NZ Music Month x National Library of NZ x Flying Nun

May is New Zealand Music Month and it’s a good time to shine the spotlight on bands, stories and projects from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Admittedly, my obsessive following of NZ music has dwindled in recent years, and my interests are atrophying into pure nostalgia rather than keeping my finger on the pulse of new music. That being said, with the advent of Bandcamp Fridays last year, I did a bit more research (read: listening to the 95bFM Top Ten) which led to some purchases of some pretty bleeding edge stuff. 

But it paints a certain picture where my only real acknowledgement of NZ Music Month this year has been via some excellent blog posts from the National Library of New Zealand, and which themselves dealt primarily with the preservation and digitisation of the Flying Nun Records archive. But what a fascinating series of posts they are.

Stacks of audio master tapes on a shelf at Nightshift Studios
Nightshift Studios Christchurch, February 2008

The first post was Flying Nun in the spotlight, which deals with the photographing of the physical objects of the Flying Nun Records collection.

The post makes it clear why such a careful record is required for what is not just a musical archive but a physical and visual one, too. But it goes beyond the distinctive artwork and tour posters the indie label became known for: there is a ton of meta art and information embedded in the collection’s artefacts that help flesh out the story even further.

Objects such as: recording and engineering notes handwritten on master tape sleeves and letters to the pressing plants; Chris Knox doodles everywhere; and extra session information jotted down on scraps of paper that somehow survived the various moves the archive has been subjected to over the years.

It also reveals the great breadth of formats the archive encompasses, not just of recording media, but the extra documents, boxes and fluff that goes with it. It’s also led to some clever innovations in the equipment they have brought in to enable them to systematically photograph the collection as carefully as possible. (The team photo at the bottom of that post is a delight.)

The second post is Flying Nun in the studio, and it talks about Nick Guy’s clinical approach to digitising the recordings and preserving the media on which they live – and hopefully will continue to live for as long as possible.

Degradation of these media is inevitable, and the goal is to try and create the best digital copy of these recordings – whether demos, live recordings, pressing masters, or multitrack masters – so that they can be remastered or analysed and studied in future, and possibly even be improved by future processing techniques.

But this digitisation of the sound itself isn’t even as ‘simple’ as that might sound – the raw audio on those tapes is not all created equally, and the blog post goes into some really interesting detail about the different ways audio can be recorded to different tape stocks, at different speeds, and with different processing or noise reduction techniques applied.

And then you get to the knotty problem of finding reliable equipment to play this stuff back on, while praying that the tape itself survives one more playback having been sat spooled up in a cupboard for decades. Tapes often need to be ‘baked’ to make them more tolerant of being woken from their slumber after all this time.

It all creates quite the headache for Nick Guy and his team, but they are doing sterling work. It’s so cool knowing that this work is taking place, and it’s great to be able to read about the world-class processes and techniques in use here – not to mention the amazing actual documents and recordings they are working with.

The final(?) post in a trio from the National Library of NZ that has been such a eye-opener this NZ Music Month is Download Now… Free!: “Introducing a new born-digital collection that includes music production files and uses digital audio workstation software, which is a first for the Library.”

Years ago I remember learning that, via the Rockband/Guitar Hero videogames, the multi-track masters of some classic rock songs are either lost or no longer usable for such multi-stemmed dissection for future use.

This blew my mind, but only because I had up till that point naively assumed that all recording sessions were carried out the same way, that the masters were preserved and indexed carefully at the time, and that to remaster those old multitracks (or indeed to use them for a videogame genre that wasn’t even dreamt of when the sessions took place) would simply be a case of calling up the label and requesting them. In my mind this also, of course, applied to all sessions, even those done by tiny indie labels on tiny budgets, for songs that later went on to become classics. What a silly notion!

When you spend more than a minute or two imagining a real-world case study of what would actually be involved in that process, and all the various people and physical items and locations and contracts and so on involved… you begin to realise how fragile that entire ecosystem is, and how it’s frankly miraculous that such retrospective projects are even possible.

And so imagine how my mind verily exploded this morning reading the above post, which discusses not the preservation of analogue multi-track master tapes, but digital-native music: stuff created using Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) using plugins, samples, MIDI and so on.

We’re not simply talking about digital multi-tracked WAV file stems, but purely electronic instructions interpreted by a vast panoply of different software and plugins, each carefully cobbled together at the time of the session, and most likely not carefully documented once the finished product is exported as, at best, a multi-stemmed audio file, but, more likely, a mixed-down stereo master for distribution.

Crumbs. What a headache.

The above third post will appeal to you if this tangle of new issues sounds interesting to you, and it also features Luke Rowell aka Disasteradio’s collaboration with the National Library of NZ on this pioneering project including making available for free remixing and research of his own music projects under a Creative Commons licence.

Check out Disasteradio’s modern classic Gravy Rainbow below, and then have a delve into this new collection if it’s your cuppa tea.

The National Library of New Zealand have been smashing stuff like this out of the park for years. Not just the processes and projects they routinely work on, but the sharing of knowledge and best practices that can be carried forward by others around the world. And making it all sound so vibrant and interesting and fun.