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April 21, 2009

Nighttime in the computer lab
Posted by Teresa at 10:50 PM * 57 comments

You know those early black and white cartoons where the contents of a store or kitchen or museum come alive at night and perform musical numbers? bd594 on YouTube has made a video that’s just like that, only it’s a bunch of old electronic gear doing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and they’re actually playing it.

The lineup of performers is:

HP ScanJet 3C, vocals
Atari 800XL, piano/organ
Texas Instruments TI-99/4a, lead guitar
8-inch Floppy Disk Drive, bass
3.5-inch Hard Drive, gong
In my distant youth, working late nights at Orange Julius, I used to sing harmony with the hot dog cooker (it could sing anything that had an unvarying ground note), but this is lightyears better.
Comments on Nighttime in the computer lab:
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 21, 2009, 11:43 PM:

MRI's have a lovely hummm, too :)

#2 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:44 AM:

Everyone remembers The Wizard of Speed and Time -- but this is my personal favorite Mike Jittlov short, with contradancing animated clothing at the Witching Hour in a department store. (Sorry about the crappy audio quality; this was the only version I could find.)

#3 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:02 AM:

This has such a lovely atmosphere that I'm not quite sure I can put into words. It almost feels a little bleak and lonely, but there's more to it than that. It's a pity the guy's hand makes an appearance toward the end to kind of spoil it.

Lee @ 2:

That was quite impressive. I expect it took a while to make, too. I tried to find a better version of that, but Google's video search only turned up that one and the same version on myspace.

#4 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:11 AM:

When you start up an old Mac Plus, the floppy drive spins at several different speeds to play (almost) the first four notes of "joy to the world"

#5 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:27 AM:

The ability to play music is actually built-in to older HP scanners as an Easter egg.

#6 ::: Rob T. ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:36 AM:

Thanks for pointing this out. Watching the video, I found myself reflecting upon the recent Kanye West album where he made extensive use of pitch-correction software to enable him to "sing" melodies his voice couldn't otherwise handle. An intentional side effects was the "robotizing" of West's voice. In contrast, the imperfections of this performance of "Bohemian Rhapsody"--resulting from the struggle with limitations of devices never intended to produce music--make it sound more human, for definitions of "human" that include fallibility.

Teresa, your harmonizing with the hot dog cooker reminded me of a passage I'd read on the early musical impressions of the pioneering minimalist composer La Monte Young, which included "summers of listening to the droning of lathes and drill presses at a machine shop" and "the humming sounds produced by the transformers at the power plant."

#7 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:59 AM:

The original TRS-80 used audio cassettes to store data and programs. Both recording and loading used off/off sequences done in software. There might have been a little analogue filtering, but nothing selective. You could produce music, if you could somehow get a signal to a speaker.

#8 ::: Doug Faunt ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 03:14 AM:

There was a concrete saw performing in the street a couple of days ago, putting out some great notes.

And lets not forget the old 1403 chain printer music.

#9 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 03:25 AM:

Rob T.

I found this article to be a useful introduction to the Autotune, a phase vocodor "Photoshop for the human voice."

#10 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 04:12 AM:

I'm getting all nostalgic. My first computer was a TI-99/4A.

It had _way_ better sound capabilities than my second, a Sinclair Spectrum.

#11 ::: Nathaniel ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 05:02 AM:

I've always thought the sort of car alarm that sets off the horn in long blasts has a nice reggae feel.

#12 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 05:59 AM:

Some Apple II games used the floppy drive to produce sound effects.

#13 ::: Jimcat Kasprzak ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 07:44 AM:

George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" was famously inspired by the sounds of a train rolling down the tracks. I'm hoping for a modern composer to produce an equally stirring melody inspired by computer sounds.

Or has this already been done?

#14 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 07:49 AM:

The brakes on the newer NYC subway cars very distinctly play the first three notes of "There's a Place for Us."

My favorite old machine-music was my dial-up modem accessing GEnie via the local New York number, which played the first eleven notes of the "Merry Melodies" theme song. Mike Ford was the only person I know of who noticed that about it the first time he heard it.

#15 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 08:44 AM:

This puts me in mind of the photocopier/laser printer dance - get one of those office machines going on a couple hundred sheet job and it inevitably falls into a sort of boom-shucka-boom-shucka rhythm that's very danceable.

I don't get caught often these days, I've learned to keep an eye on the workroom door.

#16 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:29 AM:

Here's a road playing the "William Tell" overture. Took some work, I imagine.

#17 ::: Tiffani ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:03 AM:

You used to work at the O.J.? Where the frothy happiness comes from? Another reason to love you!

Signed, a misplaced West Coaster

#18 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:35 AM:

Jimcat Kasprzak @ 13:

Something like this?

#19 ::: Jimcat Kasprzak ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:37 AM:

Rob T @6: I missed your reference to LaMonte Young. That might be just what I was looking for in my post above.

Also, you mentioned for definitions of "human" that include fallibility. Truly, what definition of human doesn't?

#20 ::: Jimcat Kasprzak ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:41 AM:

KeithS @18: that put a huge grin on my face. Maybe not quite what I was looking for but awesomely cool nonetheless.

#21 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 10:52 AM:

It figures that one day someone would make a singing road. I did a comic strip about it back in an 80s issue of New Pals. In my version, the sound was wobbling all over the place. "I liked the stereo effect," says one character, just before the road starts reciting Moby-Dick.

What I was going to say before I read Theophylact's comment is that there was a photocopier in the library at Rice, where I used to work, that continually made a tuneless, somewhat rhythmic whistling noise, like a big dope with no sense of pitch working on something. Luckily, it was in one of the farthest corners of the place. I was always amazed that people could sit near there and study.

#22 ::: Andrew Willett ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:20 PM:

Thena @15: I find myself tapping my feet to the dishwasher or the laundry machines all the time. So catchy!

#23 ::: Elizabeth Coleman ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 12:46 PM:

At my work, when we run a particular set of foiled linen paper through the copier, it makes the doo-do-do-doo-doot! from the Austin Powers theme. Over and over and over.

That video makes me think of Bjork's "Cvalda" from Dancer in the Dark. Industrial rather than electronic, but I still love it.

#24 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 01:53 PM:

TNH, 14: The brakes on the newer NYC subway cars very distinctly play the first three notes of "There's a Place for Us."

Only on the IRT cars, the IND/BMT have a different model of rolling stock. And the last note is an octave up from the original song, whose real title is "Somewhere." But you're right otherwise!

I have a recording of a wind quintet (No. 1?) by the composer David Maslanka, who used to live in NYC, the second movement of which was inspired by the sound of air compressors in (I think) the 200 St/Dyckman station on the A train. They play only the instrument mouthpieces for part of it. It's very strange and yet pleasing.

#25 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:35 PM:

There's a J.G. Ballard short story where "singing" roads are used for social control; if you don't drive at exactly the right speed, you get out of phase with the road, and your car shakes violently.

#26 ::: Wyman Cooke ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:39 PM:

Teresa, thanks for the video link. That was cool.

Tim @ 25, have you seen the Honda commercial where they've modified a road to play The William Tell Overture?

#27 ::: Arwen ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:44 PM:

Chris @ 24: Only on the IRT cars, the IND/BMT have a different model of rolling stock....

Ahh, I beg to differ. As I was waiting (and waiting) for a train in the 7th & 53rd St. IND station just a couple of hours ago, I heard those very notes coming from several IND trains.

#28 ::: y ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 02:57 PM:

Tim @ 25: Yeah, I had a car like that once. The speedometer never worked right, but you could always tell if you were going too fast.

#29 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 03:25 PM:

At the construction site where I've been working, one of the big cranes was lifting about five long steel beams thru the air at one time. I looked up at that and said, "Ooh, wind chimes!"

I also noticed that in the storage yard where the waiting beams are stacked up, if you had a hammer (and really, really long arms), you might be able to play the various sized beams like a xylophone.

#30 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 04:28 PM:

Wyman Cooke #26: have you seen the Honda commercial where they've modified a road to play The William Tell Overture?

Found it.

#31 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 04:37 PM:

"The Roads Must Rock and Roll" by Robert Heinlein and Howard Waldrop: that could work.

#32 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 05:58 PM:

Following a recent tire rotation my car was behaving rather like that. The deep drone would only have appealed to fans of severe minimalism, however. I now have fresh tires in front as well as back and can drive without being roared at.

#33 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:24 PM:

At a service bureau I worked at years ago, the dye-sub printer made sounds that reminded everyone of the Monty Python mouse organ (with a little less thumping).

#34 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:37 PM:

OT and not directed at anyone in particular: I despise "throwies" and those who indulge in them.

It's high-tech toxic littering for the affluent, bored hipster.

They're not even any kind of artistic or technological achievement, the parts just got cheap enough to use decadently. It was bad enough when people made their own, but now you can buy them online at places like ThinkGeek.

Ooh. LEDs. Wow. How very edgy and hip. Gag.

#35 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:43 PM:

I think I've made mention before of the four-position digital timer whose #2 beep went beep-beep in the exact cadence of the intro to New Order's "Love Vigilantes." Also the Lightning Seeds' "Pure," which drove me crazy when it first hit the radio because I knew it sounded like "Love Vigilantes" but I couldn't remember that title, OR the group, just a little snippet of the lyrics. And this was before I had the Web at home. Luckily, the DJ at the radio station playing the Lightning Seeds was able to identify "I want to see/My family/My wife and child/Waiting for me" and end my perplexity.

#36 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:50 PM:

Chris, Arwen, could we possibly be having a more NYC-ish conversation?

#37 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 09:51 PM:

Moshe would know.

#38 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 11:14 PM:

Elizabeth # 23 --

that video dance tune cries out for Gene Kelly

#39 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2009, 11:53 PM:

When machines are working right, they sing. Hum, mutter, growl, scat, even. You know when they're unhappy, they go out of tune. I suspect it's the out-of-tune that prompts maintenance, rather than slight changes in work output.

#40 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 01:16 AM:

Rikibeth, #35: I spent a few weeks temping at a company whose telephone-system ring was two notes on a rising fifth. It was months before I could get the earworm of Dukas' L'Apprenti Sorcier out of my brain!

#41 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 02:27 AM:

In the waiting room of the therapist who spent a couple of years teaching me how deal with ADD there was an electric heater/fan that had a syncopated beat. No matter what I tried to do while waiting, whether it was read, write on my laptop, or play interactive fiction games, that beat would sneak into my head, and I'd find myself repeating it, or tapping my foot to it.

So much for the natural, now for news of the artificial. A long, long time ago some colleagues of mine were working on a contract at a large aerospace lab, having promised to create a 16-node hypercube out of hobbyist microcomputers, something never before seen by civilized people. For storage they had half a dozen 500 Megabyte hard disks the size of washing machines (I said this was a long time ago). While writing the disk I/O routines, they discovered that they could play tunes with them, by making the heads seek back and forth continuously; the head-seek time in each direction was the half-cycle of an audio tone. Not only that, but down at the full-disk seek frequency, so much mass moved moved so quickly that they could make the drives move back and forth across the floor. So not only could they sing, they could also dance.

Incidentally, they never did finish the contract.

#42 ::: Jimcat Kasprzak ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 07:08 AM:

Jon H @34, or anyone who knows what he's talking about: what are "throwies"?

#43 ::: Darth Paradox ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:27 AM:

An LED, a tiny battery, and some adhesive or a magnet. So you can stick or throw them high onto walls, lightposts, etc.

#44 ::: caffeine ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:28 AM:

Jimcat @42, according to this site throwies are "a lithium battery, a 10mm diffused LED and a rare-earth magnet taped together". Some kind of removable graffiti.

#45 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:31 AM:

So far we've had singing peripherals, singing roads, singing trains and singing telephones, but not singing tesla coils.

#46 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 11:53 AM:

re 41: A quarter-century ago I was working for the Navy on a project which in part involved an assembly language program which I had to edit on a PDP-11 running RT-11. It was (by the standards of the day's hardware) an enormous program, one single source file, which editing in vi was a deep pain-in-the-neck. More to the point for our current discussion, however, was that the file was big enough to where RT-11's need to allocate the thing contiguously was eventually thwarted. That was when I had to squeeze the disk. So here we have this drive, sitting in a rack mount, and when I set this process off, the drive would start to bang a little bit. Then after a bit of this, it would start to really bang. HARD. The whole rack would start to shake visibly. It seemed to be held in place sufficiently on NOL's then-thirty-year-old linoleum-covered steel floors, but it did make me wonder (a) whether it might fall over, and (b) how on earth it didn't have a head crash every other week.

#47 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 12:01 PM:

re 45: If you poke around YouTube enough you'll find examples that actually have good sound reproduction. The "problem" is that to get that they have to run in a corona-producing mode instead of ripping big showy jagged holes in the air.

#48 ::: Andrew Willett ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 12:45 PM:

The latest model of those new trains -- not the one on the 2/3 but the newer one running elsewhere -- is excellent, even if you ignore the West Side Story music. That big LED sign that tells you where on the line you are, and updates as you go? Love it.

#49 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 01:09 PM:

Radiohead - "Big Ideas: Don't get any"

#50 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 02:46 PM:

Andrew, 48: They're great when they work, but I've recently seen more than one which was off by several stations. (And they need to get the voiceover for DeKalb Avenue redone, 'cause no one pronounces it that way.)

#51 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2009, 08:10 PM:

Nathaniel @ 11#:

I drew this cartoon last week.

#52 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2009, 09:18 PM:

caffeine @44: "Jimcat @42, according to this site throwies are "a lithium battery, a 10mm diffused LED and a rare-earth magnet taped together". Some kind of removable graffiti."

In theory removable, if they get stuck someplace that can be reached.

The name 'throwie' is suggestive to me of throwing them onto bridges and overpasses and pipes and signage.

#53 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2009, 08:32 AM:

Something I saw in Berlin this weekend; at the Haus Tacheles artists' collective, on the ground floor I saw a first-generation iMac as part of an installation, switched off, dead to the world.

Up on the fourth floor, someone was using the exact same model for some server application (network storage? print server? quagga/zebra software router? asterisk pbx? I didn't quiz the guy as I was there to appreciate his pictures rather than his IT setup). I thought that was a far better contemporary comment than anything on the walls or in the yard.

#55 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2009, 09:37 PM:

Sarah @51, Nathaniel @11: I recall reading a 1950's Popular Science article about rejected proposals for new car features. One was a car horn that instead of honking would shout the car model (Impala!). It was rejected because the feeling was that people would freeze in surprise rather than jump out of the way.

#56 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2009, 03:44 PM:

Andrew Willett #54:

What does it say about me that I felt more than a faint frisson of disappointment when I discovered that the router in question was *not* a Cisco 4500-series or near offer?

Don't get a girl's hopes up like that!

#57 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2009, 04:55 PM:

joann: me too! I was wondering if the router had a piezo that a tone could be played on, or if you could rev the fans up and down or something like that.

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