The tape doc­tor’s recorder

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LIKE A LOT OF KIDS WHO GREW UP IN RICH­MOND, VIR­GINIA, dur­ing the ’60s, Guy Spiller loved The Sailor Bob Show, a lo­cally pro­duced chil­dren’s pro­gram about an artis­tic mariner and his posse of pup­pets. So it was more than a lit­tle sur­real when, al­most five decades later, the semire­tired broad­cast en­gi­neer found him­self at home dig­i­tiz­ing the show’s orig­i­nal reel-to-reel record­ings with the help of one of the few ma­chines left on Earth that could play them. “Hold­ing the ac­tual episodes I had seen as a kid, watch­ing and re­mem­ber­ing all the songs and seg­ments, it was a pretty amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Spiller re­calls. In an age when we can sum­mon up vir­tu­ally any video from any era on YouTube, it’s tempt­ing to as­sume that tele­vi­sion

his­tory has been fully pre­served. Tempt­ing, but wrong. Whether it’s Sailor Bob or hokey restau­rant and car-deal­er­ship com­mer­cials, at least three decades’ worth of low-bud­get pre-dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion re­mains in real dan­ger of dis­ap­pear­ing for­ever.

Drive 85 miles north of Spiller’s Mid­loth­ian, Vir­ginia, home, and you’re con­fronted with this re­al­ity head-on. More than 40,000 reels of 2-inch quadru­plex—the same tape for­mat Sailor Bob was recorded on—line the shelves at the Li­brary of Congress’ Packard Cam­pus for Au­dio-Vis­ual Con­ser­va­tion. Only a frac­tion of these have been dig­i­tized, usu­ally the higher-pro­file stuff like Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­hower’s in­au­gu­ral color-TV broad­cast or the news­casts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

The Li­brary’s ar­chiv­ists have a lot of work to do; smaller fries, like the re­tired news­caster look­ing to pre­serve his reel on a for­mat his grand­kids can watch, of­ten get re­ferred to a guy like Spiller, who can rip your 2-inch strip into nearly any dig­i­tal video for­mat you re­quire. But Spiller also has a back­log. He’s one of only a hand­ful of peo­ple—in­clud­ing the full-timers at the Li­brary—with both the means and ex­per­tise to help usher these vi­tal pieces of Amer­i­cana into the dig­i­tal realm. Work­ing out of his home, Spiller dig­i­tizes around 100 hour­long reels of 2-inch quadru­plex video­tape a year.

Step into Spiller’s base­ment stu­dio, and you’ll find the pri­mary en­gines of his art: two 1,800-pound, ar­moire-size RCA TR-70C video­tape recorders. Ma­chines like these ba­si­cally went ex­tinct three decades ago, says Spiller. He should know. The 67-year-old spent the early part of his ca­reer us­ing and re­pair­ing them. So far, Spiller has man­aged to find and res­cue eight so-called quads be­fore they ended up in land­fills. “I guess I’m kind of like the SPCA for old broad­cast and record­ing equipment,” he says.

In­tro­duced in 1956, quads were some of the most com­plex ma­chines of their era. In­vented to play 2-inch quadru­plex reels—the first of­fi­cial tape-based for­mat of the broad­cast tele­vi­sion in­dus­try—they al­lowed for the real-time record­ing and in­stant play­back of any show. A quad’s guts are an amal­ga­ma­tion of vac­uum pumps, air com­pres­sors, mo­tors, elec­trolytic ca­pac­i­tors, re­sis­tors, and tran­sis­tors.

“The ‘quad’ in quadru­plex refers to the four video heads they use to di­vide up the pic­ture,” says Spiller. “All four of those chan­nels need to play back as close to per­fectly in sync as pos­si­ble, or you’ll start to see vis­ual ar­ti­facts,” he says.

Be­fore quads, TV sta­tions would es­sen­tially record broad­casts by film­ing TV mon­i­tors. (Yep.) If you wanted to re­broad­cast some­thing, you’d have to de­velop that film, so most net­works sim­ply wouldn’t re­play a show in mul­ti­ple time zones. Quads changed ev­ery­thing. Then eas­ierto-man­age ma­chines made them ob­so­lete.

I’M SAV­ING THESE MA­CHINES; I’M GET­TING TO SAVE SHOWS FROM THE GOLDEN ERA OF TV, AND I’M MAK­ING PEO­PLE VERY HAPPY. SO, YEAH, IT’S SAT­IS­FY­ING ON PRETTY MUCH EV­ERY LEVEL.

Shoved in a for­got­ten back­room at the Uni­ver­sity of Ge­or­gia, Spiller’s RCA hadn’t seen an elec­tric cur­rent in 27 years when he found it in 2010. It re­quired around 70 new elec­trolytic ca­pac­i­tors plus a full week of tin­ker­ing to bring it back to life. Watch­ing the tech­no­mancer prep and op­er­ate the re­stored ma­chine, it’s clear why he’s in rare com­pany. Spiller of­ten looks like he’s con­duct­ing some elab­o­rate electro­mechan­i­cal sym­phony.

It can take up­wards of 15 min­utes to clean the tape path: the guide, the ro­tat­ing rollers, the sta­tion­ary heads, and the con­trol track head. You do this be­fore ev­ery record­ing. Once you’ve threaded a tape through this labyrinth, ex­tract­ing the best pic­ture then re­quires near-con­stant knob-twid­dling and fuss­ing.

De­spite these complexities, it’s a process the re­tired en­gi­neer loves, es­pe­cially in an age of dis­pos­able tech. Spiller charges hun­dreds of dol­lars to dig­i­tize an hour of footage (though it varies a lot de­pend­ing on the tape), and gets ma­te­rial from all over the coun­try. “I’m sav­ing these ma­chines; I’m get­ting to save shows from the Golden Era of TV, and I’m mak­ing peo­ple very happy,” he says. “So, yeah, it’s sat­is­fy­ing on pretty much ev­ery level.”

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