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Going on Record


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Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Wondering if you’ll ever be able to listen to your classic LPs again? Thanks to a few scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, you may sometime soon.

Carl Haber was conducting physics research that required precision optical measurements in 2000, when he heard that the Library of Congress was having problems preserving delicate sound recordings in its archive. He thought it would be possible to make an optical image of a record and then convert the data into a digital recording. Haber teamed up with Earl Cornell, a nuclear physicist with expertise in bioinstrumentation, to create a machine that would do just that.

In 2004, IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase, Noise, Etc.) —named after the first record they imaged, a 1950 Weavers’ cover of the Lead Belly song “Goodnight Irene”—was born. The machine, which looks like a turntable attached to a microscope, makes a map of the grooves in the record’s surface. Using a computer, Haber and Cornell delete imperfections from the map, creating impressively clean digital recordings from records that are scratched or even broken.

In addition, Haber and Cornell are working on a version of IRENE that would allow researchers to retrieve data from three-dimensional wax recording cylinders that anthropologists often used in fieldwork in the early 1900s. Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum has about 3,000 of these cylinders that contain song and speech from Native Americans.

“These are languages that are dying out,” Haber says. “Having better access to the primary existing recordings may help preserve them.” And, someday, you may be able to use an IRENE machine to put your beat-up 45s onto your iPod.

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