Last Friday, four circuit benders descended on the Moog store in Asheville, North Carolina, finalists for the Make-sponsored circuit bending competition. They had done their best to channel the spirit of Bob Moog, the synthesizer pioneer and namesake of Moogfest, where electronic music makers go to party.
The victor, this year, was 23-year-old George Gleixner, a musician and semi-professional circuit bender from Roanoke, Virginia. “I liked the logical layout of the controls, and the quality and variety of the sounds it produces” says Mark Frauenfelder, Make founding editor and one of the judges.
The controls were one of Gleixner’s biggest innovations. He stuck thumbtacks into what had once been the contact points behind a hexagonal keyboard, creating a control panel based on the harmonic table and inspired by MIDI controllers. The instrument also included photocells to run three optic theremins, one controlling pitch, one for feedback and distortion, and one to control key latch and distortion.
“I’d worked on one of these keyboards before, on commission for other people, and I’d really wanted to just build one for myself for years,” says Gleixner. “I just decided to really go all out.”
It didn’t all go smoothly, due in part to the keyboard he found, a cheap Hing Hon EK-001 — “some weird Chinese kind of no-name keyboard that has a bunch of different functions on it” — that helped him stay under the $70 budget dictated by the competition.
“The biggest problem was the fact that it’s a really shoddily built thing,” he says. “There are a lot of terrible solder joints, and it uses incredibly tiny wires — sometimes they’d just be snapping off and stuff like that. So I had to take a lot of time to initially resolder and rewire a lot of things that didn’t look like they’d hold.”
After he stumbled across a circuit bent Furby in 2008, Gleixner began circuit bending. He got into it via a EK-001 he found at Goodwill, and would visit thrift shops looking for more things to bend. It was for his own entertainment at first, but he shortly realized there was a demand for these instruments, when he sold one on Ebay to the band Persephone’s Bees. Commenters on his YouTube channel started asking for them too, and he’s done commissions ever since. The results helped pay for his first car.
Gleixner doesn’t have any formal electronics training. He picked up his skills through experimentation and reading about circuit bending. “It’s really incredibly simple, especially just to start,” he says. “If you’re interested, go find something, take it apart, and start short circuiting it and figuring out where certain sounds are.”