Setting the Record Straight On Prabhupada's Audio
Posted February 8, 2010
My appreciation goes out to those who have brought issues about the Bhaktivedanta Archives audio collection to everyone's attention. I apologize for failing to properly communicate details on this all-important topic.
The Bhaktivedanta Archives is completely neutral, non-political, and free from hidden agendas — always has been and always will be. We do not censor any audio, nor withhold audio from the devotees because of content (internal or external political views, women, gays, skin colors, and philosophical issues, etc.). We do not engage in conspiracies of any kind. By Krishna's mercy we were given the charge to protect this invaluable collection of our dearmost spiritual master Srila Prabhupada, and make it available.
In some ways we do find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, however, and I'll try to make clear the reasons by touching on the history and current on-going work of the Srila Prabhupada audio project.
The short answer
The project to release the complete, unedited, original, audio archive collection is coming along, although much more slowly than we would like and anticipated. Here are the tasks involved:
- Finishing the transfer from analog to digital.
- Sorting through reels and cassettes of unidentified and unreleased audio to try to figure out what they are. Many are mislabeled or have no labels at all.
- Fixing metadata errors caused before, when devotees rushed to release audio (as they sometimes did for previous releases of the tape ministries) ("Metadata" takes the form of tags to mark time, place and type of subject).
- Properly completing the archival process. To verify that a tape is unique and original, it is first checked against the VedaBase (the beginning, middle and end). Once a track is determined as unique, we need to get it transcribed in full, and then the transcription is proofread for English and for Sanskrit, Hindi or Bengali.
- Releasing an "archival collection" before everything is properly verified, conserved and catalogued would be a travesty of archival procedures and would lead to future confusion and frustration. By "confusion" I am speaking not about any philosophical content but about the metadata. We want to make sure the metadata is right. And we want to make sure we leave behind us a clear picture of the provenance of the collection — that is, how we know that what is in the collection is authentic. We owe it to the future generations of devotees that they will be left with a complete collection of Srila Prabhupada's spoken words.
We are determined to get it right, to pass on an accurate and definitive record of Srila Prabhupada's vani. This presentation is an attempt to correct this problem.
The long answer
Back in 1977 the Bhaktivedanta Archives was founded by Parama-rupa and Radha-vallabha prabhus. Please see article published in Back to Godhead 37-04, 2003.
When I joined the Bhaktivedanta Archives in 1978 after a 5-year stay in India, I was given the challenging task of dealing with the collection of Prabhupada tapes (reels and cassettes, mostly stacked in crates and boxes) — inherited from the Golden Avatar Studio. Though most of the tapes from 1972 through 1977 were properly identified, a large portion of those from 1966 through 1971 were not. Working with these unidentified or misidentified tapes requires one to be first of all a detective.
In those early days we had made it a regular habit to put aside the "problem" tapes to be dealt with later, so as not to hold up creating the tape ministries. A "problem" tape usually means a fragment or where the audio is so poor that even expert transcribers cannot make out what is being said.
There is a myth out there that such tapes can be easily cleaned up with modern technology. Though advances have been made, what we have is a unique collection with a wide variety of problems. For example: When unwanted interfering noise and Prabhupada's voice are on the same frequency, separating them is very difficult. But the time for dealing with these unmarked, mismatched or nearly inaudible recordings is now, and this is our present service — a very specialized time consuming procedure.
We have not communicated adequately to the community of devotees why sorting through all the audio put aside takes so much time.
Though there have been ongoing efforts over the years, for the last year or so we have concentrated on processing the "problem" tapes.
For transcriptions and proofreading, 27 volunteers now work on processing the audio transcripts. The system is that a transcript is created, proofread for accuracy by a different individual, then proofread again by yet another person to make sure it is verbatim, then proofread for Sanskrit and diacritics, then formatted and applied into the VedaBase. Only by doing the in-house updated VedaBase check can we be certain a tape is unique and original.
Already several dozen existing entries in the tape ministry and the archival collection have been reported as doubles, as given incorrect dates, or both. Some have been identified as incomplete as well, and we are sure that further corrections will continue to come in.
A further major problem, which has existed since before we acquired the collection, is the many, many bits and pieces of mislabeled and non-labeled tapes (reels and cassettes). We find copies and "originals" to be incomplete duplicates, triplicates, etc. We find portions and sections spread over a few tracks, sometimes jumping back and forth between the tracks.
In addition we need to address the dozens of recordings that are off-speed. When Srila Prabhupada was recorded on a morning walk, often the servant would forget to charge up the batteries, resulting in the gradually slowing-down of the tape and making Srila Prabhupada sounding abnormally too fast.
Another issue is that some reel tapes require to be baked for 24 hours at 120 degrees F to restore the ability for the tape to be played again. We also come across cassettes with wrinkled or stretched tape inside, making playback very difficult or next to impossible.
Major detective work is often necessary to straighten all this out, and it takes enormous amounts of time. After referencing the VedaBase every item must be transferred and transcribed first and assigned a proper reference source. With this done, we can begin to unravel the audio record. All this results in slow publication, but of course it must be done, no matter what.
Please remember that Srila Prabhupada was recorded by amateurs, by whomever was available and who often barely knew how to handle equipment and properly place a microphone. There are many recordings that have very poor acoustics. The reason is that Srila Prabhupada was recorded from too far away with an internal microphone in a cheap shoebox tape cassette recorder. Many reels, the majority from India, were recorded at the slowest speed available (15/16 inch per second) in order to save tape.
Because we cannot afford to hire devotees full-time, we are forced to rely on volunteers. Only through their kindness can we make reasonable progress. However, the volunteers, due to personal obligations, generally have a slow turnaround time. This is normal. This essential service is extremely tedious and takes a healthy amount of super-focused attention and determination. The difficulty of the task is compounded again by the poor audio quality.
I have worked with dozens upon dozens of volunteers in the past, but virtually everyone, for various reasons, petered out. Although volunteering for such a service seems at first like nectar, volunteers soon realize that the work calls for strenuous efforts and lots and lots of time, and thus they shortly drop out. Fortunately we currently have a few good people on board, for which I am very grateful.
- Our preservation policy is to distribute the audio, the more the better, but if we now release the last portion piecemeal, issues will certainly arise again about mistakes in dates, names, etc.; devotees will rightly complain about buying the same thing twice, and so on.
- In light of the above, we have decided to hold off on releasing any more audio until it is all verified and straightened out to the best of our ability. Please know we are working on it daily and diligently, making steady progress. At the same time, for us to project a release date now would be irresponsible. We'd just be guessing.
- We do not remove any of Srila Prabhupada's spoken words from the original audio. That is a given. Nor do we restrict devotees or researchers from this audio once it is processed.
We are sorry for not being any quicker, but we, as much as you, want to see the project completed as soon as possible.
Requesting your help, patience and understanding
We beg for your blessings to help us complete this final phase of the audio project. As mentioned above, the entire original audio collection will be released. It will replace the existing MP3 ministry in its entirety. All the kirtans, verse recitations, Srila Prabhupada chanting Jaya Radha Madhava, etc., present on the originals will be included. No introductory announcements, as in the current ministries, will be added.
If there's any way you can help, I gladly welcome your efforts, whether in proofreading or transcribing, or telling others about this specialized service opportunity. And if substantial financial contributions are donated, we can hire additional qualified personal to speed up the audio project. For further inquiries please contact me at Ekanatha@prabhupada.com. Thank you.
Ongoing progress as of 02-05-2010:
Audio ready for transcribing, 47; Bengali proofreading in progress, 4; Digital cassette transfers to be identified, 249; English proofreading completed--Stage 1, 110; English proofreading in progress — Stage 1, 62; English proofreading in progress — Stage 2, 16.
English transcribing in progress, 66; Hindi transcribing in progress, 15; Bengali ready for transcribing, 15; Ready for Folio — VedaBase, 10; Hindi ready for transcribing, 54; Sanskrit ready for proofreading, 50.
Reels to be digitized and to be identified, 161; Sanskrit proofreading in progress, 26; Transcripts ready for English proofreading — Stage 1, 44; Conservative estimate of new audio files forthcoming, 500.