Prairie preservationists: Sask. music restorers digitize old recordings

·4 min read
Nels Nielson spends hours digitizing the records and taking out the clicks and pops for a good quality online song with the Sask Music Project.  (Submitted by Nels Nielson - image credit)
Nels Nielson spends hours digitizing the records and taking out the clicks and pops for a good quality online song with the Sask Music Project. (Submitted by Nels Nielson - image credit)

When Bob Keir's house was broken into in 1977, he lost his stereo equipment and some rare records he never thought he'd see again.

But, the unfortunate event also sparked a new hobby for the Regina man that continues to this day: music preservation.

Not wanting to go through the heartbreak of losing his record collection again, Keir began to try to re-collect records he lost. Around this time he also discovered that a co-worker owned special equipment that could digitize music from audio cassettes, so he bought some gear of his own and soon was digitizing records, cassettes and 8-tracks.

More than 40 years later, Keir said he's amassed a collection of more than 80,000 songs — including the whole ABBA catalogue and 128 different Elvis albums — and his collection isn't showing signs of stopping, either. He said he still sifts through garage sales and the Facebook marketplace for records he wants.

"It got to the point if I go to a garage sale and they've got a hundred records for sale, I'll offer them a few dollars for the records, it just depends on what they are," he said. "I'll offer them a price, if they take it I'll take the whole works."

"I've got stuff going back to vaudeville and I've got ... KISS and stuff from that era. I'm not fussy over rap music, but again I do have some rap because if it's lost, it's lost." - Bob Keir

Keir describes his taste in music as "very eclectic," which isn't surprising considering the sheer size of his collection.

"I've got stuff going back to vaudeville and I've got ... KISS and stuff from that era. I'm not fussy over rap music, but again I do have some rap because if it's lost, it's lost."

Keir said the hobby has put him in touch with lots of record enthusiasts and sparked many friendships over the years. Most of all, he credits his wife for supporting his hobby and putting up with boxes upon boxes of records that sometimes take up space in their home.

Removing the cracks and pops

Kindersley's Nels Nielson, like Bob Keir, has been slowly collecting and digitizing old records over the years.

He said he first got the itch to start preserving music about a decade ago when he walked into a pawn shop in Moose Jaw and saw a record by a local brass band.

"To my surprise, I'd never even heard of them. I didn't even know Moose Jaw had a brass band of any kind. I picked it up and took it home. I had to find my mother's record player because she's the only one who had one, and I listened to it and thought 'wow, this is kind of neat."

Suddenly a spark hit him: "maybe somebody should archive or put it somewhere accessible. That kind of led me to thinking 'maybe I should archive this ... and put it online."

Now, any time he spots a rare-looking record by a local band in a shop, he takes it home and preserves it in a digital format.

For much of the past decade, as his collection grew, Nielson only had the music stored on his own computer for his own personal listening. But, in December 2019, someone suggested he start to put some of the collection online so others could hear it.

Submitted by Nels Nielson
Submitted by Nels Nielson

"I was like, 'you've got a good point, I really should probably start doing that," Nielson remembered and within a few months he was uploading music to the internet.

Nielson said most records from pawn shops have seen their share of abuse over the years, so the first thing he does is give the disc a good clean. After that, he records straight from his record player into a computer, and then uses an audio editing program to try to remove as many cracks and pops as he can.

At this point, Nielson has digitized about 25 albums, mostly forgotten recording by local bands and self-releasing musicians. He created the Sask Music Project, which allows other people to hear the collection he's preserved.

So what drives such a passion to dust off old records and bring them back into the light of day? Back in Regina, with an ever-growing collection of old recordings, Keir perhaps sums it up best.

"I just like music, period," he laughed.

With files from Taron Cochrane and Saskatchewan Weekend

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