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New Hope for Old Media

July 28, 2013

A acetate coated transcription disc getting ready to be pressed

Media Heritage is proud to be the repository of thousands of transcription discs—large, 16” diameter, acetate-coated recordings that were the primary, if not exclusive, recording media for radio in the 1930s and ‘40s. Many of the discs are in excellent condition, despite their age and the fact that they were never intended to be played 70 years after they were recorded. However, Media Heritage also has many discs that are in such poor condition that they are totally unplayable. Why hold onto these damaged and deteriorated discs?

Technological advancements in recent years have provided hope for archivists holding onto older media, like LP's, 78s and transcription discs. Perhaps the most exciting work is being done at the Library of Congress, where researchers are working on a system called IRENE, in which digital images are taken of old recordings, scanned into a computer, and then converted into audio. The beauty of this system is that it is “touchless,” meaning damaged and fragile discs are scanned much like a copy machine scans a piece of paper. Missing chunks and flaking acetate pieces do not prevent the “tracking” of the sound and although the missing pieces are still gone, however the linear track continues to follow the grooves which would be impossible with a traditional diamond stylus. Plus, no additional wear or damage!

Recently, a researcher at Indiana University took this new technology one step farther. Patrick Feaster found an advertisement picture of a long-since-forgotten recording disc in an 1889 book. Since they used engravings for images in books back then, Feaster simply took a high-resolution scan of the picture, reversed the black and white image, and then loaded it into a special computer program to restore the bumps and grooves of the original disc. Thanks to the quality of the engraving, Feaster was able to turn the “picture” into an audio recording! Suddenly, 2013 ears could “hear” the voice of the father of the gramophone, Emile Berliner, speaking from the past. Here's a link

There are libraries and archives across the country which have, or are, tossing out original media like newspapers, magazines and recordings in lieu of digital-only copies. The danger is that new technologies 10- or 20-years down the road could make even better use of those original formats—but they will be gone forever. Media Heritage, meanwhile, is committed to preserving all of its media, even items believed to be unplayable, because we realize that there's no end to problem solving and clever minded researchers who are, or will be, working on these challenges.

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