Audio preservation recovers old classics in the heart of Chicago

By Seb Peltekian
Medill Reports

When Joe Tessone first opened the Mystery Street Recording Company in Lakeview in 2007, he envisioned a typical studio where bands would record music.

But now, the nondescript building at 2827 N. Lincoln Ave. houses one of the nation’s premiere facilities for audio preservation and restoration, a place recommended by the Library of Congress.

Tessone, 35, an expert audio engineer, splits his time between the studio and teaching audio arts at Columbia College Chicago. He digitizes and preserves audio stored on various media, including phonographs, open reel tapes and analog cassettes, as well as other even more obscure formats, such as Betamax and DAT (digital audio tapes).

Tessone’s clientele ranges from schools, radio stations, museums and businesses to individuals who bring in a cassette tape that they “found in a sock drawer” and believe may have personal value. He says that one recent project stands out to him. A client brought in three wire reels, an obsolete audio storage technology where sounds are recorded to a thin steel wire.

“The guy that brought it in said, ‘Yeah, I don’t really know what these are but they belonged to my grandma and I just want to see what we have here,’” Tessone explained. “It turned out it was his great-grandmother’s wedding, a recording of her whole wedding ceremony.” The recording dated back to 1948.

Tessone’s interest in archival audio goes back nearly 20 years.

“My initial love of it came from picking up a four-disc collection of Woody Guthrie recordings. I was probably like 16 years old,” Tessone said, adding, “They just moved me.”

During his final semester at Columbia College Chicago, where he studied audio design and production, Tessone interned at the Old Town School of Folk Music. While there, he worked on developing a procedure to transfer audio from the school’s extensive archives for preservation. “There wasn’t a lot of information about that yet. It was still a very fledgling thing,” Tessone said.

Colby Maddox, 53, manages the archives at the Old Town School and was Tessone’s supervisor there.

“During [Tessone’s] time, I was continually writing the protocols [to transfer audio] because they would change, so he was part of that,” he said.

This was done with preservation in mind, essentially creating a manual so that future engineers would be able to digitize audio from the school’s archive of performances and radio broadcasts, some dating back to the mid-1950s. “We had to make protocols so that other people could do the work,” Maddox said.

With the completion of his internship, Tessone was hired to work at the Old Town School. At the same time, he started Mystery Street.

“I was doing both simultaneously for a number of years, and would just do my archiving there and run the studio here,” Tessone said, while sitting in the control room at Mystery Street. “Eventually the studio starting building up after a number of years, and I started building up my own audio preservation equipment here and I started to transition that work over here.”

Tessone is humble about the recommendations from the Library of Congress. “It’s been about 10 years. I can’t remember if somebody reached out to me about it or if we just appeared on their website one day. But we’re there, as one of the places that does the same quality of work that they would be doing there,” he said.

Joe Tessone digitizes audio from a 24-track reel tape machine, a vintage analog recording device, at Mystery Street Recording Company. (Seb Peltekian/MEDILL)

While there is a high demand for the preservation and restoration of archival audio, and the technology and methods to transfer audio are the best that they’ve ever been, archivists and preservationists worry that they are racing against time.

Obsolescence, or the inability to find or repair the playback machines that some old audio recordings need to play — not to mention degradation, or the physical breakdown of the media that store recordings such as tapes — are the two biggest issues facing archival audio preservation, according to Mike Casey. He is director of technical operations for the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative at Indiana University. These issues “are giving us a very short time window in which to take action to preserve content,” Casey said.

Both Casey and Tessone agree that it is becoming more difficult to find replacement parts for certain machines, creating obstacles for accessing certain audio recordings.

“If we want to preserve that content in the future, it’s important that that content survives to inform future generations. We need to take action now,” Casey said. “In the United States alone, there are over 250 million audio recordings worthy of preservation that have not been yet digitized.”

Because of this, Tessone believes that his work is important.

“For me, going back to those Woody Guthrie recordings and how that influenced me as a musician and as a producer, had somebody not spent the time to [make that collection] and to make it continue to be available,” he said. “I don’t know if I would be doing what I’m doing today.”

For Tessone, “Audio is everywhere … even if you’re not paying attention to it. It’s just part of our being. I just feel that we’d be losing part of us as a species by not finding a way to keep this stuff around.”

Photo at top: Wire recordings are an obsolete audio recording technology that pre-date tape. “You record with it, just like you would with tape, except these are steel wires” holding the sound, Tessone said. (Joe Tessone/Mystery Street Recording Company)