New MacArthur Genius Made Old Sound Recordings Safe

The earliest recordings of sound are physically deteriorating, but thanks to physicist Carl Haber they no longer need to be handled to be heard. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist is one of 24 winners of the 2013 MacArthur Fellowship. He talks to Melissa Block about his work.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Winners of the 24 MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called Genius Awards, were announced today. They include a paleobotanist, two choreographers, two pianists, an atomic physicist who studies ultra cold atoms. Each will receive $625,000 over five years, no strings attached.

We're going to meet two of this year's other MacArthur winners. First, a man whose research is near and dear to those of us who work in radio. Carl Haber is being recognized as an audio preservationist. He's a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. And he works to restore historic sound recordings that are at risk of being lost forever.

Carl Haber, welcome to the program and congratulations on your MacArthur.

CARL HABER: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about one example of a recording that you were able to restore. And let's take a listen to it. It's the only known recording of Alexander Graham Bell. It's from 1885. And it's going to be pretty hard for listeners to make out, so why don't you explain what it is that we should be listening for here?

ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL: (unintelligible)...

HABER: Starts out with Bell just counting numbers and dollar amounts. But then at the end, he actually declares that this recording was made by Alexander Graham Bell. He states the date, the place, it's 1221 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, which is where his laboratory called the Volta Lab was located.

BELL: (unintelligible)

HABER: He recognizes that he is in the presence of his cousin Chichester Bell. And then he says: Hear my voice, and then he repeats his name again.

BLOCK: OK, let's listen to just a bit.

BELL: Hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.

BLOCK: And, Carl Haber, how was that originally recorded back in 1885?

HABER: It was recorded on a wax-coated disc of essentially cardboard. And now it's cracked and delaminating and the wax is separating from the backing and so forth, so it's really something that has to be handled with great care at this point.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about your innovation here which is considered revolutionary. You call it IRENE. What does IRENE stand for and how does it work?

HABER: IRENE stands for Image Reconstruct Erase Noise Etc.

(LAUGHTER)

HABER: And if the technology - it's a sort of an umbrella term now for us, a bunch of different technologies that my colleagues at Berkeley and also the Library of Congress have developed that use different forms of optics, light, to create very, very detailed high-resolution images of the entire surface of one of these recordings. So that we can then analyze that on the computer and simulate the playback mechanism digitally, numerically, just using math, instead of actually having to touch the record.

So if the record is broken, if it's too delicate to touch, so forth, it can still be played. And it's a very, very gentle technique. We've applied it to discs, cylinders, strips of tin foil, paper recordings. All sorts of different formats, shapes, and sizes work well because you're essentially taking a picture. And with this picture you can then apply a computer process to extract the sound.

BLOCK: You know, I'm trying to wrap my mind around this because it's so counterintuitive to me that it's an optical image of recorded sound, right, that had been laid down in grooves?

HABER: Right, so if you were to look closely at a phonograph record or something of that ilk, you would see a groove. And it's like a valley or canyon that's carved in the landscape and it meanders up and down, or from side to side. And that movement encodes the sound. With one of these sound recordings, you can put it in this form of an image and then you can ask an algorithm to calculate what's the most likely way a needle would have moved through that. And once you know how the needle moves, the physics of the recording and playback process allows you to transform that movement into sound.

BLOCK: Well, Carl Haber, congratulations on the MacArthur. Thanks so much for talking to us.

HABER: And thank you. Appreciate it, it was a pleasure.

BLOCK: That's one of this year's MacArthur winners, Carl Haber at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

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