Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Historically Significant Master Recordings Destroyed in 2008 Fire at Universal Studios

Jody Rosen, New York Times:

The archive in Building 6197 was UMG’s main West Coast storehouse of masters, the original recordings from which all subsequent copies are derived. A master is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the irreplaceable primary source of a piece of recorded music. According to UMG documents, the vault held analog tape masters dating back as far as the late 1940s, as well as digital masters of more recent vintage. It held multitrack recordings, the raw recorded materials — each part still isolated, the drums and keyboards and strings on separate but adjacent areas of tape — from which mixed or “flat” analog masters are usually assembled. And it held session masters, recordings that were never commercially released.

UMG maintained additional tape libraries across the United States and around the world. But the label’s Vault Operations department was managed from the backlot, and the archive there housed some of UMG’s most prized material. There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

This lengthy article is one gut punch after another. Some recordings that were held in Universal’s vault were never digitized; others were digitized long before there were any standards for doing so. And there’s no guarantee that the digital recordings will be adequately preserved, either. We are not great yet at preserving our greatest cultural works.