Strange Magic: Electric Waste Orchestra Combines DIY, Music, and Creative Reuse of Electronics

It’s a big week for local Makerspace Urbana. One of their projects, founded by member Colten Jackson, has been featured in several blog posts this week, including one on by Simon Martin, a post for Wired by Margaret Rhodes, another on the Atmel Corporation blog, and still another by Nara Shin on Cool Hunting. On the 1st and 3rd Thursday of every month, from 7-9 PM, Champaign-Urbana area Makers can head over to the group’s space in the basement of the Independent Media Center to participate in the Electric Waste Orchestra, or EWO, turning discarded electronic parts into musical instruments.

Extending the useful life of electronic products through reuse is an important step to take before recycling, if possible, because so much energy and resources (both natural and human) go into the production of electronics in the first place. You might immediately think of donating computers to schools, letting your child inherit your old smartphone, or replacing the cracked screen on your iPhone as ways to extend electronic product life. Those are all excellent examples, but Jackson and his fellow Makers have found a more creative way to give even the most obsolete electronics a new lease on life, turning them into fantastic looking musical instruments that create haunting sounds through truly ingenious interfaces. For example, in the following YouTube video, Jackson demonstrates the use of old hard drives cobbled together in a shape reminiscent of a keytar, hooked through an Arduino to sound generation software. The instrument has an old number pad for manipulating pitch.

I can’t help but think this project could encourage lots of people to both overcome their phobia of tinkering with electronics (thereby teaching them they really do have the power to repair) and consider, perhaps for the first time, the tragedy of sending sophisticated electronics to the landfill or recycling center before their time. And even those who aren’t technically inclined could enjoy brainstorming on such projects, because who doesn’t like music? Bravo, Makerspace Urbana! Maybe a new electronic music genre will emerge (Junktronica, perhaps?).

For those who are neither musically nor technically inclined, Makerspace Urbana also hosts another project than can extend the useful life of electronics. On Sundays from 2-4 PM, their Computer Help Desk provides “free personal computer diagnostic and repair services to the community.” Through “collaborative repair” folks learn to troubleshoot and fix their computer problems alongside an more experienced volunteer.

But Makerspace Urbana certainly isn’t all about electronic device-related DIY. Check out their web site for full information on all their projects and services.