Lawrence Lab’s New Cure for Lost Voices

Contact Jessica Kwong at [email protected]





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Ancient voices and recorded snippets once thought to be irrecoverable have come back to life thanks to two new machines developed by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The two technologies, IRENE­—which stands for Image, Reconstruct, Erase, Noise, Etc.­—and a new 3D scanner, enable researchers to rescue sounds stored in obsolete mediums used before the 1950s, such as shellac discs and wax cylinders, without mechanical contact.

Many recordings were formerly inaccessible due to poor condition and susceptible to damage by the traditional stylus or phonograph needle.

“The basic idea of the technology is to use optics to create a map of the surface of a sound-recording material or recording media. By creating this map, you can then use the computer to calculate the sound instead of playing it with a needle,” said Carl Haber, senior scientist in the physics division at the lab.

Haber said he was inspired with the concept for IRENE in 2000, when he heard a National Public Radio feature on the Library of Congress audio collection while developing instrumentation for a Swiss particle physics center.

“IRENE was a first attempt using microphotography, a 2D scanner aimed at discs like phonograph records, whereas the 3D scanner is targeted particularly at cylinders, an earlier type of medium (with) grooves that move up and down from the surface rather than side to side,” Haber said.

The first demonstration of IRENE optical scanning at the lab was conducted in 2002. Two machines are currently in operation, one at the lab and a second at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

“IRENE is at a more advanced level a tool for the Library of Congress to scan records,” said Vitaliy Fadeyev, research physicist at UC Santa Cruz. “The (3D scanner) project has not been funded yet at the level ... needed to build the machine, and because of that, it’s at the prototyping stage. There is a need for sizable engineering time to make it run well.”

Among the first to benefit from the 3D scanner is UC Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, which houses over 3,400 wax cylinders, including California Indian languages recorded by UC Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and associates in the early 1900s.

“The 3D scanner will be a great breakthrough for us,” said Victoria Bradshaw, collections division manager of the museum. “We’ve worked with a lot of California Indian tribes and they’re very interested in making better audio available for the tribes.”

Haber said researchers began working on the 3D scanner in 2003, shortly after optical scanning was first studied.

“The 3D scanner (is still) under development,” said Earl Cornell, software developer for the lab. “It’s too slow to be practical at this point. To scan a 78 (disc), it would take a week.”

Several UC Berkeley students have worked on IRENE and the 3D scanner as research assistants through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program.

“It’s going to help libraries and museums have greater access to data that they cannot if we do not have this technology,” said senior Henry Wang, a research apprentice.

The research projects are funded primarily by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Many of the people interested are people who are typically separated from science and technology, so the project is a good example of how the sciences can benefit research in the humanities and social sciences,” Haber said.

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