Circuit Bending


Circuit bending is the creative customization of the circuits within electronic devices such as low voltage, battery-powered guitar effects, children’s toys, and small digital synthesizers to create new musical or visual instruments and sound generators.

Emphasizing spontaneity and randomness, the techniques of circuit bending have been commonly associated with noise music, though many more conventional contemporary musicians and musical groups have been known to experiment with ‘bent’ instruments. Circuit bending usually involves dismantling the machine and adding components such as switches and potentiometers (control knobs) that alter the circuit.

The circuit bending process has been developed largely by individuals with next to no formalized training in electronic theory and circuit design, experimenting with second-hand electronics in a DIY fashion, either with inexpensive keyboards or drum machines, or with electronic children’s toys not associated with musical production. Haphazard shorting out of electronic items will almost inevitably at some time lead to the destruction of the circuit being modified. Worse still, it could present risk of  burning and electrocution.

Aesthetic value, immediate usability and highly randomized results are often factors in the process of successfully bending electronics. Although the history of electronic music is often associated with unconventional sonic results, such innovators as Robert Moog and Léon Theremin were electrical engineers, and more concerned with the consistency and sound design of their instruments. Circuit bending is typified by inconsistencies in the instruments built in an unscientific manner. Machines bent to a repeated configuration are more analogous to the well known practice of ‘mods,’ such as the Devilfish mod for the Roland TB-303, or various Analogman or Pedaldoc guitar pedal circuit modifications.

Circuit bending an audio device typically involves removing the rear panel of the device and connecting any two circuit locations with a ‘jumper’ wire, sending current from one part of the circuit into another. Results are monitored through either the device’s internal speaker or by connecting an amplifier to the speaker output. If an interesting effect is achieved, this connection would be marked for future reference or kept active by either soldering a new connection or bridging it with crocodile clips. Often other components are inserted at these points such as pushbuttons or switches, to turn the effect on or off; or components such as resistors or capacitors, to change the quality of the audio output.

This is repeated in a trial and error basis. Other components added into the circuit can give the performer more expressiveness, such as potentiometers, photoresistors (for reaction to light) and pressure sensors. The simplest input, and the one most identified with circuit bending, is the body contact, where the performer’s touch causes the circuit to change the sound. Often metal knobs, plates, screws or studs are wired to these circuit points to give an easier access to these points from the outside the case of the device.

Since creative experimentation is key element to the practice of circuit bending, there is always a possibility that short circuiting may yield undesirable results, including component failure. In particular, connecting the power supply or a capacitor directly to a computer chip lead can destroy the chip and make the device inoperable. Before beginning to do circuit bending, a person should learn the basic risk factors about working with electrical and electronic products, including how to identify capacitors (which can give a person a serious shock due to the electrical charge that they store), and how to avoid risks with AC power.

For safety reasons, a circuit bender should have a few basic electronics tools, such as a multimeter (an electronic testing device which measures voltage, resistance and other factors). It is advised that beginner circuit benders should never ‘bend’ any device that gets its power from mains electricity (household AC power), as this would carry a serious risk of electrocution.

While often viewed as simply a method of creating sounds not intended by the manufacturers, some see circuit bending as a more spiritual process. In the popular video ‘What is Circuit Bending?’ artists describe circuit bending as ‘parallel worlds within a circuit that aren’t supposed to exist, but they’re there,’ ‘it’s more control over our chaos. Which is what it’s about,’ ‘an explosive psychedelic surreal world of sound.’ These insights suggest that there are hidden sounds within a circuit, hidden potential, and the purpose of circuit bending is to explore this unseen world and unlock the potential of a device by experimentation.

Although similar methods were previously used by other musicians and engineers, this method of music creation is believed to have been pioneered by Reed Ghazala in the 1960s. Ghazala’s experience with circuit-bending began in 1966 when a toy transistor amplifier, by chance, shorted-out against a metal object in his desk drawer, resulting in a stream of unusual sounds.

Serge Tcherepnin, designer of the Serge modular synthesizers, discussed his early experiments in the 1950s with the transistor radio, in which he found sensitive circuit points in those simple electronic devices and brought them out to ‘body contacts’ on the plastic chassis. Prior to Mark’s and Reed’s experiments other pioneers also explored the body-contact idea, one of the earliest being Thaddeus Cahill (1897) whose telharmonium, it is reported, was also touch-sensitive.


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