IRENE, The Machine That’s Saving Lost Recordings

We’ve been able to capture music for later enjoyment for almost 150 years–but in the case of really old recordings, we’ve been doing a lousy job of preserving these things.

This isn’t entirely our fault.  Edison cylinder were very fragile–and besides, who has a machine that can actually play these things anymore?  Edison phonograph discs required a special Edison turntable–and they haven’t made any of those since the 1920s.  There are millions of 8-track tapes still out there but virtually no one has a player hooked up.  Hell, I’d have to do some foraging in the basement to find something that could play a cassette.  Or any kind of VCR tape.

Edison Records

So how do you digitize a recording when the required playback equipment no longer exists?  You call IRENE, that’s how.  From The Atlantic:

IRENE [Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etcetera]lives in the cool basement of the library’s James Madison building. It looks, well, like a machine—all metal and lasers and motor—a little bit like a cross between a microscope and the guts of a home printer. How IRENE works: It’s basically a digital-imaging device. So, say you have a vinyl record you want to preserve. IRENE scans the topography of the disc, and sends the images it produces to a computer. Separate software on the computer then converts those images into sound. […]

The device knows how to image the architecture of other recorded formats, too, including older shellac-coated vinyl, and glass records like the ones made during the rationing of World War II. In the ten years since IRENE was invented, institutions have discovered a spate of esoteric formats and unknown recordings, strange items in long-forgotten collections that haven’t even been catalogued. 

This is cool.  Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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