Primary Sources in Music Production Research and Education: Using the Drexel University Audio Archives as an Institutional Model


In 2005, a culturally significant sound recording collection was donated to Drexel University. The ability to acquire the Sigma Sound Studios Collection for use as primary source material of commercial music recordings within the Music Industry Program was seen as a unique and valuable opportunity. The development of this resource into a research repository has provided a model for institutions of higher learning in collaborating with industry and internal institutional units to provide primary sources for research while preserving culturally significant recording collections. This paper will show the need for primary sources and an approach to developing resources within an institution of higher learning.

The Need for Resources

In his 2004 article in Popular Music and Society, Tom Caw states, “…sound recordings are the essential information need of the popular music researcher” (Caw, 2004, p.50). So, it would seem obvious to educators of popular music and music technology that having resources for study and research are of great importance. These resources traditionally take the form of compact discs, vinyl records and cassette tapes. They are often housed in traditional music libraries where, hopefully, a collection policy is in place to make popular music recordings available. Such policies would be best implemented in collaboration with the music program instructors to insure that materials are current and relevant to the curriculum.  However, there are downsides to this approach. Traditional music libraries are often in place where the institution has an established music program. This situation may not be the case in newer technology driven programs. Therefore, the program would either need to create a resource repository or rely on the institution’s main library for such resources. Another problem is that “most academic libraries have insufficient holdings of sound recordings” (Caw, 2004, p.52). In order to combat this shortcoming, a program would have to use significant financial resources in acquiring and storing such materials.

Sound recording resources are beneficial not only to the study of popular music, but also to the study of music production. Many educational programs are now available for studying music production and audio engineering. Developing listening skills and recording process knowledge used to take place in apprenticeship programs where on-the-job learning created a mentor/student relationship within industry.  However, with the decline of these programs and the increase in formal education programs, there has been a shift of venue for learning recording technology skills. Now, more than ever, there is great pressure on music technology programs to “…provide aspiring sound engineers with access to knowledge and experience that studio apprenticeships once offered” (Porcello, 2004, p.737). Therefore, there is not only a greater demand for sound recording resources, but the type of resource available becomes more diverse.  For instance, a student of music technology can glean a wealth of information by listening and studying commercially released sound recordings. However, greater insight can be obtained if the student were able to review the production multi-track sessions, the various mix-down versions and ephemeral documents made during the process of production. Since most of these resources are owned and maintained by corporations (record companies, publishing companies, etc.), access to these resources is difficult if not impossible.

Imagine the research opportunities if such production resources were made available. For the musicologist it would be possible to research popular musical arrangements, how those arrangements related to technology and how arrangements connected socially to a time period or geographical region.  For the student of music production it would be possible to research aesthetic balances between instruments, individual track processing and how that processing relates to technology. When studying multi-track resources, the musician would be able to listen to individual musical performances out of context with the other musicians or in context with other instrument sets. For instance, one could listen to just the bass guitar for performance study. However, one could also listen to the bass guitar with the drums and rhythm guitar for rhythm section study. These opportunities are just a few examples of possible research initiatives.

To illustrate this further, Figure 1, 2 and 3 display track sheets from different multi-track recordings on different media.  Figure 1 shows a 4-track recording by artist Charlie Feagin from 1968. A full production across only 4 tracks required the drums and bass to be combined onto a single track as well as the guitar and organ. The constraint of 4 tracks can be studied as to its effect on the musical arrangement as well as the technical requirements for combining instruments on single tracks. For instance, listening to the combined drums and bass not only displays the volume balancing between the instruments, but the concerns for equalization and application of time-based effects. In this instance, there is reverb on the drums, but not on the bass. This would have to be applied while recording as post-processing would not be possible once the tracks are combined. In Figure 2, a recording by artist Grover Mitchell from 1969 displays a less constrained situation. Here, the recording is made on an 8-track machine. The need for combining instruments is lessened by the higher track count. In this case, the drums and bass now possess their own tracks. The only track that combines diverse instrumentation is the vibes, guitar and piano track (Note: track 6 contains undocumented background vocals). Advancing to 1978, Figure 3 displays the track sheet for McFadden and Whitehead’s hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”. With 24 audio tracks available, this musical arrangement allows for greater instrumentation and expanded recording techniques. For instance, the drums are now spread over five tracks while the background vocals and strings are doubled on separate tracks allowing for stereo spread and greater mixing manipulation. By quickly comparing these three recordings, it becomes apparent the wealth of research possibilities that arise when such resources are available.

Figure 1. Track sheet from the 4-track recording of Charlie Feagin on Philly Groove Records – 1968.

Figure 2. Track sheet from the 8-track recording of Grover Mitchell on United Artists – 1969.

Figure 3. Track sheet from the 24-track recording of McFadden & Whitehead on Philadelphia International Records – 1978.

The Needs of Resources

Not only is there a need for resources for research, but also the resources themselves require housing and care.  The need for proper storage requires space, organization and preservation. Traditionally, these resources fall under the care of the intellectual property owners (record labels, publishing companies, etc.) or the recording facility in which they were created. When recordings are left at the recording facility after the recording process, recordings can become disassociated with the content owners, leaving potentially important recordings under unknown stewardship and in unknown storage conditions. Under current industry and economic conditions, pressure is increasing with regards to finding the proper preservation conditions for sound recordings. Andrew Leyshon describes the “crisis that currently besets the recording studio sector” (Leyshon, 2009, p.1326), and states, ”…the fact remains that recording studios in the Anglo-American world will continue to close” (Melville, 2009). Similarly, Steve Albini stated in his keynote speech at the 2010 Art of Record Production Conference that large recording studios are ”going the way of the dodo bird.” When these facilities cease operation, where do the stored sound recordings go?  Who takes possession and responsibility for maintaining them? In a perfect world, the intellectual content owners would re-take possession and provide proper storage for these recordings. However, justifying the expense for maintaining these recordings is more difficult as these companies evolve and struggle with their bottom line. Another difficulty is determining who is the current intellectual property owner of a recording after decades of corporate buy-outs and mergers.

This situation has led some record companies to seek alternative storage solutions. For instance, Universal Music Group has donated over 200,000 sound recordings to the Library of Congress for preservation and storage as Universal was unable to justify the cost of storing the collection (Cole, 2011).  This situation is beneficial to both Universal and the preservation of the collection. However, this donation required a great deal of planning and forethought on the part of Universal. Many collections could get lost in the shuffle of corporate failure or reorganization. Therefore, it is imperative that stakeholders (current and potential) look for solutions for preserving cultural resources while creating repositories that provide research opportunities. It is proposed here that institutions of higher learning can fill this gap to the benefit of all stakeholders.

Resource Implementation

For institutions of higher learning to fill this resource gap, a number of conditions must be met. The institution must have all the necessary practitioners in place to fulfill the needs of a repository. The sound recordings must also benefit the institution’s internal users in a way that justifies the cost of maintaining the collection. Furthermore, there must be institutional support for such an endeavor with stated goals and purposes for maintaining communication and advocacy. With these issues in mind, resource implementation will be described by using the Drexel University Audio Archives as a working model.  The following subsections describe the Drexel University Audio Archives’ creation while providing a model for institutional units and outlining obstacles to maintaining audio collections.

Drexel University Audio Archives Overview

The Drexel University Audio Archives was created as a sound recording repository when an opportunity arose to take possession of the Sigma Sound Studios Collection.  Founded in August 1968 by Joe Tarsia, Sigma Sound Studios resided at 212 N. 12th St. in Philadelphia, PA, USA.  It was at this recording facility where the majority of hit records from Philadelphia were made during the 1970’s and 1980’s, placing the Philadelphia music community as one of the elite music communities in the world. By the mid-1970’s, Philadelphia music output had surpassed Motown “as the most visible and representative symbol of black capitalism” (Shapiro, 2005). The session musicians who played on many records created at Sigma worked under the name M.F.S.B. (Mother Father Sister Brother) and created, along with record producers such as Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell, Bunny Sigler, Phil Hurtt, Dexter Wansel, Bobby Eli and many others, what became known as the “Sound of Philadelphia” or “Philadelphia Soul” (Cogan, Clark, 2003).  This musical genre, derived from gospel and rhythm & blues, developed into other musical forms such as funk, disco, hip-hop and house. The Sigma collection consists predominantly of commercial recordings by artists such as Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Grover Washington, Jr., David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Melba Moore, Gladys Knight, Solomon Burke, Gloria Gaynor, and many others. When Sigma ceased operations, the remaining tape vault required proper storage and preservation. The owners of the Sigma Collection found a long-term preservation solution by donating the collection to Drexel University.

By maintaining the Sigma Collection, Drexel University has created a unique sound recording repository.  While many academic institutions hold commercial collections, the Drexel Audio Archives may be the only academic institution in the United States that holds modern master studio recordings. Especially rare are academic institutions that maintain holdings of multi-track studio recordings.  Recordings such as these would usually fall under the care of corporate stakeholders such as record labels or publishing companies.  However, access to collections held under corporate ownership is rarely provided to researchers and, therefore, not represented in the research field. The Drexel Archives is open to all researchers and the Sigma Collection is of particular interest to popular musicologists and researchers of modern recording techniques.  While this access is limited to onsite research visits, access to such a collection is unique and has great potential to impact research as previously shown.

The Sigma Sound Studios Collection consists of magnetic tape sound recordings. These recordings take the form of multi-track music productions, mono and stereo mix-downs, multi-track and stereo advertisement productions, stereo live-in-studio radio broadcasts and multi-track film soundtrack productions. These 6119 audiotapes consist of masters, safeties and alternate takes of twelve different formats that are represented in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Audio Formats represented in the Sigma Sound Studios Collection.

In deciding to accept this collection, Drexel University made a large commitment and investment for the sake of preserving a culturally significant resource.  Space was provided to house the collection and funds were provided for the purchase of playback, digitization and storage systems.  This investment was deemed beneficial to the University for two reasons.  The University can serve the greater community by providing stewardship over this collection while internally providing primary source material for its Music Industry Program.  The Music Industry Program comprises an award winning faculty of music industry professionals, a course sequence that provides a full industry education with coursework in the business, law, technology, theory, and performance of music, a coop program which allows students to gain real world professional experience, five fully professional recording studios and two computer music labs.  This internal user-group justified the investment in this collection and the creation of the Drexel University Audio Archives as a sound recording repository. In the course of creating this repository, a model for institutional collaboration was created that involved multiple units within the University.

Institutional Units Model

When looking at an audiovisual repository, there are many perspectives to consider.  From an archives’ point of view, there is great value in preserving culturally significant materials and providing access for research. From a music technology program’s point of view, there is great value in holding a sound recording collection to use as a resource within the program. From either point of view there is a gap in knowledge in providing the best stewardship for the resources. An archivist’s expertise is in resource arrangement, description and file management. A music technology program’s expertise is in sound recording playback, digitization and resource handling. What makes an institution of higher learning a good candidate for audiovisual preservation is that most institutions have the necessary collective skill-set across various units within the institution (Seay, 2010).

For instance, most colleges and universities have an information sciences unit that is well suited for maintaining proper arrangement, description and catalogues of the collection. The music technology program can maintain proper playback equipment, digitization projects and enrich the material’s technical metadata within the catalogue. Furthermore, computer science and electrical engineering units can implement and maintain proper file storage systems along with machine maintenance and software tools for audio processing. Institutional advancement departments can seek funding and maintain relationships with external stakeholders.

This collaborative approach goes a long way toward providing a good home for sound recording collections. However, the added bonus for the institution is that the preserved resources have internal user groups that will benefit from these resources for research into musicology, music technology, archival practices, systems management, software development, etc. For the intellectual property holder, the institution provides a cost-effective solution to preserving its sound recording assets.

Obstacles to Maintaining Audio Collections

While the institutional units model is a solution for providing research resources and resource preservation, there are obstacles to implementation. Some of these obstacles involve monetary costs, while others involve copyright compliance, efficiency, sustainability and outreach.

One of the most obvious obstacles is space and equipment. Both are very expensive. Providing climate controlled storage space with associated utilities is a huge institutional commitment. Depending on the collection, specialized equipment must be obtained for playback and digitization. While all quality equipment is expensive, specialized playback equipment comes with an extra maintenance cost. Finding parts and maintenance expertise for obsolete recording technology can be both difficult and expensive. These costs will be the first consideration for taking on a preservation agenda. However, these may not be the most important considerations.

Copyright compliance may be the most important issue to consider. If the sound recording collection is of a commercial nature, it is imperative to know the copyright and ownership status of the materials. If the copyright status inhibits or prohibits access, it may not be prudent to take on the project. However, commercial copyright status is not necessarily a debilitating situation. Many libraries maintain copyrighted works within their holdings. The key is to have a clear institutional policy created by counsel that is easily communicated to both repository staff and patrons. In any case, the copyright holder must be protected.

Institutional priorities must be examined to make sure that preserving a sound recording collection is within the scope of the institution’s mission. Though the greater institution may consider the project a good fit, each included unit may have differing priorities. These differing priorities may not kill the project, but they may slow the pace of progress significantly. An assessment of efficiency is needed to determine whether the slower pace is too detrimental to the project.

While the daily operations of a repository are easy to quantify, there must be a plan for sustainability. A long-term preservation plan must be created before the project starts in order to foresee future costs and technological bottlenecks. For instance, if digitization is part of a preservation plan, data migration and long-term storage solution plans must be made. Long-term storage of the original materials may require space and utilities costs that will continue to use a portion of the operational budget. A cost/benefit analysis is necessary prior to accepting a collection.

While these obstacles can be weighed by the institution in determining the benefit of maintaining a sound recording collection, it is important that active outreach measures are taken for recording studios and record labels to know this option exists. The solution that institutions of higher learning can provide is worthless unless interested parties are aware of this option. Discussions and negotiations are necessary between the institution and industry in making this connection. Advocating for the preservation of sound recordings must come from popular music and music technology programs.


While the obstacles for creating a repository of sound recordings are not insignificant, the benefits to researchers and collection holders are great. Popular musicology and music technology programs need primary sources for study while industry content holders need repositories to preserve their sound recordings. By implementing the institutional units model, institutions of higher learning can serve both academia and industry by providing resource access and preservation resources. Thorough analysis of the potential benefits versus the costs associated with maintaining a sound recording collection is necessary along with the creation of preservation and storage plans. However, creating strong connections with industry are important in making apparent the potential opportunity for collection donation to higher education. If these connections are made, a wealth of primary source material can be made available to researchers of popular music and music technology.


The Drexel University Audio Archives provided audio resources used in this paper. The Drexel University Audio Archives is a division of the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design’s Music Industry Program.


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