Music History

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.

Alan Cross has 38466 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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