IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) is a digital imaging technology designed to recover analog audio stored on fragile or deteriorating phonograph cylinders, records, and other grooved audio media. It is in use by several archives and preservation institutions in the United States seeking to preserve and digitize historical audio.
The technology was developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory by Carl Haber and Vitaliy Fadeyev and was announced in a publication of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society in 2003. It grew out of Haber's research in particle physics; in the 1990s, he had worked on Higgs boson detection experiments, and realized that the cameras he was using to set the detectors could also be used for detailed imaging of grooved audio recordings. The name IRENE is a backronym of the phrase "Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.", and was chosen because the first audio recovered by the system was a recording of the song "Goodnight, Irene" by The Weavers. By 2005, Haber and Fadeyev had developed two-dimensional and three-dimensional machines, capable of recovering audio from vertically-cut and laterally-cut grooved media. Soon after, Haber and Fadeyev were contacted by the Library of Congress, which began operating its own machine in 2006. In 2013, Haber was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship to continue development of the system. As of 2019[update], IRENE machines are operated by three institutions - Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Library of Congress, and the Northeast Document Conservation Center.
The IRENE system uses a high-powered confocal microscope that follows the groove path as the disc or cylinder rotates underneath it, thereby obtaining detailed images of the audio information. Depending on whether the groove is cut laterally, vertically, or in a V-shape, the system may make use of tracking lasers or different lighting strategies to make the groove visible to the camera. The resulting images are then processed with software that converts the movement of the groove into a digital audio file.
An advantage of the system over traditional stylus playback is that it is contactless, and so avoids damaging the audio carrier or wearing out the groove during playback. It also allows for the reconstruction of already broken or damaged media such as cracked cylinders or delaminating lacquer discs, which cannot be played with a stylus. Media played on machines which are no longer produced can also be recovered. Many skips or damaged areas can be reconstituted by IRENE without the noises that would be created by stylus playback. However, it can also result in the reproduction of more noise, as imperfections in the groove are also more finely captured than with a stylus.
The IRENE system has been used to recover audio such as:
- The earliest recovered audio, of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville singing "Au clair de la lune"
- Volta Laboratory recordings from the 1880s, including an 1885 recording of Alexander Graham Bell's voice
- A set of cylinders for talking dolls issued by the Edison Company
- Transcription discs from the Woody Guthrie Foundation
- Vitaliy Fadeyev and Carl Haber, Reconstruction of Mechanically Recorded Sound by Image Processing. Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, 2003. (PDF)
- New Sounds, Old Voices. The New Yorker, February 26, 2014.
- The Machine That's Saving the History of Recorded Sound. The Atlantic, June 13, 2014.
- Fadeyev, Vitaliy; Haber, Carl; Maul, Christian; Mcbride, John W.; Golden, Mitchell. Reconstruction of Recorded Sound from an Edison Cylinder Using Three-Dimensional Noncontact Optical Surface Metrology. Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 53 (2005), pp. 485-508.
- You Can Play the Record, but Don't Touch. NPR, July 15, 2007.
- Particle Physics Resurrects Alexander Graham Bell’s Voice. IEEE Spectrum, April 30, 2018.
- A Voice from the Past. The New Yorker, May 19, 2014.
- Ghostly Voices From Thomas Edison’s Dolls Can Now Be Heard. New York Times, May 4, 2015.
- The Digitization Process. Project IRENE, University of California, Berkeley Libraries.
- Dead Media Beat: IRENE, reviving and restoring lost sounds. Wired, December 26, 2013.
- IRENE website, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories