Plugging in: A short on circuit-bending

By Emily Reily
Circuit bending is a vast underworld of music-making that not everyone is aware of, but anyone can do. You don’t even have to get too technical; all you need is imagination and a little bit of ingenuity.

At its most basic, it involves taking an old kids’ toy from the 70s or 80s, opening up its guts, then manipulating the wires and circuits with tools or your fingers to make the toy’s “choo choo” or “two plus two” sound vaguely robotic and, if you’re lucky, slightly funky. New sounds can be mined from a Speak and Spell, a Game Boy, a Kawasaki toy guitar, or even a Furby, if he’s your man.

It’s hugely experimental — certain keyboards, synthesizers, even some appliances, can do the job too. The sounds that come out are obviously electronic, but also techy. You can get whooshes, whirs, gobbledygook, or garbage– buzzes, blips, static and fuzz. If something doesn’t come out the way you like, just try again. 

A slew of artists have used circuit-bending in their songs, but their watermark is often hidden behind layers of guitar and synthesizer and often, it’s hard to pin down the details.
The following is a short primer of bent instruments and the musicians who love them.
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This child from 1978 is extremely happy with his Speak & Spell.

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Speak & Spell, ripped open.

The Speak and Spell.
The Speak and Spell, a kids’ toy, is one of the superstars in circuit bending; it may be the most used toy in the genre. First, there’s a wealth of online references about its use. The voice chip on the children’s learning toy is apparently the magic ingredient. Nigel Godrich is credited with using the Speak and Spell on the album “The Information,” by synthpop genius Beck. Depeche Mode named its 1981 debut album after the toy—if that’s any indication of its legacy. Other bands who have used it include Coldplay, Kraftwerk and Limp Bizkit.

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The bent Casio SK-1
The Casio SK-1 is a sampling keyboard from 1985 with piano keys and a built-in microphone. Gorillaz pays homage to it on “Plastic Beach,” singing about its “computer speech.” A bent SK-1 is used in the NIN’s “The Believers.” Read a breakdown of the song and listen here.
Other bands that have used a bent SK-1 include Portishead, Fatboy Slim, Autechre, Meat Beat Manifesto, Chemical Brothers, Bloodhound Gang, REM and Bloc Party.
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Tote-A Tune
The Tote-A-Tune is a keyboard toy from the early 70s– you could get flute, strings and horn sounds from it. There’s an obscure song by the band Ventla, called “Tote-A-Tune Suite.” Ventla is an experimental recording project constructed by a man named Suzushu. This guy’s music has been labeled vaporwave, newbreed and lo-fi. I don’t know exactly what those genres mean, but the song is electronic and kitschy and cool. Listen here.
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Kevin Rutmanis of the Melvins

Casper Electronics 
Founded in 2000, the company’s main products are circuit-bent-based musical instruments crafted from electronic toys, including the Speak and Spell. Count Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo, Mike Patton of Faith No More, Kevin Rutmanis of The Melvins and Rahzel of The Roots as Casper fans. 
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Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo having a moment.

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Devo’s “Whip It” video

Devo
No reference to circuit-bending would be complete without good ‘ol Devo. New Wave synth godfather Mark Mothersbaugh appears to be enamored with circuit-bent creator Corey Busboom. While it’s unclear if Mothersbaugh actually uses some of the sounds, he certainly likes to show off the machines in his videos. The video for “Monster Man” includes Godzilla, strangely enough, and one of Busboom’s concoctions– it’s part synthesizer made from a Casio desktop calculator. Check out the video here

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Reed Ghazala 
Reed Ghazala is known as the father of circuit bending and has built experimental instruments for Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, the Rolling Stones and MTV. He’s known globally for his electronic art. 
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….. because most photos of Richard David James are creepy.

Aphex Twin 
Aphex Twin is electronic composer Richard David James. Daft Punk, Skrillex and Radiohead cite him as an influence. The song “Carn Marth” from his Richard D. James Album includes the tape-loading noise of the game Sabre Wulf,” a video game from waaaaay back in 1984.

There’s so much more to wrap your head around with this phenomenon, but you can only plug into so much at once before you overheat. More to be uploaded in the future.

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