THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

22 posts categorized "Technology"

19 September 2018

Seeing sound: What is a spectrogram?

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Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage writes:

In this digital age, most of us are familiar with audio waveforms, the ‘wavy’ images that represent the dynamic course of a particular sound recording. Waveforms are in fact a type of graph, with time on the X axis and amplitude (or loudness) on the Y.

Waveform exampleFigure 1: a waveform represents a sound recording by showing amplitude over time

Waveforms are very useful for conveying basic information about a recording e.g. where the loud bits are, where the quiet bits are, and how dynamic the recording is. If you were listening to an interview, a waveform can clearly show you where someone is speaking. Unfortunately, waveforms cannot tell us much about the pitch, frequency, or harmonic content of a recording. For that we can use a different visual representation of sound… say hello to the spectrogram!

How to read a spectrogram

Spectrograms keep time on the X axis but place frequency on the Y axis. Amplitude is also represented as a sort of heat map or scale of colour saturation. Spectrograms were originally produced as black and white diagrams on paper by a device called a sound spectrograph, whereas nowadays they are created by software and can be any range of colours imaginable!

Wave form v spectragramFigure 2: waveform and spectrogram of the same recording. An oscillating low frequency buzz dominates the waveform, only the spectrogram reveals where the bird is calling

Spectrograms map out sound in a similar way to a musical score, only mapping frequency rather than musical notes. Seeing frequency energy distributed over time in this way allows us to clearly distinguish each of the sound elements in a recording, and their harmonic structure. This is especially useful in acoustic studies when analysing sounds such as bird song and musical instruments. So not only do these graphs look really cool, but they can tell us a lot about the sound without even listening.

Spectrogram example (whooper swan)Figure 3: a spectrogram showing the harmonically rich calls of whooper swans

Whooper Swan calls recorded by John Corbett (BL shelfmark WS1734 C5)

In the above example, we can see the calls of a Whooper Swan represented in a spectrogram. The fundamental frequency of the calls is at about 750Hz, which is the frequency with the most energy (usually the lowest frequency of a sound), and gives the sound its perceived pitch. Above that are the harmonics - additional, quieter frequencies that give the sound its ‘colour’ and make up a sort of sonic signature – a Whooper Swan singing a perfect ‘G’ note will have a very different harmonic structure to a piano playing that same note. This information could be used to analyse bird songs and calls in different locations, or to understand the vocabulary of a species.

Creative uses for spectrograms

Clearly spectrograms can tell us a lot about the acoustic elements of a sound, but they are not just used for scientific studies. Audio editing is most often performed with waveforms as it's easier to make cuts or process a selected time range. When editing software uses spectrograms however, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities! With this spectral editing, we are able to look into the microscopic details of a sound and apply processes to very specific time and frequency ranges. For example, an obtrusive footstep, or car alarm could be identified and removed from a recording, just like ‘photoshopping’ sound!

Spectral repair exampleFigure 4: a recording of a robin singing was ruined by a dog barking and some low end noise – a spectrogram reveals the unwanted noises and allows the recordist to remove them.

Spectral repair BEFORE

Spectral repair AFTER

Musicians can also use spectral editing to compose and generate sounds that could not be made any other way. Patterns and shapes can be ‘drawn’ into spectrograms and played back as frequency content. In some cases, detailed graphic images can be hidden within spectrograms. Aphex Twin used this technique to hide an image of a face within the second track of his ‘Windowlicker’ EP (1999).

Aphex Face

You can find some more examples of images hidden in the spectral content of popular songs here: https://twistedsifter.com/2013/01/hidden-images-embedded-into-songs-spectrographs/

So now you know what spectrograms are, how to read them, and some of their many scientific, creative, and bizarre uses. Keep an eye out for our #SpectrogramSunday @BLSoundHeritage tweets, starting this weekend!

  UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

07 September 2018

The MiniDisc revival starts here (maybe)

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Sony launched the first MiniDisc players and recorders in 1992. MiniDiscs were small (around 2¾" square) floppy-disk-style cartridges with an 80-minute recording capacity, intended to supplant the tape cassette format.

Some major-artist commercial albums were issued as pre-recorded MiniDiscs, and the Library has a few examples of these in its collection. In its heyday, however, at least in the UK,  the MiniDisc arguably found more favour as a recording medium, particularly among broadcasters (and oral historians). The Millennium Memory Bank project, for example, created by BBC local radio stations across England, together with Radio Scotland, Radio Ulster, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru - and held at the British Library - alone comprises more than 6000 MiniDiscs.

Sony ceased production of MiniDisc machines in 2013 so the format may be considered officially obsolete. For Paul Maclean, though, and his fellow H. P. Lovecraft appreciators in the Cthulhu Breakfast Club, who have just released their first 'MiniDisc Exclusive Release', the format is very much alive.

MiniDisc

I asked Paul to say a few words on the attraction of obsolete recording formats:

I've been by training and trade, an archaeologist and museum scientist. I’ve always had a 'backwards-looking curiosity' combined with a love of the technological. In more recent years my work has focused on the web and especially net-based audio such as podcasts - they are a wonderful and practical way to reach people around the world almost instantly - but at the same time I think something is lost by the lack of the physical: the particular, more direct connection between audience and creator that can exist with physical artefacts.

In 2017 I produced a wax cylinder recording of a podcast (through Poppy Records), which proved popular - likely due to the novelty of using some of the latest technology (Ambisonic high resolution digital recording) married to one of the earliest recording formats. The cylinders were manufactured for us by Paul Morris. However a wax cylinder meant a very short show: only 2 minutes!

Our normal shows tend to run over an hour. Having both a love of obsolete audio formats and fond memories of Sony’s short-lived but superbly engineered MiniDisc system, the MiniDisc format seemed a logical next step.

Denon-replicator

Over the past few years I’ve collected a number of MD players and was also lucky enough to acquire a Denon DN-045R MD replicator (above) which allows me to produce pristine new MD recordings in quantity. The last Sony MiniDisc machine may have left the factory in 2013 but the format still has its loyal fans (of which I am one).

These days the typical audio I produce is distributed online in high resolution AAC format - it’s efficient and effective, but so are millions of other web audio files in an ocean of new content every day - but sometime’s what’s old is new again. Perhaps one day Sony may release a new version of the format (with less draconian DRM), in the same way vinyl has made a revival. One can but hope!

20 February 2018

Percy Grainger's collection of ethnographic wax cylinders

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The British Library is pleased to make available online around 350 English folk songs recorded by composer Percy Grainger in different regions of England between 1906 and 1909. Thanks to the generous support of the National Folk Music Fund, these sound recordings have been catalogued and indexed by librarian, researcher and folklorist Steve Roud, author of Folk Song in England (Faber & Faber, 2017). Roud has also married them up with Grainger's transcriptions of the songs, where these exist, on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website, thanks to their digitisation of the Percy Grainger Manuscript Collection. Links have also been included on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website to corresponding sound recordings featured on British Library Sounds. Listeners are able to hear the songs whilst following Grainger’s unique transcriptions of recordings by singers such as Joseph Taylor, Joseph Leaning, George Gouldthorpe, Charles Rosher, William Fishlock, Tom Roberts, Dean Robinson, and many more. All recordings have been catalogued to include Roud numbers (this number refers to songs listed in the online databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index), Grainger’s Melody numbers, and the numerical references to the discs and wax cylinders these sound recordings existed on previously. 

Percy Grainger
Percy Aldridge Grainger, composing 'Lincolnshire Posy' at reed organ, 1937 (British Library reference: MS Mus. 1771/1/PR1301). Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of George Percy Grainger.

When the Gramophone Company released a small portion of Grainger’s recordings of English traditional folk songs on a commercial 78 rpm record in 1908, Grainger pointed out in the liner notes that “These records are not folksongs sung at second hand.” Perhaps he wanted us listeners to know that what we would hear on record was not only the voice of a folk singer, Joseph Taylor of Saxby-All-Saints, North Lincolnshire, but also the echoes of time: “the very men who have passed such songs down the centuries to us.” Grainger insisted on this fidelity whilst also acknowledging that folk singers were individual creators, capable of creatively impressing their personality on their versions of inherited tradition. He was able to capture and analyse the individuality of folk singers in England thanks to the novel phonograph technology and his musical transcriptions of these sound recordings, which were meticulously detailed. 

To celebrate the publication of these unique sound recordings and their interlinking with Grainger’s manuscripts, we asked Steve Roud to write a short article exploring the importance of these resources. In the following piece he also explores Grainger’s position in the English folk collecting scene as well as the nature of his collaboration, in the making of these sound recordings, with women such as Lady Winefrede Cary-Elwes or Miss Eliza Wedgwood.

In correspondence files held at the Music Division of the Library of Congress, kindly made available to the project by Judith Gray from the The American Folklife Center, we find a letter from Grainger, from October 26, 1939, in which he says,

"I have the Edison Bell phonograph [cylinder machine] on which these records were made and can play them on this machine.  But there is a good deal of scratch (partly mould?) on these old records.  In copying them, can you get rid of part of this scratch by eliminating (filtering out) certain frequencies?  If your Music Division has facilities for making such copies from wax cylinders I would be happy to let your Division keep copies of all my folksong phonograph records if you would provide me with copies in return.  I could bring the phonograph (Edison Bell) and the wax cylinders to Washington (perhaps at the time I play with the National Symphony Orchestra in March?) or wherever needful."  

The digital copies of Grainger’s sound recordings now publicly available via British Library Sounds, were digitised from one of three existing sets of lacquer disc dubs of the contents of the original wax cylinders, made at the Library of Congress c. 1940. Whilst we could consider these digital versions ‘second hand sounds’ it’s also true that the different generations of carriers condensed into them have rendered unique the texture of the folksingers' voices who once ‘sang so sweetly’ to Grainger and his collaborators.

This project was realised thanks to the collaborative effort of many people in the sound archive and music department at the British Library; Steve Roud and Andrew Pace who catalogued and uploaded the sound recordings to the British Library’s catalogue and Sounds website; Judith Gray at the Library of Congress for making the Grainger correspondence accessible; Barry Ould of The International Percy Grainger Society in White Plains, NY, for granting us permission to use it; John Bird for contextualising these sound recordings within Grainger’s biography.

Liner notes
         Facsimile of HMV liner notes included in Leader release, 1972 (British Library reference: 1LP0157546)

Percy Grainger and English Folk Song by Steve Roud

Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) was born, as George Percy Grainger, in Victoria, Australia, and first came to Europe to study music in Frankfurt in 1895. He settled in Britain in 1901, left for the USA in 1914, and lived there until his death, having taken American citizenship in 1918. In his time he was an extremely popular concert pianist, but is now chiefly remembered as the composer of over 400 classical pieces, many of which are still regularly played in the concert repertoire.

His 13-year period of residence in Britain coincided with the brief golden age of folk song collecting, which was the culmination of an interest in traditional music which had been building steadily during the late Victorian period. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, and the diarist Revd Francis Kilvert, for example, were both interested in seeking out songs in 1870, and by 1900, Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson, Marianne Mason, and W.A. Barrett had all published books of songs collected from ordinary people up and down the country. The Folk-Song Society (now subsumed in the English Folk Dance & Song Society) had been formed in 1899 to provide these enthusiasts with a network of contacts, and to further the cause of folk song collection, publication, and study.

It is not surprising that an up-and-coming young musician/composer like Grainger would catch the ‘folk song bug’, as the subject was very much in the air.

It was a lecture on folk song by Lucy Broadwood to the Royal Musical Association in March 1905 which prompted Grainger’s active involvement, and he accompanied her, and Frank Kidson, to the Musical Competition Festival, at Brigg, in Lincolnshire, which included a section devoted to Folk Song at which several local singers had been persuaded to perform. Grainger returned to Lincolnshire in July the following year to begin his fieldwork in earnest, and noted songs by hand, and was back again in 1907, armed with an Edison phonograph, the latest in sound technology.

Over the next three years, Grainger spent a total of 52 days in the field, and collected over 400 songs. About two-thirds of these were gathered in Lincolnshire, but he also made important forays into Gloucestershire, and a few other places. It is the wax cylinders made at this time which are now made freely available on the British Library’s Sounds website. Grainger was not the only collector to experiment with phonograph recording, but he quickly became convinced of its vital importance in the field of song gathering, and was its most vocal advocate, and he used it more than all the other English collectors put together.

Wax cylinders were not designed for long-term survival, so we are particularly fortunate that the originals survived long enough to be copied onto a more permanent format in 1940, and to still be available in the present day. Apart from a relatively small number of surviving cylinders recorded by other collectors - including Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood, amongst others, whose recordings also appear on British Library Sounds - Grainger’s recordings provide our only opportunity to hear what traditional singers from the Edwardian period really sounded like. Only one other collector made systematic sound-recordings in England before the Second World War; the American academic James Madison Carpenter, who collected in Britain between 1929 and 1935. His recordings are housed in the Library of Congress, and will very soon be available online through the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website. We had to wait until after 1950, and the invention of the portable tape-recorder, for sound-recording to become the normal way of collecting folk songs.

What was really ground-breaking about Percy Grainger’s approach was that he quickly realised that it was not just the songs and tunes which were remarkable and worth preserving, but also the highly skilled and creative way in which traditional singers performed a song. He became fascinated with the minute details of performance and set out to devise a way of representing the nuances of pitch, rhythm, accent and so on, which a skilled singer brought to each rendition of a song. This approach was only made possible by the availability of recorded sound - the ability to play an otherwise ephemeral performance over and over again, and even to slow it down to really understand what the naked ear could only fleetingly register. But neither Grainger nor the others who experimented with the new technology saw the phonograph cylinders as a way to preserve the singers’ voices for posterity, as we would today. In those early days, the recordings were regarded primarily as an aid to analysis and transcription, and it was still the paper copies of the tune and words which mattered.

His attempts to replicate on paper what he heard on the cylinder were too complex for any but the most experienced musician to understand. Again, we are fortunate that his written material has survived. He used a hectograph (sometimes spelled hektograph) - a primitive but effective way of duplicating pages - which enabled him to make several exact copies of his transcriptions. One set of these transcriptions is in the British Library, and another in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, which be seen on their website.

In 1908, he persuaded the Gramophone Company to bring one of his favourite Lincolnshire singers, Joseph Taylor, into their studio, and nine of his songs were issued commercially - again a first in our field, and decades before any other attempt to issue real traditional singing on record for public consumption.

Disc-0002_copy
                               His Master's Voice, 6-2238 (British Library reference: 9CS0028758)

Grainger failed to persuade other folk song collectors to follow him in his quest for more detailed investigation of singers’ performance, and nor did his radical re-thinking of the technical aspects of the music find favour with others in the field. He did no more collecting in Britain after 1909, and within five years he had left for America. But the heyday of folk song collecting in England was over anyway, and even if he had stayed it is unlikely he would have done much more fieldwork here.

Grainger published very little on folk song, although he continued to use the tunes in his compositions throughout his life. The 1908 volume of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society was dedicated to his work, which included two articles by him, ‘Collecting with the Phonograph’ and ‘The Impress of Personality in Traditional Singing’, along with his transcriptions of 26 songs. He also contributed an article to the Musical Quarterly in 1915, also listed in the bibliography at the end of this article. These tell us something of his thoughts on the subject, and along with his manuscripts, published letters, and several general biographies, we can get a pretty good idea of what made him tick. But in the folk song research world he remains a controversial figure and there is still much more to be learnt and said.

Without wanting to detract from the achievement of the great collectors of the Edwardian era, it is only fair to say that they often had significant help from other folk song enthusiasts, often women, whose contribution often remains unacknowledged and thus forgotten. All collectors faced similar problems if they were moving outside their own immediate circle and locality. How to find singers at a distance was a particularly knotty problem, and they were always concerned to arrange things to make the most efficient use of their limited time and resources. They needed someone on the ground who could find singers, organise trips, and arrange itineraries. These collaborators often provided a base of operations and a place to stay, and also wrote down the words while the visiting collector noted the tune. But most importantly, they had to be someone that the singers would trust and be comfortable with, even if they were normally shy of singing in front of strangers.

Grainger’s reliance on a not-very-portable, fragile and temperamental phonograph, which even needed a certain ambient temperature to ensure that the wax remained at the right consistency, meant that he required a highly static and controlled environment in which to operate. Not for him the bicycling round the country lanes collecting from road-workers and farm labourers met on the way, like Cecil Sharp did, or popping into cottages or rowdy pub sessions on the off-chance.

In Lincolnshire, it was Lady Winefrede Cary-Elwes who provided the necessary local contacts and gave him a place to stay, and he was invited to Gloucestershire by Lady Elcho of Stanway. But the most important figure in Gloucestershire was Lady Elcho’s friend and neighbour, Miss Eliza Wedgwood (1859-1947), the last surviving granddaughter of the famous eighteenth-century master potter Josiah Wedgwood. For much of her long life, Miss Wedgwood lived at Charity Farm, Stanton, and was long remembered for her extremely active participation in village affairs and local philanthropy. She also had a wide circle of friends which included the painter John Singer Sargent and his sister Emily, the novelists James Barrie and H.G. Wells, the ex-Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (who leant his car for one of the collecting trips), members of the Guild of Handicraft, and many others involved in the cultural and artistic life of the region.

Grainger wrote in a letter (published in Kay Dreyfus’ volume of his correspondence):

“Miss Wedgwood who prepared the folk song ground for me was quite splendid. I am so certain of her gift for collecting that I hope to get her to collect in other places as well. Everything was faultlessly prepared for me. I phonographed without interruption all the days through.” (9 Apr 1908)

And it is clear from the evidence of the cylinder recordings themselves that Miss Wedgwood’s role was not simply administrative, because her voice is clearly heard telling the singers when to start, and it is clear she was actually operating the machine. Eliza also helped Cecil Sharp with contacts and local knowledge. For more on Eliza Wedgwood, see the article by Paul Burgess listed in the bibliography.

1LP0157546
                                 Leader Records, LEA 4050 (British Library reference: 1LP0157546)

A note on the numbering of the Grainger recordings

Several numbering systems exist within the Grainger collection, and they present quite a challenge to the cataloguer, and the user. The three main sequences are Cylinder number, Disc number, and Melody number, which are explained below. It is also helpful to distinguish Performances from Parts.

Grainger started collecting with pencil and paper, but in 1906 he acquired the phonograph which recorded onto wax cylinders, and from then on this was his preferred method of noting songs. Armed with the phonograph, he re-visited some of his early singers, and recorded them singing the same songs, and he subsequently transcribed these cylinder performances onto paper. He also made multiple recordings of some songs, so that the same song from any particular singer can appear more than once - on paper and on more than one cylinder. He documented these multiple recordings as ‘1st performance’, ‘2nd performance’, and so on.

Each cylinder has a number (1 - 216). Phonograph cylinders last a little over two minutes, so one cylinder can include several short songs (e.g. one verse from each), or the same short song sung more than once, or, most commonly, half of a longer song, with the rest of it continued, if we are lucky, on the next cylinder. The sections of these songs split onto different cylinders were designated ‘part 1’, ‘part 2’, etc. These numbers can be combined with the repeated renditions already described, so that we can get ‘1st performance, part 1’, ‘2nd performance, part 1’, and so on.

In 1940, the surviving cylinders were copied onto lacquer discs at the Library of Congress, and it is copies of these discs which were digitised to create the sound files offered on British Library Sounds. These discs also have numbers, and two sides, designated A and B. They can take up to five minutes of sound on each side, so the most common scenario here is for two cylinders to be dubbed onto each disc side. Occasionally the transfer from cylinder to disc did not go well, or, even more infrequently, the engineer made a mistake, so some tracks appear twice on the discs - usually with one track labelled ‘poor copy’ or ‘incomplete’, and the other ‘good copy’ or ‘complete’. We have not included these substandard transfers online when a better one exists.

When Grainger organised his collection, he assigned numbers to the songs. He gave the same number to all versions of a song from a particular singer, so that, for example, all versions of ‘Brigg Fair’ by Joseph Taylor are assigned the number 200. These are usually referred to as ‘Melody’ numbers, and are included in our catalogue, for reference. Unfortunately, they are not always as helpful as they might be. Grainger started re-organising, but never finished and some items were re-numbered, and others were left un-numbered.

025I-1LL0010255XX-AAZZA0
                                                Image of disc label (British Library reference: 1LL0010255)

The Library of Congress disc labels, shown above and included on British Library Sounds, show the disc and side number. They typically also show the titles of the songs, the name of the performer, and the year of recording, plus the relevant cylinder numbers, and Grainger’s melody numbers. The disc series starts at 12, because numbers 1-11 are assigned to his Danish recordings. Also included are dubs of the 78rpm records of Joseph Taylor’s singing issued by the Gramophone Company in 1908.

The best way to see a comprehensive listing of the whole English collection, organised by Grainger’s Melody number, is to consult Jane O’Brien’s published catalogue, Grainger English Folk Song Collection (University of Western Australia Music Dept., 1985).

Roud numbers

One more set of numbers appears in our catalogue entries, the ‘Roud number’. This number refers to songs as listed in the online databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index (both available on www.vwml.org). Because folk songs can appear in many places (books, records, manuscripts, and so on), and because the same song can appear under a multitude of different titles, the Roud numbers are designed to help researchers find ‘other versions’ of a song. So, for example, all the versions of the song variously called ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies’, ‘The Gipsy Laddie’, ‘Gypsy Davy’, ‘Seven Little Gipsies’ (and more than 50 other titles and spellings), are assigned the number Roud 1. By searching for ‘Roud 1’ in the Folk Song Index, the researcher can find all the available versions, including those now published on the British Library Sounds website.

Bibliography -

There has been a great deal written about Percy Grainger’s life and works, but the following references concentrate solely on his folk song collecting in England. For the Grainger items included on the Vaughan Williams Memorial (VWML) website, see: https://www.vwml.org/archives-catalogue/PG

By Grainger himself -

‘Collecting with the phonograph’ and ‘The Impress of personality in traditional music’, Journal of the Folk-Song Society 3 (1908) pp.163-169.

‘The Impress of personality in unwritten music’, Musical Quarterly 1:3 (Jul 1915) pp.416-435.

By others -

C.J. Bearman, ‘Percy Grainger, the Phonograph, and the Folk Song Society’, Music & Letters 84:3 (2003) pp.434-455.

John Bird, Percy Grainger (Rev. edn., Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).

John Blacking, A Commonsense view of all music. Reflections on Percy Grainger’s contribution to ethnomusicology and music education (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Gwilym Davies, ‘Percy Grainger’s Folk Music Research in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire 1907-1909’, Folk Music Journal 6:3 (1992) pp.339-358.

Paul Burgess, ‘Eliza Wedgwood and folk song collecting in Gloucestershire’, in David Atkinson & Steve Roud (Eds.), Proceedings of the English Folk Dance & Song Society folk song conference 2013 (Camsco Music, 2015) pp.22-34.

Kay Dreyfus (Ed.), The Farthest north of humanness: The Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-1914 (Macmillan, 1985).

Graham Freeman, Percy Grainger: Sketch of a new aesthetic of folk music (unpub. PhD thesis, Dept. of Music, University of Toronto, 2008).

Graham Freeman, ‘It wants all the creases ironing out: Percy Grainger, the Folk Song Society, and the ideology of the archive’, Music & Letters 92:3 (2011) pp.410-436.

Note: Percy Grainger’s legacy is scattered across the world in various repositories such as the Grainger Museum (Melbourne, Australia); The Library of Congress (Washington D.C., U.S.A.); The Grainger House / International Percy Grainger Society (White Plains, NY, U.S.A.); The UK Grainger Society (Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland); the Royal Danish Library (Det Kgl. Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark ) and the National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh, Scotland). Aside from Grainger's unpublished sound recordings, the British Library also holds manuscript scores of Grainger’s original compositions and arrangements (Add MS 50867-50887 and Add MS 50823), and a collection of concert programmes relating to performances of his music (MS Mus. 1812). A collection of Grainger’s hectographs is now also available at MS Mus. 1772.

16 December 2017

Christmas carols from Turing's computer

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Following the viral response on the internet to Jack Copeland and Jason Long's 2016 blog concerning their restoration of the world's earliest surviving computer music recording, the pair's follow up is in two parts: (1) they explain how they resurrected the authentic sound of Turing's long since dismantled Manchester computer, by reconstructing two Christmas carols that the computer played in a BBC Radio broadcast in December 1951, and (2) they examine and clarify the competing international claims to the title of World's First Computer Music.

Jack Copeland FRS NZ and Jason Long write:

Listeners to BBC radio heard an utterly new sound in 1951 — a computer playing music. Among its Christmas fare the BBC broadcast two melodies that, although instantly recognizable, sounded like nothing else on earth. They were Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas, played by the mammoth Ferranti Mark I computer that stood in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory, in Manchester.

According to Ferranti’s marketing supremo, Vivian Bowden, it was "the most expensive and most elaborate method of playing a tune that has ever been devised". Bowden may have kicked himself for predicting, at this seminal moment, that computer-generated music had no future.  

Turing (standing) at the Ferranti Mark I console (Courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science)
Alan Turing (right) at the console of the Ferranti Mark I. Photo courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

Seemingly nothing remained of the computer's short Christmas concert, apart from Bowden's brief description in his 1953 book Faster Than Thought. We realized, though, that we had everything needed to recreate the computer's historic performance of these carols, thanks to our recent research into other music played by the Ferranti computer.

Previously we restored a 1951 BBC recording of the Ferranti playing three pieces of music. One of the engineers present at that long-ago recording session, Frank Cooper, had squirrelled away a BBC disc, and this is believed to be the earliest surviving recording of computer-generated music. The three pieces on the disc were God Save the King, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and In the Mood.

The performances on Cooper's disc contained between them a total of 152 individual computer-generated notes. By manually chopping up the audio, we created a palette of notes of various pitches and durations. These could then be rearranged to form new melodies. It was musical Lego: endless new structures could be produced from these basic building blocks. The process of recreating the carols was not always straightforward, however. Sometimes the notes we needed were missing from the palette, since they did not appear in the three reference pieces. Missing notes had to be manufactured, first by calculating the closest frequency that the Ferranti computer could generate — it wasn't always able to hit a note exactly — and then shifting the frequency of one of the specimens in the palette to achieve a match (while trying, moreover, to keep the specimen's spectral signature the same, so as to maintain a natural sound). Another problem was duration: sometimes a note needed to be shorter or longer than the specimen in the palette, so we either pared the specimen down, or pieced together copies of it by hand.

We had to re-score each carol to fit the computer's needs, especially in terms of key and complexity; and our scores mirrored the three reference pieces in length and tempo. Then we selected notes from the palette and pieced them together to fit the scores. Some handcrafting was required to create a realistic performance. For instance, a fake-sounding "machine gun effect" was liable to set in if the score required the same note to be repeated several times, so we achieved a natural sound by piecing together different specimens of the same note, taken from different places in the restored recording. Every time we stitched a new note into the melody, we cross-faded manually: fading out one element while fading in the next gave the optimum sound quality when piecing the notes together.

Slowly, the computer's gutsy renditions of the carols reappeared. Play them and enjoy! But beware of occasional dud notes. Because the computer chugged along at a sedate 4 kilohertz or so, hitting the right frequency was not always possible. It's a charming feature of this early music — even if it does in places make your ears cringe.

At about this time, other primeval mammoth computers were also starting to find their voices. Bowden mentions that the Whirlwind computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology played Bach fugues at Christmas time — 'much more highbrow' than the Ferranti's carols, he said.  

The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London, 1952
The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London in 1952. © Crown Copyright and reproduced with permission of the National Physical Laboratory

In London, too, the pilot model of Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) played Bach, possibly earlier than Whirlwind, using a loudspeaker set into its control panel. The pilot model ACE first came to life in May 1950, and by about February 1952 it was also "composing" — in a sense — its own music, using some special equipment designed by engineer David Clayden. The rising arpeggios of ACE's atonal music "gradually became more complex and faster, like a developing  

David Clayden
David Clayden. Photo courtesy of The Turing Archive for the History of Computing

fugue", until they "dissolved into coloured noise as the complexity went beyond human understanding", explained Donald Davies.[1] (Davies, originally Turing's assistant, was a driving force in the ACE project after Turing went to Manchester.)

For a long time, the history of early computer music was muddled. Reference works such as The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music stated that “the first computer to play music” was the Australian CSIRAC (pronounced "sigh-rack"). However, recent research has shown that this was most definitely not so.[2] We discovered that a predecessor of the Ferranti computer also played musical notes in Turing's Manchester Computing Machine Laboratory. This was the university-built prototype on which the Ferranti Mark I was based (and it was itself an enhanced version of Manchester's primordial "Baby" computer). Turing called it the "pilot machine", not to be confused with the pilot model of his ACE in London. The Manchester pilot machine was operational in April 1949, well ahead of the Sydney CSIRAC, which was partially operational in late 1950 — several months after Manchester's note-playing pilot machine had been switched off for the last time, in fact. 

CSIRAC: A CSIRO image
CSIRAC and its creator Trevor Pearcey in Sydney in about 1952. A CSIRO image

Unlike CSIRAC, though, the Manchester pilot machine seems never to have played a conventional melody. Turing used the synthetic musical notes as aural indicators of what was going on with the machine, like the beeps and bongs of today's mobile devices — whereas CSIRAC played honest-to-goodness tunes. It turns out, though, that CSIRAC can't even claim the distinction of being the first computer to play conventional music.

Our research has shown that an American computer called BINAC was making music before CSIRAC ran so much as a test program. BINAC, built by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, was the forerunner of the famous Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC — the Ferranti Mark I and the UNIVAC were the first electronic computers to hit the market, both in 1951. 

BINAC. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum
BINAC played music in Philadelphia in the summer of 1949. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum

When BINAC was completed, in August 1949, Pres Eckert and John Mauchly threw a party for the programmers and engineers. This featured a musical offering from BINAC itself. One eyewitness — a partying engineer named Herman Lukoff — described the event: “Someone had discovered that, by programming the right number of cycles, a predictable tone could be produced. So BINAC was outfitted with a loudspeaker … and tunes were played for the first time by program control.” 

The programmer responsible for creating BINAC's music-playing program — the first in the world, so far as we know — was Betty Snyder, later Betty Holberton. Recalling her intensive work programming BINAC, Holberton said: “I was on the machine 16 hours [with] 8 hours off and I slept in the ladies' room.” 

Betty Snyder. U.S. Army photo
Betty Snyder. U. S. Army photo 

And the title of the first music played by a computer? "Everybody was going to come to the party at the end of creating the BINAC", Holberton remembered; "Well, I thought I'd do something special for them ... an interpretive routine that would play music. All I could get out of that machine was an octave, so I played For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow."[3]

Our timeline for the origins of computer music places BINAC in the limelight, in mid 1949. The Sydney CSIRAC played its first tune a year or two later, and the Bach-playing ACE in London may have preceded it. In Manchester, the Ferranti computer performed its first melody in 1951, when Christopher Strachey wrote a program that blared out God Save the King (see our blog 'Restoring the first recording of computer music'). But as to the starting point of it all, the very first experimental computer-generated musical note was probably heard in Turing's Manchester laboratory.

References

[1] Davies, D. "Very Early Computer Music", Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society, vol. 10 (1994), pp. 19-21: http://www.computerconservationsociety.org/resurrection/pdfs/res10.pdf

[2] See Copeland, B. J., and Long, J. "Turing and the History of Computer Music", in Floyd, J., Bokulich, A. eds Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, 2017.

[3] Frances Elizabeth "Betty" Holberton in interview with Kathy Kleiman, part of "Oral Histories of the ENIAC Programmers", ©1997, by Kathryn Kleiman and the ENIAC Programmers Project, www.eniacprogrammers.org. Quoted by permission.

The authors

Jack Copeland

Jack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent book The Turing Guide is a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to Turing and his work, and it contains further information about the Manchester computer and its music (Oxford University Press, 2017, pbk).


Jason LongJason 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.

 

04 December 2017

Recording of the week: Britain's first supercomputer

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

It has been 55 years since the commissioning of Atlas at the University of Manchester in 1962, one of the world's very first supercomputers. Developed largely by the University of Manchester and Ferranti, the enormous machine was probably the second most powerful computer at the time and pioneered a number of innovations in hardware and software. Capable of processing about a million instructions a second and with over 670 kilobytes of memory, Atlas had as much computing power as several smaller machines, albeit far less than the simplest desktop machine today. It was said that when Atlas went offline, Britain lost half its computing power. Yet despite this awesome potential, only three Atlas computers were ever built. As Atlas's lead hardware designer Professor David Edwards recalled for An Oral History Of British Science, it was rather difficult convincing the sceptics that Britain even needed a machine that was so powerful:

We only need one computer for the country_Dai Edwards (C1379/11)

University_of_Manchester_Atlas _January_1963

The Atlas computer at the University of Manchester, 1963 (Iain MacCallum)

Visit the library's Voices of Science web resource to explore 100 life stories about environmental science, British technology and engineering from 1940 to the present.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

24 November 2017

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - Geoff Tootill, 1922 – 2017

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Tom Lean, project interviewer for the National Life Stories collection An Oral History of British Science, remembers interviewing Geoff Tootill, electrical engineer and computer designer, who died last month.

  GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, c. 1950

Geoff Tootill was the very last survivor of the team which designed and built the world's first modern computer - the 1948 “Manchester Baby.” In 2009 he was also my very first interviewee for an Oral History of British Science, and over 18 hours of answering my novice questions with patience and dry humour, he influenced the way I've approached interviewing scientists ever since.

I'd never really thought before about just how far back into the past we can reach with oral history interviews. Yet there I was in 2009, talking to somebody about their experiences back in the 1940s. Decades years before I was born, Geoff was an electronics engineer doing secret wartime work on airborne radar at the secret Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern.

I was impressed at Geoff's ability to recall the technical details of his work and the sophistication of the radar systems he and his colleagues developed with the primitive electronics of the day. Yet it wasn't all high pressure secret work - as a member of the TRE's Flying Rockets Concert Party, Geoff also built the electric systems for stage shows, and I realised that scientist's social lives often have an element of the technical about them.

Geoff Tootill - TRE's Flying Rockets concert party (C1379-02)

With the war over, Geoff went to the University of Manchester to help former TRE colleagues Tom Kilburn and Freddy Williams build the world's first stored program computer. The Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine, better known today as the “Manchester Baby,” weighed a ton and was far from small. However, its fundamental architecture is still at work in the computer, tablet or smartphone you're reading this on.

021I-C1379X0002XX-0001M1Geoff Tootill, 2005 (reproduced by permission of the Manchester Evening News and Oldham Advertiser)

I spent hours talking to Geoff about building Baby, and the thing that has stuck with me most is how modestly understated he was about his involvement with this world changing development. It helped me realise that historic moments often only look that way with the benefit of hindsight. In the 1940s Geoff and his colleagues had little idea that computers would change the world, anticipating their major uses would be for weather forecasting and atomic energy calculations. The process of actually building the machine was a long process of iterative technical work before one day in early summer 1948 they, “saw the thing had done a computation.”

Geoff Tootill - building the Manchester Baby (C1379-02)

An Oral History of British Science is a national collection of interviews with over 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual. You can find out about interviewees and listen to extracts at Voices of Science and you can listen to full-length interviews at British Library Sounds.

National Life Stories is the UK's leading oral history fieldwork charity, based at the British library.

09 October 2017

Recording of the week: computer programming and motherhood in the 1960s

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

Like many women in the 1960s, Stephanie Shirley left her job in the computer industry after becoming a mother. At the time, women were expected to cut short their professional careers and stay at home to raise the family, but this was not quite what Stephanie Shirley had in mind. In 1963 she started a company named Freelance Programmers, to allow women who had left the computer industry when they had children to continue working as programmers from home. In time, Stephanie Shirley's company grew to a major business employing thousands of people. However, at the start, with sexism rife, Stephanie Shirley had to go to rather unusual lengths to create a professional image, not least calling herself "Steve", as she recalls in this interview from An Oral History of British Science.

Stephanie Shirley_Programming at home (BL ref C1379/28)

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This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

Tom Lean will speak about the related An Oral History of Electricity Supply Industry project at ‘The Life Electric’, a British Library event on Thursday 19 October. Book your tickets here https://www.bl.uk/events/the-life-electric-oral-histories-from-the-uk-electricity-supply-industry

23 June 2017

Women in the Electricity Supply Industry

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23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day. To mark this we look at the role of women in the electricity supply industry, recently documented by National Life Stories in the project An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK.

In the 1920s and 1930s  the electricity supply industry was thought to offer opportunities for women engineers that were absent in other sectors and some of Britain’s pioneering women engineers including Caroline Haslett, Margaret Partridge and Beatrice Shilling worked in the sector. 

Despite this optimism the electricity supply industry documented in An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK was one that employed few women engineers, even after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.  Mike Kay, who started his apprenticeship at NORWEB, the regional electricity supplier to north west England in 1978, observed:

Mike Kay on the lack of women engineers in 1970s Britain

Being the first to appoint a woman engineer was something senior managers remembered with pride.  Glyn England recalled doing so during his time at SWEB, the regional supplier for the south west:

Glyn England on the appointment of a woman engineer as a chief officer

So what was it like for these women engineers entering a largely male working environment?  Alison Simpson studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, secured work experience in a power station and participated in the Scottish Engineering Training Scheme before joining the South of Scotland Electricity Board in 1979 as a trainee in commercial engineering, which involved working with domestic and commercial customers to design and install electrical systems. The lack of women’s toilets at the company’s engineering training facility was an early sign of the discrimination she later faced.

Alison Simpson on sexual discrimination in the workplace

Eventually Alison managed to secure the job as a distribution engineer that she had sought at the outset. This involved working on the high-voltage distribution network and gave her access to a wide range of training courses. These including training in climbing poles and transmission towers that allowed her to appreciate the work of the line staff who kept the system running.

Alison Simpson on climbing electricity poles

Changes to the industry from the later 1980s, especially privatisation and the development of renewable energy sources, challenged its structures, leading to new opportunities for women with a range of expertise.  Lawyer Fiona Woolf developed an understanding of how power systems operated as a legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. This led to an appointment working for National Grid. She and her team wrote hundreds of agreements designed to ensure that a privatised industry really would keep the lights on, learning how to combine market rules with the laws of physics. (Listen to Fiona Woolf's interview on BL Sounds).

Fiona_Woolf_(cropped)Fiona Woolf (2014). Courtesy of  the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

More recently renewable energy companies have provided new opportunities for women, including in leadership positions. Juliet Davenport studied physics and environmental economics before working on energy policy. She worked as commercial director of the UK subsidiary of German energy company Unit(e) and was part of a management buy-out of the firm that later became Good Energy, of which she is currently chief executive. In her interview she suggests that her background in physics was important in establishing her credibility in an industry where some of the existing operators were struggling to adjust to the new ways of doing things that renewable energy represents.

Juliet Davenport on establishing her credibility in the renewable energy industry

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.