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Restoring the world’s first computer-generated music

What is a musician, exactly? The question may have been a simple one decades ago – we could at least agree that a musician was, if nothing else, human. These days it’s a little more complicated, what with computers being able to showcase their composition abilities not unlike a young Mozart first starting out. 

“New” as we sometimes think this digital innovation is, it may come as a shock to learn the earliest-known example of computer-generated music dates all the way back to 1951 – and it’s thanks to the work of a pair of Kiwis that it has now been restored.

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. The gargantuan computer filled much of the ground floor of Turing’s famed Computer Machine Laboratory.

Jack Copeland, left, and Jason Long.

It took a fair bit of digital digging, but Copeland and Long both say restoring history has been well worth the effort. “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,” they explain. “The computer itself was scrapped long ago, so the archived recording is our only window on that historic soundscape. 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 original ‘acetate’ disc, saved by Manchester University engineer Frank Cooper, the recording was on.

In order to be able to reproduce the original sound of the computer, the researchers needed to figure out how to speed up the recording. It wasn’t an easy task, they say. “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.”

The recording features songs recorded by schoolteacher and pianist Christopher Strachey, who first programmed “God Save the King” during an all-night session with Turing’s computer – not unlike a modern all-night jam session. Also recorded was the popular nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and the Glenn Miller song “In the Mood.”

Christopher Strachey in 1973.

But for all the struggles, Copeland (who is also the director of the Turing Archive for the History of Computing) and Long say the work paid off when they finally got it right. “It was a beautiful moment when we first heard the true sound of Turing’s computer.”

The recording can be heard here.

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