Circuit bending came into my life around 2005. I'd read the SoundonSound article with Reed Ghazala and my interest was duly piqued. I sent away my trusty Roland TR 626 to be modified, and then I waited, for months. Circuit benders are odd folks — they make instruments from toys and junk, often working without a plan and are wildly experimental in terms of process and artform. So, while I waited for my drum machine, I had a go myself.
The Casio SK-1 was an unintended classic synth. Released in 1985 as a toy for around £100, it quickly found a following with bedroom producers for its sampling ability. In ‘85, a commercial sampler from Akai cost £750.
With a sampling time of 1.4 seconds, in addition to polyphony, envelopes and portamento, the Casio SK-1 is a really cool drum machine and a mini-synth, but the real magic, as Reed discovered, is what happens when you circuit bend it.
Ghazala was probably the first person to document it, but the concept of bending is beautifully simple — make random circuit board connections and listen to the results. As I attempted to detail, there are many ways to do this, but the basic principle is the same: make accidents happen.
Reed often refers to Aleatoric or Chance music, one specific connection leading to an unpredictable, unintended piece of music.
The big, distracting, disastrous question is how much do you want to tame this, if at all. Pete Blasser left the decisions to the worms,
A hilarious aspect of circuit bending (there are many) is that of the demo song. As I discovered when holding the SK-1 upside down with its guts out, the easiest way to trigger a sound is to grope around the front for the demo button.
Demos existed on keyboards of the time to show off the features to prospective buyers. A more fun use was to rip out your mates headphones and hit the demo button in music class, hilarious! The SK-1 features the song ‘Toy symphony’ — an unknown masterpiece equally associated to Haydn and Mozart. The classic and obvious use of the SK-1 demo is to burp into the microphone and playback the song with a pitched belch, while some keyboard demos are so iconic that they really define the synth itself, such as “Wake me up” on the Yamaha SH10 or the Billy Joel classic, “Just the way you are” on the PSS-170.
So there I was, toy symphony on repeat as I made my first tentative connection between one of the two identical ROM chips. The first time is the best right? There's no need for superlatives, it was wicked. The sounds were brand new, weird and sonically appealing. The incredible thing for me was how lush and familiar it all sounded, while at the same time, totally alien.
I recently spent a hot smoky afternoon with Galician circuit bender and artist Suso Flores, during which time we spoke about alien sounds and extraterrestrial experiences.
“Once you bend a toy, there is another range of the movement of electricity, you can make really nice music, out of things that are lying around, and you create more holographic sparkly sounds.
I was bending a portable radio using pieces of metal and my fingers, which caused it to make fucked up frequencies in the dark. There was just a light on this radio without a case, and it was making brrrp brrp brrrp sounds. That day, I got to a point where things became more shiny around me, and was really a psychedelic experience. Sometimes, when circuit bending, you feel a little bit of electricity in your spine”.
For me, as a non musician who makes music, imperfection is everything. It's certainly an awkward, clumsy practice, but I've always been attracted to ugly accidental music. What’s more, our prehistoric perception is designed to produce emotional responses to natural, complex aural environments. These instincts still exist and can be triggered with sound, it's why metal-heads rock so hard — it's all about uneven harmonic content — fire, trees rustling, landslides, waterfalls, terror! Sonic and rhythmic imperfections trigger our senses, heighten perceptions and, as Shelby writes here, its absence literally destroys music!
I’m ending this one where I started — 2006, Bent Festival, NYC. Odd folk with toys and junk, making contact with aliens..