Spying on the AIATSIS Collections: Going undercover with the Nagra Série Noir

Post date: 
Thursday, 27 October 2016

How does it feel to hold a real piece of cold war spy equipment in your hands? For our skilled audio technicians, it’s all in a day’s work. They’re busy digitising the 100+ Nagra Série Noir audiotape reels in our vaults using an original sync recorder, and loving every minute.

The impeccable Swiss design of the Nagra SN is a joy to work with, but it’s their history of use in the secret services, space travel and motion picture production that is really fascinating1.

Nagra Serie Noir audio recorder
'Nagra Serie Noir' audio recorder, AIATSIS Collections - Photo by Siv Parker

The story goes that versions of the Nagra SN were commissioned by President J. F. Kennedy for intelligence purposes, and another was taken aboard an Apollo moon mission2! With reels measuring just 7.5cm in diameter, and 3.81mm wide, it’s easy to see how these miniature tapes and player would be ideal for secret recording3. In fact, they were the most popular body-wearable audio device for law enforcement and intelligence agencies until the advent of digital recording4.

Like an edgier, 1970s version of the ipod, these beautifully crafted and compact storage devices packed a serious punch, and influenced audio recording history.

Narga ruler scale
Measuring 14.5 x 10 cm, the Nagra SN records onto audio tape that is 3.81 mm wide.  Audio digitisation technician Reuben Ingall holds a small ruler for scale. 

So, what are these Série Noir reels doing in AIATSIS of all places? It seems likely that the same qualities that made the Nagra SN suitable for espionage, also made the filming process easier for ethnographic filmmakers, and the communities they were collaborating with. Early adoptees included AIATSIS (then known as AIAS) employer of filmmakers and technical staff such as Kim McKenzie and Wayne Barker, who started out as an Indigenous Trainee of the Institute.

Working in the late 1970s and early 1980s, these directors commenced a new and more collaborative style of filmmaking about and with Indigenous Australians, which has been documented in Ian Bryson’s book 'Bringing to Light'. It’s likely that the portability and durability of the Nagra SN was perfect for this radical approach to making films. After all, Nagras and audiotapes are compact, possess long battery life, and are exceptionally rugged. They are well suited to all manner of production locations5, including areas as remote as Arnhem Land, Kakadu National Park, Broome and the Franklin River in Tasmania.

Our film technicians remember filmmakers singing the praises of the Nagra, after being accustomed to carrying up to 20Kg of heavy equipment into remote locations! Finally, like all Nagra products, the SN did not require unwieldy “sync cables”, instead using a special “pulse” recorded onto the centre of the audtiotape to ensure that sound and vision were perfectly matched6. All of this contributed to a sound recording process that was discrete and sensitive, with exceptional sound quality. It’s unsurprising that the Nagra SN became the recorder of choice for ethnographic filmmakers in remote locations.

The AIATSIS Audio Collection holds the sound production material and film rushes for all of the AIAS Film Unit’s titles, including those that Kim McKenzie and Wayne Barker worked on, using the Nagra SN. The audio preserved includes masters and sync sound, interviews, music performances, overheard conversations and even ‘wild sound’ of Country such as insects, birds and wind, forming an invaluable resource for the relatives and communities who collaborated on these productions.

Audio digitisation technician Reuben Ingall indicates one of the three small viewing windows
in the lid of the Nagra SN, which show the record level, supply reel and take up reel.
AIATSIS Audiovisual Collection - Photo by Siv Parker

Our audio technicians use an original Nagra SN sync recorder to digitise the reels, which is a point of difference between AIATSIS and some other archives. This means that the original “sync pulse” of the Nagra is retained. This pulse can easily be cancelled out with digital tools, but remains in our preservation masters as a faithful reproduction of the original archive object.

Digital access copies of the following Nagra SN collections relating to AIAS and other productions are available on request for listening on site at AIATSIS. We are busy digitally preserving these valuable recordings as a priority along with our other audio holdings on magnetic tape.


  1. Precision miniature analog stereo tape recorder 
  2. Nagra Audio
  3. Crypto Museum - Precision miniature tape recorder
  4. Crypto Museum - Precision miniature tape recorder
  5. Guide to the Nagra 4.2 and Production Sound Recording p1
  6. Guide to the Nagra 4.2 and Production Sound Recording p1-4

Thanks to Cameron Burns, Reuben Ingall, Tom Eccles and Barton MacDonald for their enthusiasm and technical expertise.

Last reviewed: 17 Apr 2020