Music From Machines

In a video I posted a couple of weeks ago about the physics and biology of pitch perception, Vi Hart mentioned that she sometimes hears bits of music in background noises. I do this too.  There are interesting intervals and occasional chords coming out of our machines. I used to have an inkjet printer that played four notes from “Another One Bites the Dust” when it advanced the paper while printing my address. Nobody believed me when they heard it until I played it on bass before running the printer. We seem to be losing these-music sounds as our computers and office equipment became quieter. Equipment from decades past had more musical potential.

What if there were a way to unleash the full potential of old machines? Turns out there is. For about ten years or so people have been hooking up old equipment to MIDI controllers. MIDI is a digital encoding system that was developed between 1981 and 1983 to allow multiple electronic musical instruments to communicate with and control each other.  MIDI is not a recording format, but a compact way of storing instructions. The sound you get is determined by what machines you hook it up to. This could be anything from irritating web page background music run through computer sound cards to all the pleasures and terrors of much of the music recorded since 1983.

The office machines of our past were not programed to interpret MIDI input, but with a little bit of amateur electrical engineering, a dot matrix printer can play a song:

Getting the printer to play this song required the printer’s hardware move the carriage more slowly it normally would and for the bins to move in ways not already programmed into the printer. This video shows the breadboard circuit that converts the midi output into a signal the printer can interpret.

And it’s not just printers. Early MIDI could control up to eight monophonic instruments.  With a little work, it can control floppy drives too:

It’s good to know that the musical potential we always knew was in our machines can finally be heard.

Why HAL Sang “Daisy Bell”:

I always get sad when HAL dies in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He sings “Daisy”, his earliest memory, as he is being disassembled. Clarke chose that song because it was the very first piece of fully digital music recorded in 1961.



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