CD bending sound art

Nicolas Collins, Sled Dog, 2001
A hand-scratchable hacked CD player. Photo by Simon Lonergan.

IDEA: Turning CD's and its players into musical instruments.

WHAT: Creative, chance-based customisation of the circuits within electronic devices such as CD players, or the CD itself, to create new musical instruments or sound generators. 

WHY: Unlike vinyl and tape, to really 'prepare' a compact disc requires a heightened sense of data-hacking, or at least, a much subtler hand at physical manipulation, in order to get past the error-detecting software and intervene with the data being read.

BY: Nicolas Collins, Yasunao Tone, Oval, Aleksander Kolkowski

Yasunao Tone was the first artist to experiment with CD; his work with the medium dates back to roughly 1984, a mere two years after the CD was introduced into the market. His experiments led to damaging CD’s and allowing the player to read these errors, then he extracted the information given off by the CD player in order to re-arrange and compose this catalogue of glitchy sounds. Tones damaging of CD’s took on the process of de-controlling the devices playback so that it randomly selects fragments from a set of sound materials.

Solo for Wounded CD

Yasunao Tone’s 'wounded' CD, with tape and scratches. Photo by Gary McCraw.

His 'MP3 Deviations' pieces, are a similar approach to his work with CDs, but makes use of a custom built software that maps and interprets corrupted file error messages in MP3s.

Mp3 Deviations 6 & 7
By Yasunao Tone
Mp3 Deviations 8

'Sled Dog' hand-scratchable hacked CD player, Chicago, 2006. Photo by Marty Perez.

Nicolas Collins’ work in home-built circuitry and micro-computers was pioneering in the field of electronic sound art. His work with compact discs is not totally unlike Tone’s, in that there was a lot of trial and error experimentation to understand how the sensors inside the player actually functioned, and the boundaries of what they could handle. Collins discovered that the player’s chip contained a “mute” pin, which is perhaps the most important mechanism in the transference of coded data into audio. He removed the pin, and to his delight, the CD player just wouldn’t shut up. It translated every piece of information that the sensors picked up as audio, leaving no signals filtered. Tone never really tampered with the player, just the discs, and while Tone was provoking the sensors to create sound, Collins’ work with this cracked medium is actually about controlling its silences.

Collins wrote a book on handmade electronic music. Assuming no technical background whatsoever, the book carries the reader through a series of sound-producing electronic construction projects, from making simple contact microphones, to transforming cheap electronic toys into playable instruments, to designing circuits from scratch. Along the way, I put the technologies into historical and aesthetic context through information about, and audio and video samples by, artists who have used similar devices to make significant musical breakthroughs (a DVD is included in the second edition.)


Oval was a musical project initiated in Germany in 1991 by Markus Popp, Sebastian Oschatz, and Frank Metzger. Their early albums Systemisch (1994) and 94Diskont (1995) were hugely influential in solidifying the new electronic sound known as 'glitch'.

Systemisch contains hundreds of samples generated from scratched and written-on compact discs, skipping and failing. But the group edited them into minimalist, pretty rhythmic grooves and tones,using them as source material for what today would be considered your basic electronic track. All of the typical CD stuttering sounds, seem to be rounded off, EQ’d and compressed into drum-like tracks that reference the standard sounds off a drum pad.

94 diskont
Thrill Jockey
“Essentially, I was looking for new musical building blocks without relying on quantized MIDI sequences plus, say, a drum machine. And the most interesting and unpredictable sequences I could find was the fascinating, irregular musical ‘storytelling’ of a laser of a CD player skipping over the damaged surface of a compact disc. So one could say that the early Oval signature sound ended up mainly consisting of re-composed fragments of (what once was) other people’s music not because I was ‘anti-music,’ but because this was simply my best (low budget) shot at an electronic music that was new and surprising as opposed to being purely experimental.”
— Markus Popp

Aleksander Kolkowski has created a way to lathe-cut vinyl grooves onto the surface of CDs, using a 1950 Wilcox-Gay Recordette, making them playable on turntables. That’s pretty much the ultimate put-down for a medium that for so many years was advertised as 'Perfect Sound Forever,' and reminds us of one of Nicolas Collins’ famous statements: "music isn’t just conveyed in grooves, pits and waves. Music is grooves, pits and waves.”

It’s transforming a disposable media storage device made for cloned copying into a one-of-a-kind cult object. In a way, it’s very tongue in cheek. There’s a lot of fetishism about vinyl, but I see this as quite throw-away, really. I do it for free. People bring a CD and I give them one in return. On a few occasions people have asked me to go into commercial production, but that’s not really my intention.
— Aleksander Kolkowski

It looks like a CD, but plays like a record.