CEDAR Audio Limited: Cleaning up the world’s audio

Discovering a disc or tape that has not been heard in over 40 years might be an exciting moment; but the hiss and clicks may be too distracting to enjoy the music.

As the paying customer we expect a good listening experience. CEDAR Audio is the story of how a technology solution was found to improve sound quality through the joint endeavours of the British Library National Sound Archive (NSA) and the Cambridge University Engineering Department.

Twenty years ago CEDAR Audio was formed and it is still the world’s only company dedicated solely to developing solutions for audio restoration and speech enhancement. Customers include world-leading film, television, radio and CD and DVD mastering companies, plus libraries and archives. The technology has been extended to audio forensic investigation, and CEDAR is now a worldwide major player in this field.

Compact discs (CDs) were first released in Europe in 1983, heralding potentially cheaper and higher quality ways to record and distribute sound. The NSA recognised that it held significant sound archives on old discs and tapes, some of which were unique and rare recordings. However, these aging media inherently contained hiss and clicks that would not be acceptable in the digital era, so its director, Christopher Roads, set out to solve the joint problems of storage and quality.

Through a connection at Neve Electronics, Roads was put in touch with Professor Peter Rayner, a signal processing engineer in the University’s Communications Laboratory, and it was he who first proposed a computer-based audio restoration system. The British Library then provided a grant that enabled the development of a ‘proof of concept’ prototype. Later shown on the BBC TV programme Tomorrow’s World, this demonstrated that computer-based audio restoration was viable. The Library then raised a small amount of capital from Cable & Wireless (C&W), which had the idea (twenty years ahead of its time) of an online “dial-a-sound” business model. The CEDAR project became a joint venture between the British Library, C&W and Lynxvale, the University of Cambridge’s commercial company* which received a single “golden share” in exchange for the rights to the initial technology.

In 1989, Simon Godsill, then a student of Peter Rayner and now a Professor in the Engineering Departments’ Communications Laboratory, had reduced the time it took to remaster an audio file to around 13x real time. This meant that five machines running simultaneously were capable of restoring numerous tracks per day, so the newly formed CEDAR Audio Ltd started by offering a restoration service to its customers. Given its lack of capital and the difficulty of pioneering a brand new concept and technology, the company developed a “corner store” mentality. Every £1 spent had to return sufficient revenue to continue developing the system further.

Very quickly, the company gained recognition for its technology through awards. The first was presented in 1989 by the British Computer Society in recognition of CEDAR’s unique audio restoration capabilities. This was the first of what was to become a range of awards won regularly by the company.

By 1990 the company was travelling the world to identify dealers and potential customers. Even then expenditure was watched like a hawk. Finding an airfare at $100 less than the nearest competitor meant that it was booked.

In 1991 it was decided to develop a self-contained real-time audio restoration device that needed no computer for its operation. This proved to be the right idea at the right time, and the eventual range of products reduced the cost of restoration for customers who could not afford or justify the more expensive “CEDAR System” to clean up their libraries for re-release on CDs.

New product improvements came thick and fast and 1992 saw the launch of the DC-1 Declicker, the world’s first rackmount audio restoration product, which was priced at £10k. This was followed in 1993 by the CR-1 Decrackler. Within four years of its inception, CEDAR had established its reputation for producing high quality and reliable products that produced great results.

In 1994, the directors and staff completed a management buy-out from the British Library and C&W, and CEDAR Audio became a privately owned company. The same year, the AZ-1 Azimuth Corrector product was released, followed by the DH-1, the world’s first “auto dehisser”; something that had previously been deemed impossible.

Over the next decade the company went from strength to strength and, in February 2005, was awarded a Sci-Tech Academy Award® (a “Technical Oscar”) in recognition of its services in the field of noise reduction for film production. As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said at the time, “there isn’t a Hollywood film produced today doesn’t pass through a piece of CEDAR equipment at some point”. Furthermore, tens of thousands of CDs and DVDs have been restored using CEDAR, and innumerable broadcasts have benefitted from CEDAR’s noise suppression systems.

CEDAR Audio is based in Cambridge, UK, and retains strong academic links with the University of Cambridge, one of the world’s leading centres for digital signal processing research. The company currently numbers two professors and a Director of Studies among its directors, further strengthening its ability to remain at the forefront of its field.

Next time you sit in the cinema, or listen to a remastered recording, contemplate that it is a small company based in a renovated public house just south of Cambridge that helped to create the high quality sound that you are enjoying.

CEDAR Audio remains driven by a passion to build the world’s finest audio restoration and speech enhancement equipment.

Photo credit: spinspinspin by Shannon via Flickr

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