Archive of Recorded Sound Reveals the Past

A sign points to Stanford's Archive of Recorded Sound, in the basement of a music building. (Michelle Min)
A sign points to Stanford’s Archive of Recorded Sound in the basement of a music library. (Michelle Min)

The air is cool and dry, aged.

Only a staircase, three doors, and four hallways separate this quiet room from blazing sunlight and a summer breeze, but that feels like a world away. This universe is 65 degrees Fahrenheit and between 40 and 50 percent humidity – come rain or shine.

Newsroom by the Bay students take notes during Manton’s overview of recorded sound history. (Michelle Min)

Jonathan Manton, Sound Archives Librarian at Stanford’s Archive of Recorded Sound, explained that excessive heat and humidity peel the lacquer off of old vinyl records. His job is to maintain these records and digitize them into the Stanford Archive.

The Archive, founded in 1958, consists mostly of classical and jazz recordings; the collection reflects the core interests of Stanford students and the Archive’s dedication to support them. Included are not only commercially released pieces but also one-of-a-kind recordings, such as a 1927 newscast of Charles Lindbergh’s medal ceremony after he completed his transatlantic flight.

A timeline of recorded sound created on dipity.com by Michelle Min.
A timeline of recorded sound created on dipity.com by Michelle Min. Click for more details in an interactive view.
Martinville’s phonoautograph.

For most, Manton said, sound record history begins in 1877 with Thomas Edison’s phonograph. But for recorded sound enthusiasts like Manton himself, the real inception is seventeen years earlier with Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s 1860 phonautograph or “speech writer.”

Edouard Léon Scott de Martinville, a 19th century French printer.
Edouard Léon Scott de Martinville, a 19th century French printer.

Martinville created his phonoautograph to visually study sound waves and the human ear; there was no way to play his recordings. “A funnel channelled sound to a vibrating membrane, which in turn moved a stylus. When someone spoke into the funnel, the stylus left a permanent etching of the sound on a rotating cylinder coated with specially prepared paper or glass,” the New York Times explained.

“Sound, just like light, can provide a lasting image at a distance.”

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville

But Carl Haber and his colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were undeterred. In 2008, they digitized and restored Martinville’s recording of “‘Au Clair de la Lune” with the IRENE Project. This method uses photographs to create high quality digital sound files from analog recordings.

Watch a sample sound restoration of the piece, which includes sound denoising, time stretch, tuning and quantizing, cleaning of harmonics, and addition of harmonics and stereo panorama.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also restored Edison’s 1878 phonograph recording of nursery rhymes, a cornet solo, and more (below).

Carl Haber holds a wax cylinder recording from the late 1800s. (Sheraz Sadiq/KDEQ Quest)
Carl Haber holds a wax cylinder recording from the late 1800s. (Sheraz Sadiq/KDEQ Quest)

The IRENE Project has the potential to alter the way we remember sound. “Who knows what people will do,” Haber told SF Weekly, “Maybe someone will compose a great piece of music because of something they heard…By putting information out there, you will have some effect, and the world will change.”

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