Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Voices of the Little Monsters Were Exceedingly Unpleasant

I think it is a good day in the audio restoration mines when I am able to digitally remove surface noise from an ephemeralized LP that has seen better days. But you have to stand in awe at scientists who can digitize audio from priceless relics — many of them too damaged to play — without actually playing them.

[Photo credit: edisontinfoil.com]

Among the twenty-five 2011 selections for the Library of Congress National Recording Registry of
 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" recordings is an 1888 prototype tin sound cylinder for an Edison Talking Doll. (See above. The tiny phonograph was actually housed inside the doll.) It is a historic artifact on many fronts: the earliest-known commercial sound recording, the first children's recording, and quite possibly the first recording to be made by someone paid to perform for a sound recording (an anonymous Edison employee reciting the first two lines of  "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.")

But, until recently, it was not an audio artifact, rendered silent due to its poor condition (see photo, at right). Technology developed by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory under funding from the Library of Congress, Department of Energy, and others enabled the deformed cylinder (3" in diameter and 5/8" wide) to be "played" without physical contact using three-dimensional scanning and digital mapping tools to capture sound.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, the process is as follows. A large number of appropriately magnified 2D or 3D sequential digital images of a grooved surface are acquired. Typical resolution is in the sub-micron (< 1/1000th mm) range. Image analysis methods can then be applied to model the local groove shape. Using these models it is possible to calculate the motion a stylus would have made when it passed along these grooves, producing a reference sound file. The reference file can then be post-processed if desired using available audio engineering software tools. A technical presentation on the methods with several restoration examples is available from LBL.

With its audio liberated and preserved by this technology, the Edison Talking Doll cylinder could take its rightful place in the National Recording Registry. Give a listen.

Among the reasons the cylinder is such a rarity is that the Edison Talking Doll was an utter failure in the marketplace. Few were sold; production ceased after only a few weeks. The toy was doomed by some combination of its high cost (two weeks' salary for the average parent; think about that in today's dollars), difficulty to operate, suceptibility to breakage, and fright factor to children. If all that weren't enough, Thomas Edison is said to have admitted, "The voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear." Not exactly Tickle Me Elmo.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #35            

Artist: David Bowie
Title: Scary Monsters
Genre: Rock
Year: 1980

From December 25, 1980 Rolling Stone: Where do you go when hope is gone? The artist's next album may see him questing, but on Scary Monsters, he's settling old scores. Slowly, brutally and with a savage, satisfying crunch, David Bowie eats his young.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment