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IRENE Seeing Sound Blog

A Hefty Challenge for IRENE: Working with Delaminating Lacquer Discs


Over the past few months, we’ve successfully recovered audio from a wide range of formats and conditions. In this post we’ll discuss our most difficult assignment to date – delaminated lacquer instantaneous discs.


Glass-based transcription disc, WNYC Broadcast, April 22, 1944, Junior Citizens Service Corps
Disc Courtesy New York City Department of Records / Municipal Archives

Unlike vinyl or shellac discs or wax cylinders, lacquer audio discs are composed of two distinct materials – a rigid structural disc commonly made of aluminum or glass, and a coating of soft nitrocellulose lacquer. For a variety of reasons, the lacquer can separate from the base in a process we call delamination.

Delamination can often be initiated or accelerated by improper storage or handling. As the lacquer lifts from the disc surface, it becomes brittle, and can crack along the edges. Individual pieces can warp and curl, and separate entirely from the disc. Mechanical playback can further damage the disc, and is unlikely to produce a successful transfer.

"Unfortunately, even IRENE’s impressive capabilities do not make this condition easily manageable," explains Mason Vander Lugt, NEDCC Audio Preservation Specialist.  "Thanks to a loan by the New York City Department of Records and the New York Public Radio Archives, we’ve been able to conduct experiments with a large collection of delaminating lacquer discs which cover the full spectrum of failure.  We’ve included some images below to help illustrate the challenges of working with these discs."






This is a sample of a typical lacquer disc as imaged by IRENE. The vertical lines represent the audio grooves. Sometimes the lacquer partially delaminates from the base without cracking, but this would not change how the disc looks under IRENE. (Click on the images to enlarge.)








As the delamination progresses, the differing thermal expansion rates of the surface and base cause the surface to stretch and tear. For this reason, it’s very important to limit variation of temperature and humidity in storage environments. In this image, you can see the lacquer has split and separated, but the pieces are relatively flat.  (The WNYC disc shown above.)








As the flakes age, many of them begin to curl and warp. If the warping creates a vertical variation greater than the depth of field of our camera, focus is lost at the extremes.  (The WNYC disc shown above.)










As this condition progresses, pieces of lacquer – at this point small flakes – will begin to separate completely from the base, and extreme care must be taken to ensure they are not lost or further damaged. The flakes can be carefully arranged back on the disc for imaging, but at this scale it’s difficult to align them perfectly, or impossible if any of the individual pieces are warped or stretched. (The WNYC disc shown above.)






If all goes well, IRENE is able to image the disc with decent focus and alignment, but this is not the end of our task. The resulting images are fragmented, and must be tracked manually in the computer so that the software sees a continuous groove. This is a difficult and very time-consuming process. (The WNYC disc shown above.)







For comparison, this image was taken from a lacquer disc in typical condition. The grooves are smooth and parallel, and tracking can be automated. The final result will be clear audio. It's best to prioritize delaminating discs for digitization before they fail completely. The sooner a degrading disc is digitized, the better the sound quality and the lower the cost of the transfer. 






Even though the IRENE system was able to get audio from parts of this particular disc, the message of this post is NOT that ‘delamination is no longer a problem.’  Once the process of delamination has begun, it’s almost inevitable that it will progress over time, eventually making the audio unrecoverable. We encourage you to carefully survey your collections and consider reformatting lacquer discs that are in the beginning stages of delamination as soon as possible. (It is important to pay particular attention to WWII-era transcription discs, many of which have a glass substrate. Aluminum was in high demand for the war effort, so glass was used.  The glass-based discs are far more susceptible to delamination than aluminum-based discs.)

[NOTE: NEDCC plans to work with objects conservators to research methods of stabilizing delaminating discs to improve image capture using IRENE, so that we might be able to bring back to life media that today is too far gone to digitize.]

IRENE was able to retrieve the following audio from the inner grooves of the delaminating lacquer disc pictured above.


Glass-based lacquer transcription disc
WNYC Broadcast, April 22, 1944, Junior Citizens Service Corps
Disc Courtesy New York City Department of Records / Municipal Archives
[This recording features legendary children’s radio personality Ireene Wicker, “The Singing Lady,” who received many awards (including radio’s highest honor, the Peabody Award) during her long career.]


If you are interested in working with NEDCC to reformat your audio collections with IRENE, including delaminating media, broken discs, or rare wax cylinders, please contact Tom Rieger, NEDCC Director of Imaging Services., (978) 470-1010 ext. 214.

New Hope for Damaged Media

WNYC Radio Broadcast on Broken Disc Successfully Imaged with IRENE

During World War II, many radio stations recorded their programming on lacquer transcription discs manufactured with a glass base instead of the typical aluminum base, since aluminum was in demand for the war effort. Over the years, many of these glass discs have broken and cracked.

The New York City Municipal Archives has carefully preserved several rare glass discs that had been broken in the past, in hopes that a technology would come along one day that would be able to retrieve the sound. That day is here!

Indeed, this spring Marcos Sueiro Bal and John Passmore of the New York Public Radio Archives brought several of these fragile discs to NEDCC as part of the pilot project for the Center’s IRENE system. Many of these discs have unique content originally broadcast on radio station WNYC, which at the time was part of the City of New York as the “Municipal Broadcasting System."

Berkeley Labs had accomplished successful testing on broken media during their development of

Broken DiscIRENE, but NEDCC was looking for examples of such media to help test the Center’s IRENE system during the pilot program, and the NYC Municipal Archives material fit the bill exactly

One of the discs was a radio broadcast from Christmas Eve 1943, dedicated to the U.S. soldiers at war around the world —an NBC production that was likely broadcast on WNYC as well. The disc was broken into five pieces and NEDCC Audio Preservation Specialist Mason Vander Lugt was able to fit the pieces closely together on the turntable under IRENE’s lens and image the grooves.

“Though IRENE’s platter turns at a much slower rate than the intended playback speed of the discs (~1 ¼ RPM!),” Mason explains, “keeping the pieces stable and in-focus throughout the scan was a challenge. After a few tries, I got the disc mostly-aligned and produced images like the one below."

Broken Track 8-18 2Even with careful alignment, the grooves were not perfectly continuous in the image, so the tracking was drawn manually in software, then partially automated in a process that took several hours, but produced a transfer that wouldn’t have been possible before IRENE.

You may notice from our audio sample that the sound is still quite noisy. Lacquer discs frequently exude fatty acids as a result of the breakdown of a plasticizer additive. This exudate covers the grooves and adds noise to mechanical and optical transfers alike. We are currently researching ways to clean this from the disc without risking damage to the delicate lacquer surface.




(Click the sound bar for audio.)

One of the greatest benefits of the IRENE system will be its ability to safely recover sound from unique or rare recordings, broken or damaged media, and media that are too delicate to play with a stylus. We look forward to the unfolding stories of discovery as we make the IRENE technology available to cultural institutions across the nation!

Many thanks to Marcos Sueiro Bal, Senior Archivist, New York Public Radio, for his help with this post.


about the New York Public Radio Archives and the Municipal Collection.


Audio Reformatting Project Planning


It's an exciting time at NEDCC!  Very soon the Center's IRENE service will be available to cultural instituions across the U.S.

As our IMLS IRENE grant project begins to wrap up, the Center is welcoming project inquiries for reformatting early audio collections with IRENE at NEDCC's headquarters in Andover, MA.

The most appropriate candidates for the Center’s IRENE service are unique or rare recordings, broken or damaged media, and media that are too delicate to play with a stylus.



We are also keeping track of funding opportunities for IRENE projects, so you can begin developing your project. Here is an appropriate grant from NEH:

Humanities Collections and Reference Resources (HCRR) Grant Program

Application deadline: July 17, 2014 for projects beginning May 2015

The HCRR grant program supports projects that provide an essential underpinning for scholarship, education, and public programming in the humanities. Thousands of libraries, archives, museums, and historical organizations across the country maintain important collections of books and manuscripts, photographs, sound recordings and moving images, archaeological and ethnographic artifacts, art and material culture, and digital objects. Funding from this program strengthens efforts to extend the life of such materials and make their intellectual content widely accessible, often through the use of digital technology.

For complete information and guidelines, visit: NEH Preservation and Access

Note the advice from an NEH program officer about applying for an HCRR grant to reformat audio collections with IRENE:  “Applicants should demonstrate that they have established contact with the source of services and have a good idea of the logistics and costs involved.” 

Feel free to contact NEDCC to discuss an upcoming audio reformatting project:
Tom Rieger, Director of Imaging Services,, (978) 470-1010.


There is a great article about the development of the IRENE technology and the work of Carl Haber, Vitaliy Fadeyev, and Earl Cornell, in the May 19, 2014 issue of the New Yorker Magazine, entitled:

"A VOICE FROM THE PAST: How a physicist resurrected the earliest recordings."

Don't miss it!

Photo, Carl Haber:
Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory

IRENE Tested on Aluminum Discs

This week the IRENE lab has been conducting experiments with aluminum transcription discs. 

Invented in 1929, aluminum transcription discs were the first electrical instantaneous recordings. In a time when radio programming was performed live, transcription recording allowed stations to archive programs, delay broadcasts, or prove advertisements to sponsors.  By 1940 the format was obsolete, superseded by lacquer disc recording beginning in 1934.

aluminum disc video

Instead of the time intensive process of cutting a wax disc, plating it, and pressing shellac, aluminum discs allowed sounds to be played back immediately after recording. Aluminum can't be cut like wax, however, so the discs were recorded by embossing the surface with a heavy recording head, leaving a relatively fragile groove that must be played back with a wooden or fiber stylus.

In the absence of supplies and expertise, this format has become a high preservation priority. Like we've mentioned with wax cylinders and lacquer discs, aluminum transcription discs benefit from the optical approach by eliminating the wear associated with traditional mechanical playback.


A Determined Point of View

Our pilot 'collection' (so far) is a single disc of student speeches from Amherst College. The date is  January 1941, eleven months before America will enter World War II. The topic of debate is American involvement in the war, something that was on the minds of all U.S. citizens. This young scholar's heartelt opinion on war received high marks from his speech teacher, and he was noted for his "determined point of view," although it seemed that he "walked around too much." (Who can blame him?!)

                       Alum_documentation         Aluminum1


The recording was stored in a sleeve that included the transcript of the speech. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

 Photos by Patrick Breen, NEDCC Photographer


Preservation Week - Lasting Lacquer

Celebrating Preservation Week with Carnegie Hall

The Carnegie Hall Archives celebrated Preservation Week with a blog post honoring renowned American Conductor Robert Shaw's 98th birthday, and highlighting their Digital Archives Project as well as the NEDCC IRENE system's work on their collection of rare lacquer discs. 

April 30, 2014 - Carnegie Hall blog: Lasting Lacquer

(The post includes a great 1956 documentary on how a lacquer disc is made. Don't miss it!)



LEARN MORE about the Carnegie Hall Archives.

CHECK OUT NEDCC's IRENE Seeing Sound blog post for March 28 for more on the Carnegie Hall IRENE project.

A Visit from Edison




NEDCC recently had very special visitors to the IRENE Lab: Jerry Fabris, Museum Curator at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park and David Giovannoni, founder of First Sounds, a collaboration of experts dedicated to recovering audio from the world’s earliest sound recordings.

But the most distinguished visitors to the lab that day were some of the earliest examples of recorded sound.  Jerry brought a few of the Edison Park’s most historically significant recordings to NEDCC to be transferred using NEDCC’s IRENE optical approach.

(Click on the photos to enlarge.)


Three of these cylinders were made by the technical staff of the Edison Laboratory during the first year that the Edison Perfected Phonograph was in use.  Each was cut on a yellow paraffin blank – an early type of solid-wax cylinder not used after March 1889. Few other recordings are known to survive from this period, and together, they symbolize the beginnings of the worldwide recording industry.

 Edison1a   Edison2

 Curator Jerry Fabris hand-carried the Edison cylinders to NEDCC and packed them with great care.


Most of the cylinders had been digitized in 1995 on an Art Shifrin electric phonograph at the New York Public Library, but David and Jerry wanted to see if the IRENE platform could elicit better results from these unique and delicate recordings.



NEDCC Director of Imaging Services Tom Rieger and Audio Preservation Specialist Mason Vander Lugt
offer guidance as Jerry Fabris places one of the cylinders onto the IRENE system's mandrel.


Edison3   Edison4Considering the extreme importance and fragility of these recordings,
Jerry requested that he handle the objects exclusively.


"These unusual recordings presented some new challenges for NEDCC’s IRENE system," explains Mason Vander Lugt, NEDCC's Audio Preservation Specialist. "The yellow paraffin wax was too translucent for our laser focus sensor to detect, so we used depth information from the 3D camera to focus the images. The groove shape and depth of these experimental recordings were different than what we typically see from later recording processes, and even differed among this set. Our time and effort paid off in the end when we were able to extract sound from each of the six records!"

 About the Edison American Exhibition Recordings 1888-1889

These early cylinder recordings represent a transition between the sound experiments of the Edison and Volta laboratories in the late 1880s and the blooming of the phonograph and cylinder record market in the 1890s. The Edison lab used these recordings to demonstrate their developments in the art and science of sound reproduction in the US and abroad. Even within the six cylinders scanned for this project, we saw considerable variation in recording technology.

Three of these were selected by the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in 2002 to be among the first 50 recordings chosen for the National Recording Registry. Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the Librarian is responsible for selecting recordings annually that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."



Assisting Edison during these early recording sessions were Theo Wangemann and Walter Miller. They recognized the symbolic significance of these three cylinder records, which have long been carefully preserved together - stored in this small wood and glass display case at the historic Edison Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.






Edison’s Laboratory Music Room,
the same room in which this recording was made of Miss Effie Stewart
of New York City performing the Pattison Waltz on February 25, 1889.
(The Effie Stewart cylinder is in the center in the above photo of the display case.)


 [This sound clip is as seen/heard by the IRENE3D technology.]

About the Recording

“Miss Stewart was an accomplished singer—a soprano soloist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.  Her cylinder recordings were played at public exhibitions in the U.S., in October and December 1888; others were later sent for exhibition in England and Russia.  Stewart’s recordings for Edison rank among the earliest successful efforts to capture and preserve 'serious' vocal music.” (Bill Klinger, ARSC, National Recording Registry: 2002 Nomination for Edison American Exhibition recordings, 1888-1889.)

Our thanks to David Giovannoni, Jerry Fabris, and the Thomas Edison National Historical Park for inviting NEDCC to participate in this important work.

Learn More about the Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Learn More about First Sounds

Photos and sound clip courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.

Top photo: Thomas A. Edison with "Perfected" phonograph and "yellow paraffin" cylinders at the West Orange Laboratory, June 16, 1888.  NPS photograph 14.650/003

Music Room Photo: Circa 1889, NPS Photograph 29.430/001

Display Case for Phonograph Cylinders: NPS Object EDIS 475
NPS catalog description: Display case for three early phonograph cylinders, one reproducer and one recorder.  Finished oak frame with glass front and glass sides.  Interior wood is painted off-white.  Top and sides are sealed shut with screws in bottom.  Case holds EDIS 564, EDIS 565 and EDIS 566: three "yellow paraffin"-type wax cylinder phonograph records from 1888 and early 1889 in good condition.  In front of cylinders in case are phonograph recorder EDIS 567 and phonograph reproducer EDIS 568, both from circa 1888 or early 1889.  Label in case reads: "Recorder and reproducer.  Three records made on the first perfected phonograph in 1888/9".  This case is described by Walter H. Miller in article: "The Talking Machine World", October 15, 1913, p. 13.  In January 2003 the Library of Congress included these three cylinders recordings in the National Recording Registry.