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The machines are making such a wonderful music, who would want to pull the plug?
May 26, 2009 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Computer music is relatively old, going back to the very early 1950s. In the following decades, people have been creative with programmable technology, leading to "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" being played on an IBM chain printer back in 1966, and in more recent years, HP ScanJet 5100c included an Easter Egg. The HP ScanJet 4c's SCL (Scanner Control Language) unofficial PLAY TUNE command lead to these fine little ditties. Now over a decade ago, the duo known as [The User] enlisted three specialists to operate a computer program via a server that synchronized the dot-matrix printers and read complex ASCII text files in order to create musical compositions. The result was a techno-sounding piece that was performed by the administrators of the system, rather than one that was simply being played. Like a symphony of car horns, the coordination of these printers became Symphony #1 and #2 for Dot Matrix Printers (samples of Symphony #2, Symphony #2 Slashdot thread). [More computer music exploration inside]

A track from Symphony #1 was used as the soundtrack to Radiohead - Skyscape [10], part of Radiohead TV, and another track was used for this short, odd juggling video.

The Austraialian sound artist, Sue Harding is making music in the realm of [The User], but she's going it alone with her collection of printers. She has released a few tracks as part of experimental electronic compilations.

Want to try your hand at this chaos? Hack A Day has some information, but mostly takes the chance to show off some videos. If you want to get into the software of printers, you may want to try fine-tuned printing. As is usually the case, you can find more odd computer music previously discussed on MetaFilter.

Bonus videos: Younnat's "Dot Matrix Printer Etude", Mistabishi's drum'n'bass "Printer Jam" music video, Cornelius' "Toner," the mysterious "Star Wars floppy", and so much more.
posted by filthy light thief (27 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also see Paul Panhuysen's brilliant Engines In Power And Love (1992) - an earlier synchronizer dot matrix printer sound piece. Pretty beautiful stuff (tho his bird work is better)
posted by neustile at 12:56 PM on May 26, 2009


The Imperial March - most widely ported piece of music, ever?
posted by GuyZero at 12:58 PM on May 26, 2009


Some more hardware repurposed to play square-wave PCM.
posted by anthill at 12:58 PM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


It starts with cuteness like folk songs played by chain printers. But sooner or later, you end up with Daft Punk.

The law of unintended consequences.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:01 PM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Listening to the "Star Wars floppy" I had one of those moments of "the internet is done" or "get a life(me)" or "the world is a wonderful place." I'm still not sure how it makes me feel.
posted by marxchivist at 1:09 PM on May 26, 2009


The Commodore 64's floppy drive was a pretty miserable piece of hardware (until you upgraded the firmware), but in its defense it played a nice rendition of Daisy.
posted by CaseyB at 1:16 PM on May 26, 2009


Joe, I think you need to listen to Justice. They take the whole thing full circle. Some elements really do sound like the the fantastic death rattle of machines pushed to the edge. Daft Punk were nice kids in comparison.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:18 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


The variable-speed drives on early Macs (the 400K ones) made nice sounds but I can't recall anyone deliberately placing data in such a way as to make music.
posted by tommasz at 1:26 PM on May 26, 2009


filthy light thief: "Joe, I think you need to listen to Justice . They take the whole thing full circle. Some elements really do sound like the the fantastic death rattle of machines pushed to the edge. Daft Punk were nice kids in comparison."

I like the YouTube comment:

AHHH IM VERY ANGRY NOW and i dont know why!!!!

I seem to recall some movie about vampires, except the vampires were like goth fashion models, and they hung out in dance clubs, and once in a while the strobe lights would come on, and then they'd go into a frenzy of neck biting, and you could just make out brief flashes of blood spurts caught by the strobe, and the stylish evilness of it all was emphasized by the doomy bass pounding on the soundtrack, and I think this might have been what was playing.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:00 PM on May 26, 2009


Via Sully, some electro-bleep pleasantry.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:11 PM on May 26, 2009


Has everyone seen this user-submitted Radiohead video thing of all the old hardware hacked up to play "Nude?" It nearly made me cry.
posted by greensweater at 2:20 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


greensweater, that was discussed previously, and was included in the original post as the computer link in "more odd computer music previously." And it's still quite lurvly, reminding me in odd ways of The Roots of Orchis take on Possibly Maybe, using record-based vocal samples and a bit of turntablism for the lyrics "Possibly maybe, possibly not."
posted by filthy light thief at 2:29 PM on May 26, 2009


in case anyone was wondering, and I know you all were:

yes, I think this post is fucking awesome.
posted by shmegegge at 2:53 PM on May 26, 2009


Symphony No. 2 for Dot Matrix Printer is ingenious! This post reminds me of the work of David Cope, the creator of ALICE. It's a program that I think made the news a few years back for being able to compose music that is stylistically identifiable as sounding like Beethoven, or Mozart, or Bach, or Joplin, etc. You can find some of its creations on his website.

His book (The Algorithmic Composer) details how ALICE analyzes the works in its database to prime itself for composition in a certain style. Its analytical method is a weird hybrid of statistical analysis and tonal or pitch class set analysis, as the case may be. His analytical assumptions seem to be deeply flawed, but the idea of a statistical approach to analysis and a genetic algorithm approach to music generation is an interesting starting point in the path to true "computer music."
posted by invitapriore at 3:36 PM on May 26, 2009


If you're into printers, you should check out Tree Wave (pretty hi-fi video).
posted by grobstein at 3:43 PM on May 26, 2009


Oh, thanks grobstein--I was just about to make sure Tree Wave got props.
posted by flotson at 6:06 PM on May 26, 2009


I seem to recall some movie about vampires, except the vampires were like goth fashion models, and they hung out in dance clubs, and once in a while the strobe lights would come on, and then they'd go into a frenzy of neck biting, and you could just make out brief flashes of blood spurts caught by the strobe, and the stylish evilness of it all was emphasized by the doomy bass pounding on the soundtrack

Isn't that every vampire movie, these days?
posted by katillathehun at 6:30 PM on May 26, 2009


Damn, and I thought I checked every link. And speaking of Justice, I love the video for DVNO which has some sweet retro video logo goodness.
posted by greensweater at 7:02 PM on May 26, 2009


Previously

"In 1964, a computer - the IBM 1401 Data Processing System - arrived in Iceland, one of the very first computers to be imported into the country… The chief maintenance engineer for this machine was Jóhann Gunnarsson, my father. A keen musician, he learned of an obscure method of making music on this computer - a purpose for which this business machine was not at all designed… When the IBM 1401 was taken out of service in 1971, it wasn't simply thrown away like an old refrigerator, but was given a little farewell ceremony, almost a funeral, when its melodies were played for one last time. This "performance" was documented on tape along with recordings of the sound of the machine in operation."

Youtube link to the IBM 1401 recording, accompanied by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. MP3 samples and the full story of the piece.
posted by ymgve at 7:23 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Filty Light Thief -

Just anecdotally, almost all of the Justice sounds are samples. IN the case of Stressed, I hear Night on Bald Mountain, and a sample of the "The Truth About De-Evolution" video by Devo.
posted by orville sash at 11:36 PM on May 26, 2009


orville sash, at least those are samples. As noted in a quick album review, "Phantom" is pretty much a track from the soundtrack to Tenebre (by director Dario Argento), sped up with a processed baseline. I found the original track, and I was sad to wholly agree.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:55 AM on May 27, 2009


Bohemian Rhapsody played on Atari 800XL, TI-99/4a, 8 Inch Floppy Disk as Bass, 3.5 inch Harddrive as the gong.
posted by plinth at 8:19 AM on May 27, 2009


I read somewhere about early computers (with tubes, kilobit memories and kHz execution speeds) that it was popular to put an AM radio next to the computer (to pick up the electrical fields they generate) and then write code that created 'melodies'. I'm sure that sounded more pleasant than the many clever (but usually raucous) line/dot-matrix printer sounds.

IIRC, was another decade before algorithms were used to generate audio that could be recorded ... and then not real-time.

Anyway, an intro at CDM;
then one that's more technical;
and here, Trevor Wishart (IRCAM) reports it was the mid-80s before desktop machines (the Atari ST - like Fatboy's) barely had the power to playback 48K soundfiles.
posted by Twang at 4:53 PM on May 27, 2009


The Aphex Twin did this with a monitor for a contest, or a bet or something. The computer he was writing code for didn't have any sound output capabililty, so he turned up the volume of the monitor (or maybe it a television?) and changed the screen colors, which generated different frequencies (sounds) in the speaker by way of RF interference. Then he sequenced them to play a song. Google-fu failage, but it's in an interview somewhere, and it's probably true.

And I thought I was hot shit when I figured out how to use my PC speaker to do PWM by toggling the bit with an interrupt to play WAV files at 8Khz. (Compliments of 8086 assembler code stolen from Finnish hackers, acourse.)
posted by ostranenie at 11:56 AM on May 28, 2009


ostranenie - this is the first I've heard of that particular Aphex Twin experiment. I knew of his face embedded in his music.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:38 PM on May 28, 2009


It was a Timex Sinclair ZX81:
When I was 11, I won 50 pounds in a competition for writing this program that made sound on a ZX81. You couldn't make sound on a ZX81, but I played around with machine code and found some codes that retuned the TV signal so that it made this really weird noise when you turned the volume up.

By displaying changing patterns of color on the monitor (in the case of the Spectrum, as with many early personal computers, the display monitor was a television), the natural hum from the cathode ray tube was modulated, producing a semblance of melody.
Dude, YES.
posted by ostranenie at 9:29 AM on June 3, 2009


Except it wasn't in the US, so it was just a Sinclair ZX81, no Timex. stupid sexy preview
posted by ostranenie at 9:30 AM on June 3, 2009


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