Home life · Notes from West London · Technology

The man who recorded too much

Ever since my family acquired a radio-cassette recorder in the mid-1970s I have been in the habit of recording radio shows. I acquired a VCR in the mid-1980s and since then I have also recorded thousands of hours of TV programmes. I have spent too much of my time doing this, and have recorded too much.

I have noted before on these pages how, over the course of 20 years or more, I bought thousands of blank video cassettes and filled most of them with films, sport and comedy shows. I have got rid of the majority of them. For a while our local waste management site could recycle them, but many hundreds of them ended up in landfill. I have kept a few hundred, including every series of the Granada comedy series “Brass”, most episodes of “Spitting Image” from 1986 onwards and every Leeds United game that ITV broadcast live in the 1991-92 season. The last of these occupy the same storage box as every Christmas edition of “Top of the Pops” from 1985 to 2006.

I still have a working VCR, as I noted in this piece from June 2017 which detailed my process for making digital copies of home videos. I used the same process to make copies of a handful of TV recordings, as noted in this piece from last year about the Peter Yates film “Breaking Away”. It’s all rather time-consuming: setting up the required hardware, recording everything in in real time, tidying up each recording and then burning DVDs. Backing up my ARCHOS device (which I use to create AVI files for video and WAV files for audio) also takes longer than it should, at least 15 minutes to back up each hour of video content. Still, I’m glad that I spent the time required to create a DVD of “Breaking Away” so that my father could see it again before he died last year.

In recent months I have spent time listening to a box full of audio cassettes, recorded between the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Some of them had sat unheard for 30 years, with no more information on the case than “Check”. I have found a handful of clips that I had wanted to hear again. There was a typically enthusiastic reaction from Jonathan Pearce (in his days at Capital Gold) to a Crystal Palace goal. Andy Thorne scored the winner against Liverpool and Pearce screams: “HANDY … AAAAANDY … THOOOOOOOOORNE”. It featured in the sports report on the breakfast show (hosted by Tony Blackburn) and I recorded around 30 minutes of the programme to make sure I caught it the next time it played. There was also an advert for mobile phones that always brought a smile to my face, and there are match reports from Leeds United games in the 1991/92 season. I mentioned one of them (the 2-0 win over QPR in November 1991) in this piece, and was surprised to find that I had recorded, and still have, the report in question.

For some reason I also have recordings of the Sunday evening chart show for three successive weeks at the end of 1991, and there are no songs there that I am especially fond of. None of these recordings is to be found easily anywhere on the web, but the dozens of episodes of “Desert Island Discs” that I recorded after 1987 are all available on the BBC website. The music clips on the web are shorter than on my old audio cassettes, but you still never get to hear a whole song.

While listening to Jonathan Pearce screaming Andy Thorne’s name, and the handful of other clips that I was glad to find, I considered setting up my Mini Disc to make copies of them. I might still do so. I will, at least, be able to find the relevant clips fairly easily: the cassettes have been labelled marginally more usefully than before, and I have typed at least a paragraph about the contents of each one in the millions of words that I store in Word documents somewhere on the web.

My most recent piece of real-time recording for video content has involved a new piece of kit: an HDMI to SCART converter. This allows me to take output from a laptop and create digital video on a Hard Disk Recorder. From there I can burn DVDs and create digital files via my ARCHOS device. Most of my recordings, all those boxes of cassettes and videos, all those CDs and DVDs burnt to back up digital content, all the hard drives storing AVIs and WAVS, are “just in case” things. I, or someone I know, might want to hear them or watch them again sometime, but the amount of time that I have spent creating them and backing them all up will always dwarf the amount of time any of us will spend viewing or listening to them.

My reason for buying the latest bit of recording kit was, for once, a “just in time” thing. My father-in-law died in April. His funeral service was limited to 30 mourners, and was live-streamed from the crematorium, as has been the way of things over the last 16 months. The broadcast was available online for 30 days afterwards. Nobody in my wife’s family was inclined to watch it again, but the knowledge that it would be removed and might never be viewable again prompted all sorts of discussion. Was there any way to download it? Should someone record it onto their phone, from a laptop, so that there would at least be a copy of some kind? In the end I used a very similar process to the one that allowed me to create that DVD of “Breaking Away” for my father: real-time recording onto my Hard Disk Recorder, backups to DVD, and digital files (AVI and WAV) created on my ARCHOS device. Those files have been backed up to multiple drives, copied to two shared cloud locations (a Dropbox folder and the 1Tb of OneDrive space that I pay for), and links have been sent to anyone who might want to watch the service again. It’s possible that nobody ever will, and that this is yet another example of me spending my time in a totally “just in case” activity. I created thousands of recordings on video cassettes that are currently breaking down slowly in landfill sites, and do not regard it as a good use of my time or money. But the little bit of time (and the tenner for a new piece of kit) that I spent to create recordings of my father-in-law’s funeral service was definitely well spent, even if nobody ever watches them.


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