A voice from the digital dead: First computer music recreated

University of Canterbury scientists have managed to recreate the world’s first computer generated music, produced in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory in the UK in 1951.

University of Canterbury scientists have managed to recreate the world’s first computer generated music, produced in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory in the UK in 1951.

The recording of God Save the King, nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep and Glenn Miller hit In The Mood was created by the BBC on a 12-inch (30cm) single-sided acetate disc. University of Canterbury distinguished professor Jack Copeland and UC alumni and composer Jason Long, have managed to recover the music from it.

According to Copeland 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 the BBC's portable disc cutter rotating too fast,” he said. “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,” Copeland said. “It was a beautiful moment when we first heard the true sound of Turing's computer.”

The researchers say 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 one of Britain's pioneering computer scientists.

The complete recording can be heard here, and more about the challenges faced by the New Zealand researchers in their work to restore the recording can be found on the British Library Sound Archive website.

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