Physicist Carl Haber blended art and physics yesterday afternoon, as he discussed revolutionary techniques that can pull sound from fragile and damaged recordings without touching them.
Haber, the senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, spoke in front of over 100 audience members in an overcrowded Sterling Library Lecture Hall. Haber was invited to speak by directors of the Richard Warren Jr. Fund for the Preservation and Promotion of Music. Mary-Jo Worthy Warren, who established the fund in memory of her late husband, said she became intrigued by Haber’s work after reading about his research in a New Yorker piece, noting that music has played a significant role in the life of her husband, who authored numerous articles on sound recording.
“Since my husband had been involved in [sound preservation] and we met through music, I was very interested,” Warren said.
Haber’s lecture focused on different aspects of sound recording, including the development of his own interest, the actual mechanics of the trade and the history of sound. After hearing a radio program about old sound recordings that were damaged and would soon become unplayable without the help of digitization, Haber was inspired to pursue the subject in greater depth. He became interested in the idea of non-invasive restoration — the possibility of digitizing a recording without touching the material, creating an image of the recording and then writing a computer program to process the image and recover the original sound. In 2003, he sent his idea to the Library of Congress, which led to collaborations with other researchers and enabled him to further develop his work.
“That is when it turned into a real project,” Haber said.
After further study, Haber was ultimately able to use digital image processing to extract precise information from images and play sounds. The first sound he was able to play was The Weavers’ “Goodnight Irene”, which led him to name his technology IRENE, an acronym for Image Reconstruct Erase Noise Etcetera. Haber noted that his method is not perfect, but that optical methods “can sometimes lead to better noise reduction and restoration.”
Haber also spoke at length about the history of sound recording. He traced the beginning of sound to Leon Scott’s phonoautograph and Thomas Edison’s phonograph in the nineteenth century. He also mentioned the first recording made for commercial promotions and, to the laughter of the audience, the first recorded use of profanity. In the last segment of his talk, Haber spoke of the necessity of sound preservation and the benefits it poses to society. He mentioned certain examples in which preservation has aided history and saved valuable information, including recordings of American forces in war and oral literature in the former Yugoslavia.
“Today’s digital technology provides a window on the entire early period of sound recording and its rich research, artistic, historical and commercial legacies,” Haber concluded.
Several audience members interviewed found Haber to be humorous and noted his ability to make the subject matter easy to understand.
New Haven resident Harry Avakian said he thought the lecture was interesting and engaging from start to finish.
Luke Lindemann GRD ’19, a graduate student in the linguistics department, echoed Avakian’s sentiments. He added that as a linguist, he finds early sound recordings to be especially relevant to his work. Patrick McCreless, a Professor of Music History at the Yale School of Music, said he thinks that Haber’s research is “groundbreaking” in its scientifcally-oriented approach, adding that there exists much interest in the sound studies field, particularly among music scholars.
Ben Yousey-Hindes, associate director for Yale Library’s Development Office, said the endowment had been looking at Haber since the spring of this year as a high profile speaker.
Haber is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.