Researchers restore first ever computer music recording

September 27, 2016 | 10:07

Tags: #alan-turing #computer-history

Companies: #researchers #university-of-canterbury

The University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, has announced the successful restoration of what is thought to be the first ever recording of computer-generated music, played by pianist Christopher Strachey on a system created under noted polymath and codebreaker Alan Turing.

Today, it's a rare album that doesn't include the touch of a computer. In 1951, though, computer-generated music was unheard of, until a BBC outside broadcast (OB) unit was invited to Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory in Manchester University to hear computer-synthesised music for the first time. Created on a room-filling computer, the Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II, the music was recorded for posterity - but, sadly, using outdated equipment which failed to truly capture the sound of the machine.

'Today all that remains of the recording session is a 12-inch single-sided acetate disc, cut by the BBC's technician while the computer played. The computer itself was scrapped long ago, so the archived recording is our only window on that historic soundscape,' explained researcher and historian Jack Copeland and his partner in the project, composer Jason Long. 'What a disappointment it was, therefore, to discover that the frequencies in the recording were not accurate: the recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded. There was a deviation in the speed of the recording, probably as a result of the turntable in BBC's portable disc cutter rotating too fast. But, with some electronic detective work, it proved possible to restore the recording – with the result that the true sound of this ancestral computer can be heard once again, for the first time in more than half a century.'

The restoration - which required calculations to increase the rotational speed of playback to the correct level, the filtering of room noise from the recording, and pitch-correction to correct a playback 'wobble' - now allows anyone to listen to the recording, programmed on a Turing-designed machine by teacher and pianist turned computer scientist Christopher Strachey in what was described as an 'epic all-night session' to prepare for the BBC's arrival, as accurately as possible.

More information on the restoration process is available on the announcement blog post, as is a copy of the restored recording in MP3 format.
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