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


: 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.

CARL HABER: 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.

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.

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.

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.


BOYCE: 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.

PETER ALYEA: 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.

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?


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

GEORGE HORN: 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.

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.

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


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

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

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


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

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


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.


: 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.


BOYCE: Unidentified Man: (Singing) (unintelligible)


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

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

BOYCE: Nell Boyce, NPR News.


: 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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