Circuitbenders are well-known for creating some of the most sophisticated, daring, and ‘out-there’ modifications to electronic music equipment for the last two decades. Ranging from lo-fi keyboards to ye olde seminal synths, it seems nothing can escape this drive for audio experimentation and super sonic chaos.
The Circuitbenders recently opened a store on Tindie and we reached out to Paul who drives the exciting and often quirky efforts that end up as incredible audio hardware designed for a community of audiophiles thirsty for the new and exotic.
You’re well established in the UK for being something of a guru for all things circuit bending. How did you get started off doing such things?
I was always interested in electronics and sound from a fairly early age. As a child I coveted BBC sound effects records and remember being fascinated by the descriptions of how the sounds were made on the Sci-Fi Sound Effects and The Sounds Of Death And Horror albums. Who knew you could do so much with test oscillators and chopping up cabbages?
When I got a bit older I started buying electronic kits from Maplins and building guitar pedals from R.A. Penfold’s DIY electronics books. A man who probably more than anyone else in the 80’s and 90’s was responsible for making people realise just how easy these things can be to build.
To be honest the main reason I really got into audio electronics came from a flat-out refusal to pay repair companies £50 just to take a look at something and tell me its broken, squirt some contact cleaner into a pot, or replace a jack socket! As a musician working with electronic kit on a budget, you can save yourself a hell of a lot of money by learning to solder. Even jobs as simple as replacing sockets or making your own cables are basic skills it’s incredibly useful to have. It’s really not as hard as people think it is.
This was all before the internet really existed, and it was only after opening up a speak and spell machine probably around 1999, and discovering the kind of glitching noise it was capable of that I looked it up on the net and discovered that people like the godfather of circuit bending, Reed Ghazala, were already ahead of me and that circuit bending already existed as a concept.
Your circuit bending work is both extensive and mind blowing. What are some projects you’ve worked on that have provided you with the most joy?
I worked on a Korg KPR77 drum machine a few years back that turned into one of those mods where things slowly snowballed into a far bigger job than anticipated, but it was a real challenge and everything turned out more or less exactly as planned. You can find it on the archive page of the website. The final machine bore very little relation to a standard KPR77, having been rebuilt into a new case with 26 new control knobs and an MFB modular sequencer, but it became an excellent analogue drum machine in its own right. I would have loved to have kept that one.
Other than that I think the first time I modded a Korg Kaoss Pad KP1 probably put the biggest smile on my face. There’s something magic about the absolute chaos you can get out of those things, but at the same time the mods are both playable and controllable. For me that’s what circuit bending should be about. Taking an ordinary piece of kit and making it produce the kind of wall to wall sickness the original designers wouldn’t have even dreamed of.
Both of these were old obsolete projects that haven’t been available for years, and I really like the idea of resurrecting interesting and obscure gear that seems to have been completely forgotten.
The Phonic Taxidermist is a clone of the Maplin Voice Vandal, which was a kit they sold in the early 90’s that I always wanted, but never managed to get hold of at the time. I think both Fluke and Underworld used it a lot on their earlier stuff. When I finally tracked down an original example it occurred to me that nothing like it really exists these days, so I thought it’d be a good idea to bring it back to life.
The Harmonic Engine was a forgotten project in a very early 80’s edition of Electronics & Music Maker magazine. That one was a direct result of asking on Facebook for obsolete kit that people would like to see resurrected. The only guide to what it should sound like was one badly recorded video on YouTube, but it sounded like one of those ridiculously out of control bits of kit that nobody in their right mind would want to own, so obviously it had to be the next circuitbenders PCB project.
Your work has been known to feature mysterious quotes, seemingly from an alternate universe – where do they come from?
This is an evolution of the intriguing messages that you used to get scratched in the run out at the middle of vinyl in the 90’s. I don’t know if this still happens as I haven’t seen any for years, but it was always an odd kind of bonus if a record had a particularly weird one. Silkscreen printing on the back of a PCB is usually free, so why not make some use of it rather than just adding tedious serial or batch numbers?
We’ve used quotes from old Industrial or stoner rock songs, along with various things from comics or obscure TV shows, but usually its just stream of consciousness stuff that dribbles out of my brain. The best ones are those that you read and think you’ve understood something, but then you read it again and realise you have no idea what you’ve understood, but it’s just made your life a slightly more inexplicable place. There’s something strangely satisfying about obscure out of context phrases that are so far out the other side of baffling that they almost seem like they make sense.
How do you feel about bending “classic” or rare equipment such as the TB303, SH101 or 808s? Is there anything you consider sacrilegious to bend due to its rarity or prestige?
This is a somewhat contentious area, as you get into the question of are you a collector or a musician? You would think that any musician would welcome an extension to a piece of classic kit if it enabled them to do more with it, as long as they were still able to produce all the original sounds. Curiously this often doesn’t appear to be the case as I’ve seen several beautifully modified 808’s and 909’s sell for far less than an untouched version. I think there’s a certain element of these machines having already hit such a ridiculous price ceiling that somehow modding one no longer adds value in monetary terms, resulting in musicians ending up becoming collectors worrying about resale values rather than what they can actually do with it.
Personally, I think people get far too hung up on the very rigid parameters of these classic sounds, and as long as you can actually get back to those sounds I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expanding a machine’s sound palette. Having said that, there is a certain sense of terror you’ll only ever experience when you start drilling a hole in a 303 or a 909!
Realistically, if you’re going to attempt this kind of thing then you’re going to have to do it well, as there’s nothing worse than seeing a classic piece of kit butchered by someone with far more confidence than ability. There are some machines such as an EMS VCS3 that are so beautiful to look at that it’d just be wrong to do anything externally to disfigure it no matter what someone was willing to pay, but if it could be improved internally, why not? These things aren’t holy relics, they’re meant to be musical instruments!
Who in the circuit bending world inspires you?
To be honest I’ve lost touch with what a lot of people are doing in the ‘scene’ if you want to call it that. In the early days of the circuit bending Yahoo group it all got a bit ridiculous with people taking things far too seriously and endless futile squabbling, so ever since then I’ve tended to distance circuitbenders from the bending scene to a certain degree. It’s a fairly ridiculous way to make a living, so I’m not sure there’s really any point to furious flame wars arguing whether its ‘art’ or not, or who put the first patchbay on a Casio SK1. Who cares? Its meant to be fun!
I’ve always been very impressed with Tim Kaiser’s work, as he really puts the effort in to make original and inventive instruments that really look the part. I’d love to have the time to be doing that kind of thing.
Pete Edwards from Casper Electronics has always produced good stuff with a real dedication to what you could call the core of circuit bending, i.e. building well thought out mods into kids toys and freely sharing the information.
Shane Williams from X1L3 also produces impressive kit that you could see as the logical progression of circuit bending. A lot of his stuff is a kind of meeting of the worlds of bent machines and modular synthesis, with entire additional circuits like analogue filters and delays all under voltage control strapped onto basic toy keyboards or drum machines with industrial looking control panels.
Can you recommend any reading material or websites for people who want to get into circuit bending?
For people getting started you can’t go far wrong with Reed Ghazalas book “Circuit Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments” or Nicholas Collins “Handmade Electronic Music: The Art Of Hardware Hacking”. As you get further into building your own circuits the Music From Outer Space website from the sadly missed Ray Wilson is a goldmine of useful ideas and explanations. There’s also the Experimentalists Anonymous website along with numerous DIY synth forums like Muffwigglers or our own circuitbenders forum where a lot of bending techniques have been discussed.
What pitfalls should people look out for when sourcing electrical components?
Never buy rare parts from China in large batches. Unless you have absolute faith in a seller I’d advise against buying more than maybe 10 to 20 at a time of something even slightly rare or obsolete, as you can pretty much guarantee that they won’t actually have them in stock. That means they probably get your order fulfilled by a drop shipping warehouse somewhere for the cheapest possible cost, and god knows what you’ll actually receive.
Having said that, I do kind of enjoy the regular comedy value of buying from China. You have to laugh when you get a tube of rare IC’s supposedly from the 90’s, that all have a date code saying they were apparently produced in the 62nd week of 2014, with a blatantly faked logo that looks like it was described to a child who then drew it with a crayon.
Don’t buy generic parts from places like eBay that say they’re for a specific machine. An SH101 power socket or most backup batteries are not machine specific parts! You could probably get 5 of them from a local components supplier for the price an ebay seller selling supposedly specific parts is going to charge you, or 20 from a seller on AliExpress. Bear in mind that most small local resellers are getting their parts from China and then tripling the price, so if you can afford to wait a few weeks you might as well go direct to the source.
If you’re in any doubt always buy parts from a big supplier like Mouser, Farnell, RS, Digikey, Rapid etc. It’s going to be more expensive, and most of them have minimum order values for free shipping, but at least you know that the parts will be good quality and will work. Having said that, the word ‘quality’ can be somewhat irrelevant when it comes to very basic components like resistors or diodes etc. You can buy 100 resistors from Farnell for £2, or 1000 from China for the same price. They’re still going to resist the same.
There are endless specifics I could go into, such as don’t buy those light blue switches from China as the dark blue ones are always much better quality, or never buy anything labelled as ‘not for industrial use’ as it probably won’t be designed for any use whatsoever! These are all things you learn with time and experience, and inevitably sometimes losing money on some bad deals.
The most important thing I would say is to invest in a decent soldering iron from the start, and don’t use lead-free solder as it’s useless. A decent iron needn’t be expensive, but if you buy a £5 piece of junk you’ll only end up replacing it after you’ve melted a dozen switches into piles of misshapen plastic while mysteriously still being completely unable to melt solder onto a component.
If money was no object, what would be your ideal circuit bending project?
I’m not sure this question can be answered, as the reason doing this kind of thing stays interesting is that you never really know what a certain piece of kit might do. You might pay £1 for a toy keyboard that you can then persuade to produce the sound of a pensioner falling down the stairs in a tumble dryer, where as the £100 effects unit you’ve just bought to mod might refuse to cooperate and produce nothing of any use.
I’ve always had a weird passion for early speech synthesizers, and there are a few units I would love to get hold of just to see what could be done with them, but inevitably they are rare and its very uncommon that you see one up for sale.
I think my ideal circuit bending projects these days would be things that you can’t quite imagine why they exist. A while back I got hold of a Ridgerunner Slo-Mo Encore, which was released in 1994 as one of those tools for sampling guitar riffs and slowing them down so you can practice them at a lower speed, but for some unknown reason its 8-bit and the time stretching is so lumpy you can’t even tell its a guitar playing, let alone what note it might be. There’s something magically chaotic about it though, and with a little RAM bending you can produce sounds unlike anything else.
How can people get in touch with you if they want their gear modded?
What future projects are coming up for circuitbenders?
After many years of resisting I have succumbed to the inevitable and recently fell down the modular synth rabbit hole, so we have been putting together some Eurorack modules, hopefully with a few more coming in the future.
We have a few drop-in DIY kits for specific machines like the Roland CR8000 and SH101 in the works. Hopefully at some point soon we’ll also be resurrecting another esoteric FX unit from the early 80’s in DIY PCB form, and probably another clone of an ancient analogue drum machine that we’ve been working on for a few months now.
In terms of pure circuit bending we’ve really been getting into old digital effects units recently, along with ROMpler synths from the 90’s. At some point I may even be tempted to track down the Roland MC303 I’m pretty sure we have in a cupboard somewhere!
So there we have it – a superb insight into the realm of the Circuitbenders. You’ll discover so many modifications and improvements can be done with just a little knowledge. Start off small, and always take precautions when bending.
Look out for more interviews on the Tindie blog soon!