The musical life of hard drives

This is a segment of an image my computer spat out one time after it had crashed. The original image was about 15 feet long!

My hard drive makes noise constantly. Sometimes it’s barely audible, and sometime it sounds like it is puting up a terrible fight. I have the tendency to record directly into my laptop mic to capture quick thoughts or try out sketches of ideas (a lot of which make it here). I also am almost always recording in the vicinity of my computer. This means that in some form there is always hard drive noise on everything I record. I have made my peace with this. After thinking extensively about it, I came to the conclusion that either I was going to record “poorly”, or less frequently. I opted for “poorly”. I also thought about what a recording was and why we try to make it so hermetic and I realized that the some of the recordings I like best sound natural, like they have been field recorded, noise and all. I like the idea of the acceptance of noise as a fact of life, or even more simply, just life.

I had been planning on recording some of my hard drive’s noise for a while, but I didn’t attempt it until this past week. I was expecting a certain kind of noise and for some reason, I expected it to be alone, like it’s own “thing” coming from a central source. Thinking back on it, that’s pretty naive really. What I found, was a whole variety of noises, coming from a bunch of different centers on the keyboard (my computer is a laptop). They don’t seem to change much in themselves and they sit in fixed positions almost in direct relation to the keyboard layout. I could see it even being possible to “play” the noises by mapping the “noise centers” on the keyboard.

Some of the noises are louder, or more dense than the others. They all have sort of rhythmic structures, but they are not all the same. I was really excited by the sounds. There was something exhilarating about them, or maybe overwhelming is more the word. Either way I felt an excitement when playing them that I had not expected.

Another thing which I did not expect was that if I tried to record over the trackpad, it would crash my computer! I’m really fascinated by this. I’m guessing it has to do with either magnetism, or some kind of feedback loop. It’s scary none-the-less. Be very careful if you attempt to do this, because I cannot be certain it is not harmful.

I recorded for about 15 minutes straight. The result is two tracks; one of trying to record all the different colors of noise, and the other is just improvising with them and getting a feel for how they could be played. Overall, I am pleased with the sounds I got. I think they could definitely be used compositionally, and I may use them in the near future. The only thing that bothered me a little, was that the latency in my recording setup made the noises sound so much richer than what you hear on playback. This could be added with the inclusion of about a half second delay, but i’d be cooler if it was natural.

Different Colors


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7 Responses to “The musical life of hard drives”

  1. df Says:

    what did you use to record the computer? a microphone, or a telephone tap (inductor coil / guitar pickup) ?

  2. howsthatsound Says:

    I used a small microphone I got with one of my reel to reel machines. It’s totally a cheapo, but so far I have been pleased with the sound. I’d like to try doing this with some different mics tho.

  3. startlingmoniker Says:

    That’s the worst-sounding hard drive ever! Your computer is still RUNNING? Unbelievable!

    I like the second track, though– its actually very fun to listen to.

  4. df Says:

    mine sounds worse, actually—but recorded with an induction coil it can take you to heaven.

  5. howsthatsound Says:

    sm: yeah, i thought is sounded kinda bad and then i mic’d it up and wow, yeah, it pretty much sounds like it’s falling apart. i’ll have to experiment tho, the crash made me curious… could the mic actually be part of what is creating the noise?

    the second track was a lot of fun. that’s exploring for you. always a good time.

    df: i fear for you and your data, if that is true, but either way, i’d love to hear it 🙂

  6. *c eliott j Says:

    Move over Alec Empire, ofsoundmind’s found the harddrive that ate Toledo.

  7. howsthatsound Says:

    hahahaha, i hope my applecare’s still good.

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