Example of a lacquer transcription disc with deep cuts in the grooves. Courtesy of Kira Sobers

Giving New Life to Old Media

Advances in technology have helped to bring new life to media that is unplayable via traditional means.

We have talked quite a bit about The World Is Yours and our mission to digitize the lacquer discs that contain episodes of the Smithsonian’s first radio program, but what happens when the discs can’t be digitized via traditional means due to damage? That’s where modern technology steps in.

Round grooved disc with multiple hexagons carved into in and overlapping the grooves.

Traditionally, grooved media can be digitized by playback using a player and stylus hooked up to an analog-to-digital converter. However, sometimes delamination, dents, or deep scratches make it impossible to capture the material with a stylus because it won’t track correctly and can therefore inflict more damage. Thankfully, in 2003, physicists Carl Haber and Vitaliy Fadeyev developed IRENE to help address this problem. IRENE, which is a backronym for “Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.,” uses an optical imaging technique called confocal laser scanning microscopy to take 2D, and sometimes 3D, images of the groove walls of a disc. The resulting high resolution images are processed using Weaver, an open source modular software system that analyzes the images and produces an audio file of which the signal is the motion of the groove. The entire process is contactless and perfect for fragile or damaged materials that can’t handle the strain of traditional stylus digitization.

Take a listen to a clip from a recovered disc.

Well, no wonder the button hole industry never goes into a slump. In the course of a lifetime, the average American goes through the buttoning and unbuttoning process around 3.5 million times.

Black and white image of fourteen mostly straight vertical lines. One of the lines on the far right

Thanks to this technology, we have had the “B” side of four lacquer discs from The World Is Yours imaged via IRENE. We will be starting a project to digitize our collection of wax cylinders and dictabelts via this method within the next few months. For wax cylinders and dictabelts, IRENE provides an added benefit because it can be difficult to find players with the correct fit for these delicate materials. Additionally, the soft nature of the grooves of wax cylinders makes a contactless digitization solution the ideal method of preserving the content contained on the cylinders while leaving the original media no worse for the wear.

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