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Particle physics recovers music from the past
Thai Ton

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Imagine playing a scratchy, fragile 50-year-old phonograph record and hearing it clearly as the day it was recorded without even touching the record. Physicists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California have made this possible by using imaging technology developed in the study of particle physics.

Physicists Carl Haber and Vitaliy Fadeyev have adapted technology used for detecting the theoretical Higgs Boson particle at Berkeley Lab to map the undulating grooves in shellac phonograph discs. According to Haber, “We developed a way to image the grooves in a recording that is similar to measuring tracks in a particle detector.”

The images are processed to remove the scratches, hisses and pops, and then digitized into a sound format. The digitally reproduced playback sounds as clear as if it was just recorded.

The researchers have already digitally reproduced and enhanced a copy of singer Marian Anderson’s 1947 rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” from an old, scratchy record.

The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., plans to use the technology to digitize thousands of its old mechanical recordings of music and speech. The technology is non-contact, meaning no stylus is needed to play the grooved recordings, thus fragile recordings can be preserved. Even broken discs can be imaged and digitally reassembled. The technology should help the Library of Congress preserve its vast sound archives and make it available to a wider audience.

The technology will also allow digitizing of even the earliest grooved recordings produced in the late 19th century, allowing people to hear the music, speech and sounds from more than a century ago as clearly as the day they were recorded.

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