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Short Circuit

Sick of waiting for the aliens to come to you? Master the art of circuit-bending, and create your own

An edited version of this article appeared in FHM Australia, June 2011

Ask any music-loving bedroom tinkerer what he likes to do in his spare time, and there’s a good chance he’ll tell you he‘s into circuit-bending. Last night he created an orgy of tortured sound in his bedroom with a bunch of evil aliens, and wired Barbie Karaoke until she screeched like a monkey on crack. What the f@*k?

Circuit-bending is the short circuiting of electronic devices to create sounds nature never intended. The domain of DIYers with little, if any, formal training in electronic theory and circuit design, circuit bending straddles the boundary between art and noise. Somewhere in the middle, there might be music. It’s like playing god with gadgets: you don’t know quite what’s going to happen, and you might just create a monster.

Or an extraterrestrial. “The circuit-bent instrument is an alien instrument: alien in electronic design, alien in voice, alien in musician interface,” writes Reed Ghazala, who discovered circuit-bending by chance in 1966, when the casing on a toy amplifier he’d stashed in his desk drawer opened and exposed its inner workings. It short circuited against the metal of the desk and began emitting tripped out synthesizer-like sounds. Ghazala knew he was onto something. He gave his discovery a name and set about exploring its eardrum-blowing potential.

Today, circuit-bending is widely considered the world’s first grassroots electronic art movement, and Ghazala sits at its helm like a mad musical professor. He has circuit-bent instruments for Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, The Rolling Stones, and MTV. Malcolm McClaren was getting interested before he died; Mike Paton of Faith No More is a fan. Ghazala’s work is held in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney in New York.

“Audio gadgets are experimental musical instruments waiting to happen,” says Ghazala, adding that circuit-bending enables electricity to flow through the player's body. The body of the player becomes a capacitor, “creating, in essence, new life forms: an emerging tribe of bio-electronic Audio Sapiens.”

Nick Wishart of Sydney-based circuit-bending band Toydeath gets Ghazala’s man meets machine logic. “When you add body contacts to an instrument and can control it by touching it, it’s mad,” says Wishart whose onstage persona is a warped G.I. Joe. “Each toy we modify is a unique instrument; we never know what sounds we’re going to create.”

Wishart and fellow toy killers Melissa Hunt and Teik-Kim Pok – a.k.a. Big Judy [from Raggedy Anne] and SuperDad – have been pushing the boundaries of art and noise since 1995. They play their circuit-bent power pop in pubs and nightclubs. In 2010, they played at the Sydney Biennale, and they’ve toured in Japan, China, Europe and the US.

The first thing Wishart ever bent was a Micro Jammer toy guitar he found in an op shop. Today, he runs introductory electronics and circuit-bending workshops. "Imagine a hyper band of aliens channelling through a broken AM radio, and someone's playing with the speed control,” wrote one reviewer. “Toydeath proves that punk ain't dead, it's just moved into the toy box.”

The appeal of circuit-bending lies in its randomness, but it can make performance an unpredictable art. “If you’ve really bent an instrument; it’s going to create feedback in the circuit you’re bending and be a bit uncontrollable,” says Jesse Poulton of Melbourne duo Circuit Bentobox, whose sound is a mishmash of different genres: glitsch, electro, rockdiz. “The noise art thing is cool,” he says, pausing. “But after a while, it’s just noise.”

Over the past few years Poulton and his band mate Eli Seidel have become less interested in the crazy sounds, and more interested in computer modelling. “We like to be interactive. We can set up controllers – knobs, faders, XY pads – to create sound effects that let people have a play without turning off or destroying the music that’s playing.”

“With computers you can do things that aren’t so destructive or hands on. Still,” he acknowledges, “it’s not as much fun as opening up a toy and seeing what happens if we put this wire to that juncture.”

Aficionados estimate circuit-bending is 50 per cent electronics, 50 per cent plastic and metal working once you find a good bend you need to mount control hardware (think switches or potentiometers) on the housing. The main factor is experimentation. Get hands on, say the experts. Be prepared to break things, and get bent.