HOLLYWOOD — With gloved hands, Claus Trelby held the fragile tape, an original recording of a Frank Sinatra session, dusted it off, and threaded it carefully into his machine. Then he pushed a button and watched as it played for the very last time, disintegrating and flaking off onto the floor in a small pile of “brown snow.”
The original was gone forever. But no matter. Trelby, the director of technology for Iron Mountain, had captured it in a digital recording, a critical step to ensure that this musical gem would live for generations to come.
The process of digitizing cultural artifacts, from Beatles albums to Steven Spielberg movies to original recordings of Ol’ Blue Eyes, is a little-known, soulful world inside of Iron Mountain, the Boston-based data storage company. Iron Mountain is digitizing as much music, film, and video as any company in the world thanks to the 22 million entertainment assets already in its care, some of which are stored in secure, temperature-controlled, impenetrable, underground bunkers.
For Trelby, a UMass Lowell grad, and his team, the work is both exciting and pressure-packed. With its most delicate artifacts, like the Sinatra recording, they only have one chance at capturing it digitally.
“We knew that when we hit play, that was the last time that analog tape would ever play,” Trelby said. “We were, effectively, destroying it.”
It’s a surprising role to play for a company like Iron Mountain, which is known for working with the government, law firms, hospitals, and large corporations like Boeing — ensuring that legendary film, television, and music recordings are around for generations to come.
Inside Iron Mountain’s 14-story, art deco building, the most imposing structure on an otherwise nondescript block, Elvis, the Beach Boys and the Beatles all share space, along with Alfred Hitchock and Spielberg. And, despite their home addresses on opposite coasts, the L.A. Lakers and the cast of “30 Rock” are neighbors here.
“We like to say if you’ve seen it or you’ve heard it, chances are it’s here at Iron Mountain being preserved,” says senior vice president Jeff Anthony. “We do work with every single major label, every single major studio, and all of the alphabets, including some of the big cable networks.
“Because this building is situated literally in the heart of Hollywood, it was the only storage company that catered to all of the studios. In the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s this was ground zero for every single movie that was ever made.”
But here’s the thing about the items the company stores: Many of them were recorded on magnetic audio or videotape. Over time, the magnetic particles start to break down and become unplayable and are in danger of being lost if they aren’t preserved digitally.
To make sure future generations get to see E.T. phone home, Iron Mountain began digging into the world of digitization on a massive scale, and today it has created one of the biggest digitizing operations anywhere.
Of the 1,000 facilities operated by Iron Mountain, seven — including an underground bunker — cater specifically to entertainment assets like the Sinatra recording Trelby handled.
“Those are typically working copies,” says Anthony of the millions of tapes, videos, and films in the company’s care. Iron Mountain will make multiples to protect the sometimes precarious originals, and store the copies in separate locations in a practice known as “geographic separation” in the industry.
“Any asset we have needs to be secured,” says Gary Hovey, executive vice president of Elvis Presley Enterprises, whose Iron Mountain vault stores popular concerts like “Elvis” (a.k.a. the ’68 comeback special) and “Aloha From Hawaii,” among other beloved items. Although Presley Enterprises has its own facility in Memphis that reportedly could take a direct hit from a tornado, Hovey says, “Who knows? A copy on each coast isn’t a bad idea.”
“The real crown jewels that the studio and the record labels and the television outlets have are kept at the underground [facility],” says Anthony. “Those are things that you probably never want to touch. They’re truly one of a kind. They’re cultural in nature. They’re 50, 80, 110 years old; you just don’t want to touch them.”
But when they have to be handled in order to digitize them, there are a number of steps taken to prolong the life of the tape. For instance, baking an aged recording in a special oven can help re-adhere magnetic particles — like those brown flakes that came off the Sinatra recording — to the tape itself.
And that’s where Trelby comes in. His job is to get these original tapes transferred to the newest digital format, so that the originals can then be stored in Iron Mountain’s bunkers. And the copies can be used to make more copies.
The voluble Dane, a former sound engineer and producer, oversees a grand coterie of machines on the 14th floor, from 70-year-old wire recorders to one-of-a kind four-track machines to whiz-bang, million-dollar digital technology gizmos with a dizzying array of of letters and numbers in their names.
The move to become expert in the digitization world was in part an act of self-preservation as Iron Mountain watched clients retrieve items from storage and bring them elsewhere to be digitized. By taking the process in house, the company can control the chain of custody — a big deal, says Hovey, to clients like Elvis Presley Enterprises who deal in finite assets — and help clients retrieve specific assets instantaneously and monetize them by attaching a variety of metadata to the digitized products.
For instance, a couple of technicians are hunched over workstations, old Lakers games playing out on their screens. Trelby explains that once the 3,500 hours of games they have received are digitized, each one can be tagged with metadata — everything from the score of the game to the colors of the jerseys of the opposing team — which the Lakers can search to find clips in seconds.
“It’s a little bit more fancy and technical, but it’s like a Google search for what you’re looking for,” says Trelby. “The Country Music Association is using us for their shows so you can type in ‘Parton’ and find any show with Dolly Parton.” Then, with a laugh, he adds, “It happens to be every single one.”
Anthony says the entire operation can be likened to building a three-legged stool.
“The first leg was the first 50 years building this large physical presence,” he says. “The second leg was to be able to take, as customers needed, these audio and videotapes and digitize them. And the third leg is what you see right here,” he says gesturing to the rows of servers, their lights atwinkle, “which is now the ability to retrieve and distribute all this digital data to places like iTunes, Spotify, and Hulu, and that creates a sort of cradle-to-grave offering, if you will.”
One of Iron Mountain’s highest profile clients is EMI Music. It’s chilly inside the EMI archives at Iron Mountain, the better to keep the precious cargo in pristine condition.
David Iscove, director of the EMI archives, pulls the parchment paper back on a rectangular piece of heavy white paper with a few markings. It isn’t immediately impressive. That is, until you focus on the black imprint on the surface. It says, “The Beatles.” It’s the production artwork for what is commonly referred to as the “White Album.” He walks to another shelf and retrieves a copy of the original master tapes of “Abbey Road.”
Standing in close proximity to these gems, it’s almost easy to forget that Iron Mountain may be most famously known for shredding paper. But it is these chapters in our cultural history that Trelby goes to such painstaking lengths to protect and preserve.
“Geeks like myself go home with a smile because that was a really fun day,” Trelby says, recalling the day he saved the original Sinatra session. “It might scare the bejesus out of somebody else, but that’s what somebody like me lives for.”