It had always bugged me that my first play for the BBC, Rules of Asylum, was 'no longer in archive'. That's Beebspeak for 'lost'. Several other radio productions appear to have been lost, too, including the entire series of four episodes of "The War Behind the Wire".
Having already supplied the BBC with some good quality off-air recordings of some lost material, including a proper reel-to-reel copy of the transmission tape of 'The Man Who Invented Yesterday' for BBC7, I decided that something really ought to be done about 'Rules'. I had a compact cassette recording -- but thirty years in a centrally heated room had taken its toll. It was a cheap tape to start with. There was no print through but the tape had stretched. The 88 minute running time was nearer 92 minutes and, as a result, all the frequencies had dropped slightly. In one scene the cast sounded as if they were falling asleep (no snide comments, please!).
The cost of professional restoration of that 30-year-old compact cassette off-air recording would have been prohibitive so I decided to have a go myself. First I had to buy a reasonable quality cassette player (Richer Sounds sold me an Ariston deck that they'd had kicking about in their Guildford store for months) so that I could copy the tape to hard disk. Then I spent a few days getting some hands-on experience with CoolEdit -- a very clever piece of software for digitizing and manipulating sound recordings.
Down-sampling and resampling two 650 megabyte .WAV files to cope with "Rules's" stretched tapes wasn't too difficult -- but incredibly time-consuming even with a fast computer. CoolEdit messages such as "Process will take 8 hours" were a little off-putting but the end results were astonishing. After several abortive attempts that needed CoolEdit's 'undo' feature, the play was beginning to sound 'right'.
Removing clicks was easy enough -- they showed up as spikes which needed an accurate optical mouse and a steady hand to highlight -- but, again, time-consuming. What surprised as I clung to CoolEdit's steep learning curve, was that an intrusive, annoying click might last only a five-hundredth of a second yet removing it had hardly any affect on the sound of a spoken word. A couple of three or four second bursts of aircraft flutter proved impossible to correct. It was a case of doing some judicious editing and, on one occasion, going as far as cribbing copies of the same words spoken by the same actor in the same scene, adjusting levels, and pasting them over the mangled words. CoolEdit makes this relatively straightforward and the result was astonishingly seamless. I restored a whole sentence but it took half a day.
The last and most difficult task was, strangely enough, getting rid of hiss without impairing sound quality. I spent hours using a suck it and see approach, reading the CoolEdit manual, making copious use of its useful 'undo' feature. I thought that noise reduction would be the easy bit but it wasn't -- probably because thresholds were all over the place. In the end I gave up and sent the cleaned up WAV files on CD-ROMs to the BBC. They passed them to the Radiophonic experts at Maida Vale and they succeeded in zapping the hiss and completing my amateurish restoration. I've just heard that the play is now of broadcast quality. A near-perfect copy is on its way to me with less than four seconds lost from the original script. Relief and a sense of achievement.
What is particularly pleasing is that some stunning performances by noted but now deceased actors have been saved. Cyril Shaps's performance as Danski is brilliant.
My wife put a damper on my satisfaction and smugness by observing that cleaning up 'Rules of Asylum' had probably taken longer than writing it!
copyright James Follett; reproduced by permission.
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