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Researchers Recover Alan Turing’s First Computer Music

By September 28, 2016No Comments

There’s something remarkable about hearing the first, sweet and slightly tortured tones conducted entirely through a computer, especially when you consider that they were generated 65 years ago.

Researchers at the University of Canterbury recently figured out how to restore a two-minute BBC recording of the first, known computer music, generated through a program developed by Alan Turing.

Somewhere between 1948 and 1951, Alan Turing, the legendary World War II code-breaker programmed a massive computer (the Mark I and then its successor, the Mark II) to make a sound — essentially a click — that it could repeat quickly enough to create a single tone. Altering the order of clicks created different notes. The result is something akin to a slightly broken violin or fog-horn. Turing was no musician, though, so computer scientist Christopher Strachey (then a student), whom Turing let work with the massive computer on his off hours, surprised everyone and programmed it to play, among other tunes, God Save the Queen.

A portion of an early original computer performance at the BBC in 1951 was captured, albeit poorly, on something akin to a 12-inch vinyl record.

Professor Jake Copeland and New Zealand composer Jason Long found the recording (the computer is long gone) but were disappointed to find that it had been poorly recorded. “The frequencies in the recording were not accurate: the recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded,” wrote the researchers in a blog post

The main flaw in the 1951 recording appeared to be speed.

“We found there was enough information in Turing’s wonderfully pithy Programmers’ Handbook to enable us to calculate all the audible frequencies that the Mark II could produce,” wrote the researchers.

Once Copeland and Long figured out what the proper speed (and pitch) was supposed to be, they set about cleaning up the recording by removing any extraneous noise.

The result can be heard here, along with, one might assume, BBC engineers laughing about the computer music quality and the system’s unexplained pauses. “She’s not enjoying this. Gone on strike a bit,” laughs one participant.

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