A Record Player With No Records, And Lasers Instead Of A Needle

If only Thomas Edison had been more interested in lasers!

In an alternative universe, Thomas Edison never invented the phonograph. We figured out lasers, computers, and MIDI audio first. Then, and only then, did someone think to place grooves on a disc and spin it around, reading its bumps to make music.

This is the basic idea* behind Soundmachines. Created by The Product for, of all things, a Volkswagen event, it’s essentially a giant, three-headed laser record player. But instead of playing records--an inforich medium that can only be read one way--it reads something with far less information that can be read billions of ways.


The lasers interpret each disc’s colors, textures, and swiss cheese cutouts as inputs for MIDI processing, meaning that blips of information become beats and notes, and physical textures become audio textures. In this way, the listener hears a digital symphony from the simplest of analog shapes, and any shape can sound different with the slightest adjustment to the software.

But while Soundmachines is an interesting enough project unto itself, I’d be curious to see where object-designed music could go. If a laser can read the texture of a piece of plastic, there’s no reason it couldn’t read the texture of a building’s bricks, a sidewalk’s concrete or--and admittedly this jump is a bit weird--skin on a person’s face. If wrinkles tell our eyes someone’s story, what could they tell our ears?

Could a mold of my visage make its way onto one of these discs? Could I attend a party in which we all cast our faces in plaster, and then had to guess which subsequent song was generated from which person? Absolutely.

Of course, maybe this is the sort of idea that’s more at home in that alternative universe.

*Remove the laser, and it’s also the basic premise behind those old Fisher-Price record players, which use record grooves to cue corresponding notes on a plucked idiophone.

[Hat tip: designboom]

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2 Comments

  • Nice devices indeed. Kids must have loved the display. I wouldn't have minded playing with it. However lasers reading phonograph records isn't new at all. A company named ELP built these players in the mid-80s and they actually did go into commercial production and distribution. Yup, no typo, mid 80s.