Scientists Restore 125-Year-Old Audio With 3D Optical Scans

Even though old discs from phonautographs and phonographs often can't be paired with their original recording devices, modern science is still able to salvage the audio. Most commonly, old discs can be digitally scanned and converted into playable sound, but a new technique from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory actually restored a damaged 125-year-old sample. PhysOrg.com reports that old archives from Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta laboratory are being restored with 3D optical scanning technology, which can help circumvent years of damage and weathering.

When Bell worked out of Washington D.C. in the 1880's, he often sent pieces of his work to the Smithsonian Institute for added security against competing research teams. Some of those audio recordings haven't stood up to the 100-plus years of storage, however, as many of the discs were made of varying materials like glass and wax, which can crack and degrade over time. However, LBNL is using 3D optical scans to work around that problem, using a high-speed disc capture system called IRENE.

Essentially, the IRENE/3D system takes high-resolution digital images of a disc while it's spinning at playback speed. Once the system corrects errors in the images created by time and decay, simulated stylus tracing reproduces the sound by tracing over the image virtually. It's a complicated procedure that actually protects the disc in long run, as the audio print can be read without actually touching the physical format.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's technique apparently works; you can listen to (or download) an audio sample here, a reading from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Various collected samples also exist on the official research archives, where audio clips from six other discs are currently stored. As noted in the logs, these three files were similarly extracted from a disc that's physically unplayable, due to five large radial cracks in the wax.

As there are still hundreds more discs stored in the Smithsonian's archives, the other perk of the IRENE system will undoubtedly save researchers a headache or two -- multiple materials can be scanned with the same technique, eliminating the need to create new scanning devices for each kind of audio disc, regardless of its type.

[Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory via PhysOrg.com]

McKinley Noble is a former GamePro staff editor, current technology nerd and eternal mixed martial arts enthusiast. He also likes Japanese sports dramas and soap operas. Follow him on Twitter or just Google his name.

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