For the last two and a half years I've been working on archiving the recorded works of my late friend and stellar songwriter, Elliott Smith. His family entrusted me with the job of backing up all of his analog recordings as digital files, organizing and storing the media, searching for more recordings, cataloging the songs and tracks — as well as helping assemble the New Moon album. This has not been an easy task. Elliott recorded three albums (as well as an EP and singles) with the band Heatmiser, five solo albums (plus singles, b-sides, compilation tracks and soundtrack recordings), material that became two posthumous solo albums and numerous unreleased outtakes. Many live shows were also captured. Simply sorting out released and unreleased versions of songs can be initially confusing, especially when dealing with reduction mixes and differing sets of overdubs! Shuffling through outtakes can take ages. Don't forget that every unreleased track needed a rough mix in order to provide a way of hearing what is on the multitrack reels.

All of this can be daunting work, and there were times where I would expend a good deal of energy sorting and cataloging music only to end up repeating the work with a different methodology later. One important thing to consider is an archive like this, outside of the physical media being stored, will need to be composed of three parts:

  1. The main folder and subfolders that hold digital copies of the audio, though some may
    be "data only" files. 
  2. A computer program that enables you to keep track of what is in the audio folders. I
    used FileMaker Pro (as set up by our transfer house, Mr. Toad's). 

3. Scans of reel cases, track sheets, album covers, etc. These are a necessity, as handwriting can tie different reels to the same session, and clues will abound on tape

flanges and track sheet scratch-outs.

One quick aside to anyone approaching an archiving job: Start by collecting every album, EP, single and stray song that has been commercially released or used for promotion. If some items are very rare, ask hardcore fans for digital copies and cover scans. Work backwards from these releases to sort out which master mixes, multitracks and the like were used to assemble the final product. This might seem obvious, but I started with the multitrack reels and too many assumptions. Once I started assembling this "released" archive, many items fell into place in a logical fashion. Another task I would recommend is a global numbering system for stored media and data. Grab a P-Touch and get to work.

As I went through the terabyte-plus of transferred/backed up audio and reel scans, one thing (which I'd encountered working with him over a decade ago) became even more apparent — Elliott was terrible at taking notes and had poor organizational skills. Reels were in the wrong cases and most multitrack sessions had no track sheets, though some did when other engineers (besides Elliott) had been involved. Virtually no item had a listing of dates or places. Let me reiterate — ALMOST EVERY REEL/DAT/CASSETTE/CD-R WAS MISSING A SIMPLE MONTH/DAY/YEAR OR LOCATION OF THE RECORDING. Think about this. How do you organize thousands of songs when you don't even know when or where they were recorded? This is when the detective work kicks in. If songs were used on an album, then they were certainly recorded before that album's release. Groups of songs on the same tape formats could be narrowed down to a year or even quarter year time frame due to adjacent track information. Because Elliott had signed with a major label in 1998, dates are important and determine ownership and usage issues.

What could we all learn from this?

If you record music — anybody's music — please make sure to include information with these recordings! I would hope that most of us could at least start with the technical info — "16- track, 15 ips, no NR, 510 nWb/m, AES EQ, tails out" or "48 kHz/16-bit AIFF stereo" and the like are quite handy. And the calibration tones? No tones? Make a note of this after you slap yourself.

Here's some of the data I would have loved to seen regularly:

1. Artist — plus all musicians or session players.
2. Date — and don't forget the year!
3. Location — studio, city/state/country, address, URL and phone number.
4. Engineer and producer names — no jokes or nicknames please! 5. Unique numbering for every tape/reel/folder/session — can be date-based.
6. If tracks were submixed or backed up from elsewhere, tell us where from.
7. Does this item sync to something? Note the details of this. 

8. Was this session for a specific project? Tell us "third solo album" or such.
9. Song Titles — even if it's some made-up-on-the-spot temporary name, anything helps!
10. Song Times — many times songs were listed out of order on the back of a reel. Times from the head of a tape can help sort this out.
11. Album Takes — indicate if a multitrack master was used to mix from, or if a mix was mastered from.
12. Source origins — for live recordings or stereo mixes: Soundboard? Audience mics? Mixed from what multitrack? Live in the studio?

I'm fully aware of the reason for the lack of this information, especially in the case of Elliott Smith. The drive to keep moving forward and to create and record more new music is paramount. And I appreciate that he did so, of course. But the few attempts to even simply get song titles listed on reels with his help back in the day made the archiving work so much easier.

To stop and take a moment to organize and label one's work could be the difference between a reel accidentally getting tossed or saved for the future. And that's the scariest thing one can imagine — unique material lost that will never be recovered. So label your work!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More