|IN tHe bEgiNnINg
. . .
Under the pressures of circuit-bending, nearly
every electronic audio device that exists is an experimental musical instrument
waiting to happen. Audio toys are packed with complex sound-producing
circuitry that can easily, by anyone, be nudged off the edge of their
theory-true world. This opens up a wonderland of alien voices that can
both inspire and illustrate new compositions.
The initial implementation of toys,
along with my actual discovery of circuit-bending, was a complete accident.
It was the mid '60's, I was a penny-less teenager, a musician, an experimental
visual artist, and I longed for ways to experience unusual realities.
I froze mixtures of colored liquids in the winter cold, hanging by strings
in clear plastic bags from branches in the backyard. I made balancing
sculptures containing hidden magnets that would hold them in seemingly
impossible positions relative to each other. I made pyrotechnic displays
that, while filling me with glee, also terrified a few farmers and even
once sent me, unconscious, into emergency surgery.
But none of this proved to be as explosive as circuit-bending. The year
was '66 or '67. I had left a toy 9-volt transistor amplifier amidst the
clutter of my desk drawer, the back of its housing missing and with the
power turned on. When I closed the drawer, to my amazement, there suddenly
came from within my desk miniature versions of the sounds I associated
with the massive synthesizers of the day. Like the $250,000 Columbia-Princeton
machine. While they're everywhere now, sound synthesizers at that time
were still quite a mystery to most folks, and weren't that easy to come
by. When I realized that the sounds I heard were the result of the toy
amplifier's electronics accidentally shorting out against something metallic
it was resting on, two ideas immediately struck:
If these sounds are being created by accident, what could be done by purpose?
If this can be done to an amplifier, meant to amplify a sound but to make
NO SOUND itself, what would happen to SOUND-MAKING electronics when purposely
shorted-out in the same way?
So, as a kid with few resources living in a period when synthesis equipment
was both rare and expensive, here was a viable alternative through which
to explore and compose new forms of music.
Working with this toy I discovered many really wonderful things! I found
lots of these creative short-circuits, with many different responses to
be had. I found that just touching the circuit with bare fingers allowed
electricity to flow through the body, further shaping the sounds. I found
points that would illuminate lights, and began adding other electronic
components to the path of the short-circuits... capacitors, variable resistors;
whatever I could find. I discovered also that when the line-output of
the now circuit-bent amplifier was fed into a real stage amplifier, one
of those big Vox or Fender stacks, the sound projected had nothing anymore
to do with toys.
This transformation is consistent with all my instruments based upon toys.
True, I also design some instruments from the ground up, from circuit
drawing to prototype to finished model, as in the Photon Clarinet or the
various insect voice synthesizers. Once these are working as prototypes
I circuit-bend them too, furthering the control possibilities of the finished
instrument. But working with toys has advantages beyond the eccentricities
and power of the final voices:
No knowledge of electronic theory is needed whatsoever to circuit-bend.
Toys open themselves to the process. Anyone can do it. Simply, a wire
is used to make connections between arbitrary points on the circuit while
the toy is making its usual sounds. A switch is then wired between points
discovered that produce an interesting sound so that the effect can be
turned on at will. This procedure will usually result in a number of switches
that can often be mounted on the toy's housing. If you learn to solder
and can drill holes in which to mount your switches, you can circuit-bend.
- Yes, circuit-bending can destroy a device if the wrong connections are
made. But I've found this to be rare. Nonetheless, frying a toy is much
less upsetting than sizzling the oscillators in your vintage Moog.
- Toys use relatively low operating voltages, usually 3 to 9 volts, and
are therefore unlikely to give you a jolt. Still, glasses or goggles should
be worn for eye protection. That said, only once in 30 years of circuit-bending
did I explode a component, and it was due to my applying too great a voltage
to a circuit by means of an external power supply. A transistor popped
in a nice blue flash. But this has never happened while circuit-bending
a toy operating on its own built-in power. Obviously, circuit-bending
anything plugged into the "house current" of your wall outlet is out of
- Thrift shops are filled with second-hand electronic sound toys costing
only a few dollars each. Such outlets will supply the circuit-bender with
unending instruments to discover in the most affordable way I've ever
It should also be said here that beyond the obvious and delightful giddiness
associated with toys being transformed into capable and outlandish synthesis
equipment, when stripped of their target-sales housings and names all
that remains of these toys is an electronic circuit lying there. And in
many cases, these circuits contain sophisticated electronics capable of
very high quality voices, just waiting to be nudged toward circuit-bending's