Arts, Culture & Media

Here's how an old hard drive can become a musical instrument

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Credit: Courtesy of Electric Waste Orchestra

Members of Electric Waste Orchestra perform on their homemade instruments.

If you search online for images of e-waste, you'll find mountains of old TVs and laptops, floppy disks and flip phones. But musician and computer programmer Colten Jackson is proving that one man's trash is another man's band.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

It's all part of a project called the Electric Waste Orchestra. It's not technically an orchestra, of course, but the group meets regularly and plays its own brand of electronic music. Jackson has his own homemade instrument: The hard drive guitar, made out of six hard drives and an old keyboard number pad.

"I'm kind of doing the reverse of what hard drives are meant for," Jackson explains. "When they're in your computer, your computer sends electricity to the motor to make it spin — that's how it reads and writes data. Once I've cracked them open and tear all the circuitry off of it, it's just a nice silver disc attached to a motor. When you spin the motor by hand, it generates electricity, and each hard drive is hooked up to a different pitch."

The faster Jackson spins a disc, the louder the note gets. The keyboard number pad lets him control the pitch of the notes. Jackson can play multiple discs at once, or stop the notes by stopping them from spinning.

So why improvise music out of e-waste? "It was something that I had for free," Jackson says. "It's something that I imagine a lot of people have for free — there's stockpiles of these computer parts anywhere with an IT department, a community help desk. Or even people that went through a lot of computers themselves might have a stack of hard drives somewhere."

And repurposing, programming and making music can serve as a collaborative project for individuals and communities. The orchestra holds a summer camp where kids build their own instruments entirely out of e-waste.

"We got to run it as a small summer camp at the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab," Jackson says. "We got some kids tearing into computer parts, which I really love seeing. It gives opportunity to tear into these pieces that are usually black boxes. People are often afraid to open their computers because it's usually a bad idea if you don't know what you're doing. When you're using old computer parts, it doesn't matter if you break it. That's the point — you're breaking it first so you can make something new out of it."

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