Earliest ever recording of computer-generated music is restored

Remastered Turing-aided synthesiser tunes to make Christmas number 1?


Audio Kiwi boffins have claimed to have restored the earliest known recording of computer-generated music, from 1951.

The recording, released today by the Guardian, opens with what the Guardianistas describe as the "staunchly conservative" national anthem, God Save the King.

It was made by the BBC at the University of Manchester in 1951, a year before Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, when George VI reigned.

The newspaper and the researchers claim the music was played "on a gigantic contraption built by the British computer scientist Alan Turing", although the Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercially available general-purpose computer, was designed by wartime radar engineers Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn.

Turing had indeed worked at the University of Manchester on the Ferranti, but he was not its creator.

According to the University of Christchurch researcher Jack Copeland, and composer Jason Long, “Alan Turing’s pioneering work in the late 1940s on transforming the computer into a musical instrument has been largely overlooked.”

The music was generated via the Ferranti's hoot command, which provided auditory feedback to its operators that could be altered in pitch. According to the University of Manchester's curators, it would later become "traditional for all Ferranti maintenance engineers to write a music program for each new type of machine."

In an introduction to the 1951 recording, the late Frank Cooper says: At that time Alan Turing was in charge of the programmers and had in facts written a programmers manual. He sent a copy of this to a friend of his [Christopher Strachey] who was alleged to be a maths master at one of the better known public schools.

The outcome of this was that [Stratchey] was invited to write a program and bring it up to Manchester and try it out on this brand new computer. In due course he arrived with sheets of paper and installed himself a tape punch and laboriously transcribed his program onto punch paper tape, which was the done thing in those days.

He successfully accomplished this task and put the tape into the computer. It obviously worked, the program ran and to the astonishment of everyone in the room, the computer started to play the national anthem in a very raucous manner. We were all agog to know how this had been done.

The recording had been made on a 12-inch acetate disc, but this had become distorted over time. The Guardian quotes the researchers stating that “the frequencies in the recording were not accurate. The recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded.”

Their restoration work involved changing the speed of the playback and compensating for a “wobble” in the recording, as well as applying noise filters. ®


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