P&E Wing Recommendations for Archival Media

by Rob Schlette

“How to Archive Multitrack DAW Recordings” discussed how the contents of an archive (the data itself) can be consolidated or flattened to ensure that the digital audio remains executable as long as the audio file format is a supported technology. Another critical consideration for an archive is the storage medium, or container, that is used.

There are two important goals when selecting archival media:

  1. Each medium should be a standardized, widely supported archival technology. This will ensure that the hardware and software that facilitate playback will be maintained well into the future. It also ensures that once the technology is flagged for obsolescence, there will be a standardized migration strategy.
  2. All of the typical practices related to redundant storage should be followed. These would include providing copies of the archival data on multiple media, to be stored in different locations. Redundancy in count, container type, and location are all required to ensure data safety.

These basic redundancy practices are described in detail in “Best Practices for Backing Up Your Data”.

Rather than share a lot of generalities about archival storage media, let’s look at the music industry standard protocol for providing archival materials, “Recommendations for Delivery of Recorded Music”, from the Producers and Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy.

Archival Media Choices

The P&E Wing recommendations specify that each data set should be provided on three separate archival media. The specific container choices are presented in two tables.

The first table lists “Primary Master Delivery Media” choices based upon the multitrack format (i.e. DAW, hard disk recorder, ATR, etc.). The P&E Wing recommendations require that all master recordings be archived to the specified ‘Table 1’ medium. In addition to long-term storage, these common playback media also facilitate short-term re-use.

The hard drive specification is a significant example of how these recommendations serve to cull the wide variety of media choices and variations. HDD choices are limited to spinning disks in FW 400/800, USB 2.0/3.0, or Thunderbolt enclosures. As of the last revision in 2013, “the Deliverables Committee [was continuing] to evaluate various technologies such as Solid State Drives (SSD) and Flash memory. Until more longevity studies are published, the
committee does not consider them to be archival in nature.”

Could other technologies work? Sure; but if every workable choice becomes a long-term option, there is very little chance that the hardware and software that facilitate playback will be maintained for the long term. There would be even less chance of a standardized migration strategy.

A second table of “Transitional Master Backup Storage Media” is also provided. These include technologies like LTO data storage tape and optical media choices. The P&E Wing recommendations specify that each archival data set be provided on two different media from ‘Table 2’. This provides for very thorough protection against the failure or obsolescence of any single storage technology.

The P&E Wing recommendations also take into account that one form or another of Archival/Storage Application is necessary for effectively using many common archival media- particularly data storage tape. The recommendations narrow the choices to, TOLIS Group’s BRU, EMC/Dantz’s Retrospect, and Unix tar.

As part of considering Archival/Storage Applications, the P&E Wing stresses the importance of the manufacturer’s commitment to support the application source code over the long term. Specifically, will the archives that are dependent upon these companies’ software technologies survive beyond the useful life of the companies themselves?

The only two ways to have this important assurance is to use an open source solution, or to choose a manufacturer who is willing to put their source code in escrow with a non-commercial third party, like the Library of Congress. Check out the “Recommendations for Delivery of Recorded Music” for a detailed breakdown of manufacturers.

Standards Set the Path

Industry standards such as the one discussed here are important for delivering a viable archival data set. They do not extend into the equally important long-term ‘stewardship’ (as it were) of the archival media. HDD’s, analog tapes, and data storage tapes all have required use and replacement considerations over time. That said, a thorough study of the “Recommendations for Delivery of Recorded Music” will get you started turning in master recordings that stand a chance of being around long after you are.