Picturing Sound

Volume 5, Issue 2, Summer 2015

By Barbara Tannenbaum

Nestled high above the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, with a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has attained iconic status in two seemingly disparate worlds. For scientists, the “Berkeley Lab” is where world-changing discoveries are made, beginning with the founding director Ernest Orlando Lawrence, who proved, by building the cyclotron in 1930, that magnetic fields could accelerate and bend the path of particles to produce collisions, earning him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939. In our era, the Berkeley Lab’s fame has also reached into popular culture. Filmmakers have used the location to depict Starfleet Command in the first wave of Star Trek movies filmed in the 1980s and, more recently, the site where mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner transforms into the Incredible Hulk.

Dr. Carl Haber, a senior scientist and Columbia alumnus (’80CC, Ph.D. ’85, Physics), has spent his entire 30-year career as a particle physicist at the Berkeley Lab. His career trajectory has bypassed the classroom’s pulpit, placing him instead alongside collaborative teams of scientists working at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, and as a member of the Berkeley Lab’s ATLAS Project, developing silicon particle detectors for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. Yet Haber, too, has had an impact on popular culture. In addition to his work on the ATLAS Project, Haber is widely known as one of the world’s premier audio preservation specialists. Around the world, archivists and sound historians reach out to Haber, knowing that he and his colleagues have restored long-lost recordings by Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Jack London, Howard Hughes, and even Janis Joplin.

This doesn’t mean that Haber has switched careers. On the contrary, his work on sound restoration grew directly out of insights and instrumentation developed on the ATLAS Project, where he remains as a senior scientist. “As physicists,” he explains, “we use detectors much like cameras to create pictures of the interaction, creation, and decay of new types of matter, such as the Higgs particle.” In 2000, Haber was already wondering where else the Berkeley Lab might apply its well-developed approach to tracking the precise movement of trace particles. The answer came while he was stuck in traffic and listening to the radio.

During the broadcast, author and Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart was sounding the alarm for a wide range of recordings made during the last century that were in danger of disappearing. Describing the deteriorating and fragile state of lacquer discs and wax cylinders—the predominant recording media until 1950, when magnetic tape was widely adopted—Hart bemoaned the problems facing conservators. Many of the surviving artifacts were so fragile as to be unplayable. To hear these recordings was to risk destroying them.

Haber wondered if the ultra high-resolution optical scanning technology already in use in the ATLAS laboratory could be applied to this problem. At the time, the technology was being used to help develop very precise, camera-like detectors for eventual use in the CERN particle collider—detectors that could picture something as infinitesimal as the vertex of an exploding particle (the point at which a once-whole particle explodes into traces or lines).

Stuck in traffic, Haber pondered. Could the same technology be used to scan the physical, circular groove of a disc or cylinder? Sound waves, after all, can be embossed onto soft, pliable material, which is why the music industry jargon once referred to artists “laying down tracks” or “cutting a single.” But with imaging, Haber theorized, there would be no contact or needle touching the disc. A digital analysis of these high-resolution images could then plot the movement of a “virtual stylus” as it moved through the groove’s pathway, replicating the original audio signal in a WAV file. “It wasn’t that surprising a connection,” Haber insists.

But it did have repercussions. In 2013, after more than a decade working on audio restoration, Haber received one of the coveted, no-strings-attached "genius grants" from the MacArthur Foundation. The fellowship, which is given to individuals who demonstrate exceptional creativity in their career, provides $625,000 over a five-year period.

Carlene Stephens, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, puts Haber’s achievement into context. “Every time recording technology moves forward, our ability to play back what already exists moves further and further away,” she says. “Before Haber’s work, our sonic heritage was in dire straits. The technology he developed demonstrates that recordings once considered unplayable can be recovered.”

At Home in the Lab

A busy man who divides his time between the ATLAS Project and sound restoration, Haber rarely has a block of free time. He speaks widely on his audio project and physics, adjusting his presentation for fourth-graders at his daughter’s elementary school in Berkeley, parents at his son’s middle school music conservatory, or fellow scientists at college campuses across the country. Also on his calendar was a weeklong planning meeting in Geneva and a whirlwind trip to Morningside Heights to give the keynote address at the 2015 GSAS Convocation ceremony.

With such a willingness to engage and so much airplane travel, it came as no surprise that the first time I reached out to Carl Haber by telephone, he had laryngitis. The maestro of sound restoration had temporarily lost his voice. Despite the scratchy tone, Haber was patient and gracious, taking great care to explain the science behind his experiments and discoveries. Offering a tour of his laboratories, he said, “It’s my responsibility. Taxpayers make all this possible.”

On a spring day in Berkeley, the tour begins on the sixth floor in Haber’s office. In the antechamber, early prototypes of the optical imaging station, complete with differently-sized disc platforms mounted on plywood and protruding spindles and adjustable arms, fill the shelves. Within the office, where two shaded windows obscure a view of Oakland’s downtown skyline, every surface of three desks is covered with stacks of documents and reports. There are boxes of uneaten, still-wrapped energy bars, gifts from the manufacturers of precision optical equipment. Between the windows, Haber has pinned a photographic gallery of scientists, artists, and musicians who inspire him. Some are obvious: Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, and J. S. Bach. A few others—Andy Warhol?—require explanation.

Haber, a compact man with a good dusting of gray in his close-cropped hair and beard, laughs as he offers a Fig Newton or a slice of apple to his visitor. “Warhol reminds me of the trips I’d take into the city from Queens in the 1970s,” he says. “I was not focused on science in high school. I was oriented toward art and journalism. People like Warhol and Patti Smith were spectacular. Also, Warhol’s work in Pop Art, and his assertion that ‘in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,’ was very prescient about the state of our current digitized culture.”

The switch to physics, Haber explains, came during his freshman year at Columbia. Intending to major in bioengineering, he became interested in quantum mechanics thanks to Theodore Talbot, a graduate student preceptor who taught the history of science as part of Contemporary Civilization, one of the school’s Core Curriculum courses. After taking a summer job in the Columbia physics lab, Haber found himself hooked.

“Columbia’s Physics Department was friendly and welcoming,” he recalls. “I enjoyed tasks like drawing up schematics, taking measurements, compiling data, and building equipment. And the proximity of Columbia’s star professors and Nobel Prize winners just added to the atmosphere.” Haber shakes his head with amazement as he recalls lectures by nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, theoretical physicist T. D. Lee, and elder statesman and scientist I. I. Rabi, who served in the Eisenhower administration. “I quickly grasped that working in a lab and spending your whole life doing research seemed like a great way to spend one’s time.”

The Birth of IRENE

Soon, Haber leads the way to a clean room on the fourth floor. Donning white coats and shoe covers, we enter a large, cold room where five graduate students and postdocs work at a variety of workstations. Haber chats briefly with each of them, checking their progress. Several are inspecting the surface stability of a large, laminated, carbon-fiber structure. Haber reassures one exchange student from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne that he has spoken to an administrator on his behalf. Signatures are forthcoming, paperwork will move along. The young man smiles gratefully.

In the middle of the lab is a station with two computers and several monitors, next to a large table supporting a platform and other apparatus. Haber points to the table’s metal arch with its attached microscope used for high-resolution scanning. “This is where Vitaliy Fadeyev wrote his computer algorithm and spent one hour of measurement.”

Haber is referring to the outcome of his traffic jam epiphany. For years he discussed the idea of sound preservation via optical scanning with his lab colleagues. Some said it would never work. Others brought in wobbly old 78 rpm discs. Haber even made a bet with his supervisor, predicting their success would lead to an interview on NPR.

Finally, on a weekend in 2002, one of Haber’s postdoctoral colleagues, Vitaliy Fadeyev (who continues to work on the ATLAS Project at UC Santa Cruz), wrote a bit of computer code. He redirected the movements of the high-resolution microscope to scan the surface of an old 78 rpm shellac disc by the Weavers, a group of folksingers prominent in the late 1940s through the early 1960s. On Monday, Fadeyev played an audio clip of their hit “Goodnight, Irene” for Haber.

“That was a magical moment,” Haber recalls. With a tip of the hat to Fadeyev’s effort, he named the technology (consisting of the scanning platform, optical equipment, digital metrology analysis, and customized software) “IRENE,” an acronym for “Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.” After further experiments, Haber and Fadeyev published their findings in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society in December 2003. With this proof-of-concept blueprint in hand, Haber launched an outreach campaign, emailing the article to cultural archives and preservationist institutions in the U.S.

“Not many people will respond to a cold email,” he says. Most archivists, Haber continues, thought IRENE “was just another attempt to bounce a laser on the object.” However, the chief of the Preservation Directorate at the Library of Congress gave the paper to Peter Alyea, a digital preservation specialist. “His father was a physicist, so he understood what we were talking about,” Haber laughs.

Alyea, who read the paper during his lunch hour, says he realized that Haber had identified a process that would improve the conservation process significantly. Reached by phone at his Washington, D.C., office, he explains that prior to IRENE, “Audio transfers relied on a person with good hearing. Someone had to be present and attentive to make sure the transfer was not marred by distortions, skips, or damage in the original disk or cylinder.” But the Library of Congress has approximately one million older sound recordings. “Individual oversight is neither fast nor efficient. We needed a new tool,” he says. “Ultimately, Haber is an instrument builder. He knows how to spec out and build scientific-grade equipment. What the Library of Congress provided was the justification for doing so.”

Restoring the Pioneers of Sound Recording

The two institutions signed a memo of understanding, giving Haber’s team funding to build more prototypes and continue experimenting. The news spread like wildfire. “Back then, we only had audio clips,” Haber marvels. “But that first press release prompted a wildfire of inquiries from the New York Times, the BBC, and other outlets.” These, in turn, prompted inquiries from curators and archivists.

Beginning a series of historically significant sound restorations that Haber calls his team’s “greatest hits,” the California State Park Service was the first to ask for help from Haber’s team. In 2006, it brought over a 1915 wax Dictaphone cylinder, enabling IRENE to recover a letter dictated by author Jack London. The Museum of Innovation and Science, based in Schenectady, New York, brought Haber an embossed tinfoil made by Thomas Edison in 1878, the medium used by the famed inventor to create sound recordings with a playback mechanism. The National Park Service used IRENE to restore its collection of 1890 recordings on small metal rings embedded in “talking dolls,” a failed business venture of Edison’s.

U.S.-based audio historians (who document their work at, having searched at the French Academy of Science and the French Patent Office, brought high-resolution scans of the world’s first-ever recognizable recording of a human voice from 1860. The sound waves were captured on soot-covered paper by Parisian inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. The machine, which Scott de Martinville named the “phonautograph,” had no playback mechanism, Haber notes. No one ever heard the French inventor sing “Au Clair de la Lune” until 2008, when the material was analyzed by the IRENE software.

In 2009, Smithsonian curator Carlene Stephens reached out to Haber and his team to restore experimental recordings created at the Volta Lab by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 19th century. The material, curated for an exhibit called Hear My Voice: Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound, is now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and available online.

An International Collaboration

While the MacArthur grant singled out Haber for recognition, he takes care to emphasize the collaborative nature of the audio project. Returning to the sixth floor, Haber seeks out Earl Cornell. A tall, thin man who works in the Berkeley Lab’s Engineering Division, Cornell is Haber’s primary collaborator on the IRENE project. Haber also cites Professor Ottar Johnson at the University of Applied Science in Fribourg, Switzerland, who had developed a different photographic approach to preserving disc recordings. Their collaboration, which began in 2005, has resulted in some 40 Swiss engineering exchange students coming to work in Haber’s lab.

One of them is Simon Marti, an exchange student from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences at Winterthur. Marti, who is working on his master’s thesis, is bent close to the computer screen. There are whiteboards on one wall, a row of computers, and shelves with boxes of wires, bolts, and extra power sources for hands-on tinkering. Resting on a table in the far corner is the model itself—the lab’s most current iteration of assembled tools and scanning equipment that comprise IRENE.

Next to him is a box of sharp, broken record pieces, old lacquer 78s that were too brittle to survive intact. Marti has scanned each piece separately and is using customized software to stitch the images of audio wave patterns into a continuous whole. “Where the edges line up is still rough,” he admits, asking Haber’s advice on ways to smooth out the assembled image.

After brainstorming with Marti, Haber walks over to a wall cabinet and pulls out a box of recording artifacts—pre-war transcription records, where the lacquer coating is either peeling away, bubbled from the surface, or separated entirely with the aluminum core exposed. “By photographing the entire surface of a recording artifact,” he says, “IRENE can restore some materials facing even this level of deterioration.”

Projecting into the Future

Haber’s team has built five IRENE models. One, of course, is located in Haber’s sixth-floor lab. The Library of Congress has two models, with one in Washington, D.C., and the other at the National Audio Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. The fourth IRENE, housed at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts, is available for use by the public for a small fee. The fifth model is in the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai, India. A sixth will be installed at UC Berkeley’s Moffitt Library for the next project Haber will embark on. Working under the auspices of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, Haber and his team will restore some 2,700 recordings of Native American speech and song made on wax cylinders in the early 20th century. Funding for the UC Berkeley project will come from a joint National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities initiative called “Documenting Endangered Languages.”

To build each new IRENE requires an estimated $200,000 in equipment, time, and labor. That doesn’t cover continued support or additional research. To pay for that, Haber has put funds from his MacArthur Fellowship into the Berkeley Experimental Particle Physics Center on the UC Berkeley campus. The Center, which has an interdisciplinary mission, will also work on audio preservation. He cites the expenses incurred in December 2014 when he traveled to Chennai to inspect its model. Humidity and condensation had damaged the instrumentation, and Haber insisted on repairing it. The funds came out of his MacArthur prize.

Haber divides the great untapped collection of wax, shellac, or lacquer-based media in the world into three broad categories: commercial recordings from the turn of the century comprising perhaps one million unique titles; experimental recordings made by inventors and pioneers in the late 19th century (the focus of Haber’s past decade of restoration work); and field recordings made by researchers, anthropologists, and ethnographers between 1890 and 1950. In this last category, Haber estimates there might be 100,000 wax cylinders and transcription discs to unlock in the United States alone. “These field recordings represent our greatest opportunity,” he says. “Are there millions of undiscovered commercial recordings capable of changing our conception of the world? Probably not. But there are many items out there that only researchers know about it. And these scholars are only beginning to explore what it means to have this sonic heritage available.”