We’ve often discussed ways on this blog to make your sound a bit more original and individual. But if you’re looking for the ultimate fix in getting a sound that you can be sure no-one else has, there can be few methods more assured than hardware hacking, or ‘circuit bending’. Customise your own equipment! It takes you out of the realm of the computer too, which is always a good thing in the quest for individuality. But what is circuit bending? And can anyone get involved?
Briefly, circuit bending is the art of taking apart something and tweaking the circuitry to change the sound. It can be anything from a child’s toy right up to an analogue synth. It’s extremely popular in many fields of electronic music, from chunky glitch-hop to experimental and chiptune stuff. It’s probably no surprise that it’s popular especially in glitchy fields of music because this is the easiest sound for a beginner to get out!
Why should you care though? Well, as we mentioned at the beginning, circuit bending is a great way of getting unique sounds to work with. If you’ve made or modified an instrument yourself, then obviously no-one else has access to it – so the crazier and more out-there you can get with something, the more you can use it for original and distinctive sounds. But you can use them as performance tools too; anything that moves can be used as a controller, from a Guitar Hero guitar to those waving cats you see in Chinese restaurants. Swedish Skweee group Flogsta Danshall pride themselves on playing live sets without a single laptop on stage – it makes for a much more interesting live experience!
You maybe thinking that this kind of stuff is for experienced tech-heads only. Opening things up? Tweaking circuitry? That’s where you’d be wrong. OK, sure, opening up a classic analogue synth if you don’t know what you’re doing is probably a recipe for disaster, and best left to the pros (check out the 303 ‘Devilfish’ modification if you want to see how this can be done really well) but the basics can be done with very little electronic knowledge. In fact, it’s a great way to learn!
Start with a battery powered child’s toy, which you can pick up from a charity shop for next to nothing. It’s extremely important that it’s battery powered – hacking things that are plugged into the mains is for ninjas only.
Take the back off the toy and you’ll see a small circuit board. There’ll be a few components, and several blobs of solder connecting those lines running across the board. Get the thing to play it’s demo sounds or whatever it does, and then just get a piece of wire, and start touching the ends across various points on the board. Presto! You are re-wiring the circuit! See how easy this is?
So, start mucking about with various combinations, and sooner or later you’ll start making a difference to the sound. If it goes quiet, you’ve probably crashed it (honestly…) and will need to reboot the toy by removing the batteries for a moment. Once you’ve found something that affects the sound, then here is your chance to really get into it. It’s also the point at which your electrical requirements will increase; besides the piece of wire you’ll now need a soldering iron (and solder) to make connections and things to change the behaviour of the circuit – for instance a resistor or a potentiometer. Depending on what you’ve found, these could control the pitch or duration of the notes, for instance.
This is the point at which this blog runs out of space as far as detailed instructions go; there are a whole load of step-by-step tutorials and youtube videos showing exactly how to do this, and how far you can take it – hardware hacking guru Nic Collins’ website is a particularly authoritative treasure trove of hacking advice and tutorials. Alternatively, get yourself onto google and have a look around; just seeing some of the things people have come out with will make you marvel at the possibilities!
If it all seems a bit much, then you can buy ready-hacked bits of kit online, from sites like Bogus Noise, who make videos to show exactly what the toys will do. It’s a quick way to get that circuit-bent sound without having to get your hands dirty.
But if you really want to get into the spirit of things, it’s all about the DIY attitude – for the price of a couple of chocolate bars and an afternoon with a soldering iron you can have sounds that nobody else can get. And maybe even a new hobby into the bargain…
Categories: Advanced Production