The Physicist Who’s Saving the Music
Carl Haber in his recording research lab in April 2014 Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
By Hannah Bloch
Aug. 21, 2015 11:04 a.m. ET
Fifteen years ago, while languishing in traffic between Berkeley, Calif., and Silicon Valley, Carl Haber tuned in to a radio interview with Mickey Hart,the former Grateful Dead drummer turned music preservationist. Dr. Haber, a particle physicist, listened as Mr. Hart discussed his concern over historic audio recordings that were deteriorating. “He was talking about how sound recordings are on these fragile materials,” Dr. Haber recalls. “So it was kind of a challenge, sort of a plea.”
Dr. Haber thought he could help. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he was developing equipment for the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, he had been using precision optical tools to measure devices that would help to track subatomic particles.
He wasn’t looking to apply science to music. “I’d been thinking not of sound recordings at all,” he says, “just of using imaging and pictures as ways of extracting information from things, which is something that’s very native to physics.”
But when he heard the radio interview, he says, “It just occurred to me: If we could turn these sound recordings Mickey Hart was talking about into pictures, we could treat them as large data sets that we could analyze on the computer and extract information from.”
Since 2002, Dr. Haber and several colleagues have been able to play back and restore some of the world’s oldest and rarest recorded sounds. Using a system of optical probes and cameras that they created and dubbed IRENE—for “Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etcetera” but also in honor of an early test that they did on a 1950 recording of “Goodnight, Irene” by the Weavers—they can scan and pull information off of the surfaces of antique recordings and create huge images, each several gigabytes in size.
A computer then extracts information from the images, which allows the recordings to be heard. “It’s a noninvasive, risk-free way to play things that were either delicate or unplayable,” Dr. Haber says.
Some of those delicate things are wax cylinders, lacquer and metal disks, plastic belts and even sheets of tin foil—cutting-edge technology from the past. The sounds that they hold include early, experimental voice recordings made by Alexander Graham Bell and his father in the 1880s.
The IRENE technologies also allow scientists to virtually remove defects from these old recordings—“essentially digging below the noise” for clearer playback, Dr. Haber says, even when the original media are damaged.
Over the years, Dr. Haber, 56, who was awarded a 2013 MacArthur “genius” grant for his audio work, has helped to rescue hundreds of endangered recordings at organizations including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. He is now working to scan and save an early 20th-century collection of some 2,700 ethnographic recordings documenting Native American voices and music, held by the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
California boasts a wider array of Native American languages than any other state, but some of its indigenous languages no longer have living speakers. The recordings that Dr. Haber and his team are working to preserve will help tribes to revitalize languages at risk of fading, perhaps helping guide correct pronunciation and word usage.
This was the furthest thing from Dr. Haber’s mind when he was stuck in Bay Area traffic and listening to the radio back in 2000. But, as he says, “If you don’t explore ideas that come up, you don’t move forward.”