Hacked Turntable Plays A Tree’s Rings Instead Of Records

Here’s another one of those crazy, weird, artsy-style hacks. Somebody decided to see what tree rings sound like by making this rather unorthodox turntable.

All things considered, the cross-section of a tree trunk does kind of resemble a vinyl record. [Bartholomäus Traubeck] noticed this and decided to see what would happen if you could listen to it.

Of course… it’s not quite that simple. When you cut a slice of wood, you’re not leaving any grooves in the rings, so you can’t just throw it on a slightly modified record player. What [Traubeck] had to do was engineer a record player with a Playstation Eye camera strapped to the end of the arm — simple image recognition software creates a signal based on the pattern of the rings, knots, and other imperfections in the wood. This is then filtered into a program called Albeton Live, and converted into a very angst-y piano track.

Take a listen and let us know what you think!

For more information about the project there is a full interview with [Traubeck] over at Datagarden.org. For another cool record player hack, maybe you missed the underwater record player we featured a few weeks ago?

[Via Aux.tv, thanks Nocturnalassail!]

54 thoughts on “Hacked Turntable Plays A Tree’s Rings Instead Of Records

  1. I try really hard to understand the world of art and art installations but I must admit, I have a difficult time in recognizing either art or technology in this kind of mechanical/computer interface as being valid to many people. Like the birds in the interview landing on an electric guitar “playing music” or reflecting nature, I just don’t get it. I suppose the next installation will be to play the cross-section of an onion with layers representing ecological influence. I guess this gets kudos for originality but I still fail to be sophisticate enough to be impressed.

    1. Art is subjective and not all art is for everyone. I used to find abstract to be nonsense, but now that I’m older I’m starting to appreciate it a little. There’s also difference in people’s perception. Some are what I call mechanical registrars. They only see what they actually perceive through vision. Then there’s the imaginative or dreaming registrars that has an extra layer on top of reality. For a mechanical registrar it’s a useless machine playing weird “music”. For a dreaming registrar it’s a mechanical device showing parallel mechanical and naturalism through music. The mechanical finds the dreamer annoying and weird and the dreamer finds the mechanical to be negative and unimaginative. It’s always been like this.

      As someone once said: Art is not to be understood, it is to be felt. Which is true for some art and not for other.

      1. Well put.

        Though I agree with some comments below that there are some aspects of the implementation that would have benefited from more thought/creativity, it’s frustrating to see comments that basically amount to “what’s the point”, or worse people accusing others of snobbery or pretentiousness for seeing value or depth in something where they don’t.

      2. My wife (who is an artist herself as well as an art teacher) always told me that if you read a art history book, the proper way to read it is start at the end and read it backwards, this way the art gets better towards the end. I once saw a “art” installation in which the “artist” collected her used….feminine hygiene products…and had them strewn about the floor. Accompanying them was also jars of her urine….

  2. Too bad record player doesn’t handle large tree. It’d probably tell us how wonderful things used to be before men came to North America and started cutting down bunch of tree. I got an oak tree with trunk that is about 4 feet in diameter (1.3m) and is probably over 150 years old

    1. @Genki: Well as you know, tree rings only started making piano noises in the early 1900’s, before that it was mostly reed instruments, the 1800-1600’s are well know for it’s brassy sounds, and of course pre-1200’s it was all just the noise of large rocks being beat together.

        1. And just HOW would someone know the TRUE forested acreage of 1650, especially given that we had not even explored most of the U.S. by then? Did we send back drones in our time machine to take aerial photos?

          You do realize that people just make this shit up, right? Those maps aren’t even logical.

          Oh, and of course it is completely focused on the U.S. Because everyone knows Americans are just plain evil….

          As one of my side gigs, I had to build an interactive globe that displayed the receding ice shelf for an “Inconvenient truth” exhiibit. One of the last minute alterations I had to do by request was adjust the shelves because it “wasn’t ‘dramatic enough.” There was no actual data behind it.

          Besides, regardless of whether we grew the trees later on – the trees are there now. What difference does that make that they aren’t 300 years old? Some people…

        2. All over the place. I hunt in the large national forests of northern Wisconsin. The spot I hunt was last logged back in the early 1900s I think, and is now s dense Forrest again. The thing about modern forestry is that it I’d actually a very in depth field and s lot of care is taken to ensure forrest is protected and cared for while harvesting useful resources. I’d say the country is approaching a sustainable logging industry. We are not running out of trees.

  3. I see what he’s doing. The PS Eye is basically acting like a MIDI controller running data through a Piano VST instrument in Ableton. It basically plays notes based on how much “ring noise” it sees – the knot in the record plays many notes in a chord, while thin rings play single notes from the same chord.

    I’d imagine you could use the same technique for many types of images, like people in a room (1 vs 10+), or how many fingers it can “see” on pair of hands, or even the amount of fireworks it could see when pointed at the sky.

  4. Wow, he noticed that a tree ring sorta kindof looked like a record – genius I say, sheer genuis.

    Complete BS, the tree ring HAS NO SOUND. All the produced sound is completely fabricated by the so called “artist”.

    His next project will involve nose hair and harps.

    1. He’s claiming the sound is “created from” (my quotes, not his) the tree rings. If the same slice of wood plays the same tune, and different slices play different tunes, then it’s valid. Of course tunes weren’t ever stored in trees deliberately, but you can take any pattern, run it through some software, and come out with music. Depending on how talented you are, the music might be bearable or even interesting.

      But the tunes don’t exist anywhere beforehand, the notes are all assembled according to rules, using tree-slices as raw input data. Same way all those beautiful Mandelbrot patterns are generated from a couple of real numbers, and iterating the rules brings the picture out.

      You should know data is data. Converting a bitmap into groove widths into notes is simple enough in principle. It’s certainly possible. Not *useful*, but possible. Lying about something like this would just be stupid, if I were gonna lie it’d be about something amazing, this is just a nice curiosity.

      TL;DR: “it’s art”.

    2. Tree rings have no ‘sound’ in the same way radio transmissions have no sound. It’s all about the demodulation (read: interpretation) of signals that allow us to audibly hear things that aren’t transmitted via waves that travel through air. Sometimes converting information from one medium to another allows us a deeper understanding of the subject. Granted, this art installation is a bit more about the raw concept behind what I’ve said, but the point is still incredibly valid, and the music from it is still pretty damn cool.

  5. Although I am generally a very optimistic person, I am glad that the comments on here do not praise this piece. As an artist there are many things to critique about this project, most of which have already been stated. I wouldn’t say that you aren’t sophisticated enough to “understand” art – its just that there is a lot of “art” that has no content, and isn’t artistic. This piece is just a juxtaposition of technology and nature, however the two are juxtaposed in a manner that does not suggest or reveal anything about the correlation between the two or even the artists take. I suppose that the artist doesn’t see any significance in time as the cartridge just floats between rings(years). This sounds artistic, and even looks artistic, but will only really be appealing(or confusing) to people who are not informed when it comes to art, music, technology, or nature. The concept of Art/Nature is a great one that has been around for a long time, the content of the piece is most likely determined by the approach, and all of the decisions made during the process of creating the piece… this piece just looks and sounds cool, but it has no meaning in and of itself. Maybe it makes sense in whatever space they have placed it in, but in and of itself, it does not say anything.

    1. I’m neither artistic nor terribly appreciative of art in general, but I might sorta “get it” if this gizmo were instead playing an old album cover. Colors, shades, whatever translate to notes. Would likely sound horrid, but I’d see the connection…ish.

    2. You raise a good point. It would have been a bit more interesting if he modified his algorithm to determine the age and adapted the style of the music to the age with a reference of some sort to the tree playing back what it had experienced through time.

  6. Cool idea. However, a shoutout to Jethro Tull is in order here. Check out the back of the album cover for “Songs from the Wood” (1977) for the prototype of this turntable…

  7. Brings to mind the original Funky Winkerbean comic strip bit where Crazy Harry would don headphones and listen to frozen pizzas on the turntable… Hmmm. Now that laser turntables are reasonably priced…..anyone? Maybe a lunar rock. Dinosaur dung. ( A little post processing, maybe slow it down and add a little echo, maybe Auto-Tune) epochal tunes. Or Not.

  8. IMHO, as a prank, it’d be interesting to play this blind to some music critics, tell them it’s by an up-and-coming-yet-unknown composer, and find out what they think. (c: (Sorry, I’ve a thing with music/wine/art/drama/film/tech/etc. snobs.)

    Anyway, it’s a cool art hack.

  9. There was a SF story by Roman Antoszewski, titled “Słoje Drzew” (“Tree’s Rings”). It was about trees recording all the sounds around and incorporating them into their rings, and one scientist found out how to play those recordings.

    First thought when I saw this article.

  10. Nobody has brought up the difference between concentric rings and a spiral. The arm should be bumped to the next ring at each rev, to play all “tracks”! This implies optical tracking like a CD player.
    I have heard some nice data from the distant space objects that have had data collected often over a long time frame. The conversion of data to sound has useful application in “visualizing” large amounts of data. Numbers and graphs vs. a symphony of events and sub trends.
    Then there are the scans of voices from the 1860’s that predate Edison. Again a conversion of data, when they can make rocks speak…

  11. I would have been impressed if he would have sanded it down, put down a layer of clear resin and been able to etch music into the resin along the rings, then it would be sweet.

    whatever this is, isn’t art or technology just grabbing contrast differences and calling it music. heck throw a piece of bologna with ketchup and mustard down there and it would do the same thing

  12. I wonder what happens if you play it backwards?

    Also, suprised nobody pointed out a reference to the 80s show “The Wizard” where he built a machine to play back sounds from a vase that was present during a crime with the sci-fi explanation that glass being a fluid, high levels of sound energy would displace the fluid and leave a pattern that could be played back.

    One could almost imagine that the tree is storing some data in those rings given their irregularity in shape, thickness, density, etc.. but it would probably have more to do with light cycles, its environment, the minerals in the soil, etc…

    If something had cell growth fast enough, it may be able to record something resembling audio as the pressure from sound waves would affect the direction or thickness of growth in the area where the pressure is applied. And recording the sound over time would be accomplished by growing layers over the old data and protecting the previous data .

    Highly unfeasible of course, but interesting thought experiment. How about some art installation that records sound in layers of material and you need to grind it away as you play it back, eventually losing the recording altogether? I’m not the artsy type, so have fun with that.

    Interesting thought experiment, I suppose. I think the artist here could have done a little more. It is disappointing that he is just making up the sound arbitrarily instead of using the data stored in the rings. I would be more impressed if the playback were identical every time it is played.

    1. Mythbusters made a pretty ham-fisted attempt at doing this, painting strokes with a paintbrush while shouting at it. Nothing was reproduced! Realistically though it’s unlikely enough to count as impossible in my book. Just not enough space, or stuff, to store sound waves on. Even with sophisticated compression done by a computer beforehand.

      Shame though, it’d be really nice to be able to break rocks and things open, and hear people from centuries ago talking. Still, on a cosmic scale, maybe our civilisation’s just begun, and we’ve got recordings going back to the Steam Age. In milliennia to come that’ll be impressive.

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