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Circuit Bending

8 November 2010

Circuit bending was invented in 1967 by Reed Ghazala when he accidentally shorted a 9 volt battery amp and heard odd sounds from it. It reminded him of the sounds that came from much more expensive synthesisers. He had no electronics training, and so rather than build several new circuits doing reliable things based on the shorts he created, he came up with ways to short out one circuit in interesting and unpredictable ways.

He was not the first person to ever find a cool sounds from an accidental short. Serge Tcherepnin, who went on to invent the Serge Modular Synthesiser, has a similar experience with a radio in the 50s. But Tcherepin was able and interested to figure out what was going on with the shorted circuit and create exact duplicates of that. Ghazala did the opposite. Instead, he took mass market predictable devices and made them unique.

Here is a short documentary about Ghazala’s circuit bending.

His website has some photos of the very cool looking bent instruments that he’s made. He also has a reference text there on how to circuit bend.

The most important point he makes it to only try to bend things running off of batteries. If you try to short something running off of mains power, you can die. So use battery operated devices only. Keep your voltage low, also, under 9 volts. Also, be on the look out for large capacitors, as they can cause nasty shocks also.

Older devices with big chips and leads that are fairly far apart are easier to bend. Use your fingers, a wire or aligator clips to try sorting out different spots on the circuit board. If it makes a cool sound, mark the spot with a marking pen.

If a short sounds good, you can wire in a switch. If your fingers sound good, you can wire in a knob or metal bits to touch.

These experiments can sometimes kill a toy, but usually won’t. He suggests wearing goggles because he had a chip explode once.

To find devices to bend, go into charity shops with batteries in your pockets: 4 AAs, C, D, etc.

In order to get some skills with soldiering, he suggests you start by building a kit of some kind. Also, looking at some books on electronics might be helpful. He suggests Getting Started in Electronics by Forrest Mimms. This can often be found used on Amazon.

He has a bunch of cool sound examples on his Bent Sound web page. We listened to Silence the Tongues of Prophecy, which is near the top of the page.

Ghazala is really a big proponent of touch points. He states,

Body contacts are also found through circuit bending. These allow electricity to flow through the player’s body, flesh and blood becoming an active part of of the electronic sound circuit. This interface extends players and instruments into each other, creating, in essence, new life forms. An emerging tribe of bio-electronic Audio Sapiens. [source]

Circuit bending is often a DIY art form. There are some YouTube videos that can help you get started:

For those who want that killer sound, but don’t want to DIY, you can buy samples of bent circuits or Speak and Spells or Speak and Maths bent by other people.

Sampling Speak and X devices has been popular since they were introduced. Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre and others have all sampled it. Aphex Twin samples a bent one in 54 Cymru Beats, which we listened to, but is not on Spotify.

Of course, other toys and devices are bendable: I think FM3’s Buddha boxes are nifty example of using hardware to distribute music, even before anybody bends them.

It’d also possible to get sounds out of electronics in other ways. We watched a video by Nicolas Collins that showed how to use a guitar pickup or a coil to listen to circuits. His book on Hardware Hacking is definitely worth checking out.

From → electronica

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