Barcode Beats, CPH DOX Festival at Kvickly Copenhagen (September 2008)

Barcode Beats is a system that converts barcodes into music through an interpretation of the numbers on the barcodes. It is intriguing to see everyday items, like a litre of milk, transform into sound. The participant uses a standard barcode scanner to scan a barcode and hear what sounds are produced.

Barcode Beats was conceived as a commentary on how barcodes have become ubiquitous in our environment. Every product has at least one barcode; many even have several. The barcodes represent numbers in obscure database systems. To play with the participants’ relationship to the barcodes and the products they reside on, we created a system that would generate music based on them.

By scanning the barcode, a rhythm unique to the specific barcode would be generated. This would be done algorithmically, resulting in the system being compatible with every barcode in the world and being able to create unique melodies for each one of them. Further, a number of barcodes could be scanned at the same time, thereby creating rather complex compositions.

Because barcodes are consistent on the same product, this became an exploration of how different consumer products sounded and how well they worked together, for example, “What does a Coca-Cola sound like?” and “How do Coca-Cola and Ketchup sound together?” Some products would work well together, whereas others would be more chaotic in their sound patterns.

A barcode scanner, like the one found in most grocery stores, converted a barcode into a number. The number was run through a custommade multilayered algorithm that created the beat sequence to be played. The sequence triggered and modulated samples from a sample bank that would result in the sound composition. The algorithm was injective, meaning that the same number always produced the same sound (no randomisation would

be used). Since identical products had the same barcode on them, they would have a consistent sound even when played in combination with other products or at a later stage. This is the key to the “sound of Coca-Cola” experience; by combining many barcodes, a piece of music would be composed.


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Credits: Daniel Brynolf, Henrik Svarrer Larsen, Mads Hobye and Vanessa Carpenter.