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August 20, 2009

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Blasts from the past

WHEN the CD is on, it's as if the Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) is singing beside you in this 1923 recording, with some background noise but the music shining through.

Shanghai Conservatory of Music began a project in December 2007 to recover music from old recordings and over 18 months, with funds of 5 million yuan (US$731,625), a computerized system called "Memory Audio" has been established to repair, collect and preserve old music.

Among the old music recovered are pop songs from Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese traditional opera and orchestral works. These are being transferred onto compact disc and will be available by the end of the year.

Shanghai was the birthplace of modern China's music industry. The EMI Music Co was established in Shanghai in 1908 by the French as the first and biggest music recording company in China. In the following decades, a galaxy of stars showed up in the city to record their work.

Film stars and singers such as Ruan Lingyu and "Golden Voice" Zhou Xuan, and Peking Opera masters Mei Lanfang and Tan Xinpei had their vocal performances recorded in the 1930s. Shellac discs and LP discs were the most important recording media at the time.

With a history of over 80 years, Shanghai Conservatory of Music has more than 300,000 precious old recordings made in Shanghai from the 1920s to the 1960s.

"The recovery of the old sound material in Shanghai is so necessary and urgent, as the city has plenty of old disc material. But most of them are not well protected due to the historical and technological problems," says professor Dietrich Shuller, director of National Archives of Austria, when he was invited to Shanghai to take part in the project in January 2008.

The process of repairing the old discs is complicated, including physically cleaning and noise reduction.

The first step is to clean the dirt from the old discs.

As many of the discs have been damaged with the passage of time, the cleaning work is not easy at all.

"Sometimes there were even some LP discs sticking together due to the humidity. We had to separate them first by using gentle fans," says Han Bin, a member of the project team.

Discs of different materials such as shellac and LPs have to be cleaned using different chemicals. The length of time the chemicals need to be applied, and which chemicals, is determined by the age and material composition of the discs.

Cleaning shellac discs from the 1920s and 1930s with water was generally considered not a good idea but the project team found otherwise.

"Our experiments proved that these kind of discs could be cleaned in water and wouldn't be destroyed," says Han.

After the discs are cleaned up, recovering the sounds on them is the next vital step.

"We needed to clear away the background noise which was a result of the disc's age, and preserve the original sound at the same time," says professor Wu Yuebei, the project's director.

The noises were firstly classified into different types such as clicks, crackles, hiss, buzz, hum and wow. Through the computer technology, these points of noise were singled out, analyzed and reduced.

However, a new problem appeared at the same time.

"If it's an old disc recorded in the 1920s or 1930s, there couldn't be zero-noise in background music due to the lower level of technology at the time," says Wu.

Totally clearing the background noise would destroy the original music.

The project team realized the problems and invited groups of musical teachers, students and professional musicians to the audio experiments to give their reactions to the quality of the recovered sounds.

"Our mission was to give the sound back to its original face, just as it was recorded all those years ago," says Xu Shuya, principal of Shanghai Conservatory of Music. "The success of the project is a perfect combination of music art, computer technology, chemistry and physical science."

Chen Gang, the Chinese composer famous for his violin concerto "Butterfly Lovers," says: "When I am hearing the old albums, I hear the echo of history. The new culture of modern China started in Shanghai and an important part was the sound. The sound of Shanghai is an important heritage of the city. Theproject is saving thetreasures of Shanghai."


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