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IRENE Seeing Sound Blog

IRENE Audio Preservation Service Now Available

The Original IRENE IMLS Grant Project

In 2014, NEDCC completed the IMLS National Leadership Grant project to add the IRENE Audio Preservation Service to NEDCC's offerings.  

The IRENE service is now available to cultural institutions and individuals nationwide.

We have archived the original pilot projects in the IRENE Seeing Sound Blog.  Many thanks are in order as we continue to move forward with the new IRENE service:

  • First, our thanks go out to Dr. Carl Haber, Senior Scientist, and Dr. Earl Cornell, Computer Systems Engineer, at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who led the prior grant-funded initiatives that developed the IRENE technology. They worked closely with NEDCC during the process of creating the service, and were very generous with their patience, advice, and expertise throughout.

  • NEDCC is grateful to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for their support during the Center's National Leadership Grant. 

  • Thanks to the Library of Congress for their collaboration with Berkeley Labs during the research and development of the IRENE technology over the last decade.
  • Many thanks also to our pilot project partners, who generously offered their wonderful collections on which to test the IRENE system, and who offered their advice and feedback as we built the service. Read more about some of the pilot partner's projects in the past posts of the  Seeing Sound blog.

Our Thanks to our Pilot Program Participants:

Rebekah Irwin
Head of Collections & Digital Initiatives
Middlebury College Library,  Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT

Kathleen Sabogal
Assistant Director
Carnegie Hall Archives
New York

Jerry Fabris, Museum Curator
Thomas Edison National Historical Park
National Park Service
West Orange, NJ

Marcos Sueiro Bal
Senior Archivist
New York Public Radio, WNYC
New York

Tiffany Colannino
Woody Guthrie Foundation
Mt. Kisco, NY

Christina Davis and Mary Graham
Woodberry Poetry Room
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

[Top photo, Performers, Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection, Middlebury College, VT]

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.

Delaminating Disc

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.  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.


Typical Disc Groove Image




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.)





Lacquer disc tear



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.)





Delaminating disc focus issue



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.)








Delaminating disc, flaking lacquer


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.)




Delaminating disc tracking


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.)





Disc image - easily tracked grooves


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.]

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 staff 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), keeping the pieces stable and in-focus throughout the scan was a challenge. After a few tries, we were able to align the disc  and produced images like the one below.

Broken Track Even 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.” 


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