Monday, May 2, 2011

Circuit Bending

In 1966, Reed Ghazala began experimenting with the musical potential of electronic toys by taking them apart and poking around inside, short-circuiting them in different places and producing all manner of unplanned sounds and effects. He added buttons, switches and knobs to control these sounds, and coined the term "circuit bending" to describe the process. Since then, he has converted many toys into circuit-bent instruments for musicians like The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. Examples of his work are held by New York City's Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim and The Whitney, and other galleries around the world.

While Ghazala is credited with pioneering and championing this unusual art form, he does not claim to have been the first to do it. Serge Tcherepnin, who would go on to design the historic Serge modular synthesizer, experimented in the 1950s with modifying transistor radios. Even as early as 1897, Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium reportedly could be influenced by direct contact with its electrical circuits.

Any low-voltage battery-powered device can potentially be "bent" into a useful musical instrument, and such devices are common and inexpensive at secondhand stores. Also, no prior experience or understanding of electronics is necessary, as the low voltages involved (Ghazala recommends 6v or less) are not dangerous; the circuitry can safely be touched by hand, and it can be shorted out and rewired in any configuration. At worst, a device will simply cease to function. For these reasons, circuit bending is very accessible to virtually anyone. There are many excellent tutorial videos and performances on YouTube, as well as written guides, both online and in print.

Interesting connections are usually found by probing different points of a circuit board with either a wet finger or a metal probe, such as the end of a wire held in a clip. Modifications can be made permanent with a soldering iron and the addition of buttons, switches, potentiometers (knobs), resistors, capacitors, and other basic electronic components. Photoresistors can be used to make a circuit light-sensitive, so a performer can wave their hand over the device or cover the photoresistor to achieve a particular musical effect. Even metal objects like nails or studs can be used to provide "body contact" (finger-touching) control points. These additional components can be fastened through new holes drilled in a device's existing case, or the case can be removed and replaced by one custom-built for the project.

I am currently in the process of bending a toy keyboard I bought used, and I also have a voice-changing megaphone I suspect will provide some interesting effects. The plan is to connect them to each other with the addition of a plug to one and a jack to the other; this way, they won't be permanently wired together and the megaphone could also be hooked up to future bent instruments, or any other sound source (like an MP3 player). I might even figure out a way to use the megaphone's microphone to modulate the keyboard. Who knows? Circuit bending is all about experimentation; you never know exactly what you'll find!

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