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Good Night, IRENE: Technology of Dreams

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IRENE technology at work converting an LPIRENE does ?her? thing

Everyone knows that ?a picture is worth a thousand words.? But did you know that it can also yield, oh, at least an hour or so of pleasant music?

The Library of Congress?s Preservation Directorate and a number of partners are essentially ?inventing? a new preservation technology that could revolutionize efforts to convert analog formats, such as LPs, to digitized versions of the recordings contained on the old media.

The process ? known as IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, etc.) ? is rather ingenious.
Here?s how it works: First, IRENE (pictured, right) makes a high-resolution digital image of a disc record. The key is found in creating a digital audio file from the analog information in the disc?s grooves. IRENE can efficiently extract sound from an image of a fragile or damaged disc, ?heal? scratches or digitally ?reassemble? a broken phonograph record. The extracted sound is converted to standard digital files and stored for purposes of digital access and preservation.

Recent surveys of collections nationwide, such as the Heritage Health Index, have highlighted the acute need for large-scale preservation efforts. Millions of historical recordings are believed to be in need of preservation.

Scientist Carl Haber of Lawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryScientist Carl Haber of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a key project leader, talked this morning about IRENE at the Library.

Haber says the process of converting a standard, two-dimensional disc can currently be achieve in ?near real-time.? The image resolution produces individual pixels that are roughly one micron wide. An entire ?raw? image file of a single disc can be 4 to 8 gigabytes, although that size shrinks to about 300 megabytes after processing.

Haber discussed plans to develop a second device ? called a ?Confocal Scanning Probe? ? for high-resolution, three-dimensional surface profiling of grooved media, such as wax cylinders. The separate process is required because three-dimensional media use an up-and-down stylus motion to produce sound, whereas flat discs employ side-to-side stylus movement. The best current technology can image a two- to four-minute wax cylinder in about 20 minutes, or roughly 10 times ?real time.?

Dianne van der Reyden, director for Preservation at the Library of Congress, said: ?This project represents a successful partnership between the Library and the scientific research community. The ability to capture sound from otherwise unplayable broken or damaged discs, and to do so in near real time, is remarkable. We look forward to working with LBNL on research and development for the next iteration to capture sound from similarly at-risk 3D audio media such as wax cylinders.?

Comments (27)

  1. Wow, amazing! I was thinking of the need for this type of preservation technology after hearing a piece on NPR about a collection of recordings that were remastered from Victorian-era wax cylinders. Historians, archivists, preservationists and audio geeks working together to preserve our national history…beautiful!

  2. Irene is an essential item for the Library in my opinion. The ability to preserve some older recording is essential. Most 78s that are floating around have become very fragile. I’m wondering about the ability to heal scratches.

  3. 20 minutes, or roughly 10 times “real time.â€?

  4. “IRENE can efficiently extract sound from an image of a fragile or damaged disc” That is pretty awesome…..

  5. This is amazing, isn’t it? IRENE is really essential nowadays, I think. The fact that it can digitally recreate a broken record is awesome. It would be a really good tool for us to be able to preserve older recordings. No longer do we have to feel sad about the loss or damage of old media such as a broken phonograph record because now, the sound that’s stored there can be stored somewhere else where it can be preserved for a longer amount of time. A little bit of history restored and preserved to be of use to the younger generations. Really nice.

  6. As a collector of vinyl records, I can’t wait until this technology is commercialized. I know it will be some time in the future – but hey – at least my vinyl has a pretty long shelf life – its not like it will be unreadable in 15 years. This technology would be wonderful either for playing records in “real time” without the use (and damage) of a needle or for creating superior digital copies for “everyday” use.

    This would also be an interesting technology to explore creating “archival” copies of digital media in analog format. For instance encoding data on a metal surface that could then be scanned and read into the far future. A example of similar technology is the HD-Rosetta[].

  7. Thats very amazing! “IRENE can efficiently extract sound from an image of a fragile or damaged disc” – thats realy cool.

  8. Or course IRENE can heal scratches! There is no needle to running accross the grooves. This is really great stuff. I am terribly curious to hear what it sounds like. The typical phono warmth, or is it digi-prestine?

  9. Brian, you can hear some samples here — including “Goodnight, Irene,” which explains my poor attempt at a headline! 🙂

  10. This is great stuff! L
    new like many wonderful ideas, it doesn’t seem that it took the discovery of some new ground breaking principal of physics but rather is an example of applying creative thinking to assemble existing hardware into a new concept.

    I have many dear old records, some old enough to be about 1/4″ thick. Some are seriously damaged but I always assumed that sooner or later someone would come along with a way to extract the data from them.

    I have some heat damaged LP’s that look a bit like the ruffled collar that Queen Liz I wore. I’m wondering if Irene could handle them or would the variation in surface level exceed the camera’s Depth of Field?

  11. I heard the program today on NPR and have a question. Does anyone know of the best source of resurrecting a 1915 spool of camera film that is sealed and may or may not have been used. Provenance is amazing and I don’t want to open it and have it turn to dust. If Haber has a technique to rescue sound, can anyone advise on rescuing film??
    Thanks. Paula

  12. I can see a need for this in the music industry. However, I can also see a need for personal recordings, as many older people created 78 rpm records years ago and would like to recreate that sound. I have one such record that I would like to have done, if the technology gets to the personal level any time soon.

  13. it is really good to hear this news. I would be keeping all my old stuff hoping that this technology would be served to public soon with an affordable budget.

  14. I think this is really intriguing.

    Is their a version of IRENE available for the general consumer?

  15. As someone who grew up with rare vinyl even when such records were the norm, IRENE is possibly one of the best ‘inventions’ for libraries.

    I also look forward to commercial version of this, hopefully soon.

  16. I learned about this technology through the program “Quest” on my local PBS station. I was fascinated to see the this invention caused by the intersection of technology and hobby! My family has a scratched record from a San Francisco Bay Area radio station of an interview with my Grandfather, after he was wounded in Italy during WWII, and this is exactly the sort of technology we have been hoping to find! I hope that IRENE will slowly become more readily available to the public, so that we, like the Library of Congress, will be able to archive our priceless family artifacts.

  17. This site has a codepage issue. All The page is UTF-8, but the text is encoded in ASCII.

  18. Irene was and is great.

  19. thats fantastic. We could then use other means of music storage.

  20. This is a wonderful idea. How is it progressing?

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