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Research into preserving old sound recordings scoops international prize

Published: 
13 November 2008

A team of researchers at the University of Southampton are the first recipients of a new international prize, which recognises and rewards outstanding contributions to research in the field of the technology of preservation of moving images and recorded sound.

The team of five academics and research staff has been awarded the James A Lindner Prize for their Sound Archive project, which aims to investigate methods for the non-contact scanning of archived mechanically-recorded sound recordings, so that the encoded sound can be preserved and reproduced in a digital format.

Non-contact scanning involves optically measuring the surface of cylinder and disc recordings to high precision to create a digital representation of the recorded surface, using instruments normally associated with surface engineering.  This digital surface map may then be post-processed in software to recover the sound, which is encoded as groove modulations. The technique has particular relevance to rare or damaged sound artefacts which are deemed 'unplayable' by conventional stylus playback methods.

Professor John McBride, the main investigator of the project, explains: "Many sound carriers, such as early wax cylinders, are archivally unstable and at risk of deterioration, making this research both timely and critical.  A non-contact method of sound reproduction ensures that no pressure is exerted on these fragile artefacts, meaning that no further damage is caused to the grooves during playback."

The team has recently scanned a heavily-damaged cylinder held by The National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, which contains the voice of Evan Roberts, a famous Welsh preacher.  It is the only sound recording of his voice in existence.  The cylinder was broken and in very poor surface condition, but had been reconstructed by an American dentist.

The Sound Archive Project began in March 2005 and is based in the Electromechanical Research Group in the School of Engineering Sciences at the University of Southampton.  The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and is a collaboration between the University of Southampton, TaiCaan Technologies Ltd, and the British Library Sound Archive.

The prize, which is a certificate accompanied by a cash sum, will be presented to team member Antony Nascè at the Association of Moving Image Archivists Annual Conference (AMIA) in Savannah, Georgia, USA this week.

For more information about the project and to listen to recovered sound recordings, visit: http://www.sesnet.soton.ac.uk/archivesound/

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