Circuit bending is the process of taking an electronic device that produces sound and modifying the electronics to produce a different sound than originally intended. The circuit is “bent” to a different purpose. Various knobs and switches are added to give more control over the sound. Extra circuitry can be added to do pretty much anything, limited only by the skill and imagination of the bender. Popular items for circuit bending are electronic toy instruments such as guitars and pianos, Speak and Spells, and Furbys. Drum machines, guitar pedals and synthesizers are also popular bent items. The results can be modified versions of the original sounds, glitchy static, ambient rhythms, or sounds that defy description. The beauty of circuit bending is that even if two people modify the same object, the sounds may not be anything alike.
Ask most circuit benders why they bend and the answer will be, “Because it’s fun.” It is surprisingly easy to get interesting sounds even on your first try. There is a large and growing community of benders that provide support, schematics, and encouragement.
Chaos is a factor in most bent instruments and bent music. Most sounds and modifications are discovered by accident or through trial-and-error. This emphasis on randomness is for many the difference between circuit bending and similar fields in electronic music and synthesis. The noise that is produced is almost always unique to that particular instrument. “Bent” instruments can be affected by many environmental factors and may never produce that particular sound again. Randomness is even “built into” many instruments with additional circuitry that can modify the sound in various ways, such as using the resistance of the player’s skin or devices that react to changes in light.
The circuit bending community also emphasizes the DIY, experimental aspect. Anyone can buy a battery-powered toy, open it, and start modifying the connections to create sound. Circuit benders are even known to use their hands or fingers to bridge connections in the absence of other tools. The idea is that anyone can do it if they make the effort.
Circuit bending was discovered by chance in the late ’60s. In a Perfect Sound Forever interview, Reed Ghazala (full name: Qubais Reed Ghazala) said he left a toy amplifier on a desk with the electronics exposed. When he closed the desk drawer, the amplifier’s circuitry came into contact with the metal desk and started producing strange noises. Inspired by these sounds, which were similar to expensive synthesizers of the time, he began a sonic exploration that lasted until this day.
Ghazala is a multi-media artist who creates videos, music, photographs, writing and more but is most famous as “the father of circuit bending.” His series of articles on circuit bending have become the starting point for almost anyone interested in the topic and have been translated into several languages.
Circuit bending today:
Reed Ghazala is still active today. In 2005, Wiley Press published his book, “Circuit Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments.” Ghazala has created unique instruments for too many people to mention, but the list includes Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, and Blur.
In 2003, the first national circuit bending event was held in New York City. Dubbed The Bent Festival, it brought together benders from all over the country and the world. Now in its fourth year, it has grown into separate events in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York for a total of nine days of sonic mayhem.
Derek Sajbel of absurdity.biz is a musician turned documentarian turned back into a (circuit bending) musician. He has been filming workshops and performances at the Bent festival since its inception and has interviewed many benders. DVDs of the festivals are available on his site. He is in the process of making a documentary about circuit bending and has appeared in numerous magazines, including the New York Times. His musical alias is Dr. Rek.