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New Sounds of the Past: Physicist Carl Haber Brings Old Recordings Back to Life 

Wednesday, Nov 20 2013
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On a chilly Tuesday morning, Carl Haber, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, is weary from two hours of commuting and two weeks' worth of bureaucratic blowback. He was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant for a breakthrough technology known as the IRENE Project, which non-invasively "reads" fragile old audio recordings and converts them into crystal-clear digital files. But at 8 a.m., he's slumped in a chair, catching up on e-mails on his phone and catching his breath after spending two hours getting his son from the East Bay to school in Glen Park, thanks to the BART strike.

Haber oozes humility, a surprising trait for a scientist who has just been publicly named a genius and awarded $625,000 for the honor. What earned Haber and his team the award is a technique for capturing high resolution images of the surfaces of sound recordings that are too old and fragile to be played, such as wax cylinders or shellac. ("NOT vinyl!" Haber insists.) The resulting image map is then used to create a "virtual stylus" that mimics the motion of a real stylus so precisely that the audio content can be reproduced digitally without anything touching the fragile audio source. Named for the Weavers' "Goodnight, Irene," which was the first recording his team successfully digitized, the IRENE Project has made Haber a highly sought-after ally to organizations such as the Library of Congress, which is flying him out to Washington, D.C., this afternoon to work his magic on its collection of rare field recordings. Some of them no living human has ever laid ears on, and they could be irreparably damaged if played. "We have [recorded] examples of cultures, languages, ways of life that simply don't exist anymore," Haber explains. "It's a unique slice of the human experience."

Despite the attention he's received for this innovation, Haber is persistently deferential to the contributions of other members of his team at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. In fact, he credits his former post-doc Vitaliy Fadeyev with developing the technique. "He was the one who came in on a Saturday and actually sat there for an hour and measured a disc and photographed it," says Haber. In 2002, Haber and Fadeyev began conversations about applying a Smart Scope — essentially a high-resolution digital camera with the magnifying power of a microscope — to old audio recordings. Haber, a non-musician who studies particle physics, got the idea while listening to an NPR broadcast about the dangers of attempting to play fragile audio recordings. "We'd had lots of conversations about how this technology could work, but actually hearing that was an a-ha moment," he remembers.

The quality of the recordings they're able to produce is, frankly, staggering. Their website hosts an example of "Goodnight, Irene" as reproduced via the tool, and as played from the original record with a stylus and turntable. The former is crisp and robust, with a handful of crackles from the source audio. The latter is nearly unintelligible. One of Haber's principal collaborators, Earl Cornell, demonstrates how they are able to scan a disk and isolate "any imperfections, scratches, or pops, and just [digitally] remove them." On a monitor, he points out these conspicuous crags in the otherwise neatly zig-zagging white lines that represent the path of the stylus.

The next horizon for this technology, says Cornell, is a "push to make things more user-friendly," taking it out of the exclusive purview of physicists and programmers. Before that, though, Haber hopes that the cumbersome technology that enables the IRENE Project can be "parked" in the various locations where it's needed. He and his team are now installing a system in Massachusetts at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, and there are plans to put multiple machines in Europe. Each of these will empower curators and collectors the world over to digitize and bring old documents to light. Haber envisions a resource like Google Books emerging from the collected information, a database where researchers, academics, and musicians can listen to the recordings and determine their significance.

One such organization already benefitting from IRENE is the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Its collection of wax cylinder recordings by the late anthropologist Franz Boas provides a crucial window into the experience of the Kwakwaka'wakw population, an indigenous Northwest tribe based in Fort Rupert, British Columbia. In 1930, Boas documented their potlatch ritual at a time when such customs were deemed uncivilized by Christian missionaries and banned under Canadian law. As Dr. Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse explains it, IRENE allows descendants of the Kwakwaka'wakw to hear their ancestors performing these rituals for the first time. "These communities don't have easy access to this material otherwise," she says. "I look at this as a form of digital repatriation."

Although he's proud of his role in enabling people to use this information, Haber insists it's not for him to say what the impact of the IRENE Project will be. But there's no question that it will be significant. "Who knows what people will do: Maybe someone will compose a great piece of music because of something they heard," he says. "By putting information out there, you will have some effect, and the world will change."

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Alee Karim

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