Digital preservation for new music

Jonathan Grimes, CMC’s Information and Digital Services Manager, has been working on a research project looking at digital preservation. The following is a short post from him on his work to date.

Since early March 2012, I’ve been researching the area of digital preservation and how it applies to new music, in particular the Contemporary Music Centre’s collections. Briefly, digital preservation can be defined as “the active management of digital content over time to ensure ongoing access” ( Given that a growing portion of our collections is digital, this is an important issue for us in CMC, and one that is equally important for composers when it comes to properly preserving their digital output for future use.

The research looked at ways in which we in CMC is currently archiving digital materials, the formats we are storing them in, and how we deal with migration of files to newer formats over time etc. The aim of the project is to develop a digital preservation plan for CMC which will help future-proof the archiving of digital materials from the composers we represent, and provide some clear resources for composers to use for their own personal digital preservation.

Digital preservation of music is a complex issue. Many composers are now working exclusively using digital formats, and the tools they use extend way beyond the standard music score and electronic tape part for playback. Composers are using programming languages such as Max to compose real-time, interactive works; designing their own custom software instruments and pieces; and working in mixed media contexts. How these works can be digitally preserved so that they can be accessed and performed in the future is one of the big questions facing music documentation centres such as CMC. There are also a number of practical considerations which need to be addressed, such as how these digital materials should be stored and managed, and how we can make these available to our users for research and performance purposes.

A large part of the project involved the research of Irish composers’ digital workflows, and their attitudes and awareness of digital preservation. This took the form of a series of face-to-face interviews with composers and an online questionnaire which composers were invited to fill out.

The responses to the questionnaire reveal a number of interesting trends among composers and show a keen awareness of the complexities involved in preserving their digital materials for future performance. Here’s a summary of some of the main findings:

  • Of the responses received, some 58% of composers use Sibelius as their music notation software package as opposed to 34% who use Finale
  • Nearly 80% exported versions of their finished scores from Sibelius or Finale to other formats, with PDF and MIDI being the most popular of these formats
  • Over a third use MAX/MSP and Logic Pro
  • Nearly 60% of composers surveyed update the software tools they use to compose within three years of a software release, and less than half of composers routinely re-save their work using the updated software
  • The majority of composers backup their work to external hard-drive and only 42% use cloud-based storage services for back-up
  • Over 60% of composers keep all original files related to their compositions and some 76% store multiple versions of their works while they’re composing it. The reasons for retaining these files was mostly due to preventing data loss, as well as enabling future reuse of the materials in other pieces
  • Almost all composers store audio files of their works in an uncompressed format such as AIFF or WAV, and over 90% of composers store electronic materials for their works on computer hard drive.

It’s clear from many of the responses that composers care about the longterm preservation of their work and have developed their own ways of managing their composition workflow to off-set the threat which evolving hardware and software can pose to their work. While many don’t loose sleep over permanent data-loss, they are realistic about these potential dangers when it comes to future access to their work, and many are interested in learning more about how they might manage the ongoing digital preservation of their work.

The next steps in the project will see a set of draft guidelines for digital preservation published shortly on CMC’s site and the finalising of CMC’s own digital preservation strategy covering its own collections.

In the meantime, if you are an Irish composer who hasn’t already completed the questionnaire and would like to contribute to this research, please either take a moment to complete the questionnaire here, post a message in the comments below, or email me directly.


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