You Can Play the Record, but Don't Touch Physicists from California have updated a hands-off approach to playing old and broken records. A computer-generated program called IRENE has found a way to reconstruct sound without ever touching classic LPs.
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You Can Play the Record, but Don't Touch

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You Can Play the Record, but Don't Touch

You Can Play the Record, but Don't Touch

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And now we turn to a story about another kind of artifact: recordings. A few years ago, we told about a physicist named Carl Haber. He was driving to work one day, listening to NPR when he heard a report on historic audio recordings. Antique records and wax cylinders can be so fragile that they are damaged by the needle used to play them. All of this made Haber wonder if technology could somehow get the sound off old recordings without touching their delicate surfaces.

(Soundbite of song, "Goodnight Irene")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene. I'll see you in my dreams.

WERTHEIMER: It turns out technology can help. You just heard a sound clip at Haber's lab created using a hands-off technique. Now his process is being tested at the Library of Congress to see if it's good enough to help the library make digital copies of its vast archive.

NPR's Nell Boyce went to the library to check it out.

NELL BOYCE: I'm in a small, white room with bright red carpet, and Carl Haber is about to play me a record from around 1930. It's a recording of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe." And the thing is, this record is broken.

Dr. CARL HABER (Physicist): If you look, there's a little piece - it looks like somebody just got hungry and took a bite out of it.

BOYCE: The record is sitting on a turntable. Haber has fitted the broken piece back into place, like it's a jigsaw puzzle.

Dr. HABER: If we spun this thing fast, the piece would come flying off, you know, and maybe hit somebody.

BOYCE: But this won't spin like a normal record player. And there's no needle hovering over the record. Instead, there's a camera linked to a computer. It snaps detailed images of the groove cut into the disc.

Dr. HABER: And by taking these pictures, it essentially just unwinds the record into a big long stripe.

BOYCE: The picture appears on Haber's computer screen. It looks like a black and white photo of a tire tread.

Dr. HABER: Here's the break. Now you can see, there's a little piece of dust, little scratch marks on it.

BOYCE: The computer ignores all of these flaws. And at the click of a mouse, it uses the image to reconstruct the sound.

(Soundbite of music)

BOYCE: It used to take Haber hours and hours to re-create short sound clips. Now his improved system, which he calls IRENE, can scan a record in almost real time. That's why IRENE was installed here late last year. The Library of Congress has millions of old audio recordings. Many are in poor condition or use ancient formats.

Peter Alyea works to preserve these records. To play them, he says, you need technicians who are trained to do things like choose the proper needle. But if IRENE lives up to its potential, anyone could make a copy.

Mr. PETER ALYEA (Staff, Library of Congress): They don't have to worry about any of the technical aspects. They simply can stick a disc on it and get some sound out of it.

BOYCE: Alyea says it's like a photocopy machine for sound.

Mr. ALYEA: It brings the possibility of automation much closer to reality for these kinds of materials.

BOYCE: That could help the library digitize its vast collection and make it more widely available. But how good are those photocopies?

(Soundbite of beeping sound)

BOYCE: This is not an emergency, and it's not a test of the emergency broadcast system. It is a test that the scientists use to see how well IRENE can read some old-fashioned discs coated with lacquer. The library has thousands of these one-of-a-kind records. Haber says the format is obsolete.

But luckily, audio engineer George Horn still makes these records at his studio in California.

Mr. GEORGE HORN (Audio Engineer): And he cuts them for DJs, who want to use them for the, you know, chuck-chuck thing that they do, I guess.

BOYCE: Horn cut this disc with a series of well-defined tones. Haber says IRENE can reproduce the tones precisely.

Dr. HABER: The machine is not adding its own color. It's not adding anything of its own nature.

BOYCE: IRENE may not add things, but Haber says IRENE does take some things away.

Dr. HABER: So this is a lovely recording of the song "Johnny was the Boy for Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny is the Boy for Me")

Mr. MARY FORD (Singer): (Singing) Johnny is the boy for me. Always knew that he would be.

Dr. HABER: Recorded by Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1953.

BOYCE: On a regular turntable, the beat-up record skipped.

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny is the Boy for Me")

Ms. FORD: (Singing) So I love - and I told my eager heart…

BOYCE: But IRENE skips over the skip like it's not even there.

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny is the Boy for Me")

Ms. FORD: (Singing) So I love him from the start and I told my eager heart, Johnny is the boy for me.

BOYCE: And here's another worn-out old record.

(Soundbite of song, "Hemlock Blues")

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): I got me some blues.

BOYCE: It's owned by a collector who says it's so damaged, he doesn't even try to play it with a regular needle. But IRENE scanned it and got some sound.

(Soundbite of song, "Hemlock Blues")

BOYCE: IRENE isn't perfect. While it takes away pops and clicks, it can sometimes add more hiss to a recording than you'd get if you played it with a needle. Still, the library finds all this encouraging enough that it started testing the system on hundreds of discs. Meanwhile, Carl Haber is working to speed up a machine that could get even better sound quality.

Instead of taking flat photographs, it can create a three-dimensional image of the grove on a record or on a wax cylinder.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (unintelligible)

BOYCE: Haber's lab reconstructed this sound from one wax cylinder made around 1911. It's a Native American called "Ishi(ph)." The cylinder is one of thousands held at the University of California's Phoebe Hearst Museum.

Haber says it's amazing to hear these voices from the past.

Dr. HABER: You know, there's this whole cultural and human component to what we're looking at. That makes it wonderful.

BOYCE: He says it's a nice break from his real job at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where he studies subatomic particles.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: You can compare songs played by IRENE with those played on regular record players at This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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