Finding equipment

RADD’s first pieces of equipment were two Iomega Zip drives that were in a pile in the hall waiting for the trash collectors to arrive. At the time, I wasn’t even planning to build RADD; I just knew that plenty of people still had Zip disks, and I didn’t want the drives to be thrown away!

Installations like RADD can look out of reach due to the difficulty of finding older A/V equipment in usable condition at a reasonable price. Some pieces are inescapably expensive, it is true! (I would love a film digitizer and a microfilm/microfiche digitizer. I can’t afford them.) But savvy searching can help save money for the expensive stuff.

Rule one is “be patient.” If you need a piece of equipment immediately, expect to pay a premium for it. (I have, once or twice, when I’ve had a project in hand.) If you can wait for a deal, you’ll likely find one. Rule two is “find repairfolk.” You will need them! Ask your network.

Rule three is “ask your community first.” RADD, PROUD, and PRAVDA have benefited immeasurably from the generosity of people in the campus and Madison communities. You’ll be amazed at what people have!

Everyone knows about thrift stores, eBay, and Craigslist, but these are far from your only sources of viable equipment. Additional sources include:

  • Government or university surplus. These are often open to the public only on specific days. Some, as here, have online auctions—but do not limit yourself to those; some of the best gadgetry will only be found in the warehouse.
  • Condition is never guaranteed, but I have had a lot of good luck here. Once you have an account, you can set up email alerts for items of interest. (If the item is commonly misspelled, set up an alert for the misspelling also.)
  • Mostly digital, some A/V. If the prices seem high, that’s because RecycledGoods actually tests equipment before resale. Listings will specify if something is not working, or not fully working.
  • An omnibus police auction site. Real gems are rare, but they do pop up now and again. Beware shipping charges.
  • Everything But The House. An estate-sale auction site. Good for vintage A/V. Shipping charges amazingly high, unfortunately.

Good luck!

Choosing RADD’s capabilities

How did SLIS choose which analog material RADD can digitize, and which digital media it can capture data from? The answer is part planning, part serendipity.

The group of Digital Curation students who first made concrete plans for RADD did not do so until they had conducted a sweep of the SLIS Library and SLIS faculty and staff to find out what at-risk analog and digital media needed attention. They discovered:

  • VHS, Betamax, Mini-DV, and U-Matic videocassettes
  • audio cassettes and microcassettes
  • 35mm filmstrips with accompanying audiocassettes
  • 3.5″ floppy diskettes with a sprinkling of Zip disks
  • microfilm and microfiche
  • some film (in various sizes)

They also dealt with additional formats that instructor Dorothea Salo told them would be important in future SLIS coursework: 5.25″ floppy disks and vinyl records, for example. They then priced out the necessary equipment, sometimes offering choices between ideal-but-pricey equipment and less-good-but-cheaper equipment.

Not all these media have yet joined RADD’s capabilities. Film, microfilm, and microfiche digitization equipment turned out to be vastly too expensive for RADD’s minimal startup funding. (Super-8 film digitization is still a possibility, but the need for it has not yet turned up.) We also made some purchasing missteps: consumer-grade video digitization equipment from Hauppauge, for example, proved inadequate to capture from our Betamax and U-Matic machines, though it did adequately with VHS. We wound up replacing it with the prosumer-level Aja Kona LSe video-capture card, which has performed much better. (Aja’s technical support is also excellent.)

Other RADD capabilities came about because of donations. We did not originally know that the IMation SuperDrive kindly donated to RADD by Catherine Pellegrino reads the highly rare 120MB “IMation SuperDisk” as well as ordinary 3.5″ floppy diskettes, but we were certainly pleased to discover the capability! As for the Iomega Jaz disk, RADD’s ability to read it is the result of two separate donations of a non-working external drive and a working internal drive. A few minutes’ work with a screwdriver pried open the drive case on the external drive, which then happily fit around and powered the working internal drive. The resulting “FrankenJaz” drive is unlovely but entirely functional.

Our advice to organizations considering building something like RADD:

  • Find out what you have first. Don’t buy equipment until you know you need it.
  • Solicit donations of older equipment.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Exactly how to hook a given piece of analog playback equipment to a computer is not always obvious—but there is almost always a way to do it.
  • Be a little wary of consumer-grade equipment and software; it will not always perform to archival-quality expectations.
  • Be prepared to outsource digitization or capture for materials when the equipment to do it in-house is price-prohibitive.

Notes on RADD’s analog audio

RADD can currently digitize audio from audio cassettes, microcassettes, and vinyl records (33 and 45 rpm; if we run into 78s we’ll have to buy more equipment). We have a reel-to-reel player awaiting cleaning and overhaul also. The playback equipment is nothing special, though microcassette recorders are starting to be difficult to buy new these days, so check your favorite auction website or ask your favorite social scientist.

We found ourselves buying a fair few audio adapters; we recommend setting a hundred dollars or so of budget aside for cables and adapters generally. The basic analog audio jack setup is two RCA jacks (one red, one white) into which a single cable with two plugs (again, one red and one white) fits. (If you have a video RCA cable with red, white, and yellow plugs, it will work as well.) Microcassette players and some other audio players you’ll run into won’t have RCA jacks, though, so you’ll have to buy an RCA adapter for whatever audio-out jack they do have.

What makes the magic happen is this TASCAM USB audio interface and mixer. This gadget is what collects the sound from the analog playback equipment and sends it to the computer over a USB cable for capture.

The only problem we have with it is that it only has one set of audio-in jacks! Forcing RADDers to plug and unplug players from the TASCAM unit is unreasonable, as well as risky to the equipment. We solved this problem by buying an audio switch so that RADDers can switch to any player at the push of a button. We are labeling buttons with our handy label-maker:

Audio switch

We installed free and open-source Audacity software for audio capture and editing. Audacity is the exception to the rule about open-source software being utterly unusable. Though Audacity is very powerful, we find it fairly simple to use for simple purposes. It remembers settings between uses, which means RADDers generally don’t have to worry about them because we set them according to best practices in audio capture: 96000Hz Project Rate (as Audacity calls it) and save as 16-bit AIFF or WAV (which our instructions tell RADDers how to do).

Audacity has dozens of “effects” it can perform on digital audio. The one we use most often is “Truncate Silence.” Have an audio cassette that’s 90 minutes long, all but 10 minutes of which is silence? Truncate Silence fixes it!

If you’re new to this, you are most likely to err in choosing the file format. Walk away from the mp3 setting! MP3 is a “lossy” audio format not suitable for preservation. AIFF or WAV is what you want. If you need an mp3 also, save out another copy of the file.

We hope to discuss setting audio levels in another post.

Key tool: label maker

RADD is a complicated system. It teems with cables, cords, dongles, boxes, and other miscellanea. After a point, putting a hand on the correct cable becomes all but impossible without labeling.

We would not have expected this, but an ordinary label maker has turned out to be one of RADD’s most important tools. We have used it to help tame USB-cord and power-cable chaos:


We have also used it on our video and audio switches so that RADDers can pick the analog player they’re using without swapping cables:

Audio switch

Video switch

If you want to build your own RADD, I strongly encourage locating one of these handy little gadgets.