Rescuing music with X-rays

PSI researchers are developing a technique that uses the special synchrotron X-ray light from the Swiss Light Source SLS to non-destructively digitise recordings from high-value historic audio tapes – including treasures from the Montreux Jazz Festival archive, such as a rare recording of the King of the Blues, B.B. King.

Sebastian Gliga is developing a method to non-destructively digitise degrading magnetic tapes containing historic music recordings in high-resolution with the help of X-rays such as those generated by the SLS. © Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic

Claude Nobs founded the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967 and gave the small town on Lake Geneva a place in music history. Since then, the festival has hosted some of the most important artists of our time and organised over 5,000 concerts, including B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Deep Purple and Prince, to name a few. The vision of Claude Nobs was to record every concert in the highest available quality in order to broadcast the festival worldwide. This resulted in a comprehensive archive, which was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2013. 

The Montreux Jazz Digital Project was launched in 2010 by EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and the Claude Nobs Foundation to digitise, preserve and enhance the Montreux Jazz Festival's audiovisual collection. At EPFL, the Montreux Jazz Café allows the public to discover part of the collection and the technologies developed by EPFL and its many partners. Although the collection has mostly been digitised and made available for research and educational purposes, there are still degraded recordings that need to be brought back to life. 

The recovery of the B.B. King recording at PSI is being performed in parallel to efforts by the Montreux Jazz Digital Project and the United Music Foundation to restore similar degraded tapes using physical treatments designed to make the tapes playable again with conventional players. 

Magnetic tapes have almost completely disappeared from our lives and now only enjoy a nostalgic niche existence. However, significant quantities of these analogue magnetic media are still stored in the archives of sound studios, radio and TV stations, museums, and private collections worldwide. Digitising these tapes is an ongoing challenge as well as a race against time, as the tapes degrade and eventually become unplayable. 

Sebastian Gliga, physicist at PSI and expert in nanomagnetism, and his team are developing a method to non-destructively digitise degraded audio tapes in the highest quality using X-ray light. To achieve this goal, they have been collaborating with the Swiss National Sound Archives, which have produced custom-made reference recordings and provided audio engineering know-how. Now, a partnership with the Montreux Jazz Digital Project (see box below) will help to further develop and test the method. The contract was signed last week.

Saving audio tapes from decay

The remaining members of the famous rock band Queen recently faced a big challenge. In their studio, the musicians found a tape from 1988 containing a song with the voice of their legendary singer Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991. However, the tape was badly damaged. At first, no one believed they would be able to save this special piece. With great effort, the sound engineers managed to succeed after all. “It's like stitching pieces together,” guitarist Brian May told the BBC. On 13 October 2022, the song “Face It Alone” was finally released and stormed the worldwide charts, more than 30 years after its original creation.  

“This example shows that tapes are not made to last forever,” explains Gliga. “The material decays over time and can no longer be played back.” While it is possible to painstakingly reassemble and restore such tapes, Gliga and his team are pursuing a completely new approach. They use synchrotron radiation: “With X-ray light from a synchrotron, we can reconstruct even heavily damaged tape fragments without even touching them.”

A unique concert recording of legendary blues guitarist B.B. King is currently sitting on Gliga's lab bench. In 1980, the King of the Blues played his second concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival – a 48-minute spectacle that was captured on tape by Swiss sound engineer Philippe Zumbrunn. Today, however, only about ten seconds of this recording can be played back at a time. The chemical composition of the tape has already decayed to such an extent that any playback on a conventional device will only further destroy the tape. 

“We were not only interested in the musical content of this B.B. King recording, but also in taking on the challenge its state of decay presents,” smiles Gliga. “Synchrotron radiation may overcome the limitations of conventional restoration methods.”

Magnetic tape with the recording of B.B. King's concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1980, from the archive of the Claude Nobs Foundation. The tape is in an advanced state of decay, such that it can no longer be directly played back using conventional methods. The PSI researchers are using synchrotron light to recover the audio signal. © EPFL/Alain Dufaux

Reading the magnetic states

Audio tapes store information in a layer of tiny magnetic particles – like little compass needles pointing either north or south. When the tape is recorded, their magnetic orientation is changed – the tape becomes magnetised, and the audio information is now physically stored in the orientation pattern. To play back this pattern, the tape is moved past a play head. As the magnetic field constantly changes through the pattern, a voltage is induced in the play head and an electrical signal is generated. This signal is amplified and converted into an acoustic signal.

With his X-ray method, Gliga does not rely on the magnetic field, but on the individual compass needles that generate this field. “The magnetisation states of these tiny particles, whose size is smaller than a tenth of the diameter of a human hair, can be read out almost individually using the X-ray light of the SLS and converted into a high-quality audio signal.”

Magnetic audio tapes are coated with a layer of tiny magnetic particles – like compass needles whose orientation is used to store analogue or binary information. To make recordings stored on degraded and unreadable historic tapes audible again, Sebastian Gliga and his team use synchrotron light such as that produced by the SLS. © Paul Scherrer Institute/Dominik Blatter

The most accurate copy

“Digitisation is a continuous process,” explains the physicist. The so-called sampling rate is important. The term refers to the frequency at which an analogue signal is sampled for conversion into a digital signal. The continuous sound wave is divided into segments of a certain time interval and stored digitally. A higher sampling rate means a higher resolution in the digitisation of the original signal.

Since the synchrotron light can measure almost every single magnetic compass needle on the tape, it can achieve unprecedented resolution. “We achieve something like the most accurate copy.”

Nostalgia meets high-tech

Much of the audio world is physics and can be expressed in formulas and numbers. However, when it comes to concepts such as sound and the quality produced, the subjective aural experience is paramount. That is why Gliga works with experts like the Basel sound engineer and composer Daniel Dettwiler. Dettwiler is renowned for analogue music processing. His studio is also home to a Studer A80 (see image), a tape machine that records and plays back magnetic audio tapes with high precision.

“What we reconstruct with X-rays is the raw audio signal as it is stored on the tape,” explains Gliga. However, if you play the same tape on the Studer, you get a slightly different signal. “This is due to the electronics inside the device, which additionally process and manipulate the sound.” Gliga and his team therefore use this analogue device from the 1970s to compare the sounds extracted at the synchrotron with the conventionally digitised pieces.

Sebastian Gliga winding a tape on a Studer A80: The tape machine is on loan from Idee und Klang in Basel, the studio of sound engineer and composer Daniel Dettwiler. The analogue device, which was manufactured in Regensdorf in the 1970s, serves to produce reference recordings that can be directly compared with the results of the synchrotron measurements. © Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic

At the moment, however, the synchrotron light remains off – it is “dark time” at the SLS. The large research facility is undergoing a comprehensive upgrade between now and the beginning of 2025. The aim is to improve the brilliance of the synchrotron beam by a factor of 40. “Our method will benefit greatly from the upgrade, and it will enable even more efficient measurements,” explains the physicist.

Gliga’s project is supported by the BRIDGE funding programme of the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF and Innosuisse, the Swiss Agency for Innovation, as well as the UBS Culture Foundation, which is supporting the digitisation of the B.B. King recording. Gliga also receives support from the PSI Founder Fellowship, a funding programme that supports science-based innovation.

Text: Paul Scherrer Institute PSI/Benjamin A. Senn

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The Paul Scherrer Institute PSI develops, builds and operates large, complex research facilities and makes them available to the national and international research community. The institute's own key research priorities are in the fields of future technologies, energy and climate, health innovation and fundamentals of nature. PSI is committed to the training of future generations. Therefore about one quarter of our staff are post-docs, post-graduates or apprentices. Altogether PSI employs 2300 people, thus being the largest research institute in Switzerland. The annual budget amounts to approximately CHF 460 million. PSI is part of the ETH Domain, with the other members being the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, ETH Zurich and EPFL Lausanne, as well as Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology), Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) and WSL (Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research). (Last updated in June 2023)