I started off working in public radio at WGBH in Boston. I loved being on the air, but I discovered pretty quickly that I also loved the behind-the-scenes, technical side of radio production. I went to graduate school and got what I would say is a largely useless degree in Media Studies except that it did catalyze my career change. Then, I landed an internship at a mastering studio and instantly knew it was a perfect fit. Mastering is a job that requires an intense amount of detail work and concentration, and it also requires you to see both the tiniest, most minute details and the big picture simultaneously. I work really well in that hyper-focused way.
I started at The Lodge in New York City. At the time, we were working on archiving some materials for Lou Reed all on analog tape and digitizing it for preservation. One of my tasks was to QC all of the WAVE files -- I was completely hooked on the audio archiving. After that, I did a stint at Peerless Mastering in Boston, which is a really great studio run by a terrific engineer, Jeff Lipton. He works a lot with the Numero Group, so I got really into working on vinyl recordings, and working from vinyl recordings, doing restoration from disks… That was another turning point in realizing that I loved the process of restoration. When my husband’s work took us back to New York City, I landed at the Magic Shop, and that’s where I was for the past six years, up until August. That’s where I learned a lot of the artistry of restoration work -- how to interpolate what something should sound like, and then use the tools in front of you to get to that point. Steve Rosenthal, the owner of that studio and a masterful, Grammy Award-winning producer, deeply cares about helping people preserve their music. He and I would occasionally get in the car and drive to someone’s garage or basement, dig through the boxes of tapes and other media, and develop a preservation plan and a budget. A couple of years later, there would be a fully digitized archive. In August, I moved out to California and joined Coast Mastering, which is a facility in the Bay Area, working out of the Fantasy Studios complex, as the resident restoration specialist and archivist.
IP: Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on.
One of the things I love best about my position is that I can reach out to a largely underserved population in the archiving world. If your content is in a big institution, like a university archive or the Library of Congress, then you can rest assured that your work is going to be archived at the highest quality. Often the stuff that I work on is just a musician, or an independent record label, the son or daughter of a musician, or a venue with an archive of live performances, and those are the people and places without the resources to hire the Big Guns. I love that I can be a resource for smaller archives.
Caffe Lena is a music venue in upstate New York, an awesome little folk-blues-singer-songwriter venue. The Caffe Lena History Project was begun by producer-archivist Jocelyn Arem. She was mainly working with paper ephemera and oral histories from the Caffe, but she found seven, maybe ten tapes of recorded performances… She brought those to Steve at the Magic Shop, and he knew that if there were a handful of tapes, there were probably many, many more. That triggered a treasure hunt, and we wound up with hundreds and hundreds of recordings from throughout the venue’s history, starting in the ‘60s. She started writing grants, and brought all of those tapes to the Magic Shop, and we cataloged, digitized, and curated, so at the end of the project -- which was a six, seven year project -- Jocelyn had a fully-digitized archive of these recordings that happened at Caffe Lena. My involvement was mostly digitizing the archival contents and restoring and mastering the Caffe Lena box set… When you deal with an archive that spans 60 years, you’re hitting lots of random formats.
IP: Did you run into any problems working with those different formats?
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but one of the most damaged recordings that I had to fix was a digital recording from 2013, where the signal had been heavily overloaded on one channel only. It was very distorted, and I had to go in and etch-out that distortion and uncover the goodness that was beneath it. At the same time, we had a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott recording from the ‘60s which was mostly hiss… That’s another common problem in restoration. You have to figure where is this nebulous border, where the hiss goes from being an informative noise that locates it in time and space, to being a distraction that takes you away from the musical content. With that one, it was a lot of careful sculpting to bringing out the recording without ruining the ambience.
I mostly work with physical media. I would call it the “rock and roll legacy format.” I don’t work with cylinders or wires, but if rock and roll was recorded on it, I have dealt with it -- analog tapes, DATs, cassettes, discs, minidiscs. A while back, Steve Rosenthal and I went to the basement of Allan Pepper, who owned the Bottom Line in New York City, and he had stacks and stacks of tapes from the club’s history -- decades of recordings of huge, A-List recording artists. Amazingly, most of them were in great condition. We’re currently working on digitizing that archive and fortunately, much of the stuff we’ve sounds terrific. Some of it, I’ve had the incredible pleasure of remastering for the Bottom Line Archive series. This fall, we released a double disc of Doc Watson I restored from minidisc, as well as a collection of songs and conversations between Pete Seeger and Roger McGuinn from the Bottom Line series In Their Own Words.
IP: Do you foresee a point where the analogue archives begin to taper off, and you find yourself working in a primarily digital realm?
There’s so much content in people’s basements… The amount of undigitized content in our world is astronomical. Now, the amount of that content that needs to be digitized? Different question. I feel like every couple days, someone hits me up with an amazing reissue project or tapes in a basement, and the content is just so beautiful, and I know this is just going to keep happening. What’s going to happen is, eventually I’m going to start working on DATs from the ‘90s -- bands that I used to play on my radio show.
IP: What advice would you give to record labels and artists who have begun to recognize how important it is preserve their stuff?
Label everything. And have a consistent labelling convention. If you have a consistent vocabulary for labelling your content, that’s gonna help a lot. And you know, the obvious stuff -- back it up in two different locations. And especially now, when we have access to two-terabyte hard drives for $150 and time enough to record all day, you don’t have to save everything. Sometimes, it’s okay to let stuff go. You have to curate and derive value from the stuff that’s there, while recognizing that some stuff is not valuable. A couple years ago, I was working on the Ash Grove Archive for the web site Wolfgang’s Vault. I got to restore and master so many amazing projects, but I must have worked on fifty Lightnin’ Hopkins concerts. Some of them would punch you in the gut, they were so good… And then some of them, it was an off night and not his best performance. But Wolfgang’s vault is not a site that curates in that way, so all the Lightnin’ Hopkins shows just went up. It really frustrated me, because I wanted to pull out the five best shows and let the other forty-five just slip into the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse.
Jessica’s website can be found here. Jessica also has written an absorbing account of mastering music by Ghanaian rapper Ata Kak for Pink Noise Magazine.Today also marks the release of Saint Cecilia Knows’ reissue of Scott Fagan’s South Atlantic Blues, which Jessica worked on -- check it out before it’s gone.