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A Junkyard Typewriter That Turns Words Into Music

Built from scraps found at a Danish dump, this contraption analyzes the written word and transforms it into music.

Meet D.O.R.T.H.E. She’s a junkyard jukebox that turns words into music. And yes, her creators know that she looks like a computer built by Depression-era hobos. Heck, they’re proud of it, because they found all her parts in the exact place a hobo would: the garbage dump.

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D.O.R.T.H.E. stands for “Danish Orchestra of Radios Talking And Hacked Engines.” It’s actually a backronym, established after the fact so as to match the letters of Dorthe, a Danish name for women that the project’s creators have always liked. However they came up with it, a Danish Orchestra of Radios Talking and Hacked Engines certainly describes the project. D.O.R.T.H.E. takes words pecked into an old typewriter and translates them into a cacophony of strange sounds produced by a network of rusty old gadgetry.

Created by Lasse Munk, a Danish sound designer, and musician Søren Andreasan, the idea for D.O.R.T.H.E. came from videos on YouTube of electronics hackers modifying old 5.25-inch floppy drives to play music Daft Punk, the Star Wars imperial march and more. Thus inspired, Munk and Andreasan went to their local scrapyard to find old electronics they could similarly hack, coming back with a haul of printers, typewriters, radios, motors, cassette players and pretty much anything that will make noise when you pass a signal through it.

“The employees in Danish scrapyards are usually pretty strict about not letting people dumpster dive, but as it turns out, Søren was able to bribe them with a decent cup of chai and a slice of chocolate cake,” remembers Munk. “We found heaps of scanners and printers, as well as motors we could salvage when they were disassembled, power supplies, an old PC, two radios, and an ancient typewriter.”


With the parts in hand, the only thing to do was put the thing together… something that, at first, the duo had absolutely no idea how to do.

“We’re not electrical engineers or anything, so at the beginning, we had a lot of exchanges like: ‘You didn’t cut the red wire, did you?'” remembers Munk. Over time, though, Munk and Andreasan were able to learn enough about soldering and circuit bending to network all of their junkyard gadgets together into D.O.R.T.H.E.

Here’s how it works: D.O.R.T.H.E. accepts user input from an analog typewriter. As you type letters, the typewriter hammers fall on small contacts made of silver paper located behind the sheet of paper, which are then registered by an attached Arduino microcomputer and analyzed. This data is then translated by Max/MSP into signals which get the bric-a-brac orchestra printing, playing, spinning, and whirring.

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Right now, D.O.R.T.H.E. is only capable of analyzing text and translating it into music according to the rhythm of the typed keys, but in the future, Munk says, D.O.R.T.H.E. may be able to extend her ability to translate words into music by analyzing the sounds of phonemes as they are whispered to her and translating each sound into a separate harmonic.

As an analog to the cutting-edge of electronic music, you don’t get more charmingly ramshackle than this. You can find more information about D.O.R.T.H.E. here.

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