Bend It Better: A Conversation With Circuit Bender univac

In connection with the University Art Museum's exhibition of Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings, and on the heels of Soundwalk and the Slow Sound Festival, UAM is presenting an evening with several legendary practitioners of 'Circuit Bending.' The free event takes place on Saturday, October 10th, at the Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall, in CSULB's Cole Conservatory building, just West of the Carpenter Performing Arts Center.

Tom Koch, known in Circuit Bending circles as univac, took some time to explain what Circuit Bending is, how he got involved, and what people might expect on Saturday.

Sander: What is circuit bending?

univac: Circuit bending is the act of taking apart a child's electronic toy or other noise-making electronic object, exploring the inner secret circuits and forgotten noise pathways, and bringing those sounds no one was ever meant to hear to the outside. With circuit bending, I build a pathway to coax these sounds out of a machine that no human was ever meant to hear. Sounds the original engineer of the device would have deemed defective and tossed the thing into the bin. I actively pursue those "defective" sounds and bring them to the surface so that they can be heard for the first time.

Sander: What is it about these hidden or defective sounds that you find appealing?

univac: The feeling that this sound you are hearing, you are hearing for the first time. Its like a game; getting intimate with a tiny, mass-manufactured product, exploring with your fingers the surface of the circuit board, re-crossing wires in unexpected ways, adding new controls over the voltages, all with the goal of squeezing out something entirely unique.

Circuit bent gadgets tend to have a capability of randomness and cantankerousness to them. The added controls merely guide the sound output, suggest to the gadget a general direction to take, but often the machine takes you on an unexpected, and usually enjoyable, sonic ride. The sounds vary depending on factors such as battery level, humidity (especially human contact resistance controlled gadgets), and voltage feedback from mixers/effect units. Generally you can count on an certain sound output but many times you just have to go along for the ride and see what sonic landscape the gadget wants to take you through. This is where it gets exciting. And then there are times when a gadget just refuses to work: Worked fine for the soundcheck. Dies for the performance. All part of the fun.

Sander: How far back does this practice go? Is there an originator?

univac: You make it sound like "The Mystic Knights of Circuit Bending." It's hard to say when circuit bending as a practice began, because all early electronic work was essentially what circuit bending is all about. Poking around with wires to see what happens when you connect this thing to this other thing. The name 'circuit bending' was applied by Q. Reed Ghazala. I'm not sure when he began to use the term in reference to his beautifully sculptural bent electronic kids toys, many of which were Texas Instruments speech synthesis machines like the Speak N Spell, Touch N Tell, Creatoy Trains, etc.

As the story goes, it was in the 60's when Ghazala heard the in his desk drawer a sound from a toy amplifier with drained batteries that sounded very analog synth-ish. He began to explore consciously creating those voltage drops by adding human contact resistance (voltage control via the capacitance and resistance of skin), optical resistors (voltage control with light), and potentiometers (linear voltage control over time with a knob) to create these otherworldly sounds.

There have been lots of tinkerers and makers over the years who have discovered this "accident," but giving it a name galvanized these isolated gadget makers and created a new movement in art/music/visuals. Also, in the early 1970's, David Wills (The Weatherman of Negativland) built his Boopers (AM radios "circuit bent" with internally wired feedback loops, the output of which was controlled by several potentiometers, and powered by three 9-volt batteries taped to the back of the metal project box he recased it into). He has built several since the 70's and is considering building several editions of them to sell.

Sander: How did you get into circuit bending,

univac: Oh, in that video of the Boopers, the first gadget you see is a Bee Gee's electronic keyboard originally "bent" by The Weatherman, then given to me by Peter Conheim to "fix" when it went awry. I bent it better and gave it back.

I've always been a person who wasn't satisfied with most things unless I could take them apart. When I was a kid I used to take apart watches, radios, and motors just to see how they worked, then try to get them put back together and working again, which many times was a bit of a challenge, [at least] the working part...

I'd been making soundtracks for my own films in film school (Cal State Long Beach, 90-93) doing fake multi-track using tape decks and metal shelves and objects with contact mics and effects, and heard from a friend about his friend who took apart 8-Track tape players and made looping noise machines out of them along with other electronic objects. Much of my music is about creating automated feedback loops between different gadgets and sound devices and having one control the other which in turn triggers another: cascading recombinant feedback noise systems. The tape loop machines got me interested in taking apart trickle-down technology like tape decks, walkmans, and kids toys to see what kind of new sounds I could extract from them.

When I build a circuit bent gadget, the presentation of the final piece is as important as the sounds it makes. They are technological objects of art, designed to look as interesting on a shelf as they are capable of being used as a versatile and unique sound-making instrument.

Sander: What can people expect at the concert on Saturday?

univac: The show line up is really amazing: Loud Objects (NY. Building a noise circuit, live, in front of you on an overhead projector), Jeff Boynton (LA. Beautifully bent keyboards and and noise making machines strapped to many microcubes), univac (me, OC.), and Casperelectronics (NY. The wizard of circuit bending. As far as I'm concerned the best of circuit bent performers). For the discerning Users, there will also be installations of interactive noise making devices in the Lobby.

I will be performing with several circuit bent gadgets such as the TinyFlaccid TubbyBox Dipsy, Math, RatThing, Easy, and Billy BASStard. Each generate strange sounds no human was meant to hear, and many have optical pitch control and human contact resistance control.

Behind me I'll be projecting a Quartz Composer patch I designed on my MacBook Pro which shows slow circuit image abstracts collaged with 3 camera feeds striped through the center of the screen: one is an overhead USB cam, one is from the iSight camera on the lid of my Mac, the 3rd camera is a firewire iSight on a flexible shaft pointing toward the center of the output of the QC patch displayed on a 19" display, that center feed of which is from the 3rd camera, creating video feedback in the center rectangle that is seeded both by the superimposed images of the first two cameras on each side in addition to bits of the circuit images. The transparent color (intensity and shade) of the video feedback is controlled by the audio I'm playing, creating a recombinant feedback loop. I'll also have the Vibrotron in the Lobby. Come step on the pedal.

Sander: How can people get started themselves?

univac: People can get started by opening up some electronic thing that makes sound or video. Make sure it is battery powered! AC hurts! Put your fingers all over the board while it is making a sound or picture. If the sound/picture gets glitched out or distorted, mark those points and try soldering on potentiometers or bits of metal to touch that you can mount on the outside of the case. Re-case as necessary. Have fun.

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univac's website is techdweeb.com.



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