Circuit Bending, SDIY — Worth The Hassle?

Monday, September 7, 2009 at 8:00 am

More and more these days, you hear about people turning to Circuit Bending for strange and unique sounds. Synth Do-It-Yourself (building your own music electronics) is the step after Circuit Bending. Are either worth the effort? What sort of ROI do you get? Where to start?

Most people who read this blog have likely heard of Circuit Bending. If, by some chance, you are unfamiliar with Circuit Bending, Q. R. Ghazala’s site is the place to start. I recommend you read that through before proceeding, if you haven’t already. It’s a wonderfully-written, self-contained introduction and tutorial — everything you need to start.

Q.R. Ghazala on Circuit Bending and Incantors

Is circuit bending worth the hassle? My perspective is admittedly somewhat skewed. My father has a masters in electrical engineering, and taught me how to solder when I was five years old (along with little to nothing about sports). The soldering, wiring, drilling, and other constructive-fiddly aspects of bending are definitely the hardest part… and, by the time I heard about bending, I already knew how to do all that. I just took a cheap keyboard down to the shop, and got right to it.

That being said, I feel soldering isn’t hard to learn, and that the general level of skill bending requires is minimal. If you can learn basic soldering, in all likelihood you’ll have a blast circuit bending.

Just don’t expect miracles from it. While the Speak and ____’s (Incantors) are truly delightful, not everything is. I’ve probably bent somewhere between two and three dozen different bits of kit, and I can count on one hand the number of devices I’ve considered interesting enough to keep using regularly. The rest were fun to dick about with, but otherwise forgettable. Many people think they’re going to get mind-blowing new sounds from some random old toy they had lying around. Really, though, after you’ve bent a couple things, you start to get a lot of same-old — one toy will sound pretty similar to five other toys you’ve bent. Other toys aren’t even bendable at all.

For that reason, the first couple things you bend will probably be “way cool,” and then the excitement will taper off. As such, I feel bending is something you’re best off dipping your toe into, as opposed to basing your life around. Obviously, if you’ve bent a few things and you absolutely love it, keep doing it. You should only quit if it gets boring (which is a good philosophy for just about anything).

A step up in complexity is to build your own music electronics from scratch. Many people, including myself, refer to this as “Synth DIY” even though it’s about more than synths… I started off building a few guitar FX pedals, which aren’t so bad. The soldering is trickier, and you’ll need to learn to read schematics. Still, if you’ve successfully bent a few things, and you’ve got patience, it’s within your reach.

After that, things start to get much tougher. One bored, unemployed summer, I decided I wanted to build a basic modular synth… years later, I still working on it. Please, don’t get into SDIY because you want cheap/custom gear. You’re better off spending the time learning MAX/MSP, or working a job so you can buy a Doepfur. You have to love the process of building circuits in and of itself, or you’ll go insane and never finish anything. Try guitar FX first, and see if you enjoy it. I love building circuits, I’ve found, but that that love only goes so far (generally, a couple hours a week). While I still do SDIY, my current ambitions are much more modest than my initial ones. Start small, or you’ll stall and crash.

If the previous paragraph didn’t scare you off, I recommend Paia’s kits. As kits go, they’re truly wonderful; undoubtedly the best way to start on true SDIY. I also recommend Dave Wright’s web site — the man has an awe-inspiring devotion to building things.

Categories: FX, gear, sampling, studio

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