surface starts to pull away — and then you have to leap for the tape machine to stop it winding, as fast as you can! Often, I'll wind the tape by hand really slowly, but it'll still stick to the splicing tape, in which case I have to put fresh tape over the old splice to stop the tape sticking to it.
"Also, I don't know what era it comes from, but there was a time when tapes were made using this funny leader tape with red stripes through it. Nowadays it's white, red, or green, so this stuff stands out. The problem is, the red stripes are actually paint or some kind of ink that's become sticky over the years, and they tear the oxide right off the tape when you wind past it, unless you wind it really slowly. That happened to me the first time I encountered one of these tapes; luckily, the audio on it didn't start until 30 or 40 seconds later. But when you get a production master with that leader tape between the tracks, you know you're in for trouble, and a lot of very slow, careful winding. It's almost like peeling a plaster off your leg..."
The FX Copyroom is continuing to branch out — at the time of writing, they're getting into restoring and transferring video tape. After six years, Kevin Vanbergen is still delighted that he put an end to the CD-duplication activities. "Through doing this year after year, we've gained a really good reputation for being able to save recordings people thought were lost for good, and for putting them into formats people can use more easily. And so a lot of stuff comes through us, whether it's live or studio productions. Someone recently called the FX Copyroom 'the Spaghetti Junction' of the UK music industry. I'd like to think of that as a compliment!"