circuit bending
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 the question!!!

- 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 found.

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 anti-theory edge.
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