Bizarre: Circuit Bending

This week we’re looking into the creative world of Circuit-Bending, an experimental and innovative world involving the customisation of the circuits within electronic devices to create new musical or visual instruments and sound generators. You can look at it as the ultimate form of upcyling for the more creative musician/producer; where one person's rubbish can be another person's gold...

The Godfather

This sort of exploration was pioneered by artist Reed Ghazala, known as the “Father of Circuit Bending,” he discovered the technique in 1966, pioneered it, named it, and has taught it ever since. Ghazala has built experimental instruments for a very exclusive list of musicians, including Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, The Rolling Stones, Faust, Blur, Nine Inch Nails and more.

Reed stumbled across the technique after having left a toy amplifier on his desk and hearing it emit sounds comparable to expensive synths of the day. The amp short-circuited when the exposed inner-circuitry connected with the metal of the desk, producing the sounds that intrigued Reed, and birthed a movement, eventually coining the term ‘Circuit Bending’ in 1992!

Here’s his take on the process:

“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.”

The Basics

Quick Note: Never attempt to circuit bend anything that is connected to the mains!! Electric shocks are not fun and can kill you!!

The basic principle behind circuit bending is to master the art of the creative short circuit. In short, taking a piece of wire and soldering it across two points on a circuit board to send a signal through an entirely new path. Since this is a creative and experimental process, it can, on occasion, lead to a sad fizz and puff of smoke; but for the most part, it will turn what was once a dull machine or a lifeless charity shop find, into something truly unique, ferocious and full of glitchy goodness!

Older toys are better for the process and are usually built using largely generic components which offer more circuit-bending options than newer toys, as they have a tendency to offload most of their functions to purpose-built microprocessors.

When you have your chosen toy, you can then open the back up and start to explore the circuitry! This is where the experimentation begins, as you need to find points in the circuit that, when joined through a new signal path start tom manipulate the sound being made in some way. You will end up finding multiple options and these will be where you can solder switches or buttons, which ideally will be mounted to a box containing all the controls.

It’s also worth noting that the addition of a ¼ inch jack will help you get the most out of your new found sound, as generally, the speakers aren’t up to much on small toys and with the jack, you’ll have the ability to amplify the sounds; you’ll be surprised of the bass some of these toys can produce!!

This is obviously a very basic overview of how to get started with Circuit-Bending, so here’s a video you can use to follow step-by-step to get more involved in the process:

At its peak during the ‘90s and through the 2000s, circuit bending was a thriving DIY community that was even adopted by some of music’s biggest stars. But now it’s dwindled, partially due to the way modern electronics are created and they aren’t as hackable as their older counterparts.

However, there is a whole rabbit-hole of information on the internet for you to dive into and, with a bit of time rifling through the charity shops for kit, take your Circuit Bending as far as you want to go!

Weird and Wonderful

It is in human nature to take these ideas to their most creative, cool and straight-up weird ends of the spectrum and there is plenty to check out; Moog even has an annual Circuit-Bending competition where they challenge competitors to take a battery-powered device and come up with the most unique sounds possible on a budget of $70. The top 3 can then showcase their creations to judges at the annual Moogfest.

Here is a small glimpse into some of the best Circuit Bends we’ve found:

Guitar Pedals

Spongebob Glitchpants

My First Talking Computer

The Furby Organ!!

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