It’s all been done.
Or maybe not.
Synthesis may not have so many unseen shores – unknown, wild beaches where you can plunk a flag in the ground and shout “I claim this for Spain!” or something to that effect. Instead, we find nuances of sonic possibility in details. We’re building on those colonies.
And freed from the dogma of “fidelity” or slavish imitation of instruments (remember, a lot of the synth business had its root in the conservative organ business), the sounds that are coming out delight with new variety.
Take this lovely free app, bent.fm. (Currently marked “lite,” in advance of a more fleshed-out edition.) At first, it looks like just another soft synth running on the phone, and maybe it does some edgier digital sounds.
But look again. With just its single FM synthesis operator, you can “circuit bend” the sounds generated via a big matrix, creating an array (literally) of digital distortions, mixing bits like watercolors into new timbral shades. They go as far as to claim that the idea itself is modeling the electronic bends of physical instruments, but in computer models – circuit bending with bits. Whether you agree with that description or not, the idea of short-circuiting the logical flow of bits through synthesis is one I always find appealing. And it, too, can be seen as something that makes sense in a digital age, one in which the modeling of components and filters need not have anything to do with acoustic instruments.
Here’s how creators Kurt James Werner and Mayank Sanganaria (of CCRMA) describe it:
On [the matrix] screen, you can control circuit bends via the bend matrix patch bay, fine & octave clock bends, & control word length decimation. The bend matrix patch bay lets you mangle the circuit to reroute signals, combine them through digital logic chips (NAND, XOR), decimate them through binary counters (CNT0/1), & create glitchy distortions, algorithmic chiptunes sequences, or something entirely new. Play with the bend matrix patch bay to modify bent.fm lite’s sound in crazy, unpredictable ways. Tweak the “fine” knob to subtly adjust bent.fm lite’s pitch with a classic circuit-bent clock bend, or the “octave” to underclock down to throbbing digital basses. Thin out noisy signals with the “nbits” knobs to expose hidden sequences in noisy signals. Explore factory presets & create your own!
The elements in that array are, again, not new techniques. But it’s in the combinations, the details of implementation, where some new possibilities emerge.
In practice, it absolutely feels like circuit bending. Some choices will make it crackle and stop making sound altogether. Others will produce completely and totally unpredicted results. You’ll want to keep some audio recording going for sampling.
And attention sound wonks and students: there are academic papers to go with this, too, so that you can
steal these ideas and go create new stuff of your own be inspired by academic research. Papers and talks are linked on their site, where you can also learn more about the synth – or grab it yourself, for your new iPhone 5C.
Waiting for approval is a version in the App Store that brings bug fixes and, crucially, Audiobus support.
Here’s a talk they gave at Stanford’s CCRMA, in California:
CCRMA Colloquium. January 16, 2013
“We present a justification for computer modeling of circuit bent instruments, with deference to the movement’s aversion to “theory-true” design and associations with chance discovery. We introduce the technique of “bit bending,” a particularly fertile type of “bend” dealing with short-circuits and manipulations upon digital serial information. We also present a C++ library for the modeling of certain classes of digital integrated circuits, as well as a synthesis architecture (frequency modulation with numerically-controlled oscillators) which utilizes the library in a Steinberg VST plugin framework. Circuit bending, the process of creatively modifying or augmenting sound-producing electronic devices, occupies an increasingly important musical and cultural niche. Though the practice began in the 1960s (and traces roots to Leon Theremin’s experiments with radio tubes in the 1920s), it is still understudied.”