Electric Waste Orchestra

Creating unconventional musical instruments from outdated computer parts and other e-waste

In the hubbub of Moogfest, we serendipitously ran into a guy wearing purple 3D-printed eyeglasses and holding something that looked like a keytar. Upon closer inspection, and with the house lights turned up, it turned out to be a musical instrument made from outdated computer parts. Colten Jackson wasn’t a speaker at the festival, but a passionate musician who made the trek to Asheville from Champaign, IL, to spread the word about his educational side project, Electric Waste Orchestra. Jackson reuses e-waste to make music in unconventional ways—for example, in this video he transformed six hard-drives and a number pad into a musical instrument (with help from Arduino hardware and Pure Data software) and jams along with a modular synthesizer.


Hanging out at the open community lab Makerspace Urbana, Jackson noticed the piles of discarded computer parts: “CD drives, power supplies, modems and sound cards… Just like any place that does computer repair (many school and business IT departments, for instance), the old electronics tend to stack up,” Jackson tells CH. “You can’t throw them in with the paper and plastic recycling, you know?” It’s even true of regular users; it’s easy to hoard outdated electronics, thinking something might come in handy or be valuable down the road. There’s also the issue of how difficult it still is to recycle or throw away electronics; e-waste, for example, is often exported to developing countries under the guise of ‘second-hand,’ only to become a pollution problem for somebody else.

“It’s not useful to anyone, but I was still impressed with the amount of labor and human ingenuity that went into creating these computer parts,” says Jackson. “At 20 years old, some of these things are useless. The hard disk drives I used were all 1 GigaByte disks—[they] can fit on your pinky nail nowadays; no one is going to use these hard drives again, but I thought they were still beautiful objects. Mirrored, high-precision disks (very expensive in their day) are now junk? There must be a way to make new objects with these artifacts!” Jackson’s answer is musical instruments, but EWO’s mission is to inspire makers from other fields as well. Jackson notes the importance of having access to the tools and the expertise in order to bring his ideas to reality; it adds even more value and importance to community spaces such as Makerspace Urbana.

Catch Jackson speaking about Electric Waste Orchestra and hosting a workshop at this year’s Hackers on Planet Earth (or H.O.P.E.) conference this weekend, 18-20 July, in Manhattan. They’re celebrating their 10th anniversary by pulling out all the stops, from “Arduino For Total Newbies” to a not-to-be-missed conversation between Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden.

Image courtesy of Electric Waste Orchestra