Beyond the viral-ready novelty, listen to the serenades of defunct hard drives, flatbed scanners, and garage sale-rescue computers and you might just hear a sense of urgency. As the discs whir, the chips bleet, and the solenoids ping percussion, this chorus of obsolete electronics seems to plea, save us from landfill doom.

The latest breakout hit from repurposed retro machines is Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Here, it’s covered by a set of glockenspiel-playing solenoids and an HP ScanJet as the angst-ridden whine of the now-infamous vocals. An Amiga rounds out the band. Even the robotics can be counted as chip music, of sorts – a PIC16F84A (a simple microprocessor) acts as the brains. (Kids, ask your parents. Before Arduino, there was PIC programming.)

Like lovers of vintage cars, fans of vintage electronics face part shortages and repair headaches. (3D printing of physical components holds some promise.) Unlike the cars, the parts shops themselves are threatened – this Toronto-based creator turned to A1 Electronics Parts for help.

The YouTube maestro of this salvaged orchestra, “bd594,” has some other wonders, so now’s a perfect time to revisit the best of those – and the video that started it all.

There’s a beautiful rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.”

The best of all, I think:
Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”

(And, sorry, it’s just a more interesting song than Gotye’s – or, in fairness, better suited to creative orchestration.)

The same creator’s robot-band take on The B-52′s Rock Lobster is simply insane. He also explains how to make your own inexpensive solenoid motor — using a VCR head.

But this creator, in turn, credits art student James Houston for inspiring the crop of YouTube videos using this sort of gear to make covers.

Houston’s take on Radiohead’s “Nude,” from In Rainbows, is to me achingly beautiful in a strange sense. (Skip to halfway through the video for the song to begin.) The hard disk becomes a surprisingly-fitting, rough, scratchy vocal. The video appropriately takes the alternative title, “Big Ideas (don’t get any).”

Big Ideas (don’t get any) from James Houston on Vimeo.

Houston told the videos’s story when he released it, back in 2008.

I’m a student graduating from the Glasgow School of Art’s visual communication course in a few days. This is my final project.

Radiohead held an online contest to remix “Nude” from their album – “In Rainbows” This was quite a difficult task for everybody that entered, as Nude is in 6/8 timing, and 63bpm. Most music that’s played in clubs is around 120bpm and usually 4/4 timing. It’s pretty difficult to seamlessly mix a waltz beat into a DJ set.

This resulted in lots of generic entries consisting of a typical 4/4 beat, but with arbitrary clips from “Nude” thrown in so that they qualified for the contest.

Thom Yorke joked at the ridiculousness of it in an interview for NPR radio, hinting that they set the competition to find out how people would approach such a challenging task.

I decided to take the piss a bit, as the contest seemed to be in that spirit.

Based on the lyric (and alternate title) “Big Ideas: Don’t get any” I grouped together a collection of old redundant hardware, and placed them in a situation where they’re trying their best to do something that they’re not exactly designed to do, and not quite getting there.

It doesn’t sound great, as it’s not supposed to.

I missed the contest deadline, so I’m offering it here for you to enjoy.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum – Guitars (rhythm & lead)
Epson LX-81 Dot Matrix Printer – Drums
HP Scanjet 3c – Bass Guitar
Hard Drive array – Act as a collection of bad speakers – Vocals & FX

But if these old machines can still sing, perhaps there’s hope for electronics that aren’t disposable, that aren’t mysterious black boxes. Tinkerers might just save all of these piles of machines from an untimely, toxic death.

  • http://dinside.no Øivind Idsø

    Absolutely friggin awesome.

  • http://danielottinimusic.tumblr.com/ Danielo

    Just around the corner from me in Toronto…way to go A1 Electronics (and bd594)! Haven’t been for awhile, I will have to go see if any of the old junk inspires a new round of circuit-bending…I guess I should finish the “old-round” first, though :-)