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A few weeks ago, I checked out a Noise Night at Willoughby and Baltic. Scheduled for the second and fourth Thursday of the month, it’s a really fun time. I read an article in MAKE, Volume 04 on circuit bending, but I’d never gotten around to trying it.

Back in college, I took a few classes in electronic music. My evening with circuit bending had a lot of the experimental feel of those pre-MIDI days of music. The experimental nature of the evening and the music reminded me a lot of Laurie Anderson‘s United States Live 5 LP album that I unearthed recently from my record collection.

We started the evening by having people show some of the projects that they’d done and explain them as they played. After a while, it was time to crack into the toys and make our own creations.

Jimmie had some toy saxophones, which seemed to be calling out for audio input and output jacks, among other things. We also tried out photo cells and potentiometers on the various devices. I had made a recent search through piles of stuff, and had brought some old computer speakers, a small keyboard, and Jimmie’s favorite, a hand held workout toy. It called out instructions to the exercisers and allowed for the user to change the tempo and instruments of the music.

A while ago, I got a small keyboard that had to be about 20 years old. It took five batteries and had a ROM chip that allowed it to play four songs. I opened it up, and started poking around with probe wires to see what I could get it to do. One of the ideas with circuit bending is to just see what you can get the circuit to do by jumping various points with wires, your fingers, photocells and potentiometers. Once you see where the locations are that will give interesting results, then you can construct some kind of interface system to take advantage of the new possibilities in the toy, keyboard, or other device.

Once I had found a bunch of neat locations, I soldered wires to the points and ran them to the outside of the case of the keyboard. By the end of the evening, I had about eight wires hanging out of the keyboard, that when touched with fingers will bring out various weirdness in the music. I sealed it back up with the original screws, leaving all the factory-built functions in place, threw it in my bag, and have been playing it off and on for a few days. It is much more fun to play than it was before being bent.

My evening at Willoughby and Baltic was well spent. The people were nice, curious, and patient in explaining what they’d done and what could be done. I got to hear some amazing sounds, met some neat people, and tried my hand at a new creative artform. While we were there, we talked about some of the history of electronic music, techniques of circuit bending, and performing with bent instruments. Everybody was receptive to the ideas of the others in the room, and we all got a chance to learn and do. The keyboard that I modified has provided me, some of my students, and my daughter quite a bit of enjoyment and wonderment. Right now, the wires are routed out of the case, and I’m considering what kind of breakout box to add so that it’s a bit easier to operate.

You might check out some photos of the evening, or watch some videos.

Have you bent an instrument? What are your favorite techniques? ‘What are some clever materials that can be used? Are there essential tools for bending circuits? Are there some good online resources that you like to turn to for technical or aesthetic guidance on your circuit bending projects? If you also go to an event listed on Make: Online, please let us know what happened! Add to the conversation in the comments, and contribute your photos and video to the MAKE Flickr pool.