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Restoring the world’s first recorded computer music

Restoring the world’s first recorded computer music

University of Canterbury Distinguished Professor Jack Copeland and UC alumni and composer Jason Long have restored the earliest known recording of computer-generated music, created more than 65 years ago using programming techniques devised by Alan Turing.

In 1951, a BBC outside-broadcast unit in Manchester used a portable acetate disc cutter to capture three melodies played by a primeval computer. This gigantic computer filled much of the ground floor of pioneering British computer scientist Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory.

Decades later Copeland, who is Director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing, and fellow researcher Long had to do some electronic sleuthing to recreate the historic sound accurately.

“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,” the Canterbury researchers explain.

“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 computer music researchers were able to calculate exactly how much the recording had to be speeded up in order to reproduce the original sound of the computer.

“As well as increasing the speed – and so altering the frequencies – we also filtered out extraneous noise from the recording; and using pitch-correction software we removed the effects of a troublesome wobble in the speed of the recording. It was a beautiful moment when we first heard the true sound of Turing's computer.”

It was young schoolteacher and pianist Christopher Strachey who first programmed the national anthem God Save the King, debugging his program during an epic all-night session with Turing’s enormous computer. Strachey later became known as one of Britain's pioneering computer scientists.

The complete 1951 recording (including God Save the King, nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep and Glenn Miller hit In The Mood) can be heard here: First recorded computer music – Copeland-Long restoration.

More about the challenges faced by the New Zealand researchers in their work to restore the historic electronic music can be found on the British Library Sound Archive website.

About the researchers

Jack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent biography Turing, Pioneer of the Information Age contains more information about Strachey and the Manchester computer music (Oxford University Press, paperback ed. 2014).

Jason Long is a New Zealand composer and performer, focusing on musical robotics and electro-acoustic music. He has carried out musical research at the University of Canterbury, the Victoria University of Wellington, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Utrecht Higher School of the Arts.


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