17 Dec 2018

Do you have any cassettes? (An interview with the Fanning Sessions Archive)

For me, one of the most important personal archives on the web is the Fanning Sessions Archive. I spoke to the person behind the archive and asked them a number of questions about the archive itself, personal digital archives in general and, of course, music. Below are the answers. 

In ten words or less what is the Fanning Sessions Archive?

a) A treasure trove of Irish indie nuggets
b) Demos & sessions of lost Irish bands
c) The long tail of Irish music blogging

Why did you set up the Archive?

I was frustrated that the sessions recorded for Dave Fanning's 2FM show in the 1980s and 90s were not getting any recognition. They are Ireland's equivalent of the John Peel sessions but do not seem to be appreciated. RTE seems to have forgotten them. I saw so many great bands over the years, many of whom never released albums or singles. Dave Fanning and Ian Wilson had many of these bands in to Studio 8 to record sessions and these were lost apart from those I had personally recorded from the radio.

What is involved in digitising a session or demo?

I play back the cassette recording on a good HiFi separate unit which is attached to a portable SONY digital recorder via the line-in interface. I record / digitise the cassette either to a lossless format or to a 320kbps mp3, one single recording for each side of the tape. I know the purists are probably having a fit right now that I don’t always digitise to a lossless format but I don’t have the disk space or time! I copy this digital version to a computer where if necessary I convert to high quality mp3. I then listen back to the recording and identify and individually save the tracks of interest. Before posting I usually normalise the track to balance left and right levels and boost the audio. I also fade in and out the start and end of the track to editing out previous and next tracks. If Dave says something interesting I like to leave it in place but usually the taper has edited this out.

The hard part is sourcing recordings. At the start I used my own personal tapes but they were quickly exhausted. Unfortunately at that time in my life when I was diligently listening to Dave Fanning I reused tapes rather than buy new ones. Later, thankfully, as word got out people starting getting in touch and started to send in recordings, mp3s, cassettes, VHS and even some white vinyl. Many people have been very generous over the years and have lent vinyl and tape collections. I was lucky enough a few years ago to make contact with Thomas in Kilkenny who it turned out had hundreds of Fanning recordings diligently documented. Pat O’Mahony sent me over a hundred tapes from his collection which he managed to have personally delivered by a former senator. I also post the occasional interview. Just recently I received a great Grant McLennan recording which was very much appreciated and well received.

People have fond memories of hearing these items on the radio so it is nice to preserve not just the recordings but also the memories they evoke.

Any advice for anybody thinking of setting up a personal digital archive?

Do it. Don’t waste too much time. No one is getting any younger, memories are fading and you won’t have more time later. Chances are if you enjoy something enough to want to share it someone out there enjoyed it too.

What role do you see for personal archives?

In certain circumstances such as with the national broadcaster I think personal archives are the only option. Imagine how much content RTE is sitting on. That content is to all intents and purposes lost because there is no scenario where it makes financial sense for them to do anything with it. They are apparently digitising the Fanning sessions but let's be real, are they going to release these? They don't have online rights so they will have to request permission from the artist before they can share online but that requires manpower, time and energy i.e. money. As regards the TV music shows there's even less hope. The costs are more prohibitive so unless it's U2 or Phil Lynott or Rory Gallagher related we're probably not going to see it again ever. Why not rerun the 'Anything Goes' music clips on TG4 late at night or some of the music shows like 'Borderline', 'Visual Eyes', 'Megamix', 'On The Waterfront' or 'No Disco'?

Do you have any background in digital archiving?

Not at all. Or maybe I've been archiving all my life ;-)

If not, how did you learn the tools of the trade?

Trial and error, step by step. I applied techniques I liked that I saw being used by others. The process evolves as the technology improves. You can scan now with a phone which is fantastic. I have honed my workflow so i can digitise quite quickly and then circle back at a later point to process the recording in a more detailed way if I discover there was something there of interest. Without having studied archiving techniques I am probably using a light version of what should be done, adding metadata so that I can find stuff later.

You obviously think archives are important – why is this the case?

I think I am documenting/archiving an Irish musical history for a certain period of time / genre of music. Irishrock.org has done a fantastic job of documenting most of these but what’s missing is a way to hear what the bands sounded like. Once upon a time MySpace featured many of these acts but that technological experiment crashed and burned. YouTube has a lot of content but it's an ocean with no curation. What I have tried to do was bring everything together into a repository of Irish content never released on record or very hard to find (going off on the odd tangent to scratch a particular personal itch / plug something I like). The site is a starting point, but I am also aware that it is a honey pot. I want to attract folks who are interested and get them to engage. I think it is important to be able to leave and receive feedback. The internet is not always right so it is nice to be able to correct the public record and let people listen and make up their own mind. It’s not about glorification with rose tinted glasses but remembering how things were.

What are your favourite Archives? What other Digital Archives would you recommend?

I am a big fan of irishrock.org, it's my first port of call when doing a post. The Blackpool Sentinel is great, Colm O'Callaghan has a way with words and great musical taste. There have been a few websites that have come and gone, 'These Auld Tapes From The Attic', 'Rekcollector' , 'Brand New Retro' has had some great music pieces, 'Dublin Opinion' ran a series 'Great Irish Bands' which has to be read. The history site 'Come Here To Me' has also done some fine pieces on Irish rock . More recently Abstract Analogue on Facebook have been posting some great articles/scans on 90s Irish music that I am enjoying.

There are probably more that I am forgetting. Hot Press is sitting on an amazing archive but it is not online. Thankfully some libraries have physical copies so you can go there to have a look. The John Peel Wiki and mailing list has long been an inspiration. Irish Music Central is another great source of information, unfortunately the site underwent some rework which never got completed but a lot of the original content is still there. Irish Nuggets is another site that is well worth checking out. It's this guy who put together some serious compilations of tracks sourced from his vinyl collection which must be huge.

What is your personal favourite session?

Just one? That’s an impossible question! The 1988 Slowest Clock session is one that every time I hear, am blown away by how strong it is. The Wild Herrings session is another that I love. But that's just off the top of my head, I need to look at the list of sessions posted to see what others are favourites. I have long been a fan of a band from Derry called Bam Bam & The Calling but I'd never heard their session. I was delighted to come across it and even though the cassette quality wasn't great I discovered a song of theirs I didn't even know existed - 'Road of the Lonely' which sounds fantastic.

What is your personal favourite demo?

The first recording I posted - 'Them Ghosts Do Come' by The Swinging Swine from Galway. The song was subsequently rerecorded but the demo I taped off Dave Fanning is the most immediate and perfect I know. The original demo by Backwards Into Paradise before they shortened their name to Into Paradise is also incredibly strong. It would probably be fairer to ask for my favourite 10 demos and 10 favourite sessions, maybe I should do a compilation! 😉

Is there anything you don’t have up on the site that you would like to have up?

There are a couple of tracks I took down at the request of the artist. Both of those I think were great but I have to respect the artist's wishes. One other recording never made it up because after a protracted investigation trying to identify the recording I asked via a third party for permission to post but was turned down. That was a real anti-climax as I was looking forward to sharing.

You are very active on social media – how important is it for the archive to be so active?

If I was on my own I would have stopped a long time ago. The feedback & the conversation on social media is what keeps me going. Social media is also an important research tool. I often come across bands or recordings I can’t find any information on and social media has been invaluable. Facebook has its uses but it is very difficult to locate information or past conversations if I need to go back and find something. I would like to see more comments on the site. It is particularly satisfying to hear from the musicians involved, many of whom haven't heard these recordings since they were broadcast. The majority are happy to hear their music again and are flattered that folks remember and have fond memories.


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