A sonic step closer

Master-tape preservation at the Alexander Turnbull Library


  • Michael Brown Alexander Turnbull Library Author




master recordings, music archiving, popular music heritage, copyright


The preservation risks surrounding music master tapes—the high-quality sources of most commercial recordings between the 1950s and 1990s—were dramatically highlighted in recent coverage of Universal Music’s 2008 vault fire. Other challenges include storage costs, chemical instability of tape stocks and technological obsolescence of playback equipment, with the industry’s ability to tackle these still unclear. This article examines an emerging solution—donation to public archival institutions—using recent experiences at the Alexander Turnbull Library (part of the National Library of New Zealand) as a case study. Focusing on the master-tape collections of the Viking and Ode record labels, it examines their status as a form of ‘popular music heritage’, practical considerations such as copyright, digitization work, and how this work is leveraged by the labels to reissue legacy recordings. There has been little scholarly study of master tapes and the article also explores their research potential in terms of sound quality, studio production and industry history. Master tapes, the article concludes, hold considerable aesthetic, commercial and historical significance.

Author Biography

  • Michael Brown, Alexander Turnbull Library

    Dr Michael Brown works as Curator, Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library, part of the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa. Areas he has researched over the years include vernacular music, popular music history, and audiovisual archiving. His most recent book publication is the edited collection Searches for Tradition: Essays on New Zealand Music, Past and Present (Victoria University Press, 2017).


Angelaki, Maria. 2019. ‘Image Copyright and Open Access in the Arts and Humanities’. Unlocking Research: University of Cambridge Office of Scholarly Communication, 25 October. https://unlockingresearch-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=2664 (accessed 27 February 2020).

Baker, Sarah. 2015. ‘Identifying Do-it-Yourself Places of Popular Music Preservation’. In Preserving Popular Music Heritage: Do-it-Yourself, Do-it-Together, ed. Sarah Baker, 1–16. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315769882-1

Baker, Sarah, Peter Doyle and Shane Homan. 2016. ‘Historical Records, National Constructions: The Contemporary Popular Music Archive’. Popular Music and Society 39/1: 8–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2015.1061336

Baker, Sarah, Catherine Strong, Lauren Istvandity and Zelmarie Cantillon, eds. 2018. Routledge Companion to Popular Music History and Heritage. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315299310

Baker, Sarah, and Jez Collins. 2015. ‘Sustaining Popular Music’s Material Culture in Community Archives and Museums’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 21/10: 983–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/13527258.2015.1041414

Barrowman, Rachel. 1995. The Turnbull: A Library and Its World. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Benjamin, Walter. 1973. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, 211–44. London: Fontana.

Bennett, Samantha. 2015. ‘Never Mind the Bollocks: A Tech-Processual Analysis’. Popular Music and Society 28/4: 466–86. https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2015.1034508

—2017. ‘Audio Archive Preservation Challenges and Pedagogical Opportunities: School of Music RePlayed’. Paper presented at 143rd Convention of the Audio Engineering Society, New York.

Bollinger, Nick. 1992. ‘The Golden Years of HMV—An Interview with Frank Douglas’. Music in New Zealand 16: 52–57.

Bourke, Chris. 2010. Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918–1964. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Bressan, Federica, Sergio Canazza and Roberta Bertani. 2015. ‘“Honey, I burnt the tapes!” A Study on Thermal Treatment for the Recovery of Magnetic Tapes Affected by Soft Binder Syndrome-Sticky Shed Syndrome’. IASA Journal 44: 53–64.

Bressan, Federica, Richard L. Hess, Paolo Sgarbossa and Roberta Bertani. 2019. ‘Chemistry for Audio Heritage Preservation: A Review of Analytical Techniques for Audio Magnetic Tapes’. Heritage 2: 1551–87. https://doi.org/10.3390/heritage2020097

Brooks, Tim. 2019. ‘Current Bibliography’. ARSC Journal 50/2: 324–29.

Brown, Michael. 2012. ‘Making Our Own—Two Ethnographies of the Vernacular in New Zealand Music: Tramping Club Singsongs and the Ma?ori Guitar Strumming Style’. PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington/Massey University.

—2015. ‘Archival Popular-music Collections at the Alexander Turnbull Library’. Soundings: IASPM-ANZ e-newsletter, March: 9.

Browne, David. 2010. ‘File Not Found: The Record Industry’s Digital Storage Crisis’. Rolling Stone, 7 December. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/file-not-found-the-record-industrys-digital-storage-crisis-251406/ (accessed 8 February 2018).

Burgess, Richard James. 2014. The History of Music Production. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Casey, Mike. 2015. ‘Why Media Preservation Can’t Wait: The Gathering Storm’. IASA Journal 44: 14–22.

Cohen, Sara, Robert Knifton, Marion Leonard and Les Roberts, eds. 2015. Sites of Popular Music Heritage: Memories, Histories, Places. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203514528

Cooke, Chris. 2018. ‘Remastering Doesn’t Always Create a New Copyright, Appeals Court Says in Pre-1972 Royalties Case’. Complete Music Update. http://www.completemusicupdate.com/article/remastering-doesnt-always-create-a-new-copyright-appeals-court-says-in-pre-1972-royalties-case/ (accessed 14 September 2018).

Copyright Act. 1994. http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1994/0143/latest/DLM345634.html (accessed 5 March 2020).

Dart, William. 1993. ‘Terence O’Neill-Joyce—25 Years of Ode Records’. Music in New Zealand 21: 46–50.

De Lancie, Phil. 1990. ‘Sticky Shed Syndrome: Tips on Saving Your Damaged Master Tapes’. Mix, May: 148–55.

Deppman, Jed, Daniel Ferrer and Michael Groden, eds. 2004. Genetic Criticism, Texts and Avant-Textes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gray, Kevin. 1997. ‘Producing Great Sounding Phonograph Records’. Record Technology. http://recordtech.com/prodsounds.htm (accessed 28 February 2020).

Grigg, Simon. 2013a. ‘Viking’. AudioCulture. https://www.audioculture.co.nz/labels/viking (accessed 19 September 2018).

—2013b. ‘Ode’. AudioCulture. https://www.audioculture.co.nz/labels/ode (accessed 19 September 2018).

Hardeman, Simon. 2013. ‘Lost Tapes: The Music that Fans May Never Get to Hear’. The Independent, 13 September. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/lost-tapes-the-music-that-fans-may-never-get-to-hear-8812774.html (accessed 8 February 2018).

Hess, Richard L. 2008. ‘Tape Degradation Factors and Challenges in Predicting Tape Life’. ARSC Journal 34/2: 240–74.

Holland, Bill. 1997a. ‘Labels Strive to Rectify Past Archival Problems’. Billboard, 12 July: 1, 88–89.

—1997b. ‘Upgrading Labels’ Vaults No Easy Archival Task’. Billboard, 17 July: 1, 98–99.

—1999a. ‘Industry’s Catalog at Risk’. Billboard, 5 June: 1, 124–25.

—1999b. ‘Digital Archives Face Deterioration’. Billboard, 17 July: 1, 105.

—1999c. ‘New Tech Requires Old Masters’. Billboard, 6 November: 1, 92–93.

Holland, Bill, and Christopher Walsh. 2004a. ‘Battling to Save Archives at Risk’. Billboard, 21 August: 1, 56, 62.

—2004b. ‘Analog: A Race against Time’. Billboard, 28 August: 9, 78.

IASA Technical Committee. 2009. Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects (2nd edn, IASA-TC 04). International Association of Sound and Audio­visual Archives. www.iasa-web.org/tc04/audio-preservation (accessed 20 November 2020).

—2014. Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers (IASA-TC 05). www.iasa-web.org/tc05/handling-storage-audio-video-carriers (accessed 20 November 2020).

—2017. The Safeguarding of the Audiovisual Heritage: Ethics, Principles and Preservation Strategy (Version 4, IASA-TC 03). International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives. www.iasa-web.org/tc03/ethics-principles-preservation-strategy (accessed 20 November 2020).

Katz, Bob. 2007. Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science. New York: Focal Press.

Library of Congress. 2011. ‘Universal Music Group Donates over 200,000 Master Record­ings to the Library of Congress’. https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-11-003/universal-music-group-donates-recordings-to-library/2011-01-10/ (accessed 8 September 2018).

McNally, Kirk, Toby Seay and Paul Thompson. 2019. ‘What the Masters Teach Us: Multitrack Audio Archives and Popular Music Education’. In The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education Perspectives and Practices, ed. Zack Moir, Bryan Powell and Gareth Dylan Smith, 113–26. London: Bloomsbury Academic. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350049444.ch-009

Michielse, Maarten. 2013. ‘Musical Chameleons: Fluency and Flexibility in Online Remix Contests’. M/C Journal 16/4. https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.676

Mound, Josh. 2018–2020. ‘The Best Version of…’. Audiophile Style. https://audiophilestyle.com/ca/the-best-version-of/ (accessed 5 March 2020).

—2019. ‘The Best Version of… Crosby, Stills & Nash Self-Titled Debut’. Audiophile Style. https://audiophilestyle.com/ca/the-best-version-of/the-best-version-of%E2%80%A6-crosby-stills-nash-self-titled-debut-r826/ (accessed 5 March 2020).

NFSA (National Film and Sound Archive of Australia). 2017. Deadline 2025: Collections at Risk. https://www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/curated/deadline-2025-0 (accessed 20 September 2018).

National Library of New Zealand Act. 2003. http://legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2003/0019/latest/DLM191962.html (accessed 24 September 2019).

National Library of New Zealand. 2016. ‘Collecting Plan—Music: 2016–2018’. https://natlib.govt.nz/about-us/strategy-and-policy/collections-policy/collecting-plan-






How to Cite

Brown, M. (2021). A sonic step closer: Master-tape preservation at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Popular Music History, 13(3), 273–297. https://doi.org/10.1558/pomh.40992