Memorial Lecture at 136th: Dietrich Schüller / Preserving our sound recordings — 25 years since everything changed

AES 136th Convention
Estrel Hotel and Convention Center, Berlin, Germany
April 26–29, 2014

The Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecturer at the 136th AES Convention is Dietrich Schüller. His illustrious career in audio preservation makes him eminently suited to explaining how the world’s audio heritage is being saved for the future, as well as how technology changes led to a paradigm shift in the way this is done.


Dietrich Schüller’s rare combination of experience in physics, ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology provided him with an ideal background for work in audio preservation. He joined the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences as a student assistant and, following graduation, became its Director in 1972. After concentration on methodological aspects of sound recording for research purposes, he became increasingly engaged in audiovisual preservation and re-recording. He was a member of the Executive Board of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) from 1975 to 1987, founder of the IASA Technical Committee and its chair until 2001. He is a member of the Audio Engineering Society, was member of the Organizing Committee of the Vienna AES Conventions 1992 and 2007, and Vice-Chair of the AES Standards Subcommittee on Audio Preservation and Restoration until its closure in 2012. He became engaged in UNESCO’s work as delegate of Austria for Communication and Information and as an expert for the Memory of the World Programme. He has worked, partly on behalf of UNESCO, as a consultant to a number of audiovisual archives in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.

After retirement in 2008, he continued work for UNESCO where he presently is Vice-President of the Information for All Programme (IFAP), and chair of the IFAP Working Group on Information Preservation. An author of numerous publications on audiovisual preservation, he is also involved in national and international training courses and workshops for audiovisual archivists.

Full Abstract

In 1989/1990 audio archivists started to understand that to pursue the classical paradigm of archives and museums, by preserving the original objects placed in their care, would be in vain. All audio carriers are vulnerable and most of them unstable, at least in comparison with traditional text documents and museum objects. Moreover, as machine readable documents their retrievability would always depend on the availability of replay equipment. By that time it had become clear that ever shorter life time cycles of digital carriers and their formats would confront archivists with the impossible task of keeping an ever-growing amount of sophisticated replay equipment in operable condition.

This lead to the change of the preservation paradigm: to concentrate on content preservation by retrieving signals from their original carriers, digitize analog signals, to automatically check digital files for data integrity, and to copy them losslessly, again using automated processes, from one digital preservation platform to the next. This new paradigm was not without dispute amongst traditional archivists at the time, but it became gradually accepted. Radio archives were the first to explore digital mass storage systems for audio archiving in 1992/93, during a first ARD pilot project in Baden-Baden. The incentive was not so much the “eternal” preservation of holdings, but rather the ease of program production from the desk of the radio producers. By the mid 1990s this approach was adopted by national and research archives. Video archives followed thereafter, and ultimately even film preservation took over this principle.

The lecture describes the situation that has lead to the change of paradigm and the role that AES and other organisations played in those days. It also surveys the established standards of audio preservation, specifically the ban on data reduction (“compression”) for archival purposes, and the enormous challenges associated with the transfer of content from conventional carriers into digital repositories. Broadcast and national archives of wealthy countries have already safeguarded their holdings, or are doing so. Seen from a global perspective, however, the picture is not encouraging: less wealthy institutions, specifically in developing countries, notoriously suffer from underfunding, which may prevent them from safeguarding their holdings in time, before unavailability of replay equipment makes even well preserved carriers useless. The time window for that transfer has recently been estimated to be 10-15 years. For magnetic tape documents, however, this may already be overoptimistic, as spare part production, specifically of magnetic heads, is discontinuing.

Audio and video recordings are the documents proper of cultural and linguistic diversity of human kind. Their loss would destroy a significant part of the world’s documentary heritage. Consequently, UNESCO is preparing a campaign to alert institutions, governments and the civil society of the unprecedented threat to this rich, important and diverse part of the collective memory of civilizations.

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