In anticipation of the Circuit-Bending Challenge later this month, I’ve rounded up a few great resources to inspire and inform those of you who’d like to get started in the wonderful world of Circuit Bending.

First: according to Wikipedia:

Circuit bending is the creative short-circuiting of low voltage, battery-powered electronic audio devices such as guitar effects, children’s toys and small synthesizers to create new musical instruments and sound generators.

Second: It’s quite easy and fun, and you’ll be able to produce interesting results very quickly.

Third: To kick things off, I’m going to defer to the esteemed Reed Ghazala, considered by many to be the Father of today’s movement. Y’know, like how James Brown is the Godfather of Soul?
ghazala

The circuit-bent instrument, often a re-wired audio toy or game, is an alien instrument: alien in electronic design, alien in voice, alien in musician interface. Through this procedure, all around our planet, a new musical vocabulary is being discovered. A new instrumentarium is being born.


Reed has an extensive primer on the science and art of circuit bending. He lays out some safety guidelines, tool recommendations, principles to follow, and his site has many fine examples of “finished” products.

Getlofi.com is an ongoing chronicle of interesting bent projects, innovative techniques, performance videos, and interviews with benders around the world. A must-read.

Make Magazine’s Bre Pettis has a fun video tutorial on circuit bending with Justin Gerardy : link. They highlight a good technique for exploring possible bends using just your fingers.

A host of links related to circuit bending, including how-to’s, examples, and discussion groups can be found at Cementimental‘s resources site.

John Hollis has some good tips for interesting bends, including advice on how to create audio loops and how to alter a circuit’s internal clock.

And, if you’re not itching to fire up your soldering iron yet, here are a few inspirational videos of completed projects. Some are simple, some quite complex, but they all start with the desire to play and experiment:

Here’s a simple toy with a pitch/speed shift bend connected to a photoresistor for light-controlled tweaking:

This is a nice modification of a “talking” toy:

In this video the bender added an extra circuit to the toy, in this case an oscillator, to control some of the functions:

Lastly, here’s a project I did last year- attaching a “christmas light timer” to a toy drum pad, thereby “automating” the drum hits into a sequenced pattern:

Enjoy.

Other stories from CDM on circuit bending

  • I.T.

    It reminds me TENORI-ON. It seems they come from one family )

  • dead_red_eyes

    Personally, I think that they're fun to mess around with … but not really practical in most situations. Most bent devices sound like crap to me … but that's just me I guess. Like how a lot of people love really glitchy IDM tracks … but it just gives me a damn headache.

    To each his own I guess.

  • eden

    "Personally, I think that they’re fun to mess around with … but not really practical in most situations. "

    I agree. I like to mess around with circuits but I'd rather spend my time

    building some kind of stompbox or something, rather than modifying a toy. It would be cool to just sample the sounds I guess and then use them in moderation in a sequence. Also I hate the way they look, well, like baby toys. Would'nt want those laying around my precious studio!

  • http://www.keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    I haven't even watched the vids yet but I'm inclined to think I'll agree with dead red eyes and eden (moreso eden because he added in "sample them and use them in moderation". I would probably use a circuit bent sound in some kind of chaotic buildup towards a more "composed" or consonant section of music.

    But again, I still need to actually watch the vids.

  • http://www.keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    Oh no! I never closed my parenthesis.

    )

    There. All better now.

  • info_dump

    Thanks Keith. That would have bugged me all day.

  • http://www.keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    So what if we were to "fake" a bent sound, by playing a synthesizer through a very small speaker, using mostly un-filtered pulse waveforms? Would that be uncool?

    On the one hand, this may be prohibitive, because a synthesizer is way more expensive. On the other hand, more of us (at least among CDM readers) probably actually have a synthesizer than happen to have an electronic toy at hand.

    Is it safe to assume the chance factor, i.e. unpredictability of the sound, is considered to be one of circuit bending's desireable qualities? And I suppose the challenge of "hacking" a toy is a large part of what makes it exciting to people?

    I have the guts of a damaged Korg Poly 800 that would probably be interesting to bend… but since it's an actual programmable synthesizer, as opposed to something designed to only make certain sounds, I wonder if doing so could actually produce sounds that would be impossible otherwise.

  • Doug Rouxel

    @ Keith

    The chances are your poly 800 could probably be bent to some extent to make sounds that weren't possible to do with the stock version – there will be fixed resistors in there that control stuff that could be replaced with variable ones adding some extra degree of control to it (the usefulness of this will vary) you can see the schematics here:
    http://www.oldcrows.net/~patchell/poly800/poly800

    obviously, if it' currently dead, then it can be more difficult, but no impossible- even if you convert it into some thing else slightly.

  • http://una-love.com Michael Una

    These are all valid points- I also have little patience for "all noise" bands and compositions.

    That said, a few points to consider:

    The skills involved in circuit bending are directly transferable to other electronic projects- building a stomp box, repairing a synth, or tweaking your mic preamp.

    For many people, it's the first step they take into the world of electronics, and for good reason- it's very satisfying to solder a few connections and hear the sounds change so drastically.

    So there's a sense of accomplishment, and also a curiosity that becomes awakened.

    Why does it do that? What is the function of all these little electronic parts? What else can I make it do?

    And also, it's fun. Don't forget that.

    I'm not asking you to replace your DAW or your Fender Rhodes, I'm suggesting that you try something you'll probably enjoy and learn a little bit in the process about how and why digital music works.

  • http://www.sighup.ca Steve

    "Wouldn’t want those laying around my precious studio!"

    Vanity! thy name is eden! :P

    There can be a perverse pleasure in simply making something as innocuous as a child's toy into something that emits horribly unpleasant sounds. And some folk have turned the circuit-bending concept into an integral, visual/performance part of their art. Like the stuff Khate does:

    http://www.khate.org/bent/

    Personally, I don't find the aesthetics of circuit bent toys suit my general intentions. I lean towards pragmatic austerity, the giddy technicolour angle that toys carry just doesn't jibe with that. But I've bent some of those cheapie Behringer pedals to reasonably good effect (they sound like junk unbent, I think the bending actually makes them usable).

    A guitar can sound like crap when used by folks inexperienced with it, bent things just need a little finessing to suit musical applications. Think about all those dreadful synth demos on Youtube, after a while it seems like bad, derivative acid or squeakfart beepbooping is all synths can do, which I hope isn't the case.

  • dead_red_eyes

    Cripes Michael, I didn't mean to come in a piss on your article … which was great by the way. I was just voicing my opinion on bent instruments. It certainly is fun to do, as I just recently went to a friends house who bent some things. It was cool to watch for sure.

    I've heard the same thing Steve, about bending/modding those cheap Behringer pedals for some cool and unique results.

  • http://una-love.com Michael Una

    No worries, dead_red_eyes or anyone else.

    These are all valid criticisms that have been raised against the prevailing circuit-bending aesthetic before, and I would tend to agree with most of them. Obviously, it's not for everyone.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Hey, a little healthy skepticism is cool, especially since we tend to cover bits of everything on CDM. If my studio had the contents of this site, it'd be a little hard to move.

    I have similar musical skepticism, just about how to fit this stuff into my musical style, but that's all the more reason I'll be taking up this challenge and seeing how it goes! I may do an experiment first … maybe not just a one-day affair. I'll report back. Mike actually has more experience than I do on this front.

  • http://deep-structure.blogspot.com christopher

    i also have to agree about the usability of these sounds. that's why i've never gotten into the whole bent thing. of course, in many ways i assume bending is like many other fun activities – fun to do, not so interesting to observe (or listen to).

    however, im a huge fan of eric persing's distored reality sample collections – if an instrument could be made that came with sounds like that, but generated not sampled so you could tweak parameters – that would be awesome.

    i do have to relate this little story in defense against myself of bent sounds: i used to work for fast forward design (what line 6 was back when it was simply a software design house for digidesign and alesis). on at least two occasions that i can clearly remember i walked past the desk of an engineer who had the guts of a keyboard or effects unit splayed open they were testing and remarked, "wow, that's an awesome sound!" and invariably the engineer would look up with a puzzled countenance and say, "it's not supposed to be doing that."

    i always got a kick out of that. those units never sounded so interesting as when they were malfunctioning!

  • http://fallsastar.com foosnark

    I'm not so much into the crafty part of this as the pragmatic "how can I use this in a track?" aspect.

    But I do have one track that features an exotic "horn" part that came from a $5 toy keyboard that I opened up, replaced the speaker with a crudely wired phono jack, and laid a screwdriver across the circuit board while recording it.

    I'm more likely to mess with databending than I am to get out the soldering iron, just because it's something I can do while feeling lazy. :)

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  • http://www.myspace.com/sclr scalar

    i have been feeling similar about some of the sameness sounds i get from bending. but i think thats missing the point about bending. its a very hands on thing, i think mentioned before. its more of the doing aspect than say using the sounds you get. but every once in a while i get something unexpected which makes it all worth while on the sound end of bending. something that sounds very much human or animal. and i record it and use it. i think there are other artists who do this very minimally and it works. same with noise compositions.

    the interesting or ironic thing to me is how some noise/experimental communities end up being exactly like the other end of the spectrum ie: they cannot stand sequenced pieces it gives them a headache. haha!

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