Play It Again, IRENE

Henry Wang in the lab.Henry Wang in the lab EECS undergraduate Henry Wang had never heard of Enrico Caruso until last year. That’s a surprising admission given that the 21-year-old senior now spends hours weekly scrutinizing the famed tenor’s rendition of La Donna è Mobile.

Wang is lending his engineering know-how to an ambitious project that seeks to preserve historic collections of music, speeches and other audio recordings dating back to the earliest days of recorded sound. Known as IRENE, the effort is led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicist Carl Haber, who has enlisted the help of UC Berkeley engineering and physics students like Wang through the campus’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program.

Along with course credit, Wang is gaining invaluable research experience on an undertaking with vast potential. “This idea is truly unique,” he says.

IRENE owes its start to a serendipitous moment. In 2000, Haber, an experimental physicist, was in his car listening to the radio when he heard an NPR report about the fragile condition of archival recordings at the Library of Congress. Many of its old phonographs, wax cylinders and dictation tapes are broken or simply too delicate to be played. Haber wondered if the recordings could be saved with an optical scanning device similar to the ones he was building for high-energy physics work.

“It sounded like an interesting problem—the idea of reaching out from the physical sciences to preserve and recreate access to these collections,” says Haber. He and colleague Vitaliy Fadeyev eventually restored a 1950 Weavers recording of “Goodnight Irene” with a system they aptly named in honor of the popular folk song. IRENE emits a tiny beam of light to “read” sound from a record’s grooves and uses a computer to convert that information into a digital file. It has no needle and can correct for scratches and some other flaws.

Intrigued by the concept, Library of Congress officials began testing IRENE last year. The project recently got another boost: a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop a 3-D version of IRENE. The new system, which relies on a confocal microscope, could potentially recover recordings from as early as the 1870s contained on wax cylinders, the precursors to flat records. One important beneficiary would be the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the Berkeley campus. It houses some 2,700 wax cylinder recordings of Native American speech and songs made in the early 1900s, including those recorded by Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber of the California Indian named Ishi.

“The goal of the project is to build a device that’s very versatile,” says Haber. Another potential application would be restoring dictation belts like those used by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and by the Dallas Police Department monitoring police radio activity on the day Kennedy was assassinated. Additionally, Haber hopes the new system will produce higher quality recordings from old phonographic discs.

That’s where Wang comes in. Taking raw data gathered by the optical system of the 1933 posthumous Caruso record (along with a 1953 vintage recording of Johnny is the Boy for Me by Les Paul and Mary Ford), Wang tries to pinpoint the needle’s exact path. This will indicate where the sound is embedded in the disc’s grooves. The goal is to write a code capable of extracting sound from any flat record. “This project draws on a lot of skills I learned in engineering,” says Wang, who spends 8 to10 hours a week in Haber’s lab and wants to pursue graduate studies in applied electromagnetics.

Though a music neophyte, Wang says IRENE has given him new appreciation for what he hears on his iPod. “I really want to learn to play the guitar or piano or another musical instrument,” he says.