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Scientists build software to resurrect old recordings

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What does history sound like? A team of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are building a kit to resurrect old recordings damaged beyond repair.

A song is coming from the oldest known recording made in France in April of 1860. The voice pattern was squiggled in lamp black on paper, with no way to play it back. In 2008, a team at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, led by Dr. Carl Haber, turned this wave into a computer file and resurrected the performance.

"It came as a serendipitous connection," says Haber, "that some of the methods that we were already using in instrumentation development for high energy physics we realized could be applied to this other problem."

Since then, they have grown a sort of cottage industry in resurrecting damaged recordings of all kinds for museums around the world.

Their signature technology is a beam of light that scans any surface 18,000 times per second, translating reflected hills and valleys into sound. Earl Cornell is behind the sophisticated software.

"What makes this especially interesting," says Cornell with delight, "is that, at the end of your process, you get to listen to some audio. In what other process do you have something so esthetically pleasing and interesting, in many cases, at the end."

Their latest triumph, involves a talking doll. Curators at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park brought the lab a miniature version of the phonograph cylinders popularized by the inventor. Edison put the tin rings into talking dolls. The only one known to survive is too damaged to be played back by any mechanical device. So, Haber's team resurrected it with light.

The lab's next step is a prototype of a machine destined for collectors around the world, in the hope that one day anyone will be able to recover sound from any mechanical recording.

------- Links -------

First Sounds
Organization dedicated to the preservation and publication of the oldest recordings

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

National Park Service
Thomas Edison National Historic Park recording of the first talking doll voices

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