Sequencing Computer Peripherals

I just found a version of Bohemian Rhapsody performed by an Atari800XL, 8″ floppy drive, TI 99/4a, 3.5″ floppy drive and four HP ScanJets. It’s apparently the hottest youtube-clip in Canada right now, yip yip! The same author also has Funkytown performed by C64/modem/printer and TI99/4a. Mentioned as his inspiration is James Houston’s Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any) which had a slow start of its Internet career, but has received lots of internet attention by now. It’s James’ final project for design school, so the visual aspect is also well worked through. A very special clip. It’s a ZX Spectrum with scanners, harddrives, and printers that performs a Radiohead-cover. James “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”.

While many chipmusicians claim to re-purpose technology, sequencing computer peripherals like this doesn’t even involve a sound chip! The first time I came across it was on the Commodore 64, where software would play music with the drive header. There is a youtube example of the 1541 drive playing Bicycle Ride For Two (originally from the first “chipmusic” record Music For Mathematics, 1962). There is also atleast one application to do this: 1541-music (1987), but don’t test it if your diskdrive is dear to you.

Back in the days, computers did not have a DAC (digital-to-analogue converters) which turn bytes into vibrations for loudspeakers. There is a peculiar story from 1966, when Tanzanian visitors to Sweden were treated with a printer playing their national anthem! Supposedly, this was the easiest way to make computer music for these engineers, although there was squarewave music elsewhere in Sweden at the time (where some pretty hardcore arpeggios were eventually made).

At the time, keyboards and screens were not common place either. Even in 1975 the Altair 8800 was just a box with switches and lights. The American hobbyist Erik Klein bought this computer as a kit and “30 hours later it was running with only one bug in the memory!” He happened to notice that the Altair was interfering with the nearby AM-radio, and he figured out how to control the tones and play his own music – “with nary a glitch“. Possibly this is the first piece of computer music made outside academia/art/videogames. But, the sounds are not digital and an AM-radio is not really a computer peripheral anyway.

On another (ir)relevant note, peripherals have been re-purposed in the C64 demoscene. If you run out of memory or CPU-power on your Commodore 64, you can use the 2 KB RAM and 6502 CPU inside the 1541. One example is the demo Deus Ex Machina (C64 2000) by Crest. Jeff’s song “Crossbow” apparently plays from the diskdrive.

So, the lesson to learn is that computer peripherals can be great tourist attractions and can probably be used for even more bizarre things. I’ll finish off this post with some more examples of music with peripherals.


  • Paul Slocum and his dot matrix synth, used for exhibitions and the excellent music project Tree Wave.
  • Sue Harding’s Dot Matrix music. youtube. Does not involve any programming, but rather trial and error style by printing images and see how they sound. Notice the Amigas!
  • Little-scale has a number of printer projects and an arduino tutorial aswell.
  • Half Arsed Printar Shreddage at youtube. Feeding samples into a dot matrix printer head.
  • Gijs Gieskes’ Image Scanning Sequencer
  • Amiga-drive performing El Condor Pasa (stepmotor) youtube
  • Amiga-drive performing a melody (“spinmotor”) youtube
  • Amiga-drive playing a sample. youtube


  • Tape Composer (C64 2009) Compose music for the Datasette (the “tape deck”). It plays back either through the motor, or through audio tape decks (the music you make is saved as data that sounds like your music, uh when you play it as audio) more info here. When I tried it I didn’t get much sound out of my datasette.
  • Tap Music Composer (ZX Spectrum 2007) I forgot how this works, but the results sound like data-cassettes in the right tones.

10 Responses to “Sequencing Computer Peripherals”

  1. r00s Says:

    * Symphony #2 For Dot Matrix Printers by The User / info 1998 / 2002 etc.
    * Mika Taanila, Optical sounds (personal favorite!)2005
    * The harddrive disko2004

  2. peter Says:

    Listen to a simple text file.

    I first heard a dot matrix used live from man or astroman, a surf rock band from alabama.


  3. chipflip Says:

    hehe, really great to hear people screaming by seeing a printer perform. lovely. data erotix! thanks for that.

    and r00s, would be nice to see that taanila performance euiii!i!i!!!!i!

  4. rXXs Says:

    i think i actually send it to you on dvd by mail sometime as a present. But you could also move away from the couch and plugin the black pc on the desk, its on there somewhere.

  5. TRUE CHIP TILL DEATH » Chipflip on Ohter uses of Computer Hardware Says:

    […] But leave it to goto80 to make the subject fresh with this excellent post on chipflip. […]

  6. Metal Machine Music » Synthtopia | Metal Music Weblog Says:

    […] Sequencing Computer Peripherals « CHIPFLIP […]

  7. chipflip Says:

    using 3.5″ floppy drive (+disk) to replay 15 sec of samples with an echo and a “pre-echo”. >>

    HD-head keyboard:

    all kinds of stuff:

  8. Music from the Electron Brain « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] documenting computers. But here you can hear all the noises, just like in the modern renaissance of computer peripherals music (oh yeah) and some of Pixelh8′s works. (By the way,  it seems that printer music was made […]

  9. Winning Printers « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] painting machine from 1979, and the waterfall screen. I hope that it sounds good too. Printers are good music instruments.  Anton Perich's Painting […]

  10. goto80 Says:

    Dot Matrix Eye of the Tiger

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