Back in the Midwest, in Cincinnati in 1966 or 1967 a random event occurred that sparked off another branch of do it yourself electronics. Qubais Reed Ghazala was looking for something in a drawer and he had given up on his search and shoved it closed. “The air was suddenly filled with cascading electronic sounds! I couldn’t believe it! I looked around, but saw nothing to give me a clue. Could it be the drawer?”
When he opened the drawer back up the sound stopped, but when he started poking around in the mess of wires and electronics again the sound reemerged and it seemed to come from the clutter. But at first he couldn’t see what was making the sound. “Then I saw it. A palm-sized transistor amplifier, left turned on with its back panel off and circuitry exposed, was shorting out amidst the decaying trinkets and salvaged parts.”
The exposed transistor was a lucky accident for Ghazala and his ticket to a lifelong pursuit and exploration of electronics. A junk drawer really is the best friend of someone who wants to tinker. In Ghazala’s case it gave him the necessary voltage to start making his own alien instruments and in turn inspired the world wide movement known as circuit bending.
He was thirteen when he heard the joyful noise emerging from his “broken” 9-volt transistor amplifier as it scraped up against another metal object in his desk. He had left it on, so when it hit up against something and the unusual sound it made struck his fervent imagination. It had reminded him of the early synthesizers, the kind that were only available for ungodly sums, such as the machine at Columbia-Princeton which cost the institute $250,000 dollars. For a broke teenager from Ohio who was an aspiring artist and musician interested in all things unusual his junk drawer hit the right note, and for the right price: scrounged up and dirt cheap.
He immediately had two ideas. “If these sounds are being created by accident, what could be done by purpose? If this can be done to an amplifier, meant to amplify a sound but to make NO SOUND itself, what would happen to SOUND-MAKING electronics when purposely shorted-out in the same way?”
It was as if the keys to the kingdom of electronic music had just been given to him. And he got them without having to go to one of the specialized electronic music studios. It was something he could do at home. Ghazala is rich with curiosity, and his natural inclinations led him down a path of tinkering and benevolent mad science. So he started playing.
“Working with this toy I discovered many really wonderful things! I found lots of these creative short-circuits, with many different responses to be had. I found that just touching the circuit with bare fingers allowed electricity to flow through the body, further shaping the sounds. I found points that would illuminate lights, and began adding other electronic components to the path of the short-circuits... capacitors, variable resistors; whatever I could find. I discovered also that when the line-output of the now circuit-bent amplifier was fed into a real stage amplifier, one of those big Vox or Fender stacks, the sound projected had nothing anymore to do with toys.”
The art of circuit bending grew out of this chance happening, though Ghazala didn’t give it that name until 1992. The technique typically uses low voltage gadgetry, so the person bending the circuits to their own whims doesn’t get fried. Battery powered toys and sound making devices of 9 volts or less are typical; and there is a plethora of disposable toys available from bargain bins in the second hand market. The ease of access to materials makes circuit bending affordable even to those musicians and makers on the tightest of budgets. Like Gordon Mumma before him Ghazala uses the surplus of his time –in his case, cheap plastic toys housing sophisticated circuits- to make music.
The process is relatively straight forward, and can be considered a kind of audio hardware hacking. First he would remove the plastic panels housing the toy to expose the electronic nervous system. With batteries inserted the toy or device is turned on he allows it to make sounds. Using an insulated test wire Ghazala touches the exposed end to various points on the circuit board and makes notes about the sounds that interest him when various connections are made.
This list of compelling contact points on the circuit board becomes Ghazala’s map for making a unique musical instrument. Using the map he can creatively rewire the salvaged toy in ways it wasn’t wired when he first opened it up. He often adds additional knobs and switches in the process. One of the key elements that many of Ghazala’s instruments have is body contact points. These are typically little metal plates that connect the musician directly in-circuit to the instrument. Because the instruments are low voltage, and because the human body is a natural conductor of electricity, a player can touch two of the contact points, and becomes part of the instrument, altering the flow of the bent circuit, making the instrument burble out a surprising variety of sounds. These sounds are variable because each player conducts the instrument differently, and even the same player will get different reactions from the instrument at different times.
Within these general parameters of practice whole worlds were waiting to be born.
Reed says “that beyond the obvious and delightful giddiness associated with toys being transformed into capable and outlandish synthesis equipment, when stripped of their target-sales housings and names all that remains of these toys is an electronic circuit lying there. And in many cases, these circuits contain sophisticated electronics capable of very high quality voices, just waiting to be nudged toward circuit-bending's anti-theory edge.”
Reed Ghazala has created a whole suite of circuit bent instruments. The main families are based on the kind of musical and sound making toys he most often found out in the wilds of the thrift stores and second hand shops of Ohio, where he spent time hunting down items that could mutated into true artifacts. The prominent groupings are the Incantors, Aleatrons, Insectaphones, Morphiums, and Photon Clarinets. Numerous prototypes, one-offs, and variety of commissions have also come out of Reed’s Anti-Theory workshop. The Incantor, Morpheum and Aleatron series I look at here offer a window into the praxis and philosophy of circuit bending from the man who pioneered this strategy.
The Incantor’s are a grouping of aleatoric electronic instruments made by deliberately mis-wiring and short-circuiting the once common electronic Speak & Spell toy. Speak & Spell’s were a product of Texas Instruments first introduced to the public in 1978 at the Consumer Electronics Show. This high tech toy consisted of a TMC0280 linear predictive coding speech synthesizer, an alphabetic keyboard, and a receptor slot to receive one of a collection of ROM game library modules. The toy had originated as an outgrowth of Texas Instrument’s research into speech synthesis.
The Speak & Spell used trademark Solid State Speech technology that stored full words in a solid state memory format that was similar to the way calculators from the same era stored numbers. The expansion modules could be inserted through the battery receptacle to load new libraries and games. It was the first educational toy to reproduce speech without relying on tape or phonograph recording and words could be punched in and spoken in a way similar to how Texas Instrument calculators could solve a math problem. The original intention of the unit as advertised was as a tool for helping kids around age seven and up to learn the spelling and pronunciation of difficult and commonly misspelled words.
The phoneme data for the synthesis of speech was stored on two 128 kbit ROMs, the largest capacity ROM then in use. The word libraries were created from recordings of professional speakers brought in by Texas Instruments to utter and say the words. Once the voices were captured they needed to be further processed to fit the limited memory of the ROMs and this was accomplished using a computer. Once processed the words often needed further editing because of the sharp reduction and cut of the original data rate. Information had been lost and noise had been introduced into the system. Some of the recorded words had become completely unintelligible.
All the hard work required by the technicians and engineers at Texas Instruments got bent to other purposes when Reed Ghazala got his hands on a Speak & Spell. A Speak & Spell out of the box is already musical, after one of the units terminals get cross-wired, after additional electronic components such as potentiometers get installed, after the normal functioning is completely disrupted it becomes an Incantor, capable of incanting from the basic parameters of letters, words, phonemes and vowels to speaking in tongues and talking in alien languages.
These modifications overwhelm the unit's keyboard switch matrix and trigger an effect known in the field of electronics as key jamming or ghosting. This is something that happened on older matrix keyboards when these three keys were pressed together at once making a fourth keypress to be erroneously registered by the keyboard controller. In this manner a glitch became a feature when repurposed for music.
Once rewired all of Ghazala’s instruments get the beauty treatment. They are repainted and made into true one of kind art objects, the equivalent of a luthier applying the final stains and varnish to violin or guitar.
The Trigon Incantor
Bolstered by the success of their Speak & Spell, Texas Instruments came out with a few variations, the Speak & Read, and the Speak & Math. With these selling along quite nicely, the company made a toy for younger kids, aiming for the toddler market. What they came up with, sick creepers be warned, was called the Touch & Tell.
The games for a Speak & Spell might ask a youngster “Can you spell the word CAR?” the Touch & Tell would just give the kid a prompt saying “Can you find the CAR? Press a picture.” The pictures in the Touch & Tell can be switched out, interchanged.
As Ghazala wrote in an article for the journal Experimental Musical Instruments (EMI), “Each displays a variable number of images and is hole-punched along the edge so as to reset hidden switches when located in place. In this way, alternate switch settings program the synthesizer's computer relative to each picture sheet. Although regarded as toys, the only thing childish about these curious talking boxes is their vocabulary. But with circuit-bending ...”
The Touch & Tell thus became subject to Reed’s recombinant techniques and once transformed became the basis for the Trigon Incantors. The “Trigon” part of these Incantors came from the three metal balls that he used to roll across the surface of the circuit bent Touch & Tell.
Ghazala speaks, “With voice characteristics being somewhat similar, the standard and Trigon Incantor differ greatly in the playing techniques (keypad vs. steel balls). Both are capable of producing short as well as on-going streams of finely delineated digital sounds. These sounds, which range from percussive to melodic to vocal, and are constantly re-evolving through abstraction after abstraction, can be initiated on each instrument through various data entries involving the new circuit-bending switches, steel ball positioning, as well as standard keypad actuation.”
Silence the Tongues of Prophecy is one of the songs Ghazala has made with his Incantor’s. It also features an er hu, or Chinese spiked fiddle, and another instrument he created called R.A.P (Readily Available Phonemes). This latter instrument predates the birth of hip-hop and rap music and is another one of his instruments that utilizes synthetic speech.
The Morpheum series was distinguished by the use of children’s toys that produced animal and railroad sounds. The extensive use of conductive flesh to circuit contact points made these instruments extra raw, and yet dreamy, and are perfect for being patched into an array of effects pedals. Ghazala recalls that first experience of playing with body contacts. “When I felt the jolts of electricity coursing through my body back in '67 as I began playing the Odor Box body-contacts, it struck me that I had become part of the instrument's circuitry, as in-the-matrix as any other component on the board. The circuit no longer was limited to dead matter. It didn't stop at its ‘ends’ anymore... and neither did I. This is definitely a new creature, it lives and shares electricity... the same electricity that, if taken away, would cause each to die.”
The Morpheums can be outfitted with strap locks so they can be worn like an accordion. Only this accordion makes truly bizarre howls. Reed suggests using it as a lead instrument.
The Aleatrons are a series of circuit bent Casio keyboards that combine many of the properties Reed had previously explored in his other bending excursions: body-contact control, human voice synthesis, digital samples, the equal-tempered scale and aleatoric instruments. The Aleatrons, and specifically the SA-2 Aleatron, combine all of these techniques into one hallmark instrument.
Since the SA-2 is a thirty-two note keyboard with a built in sound library, the equal temperament bending box gets ticked first. The aleatoric element comes from a trigger switch that disrupts the normal programming routines of the instrument. The SA-2 does not have voice synthesis, but it does have a number of human-like sounds, fractal chants that emerge from chance. It also contains a plethora of digital samples from the bank of sampled percussion sounds.
"Whereas analog signals tend to deteriorate into static-like decay when exposed to certain circuit-bending applications, digital signals break-down into distorted routines rather than distorted tones. The tones can therefore remain sharp while their harmonic content, envelope and assembly behavior is altered. Likewise, just as it is with the musical notes, digital percussion sequences are similarly transformed. Cymbals become backward gongs, kick-drums blend into bass lines, snare drum decays are frozen into crystalline seas of sizzling metallic hiss.”
Some instruments Reed built from the ground up like his Photon Clarinet and a variety he calls the Insectaphone. But even these latter that he built from scratch, he would then alter with circuit bending techniques to further alienize the sound.
Requiem for a Radio
Ghazala is no stranger to the creative power of destruction. One of his musical projects and recordings was called Requiem for a Radio. For this piece he took a small plastic transistor radio, forcibly pried it apart, crushed it to bits into an electronic grinder, then melted all the pieces into a disc before sawing the disc into forty small pieces. He recorded sounds from throughout the whole process. Each of the four movements, Kyrie, Dies Irae, Sanctus and Agnus Dei are each composed exclusively from the sounds of one of the four processes the transistor radio underwent in its transformation. The resultant work is musique concrete as only Ghazala could have imagined it. With the initial distribution of the recording he sent some of the sawed pieces of the disc out along with the CD.
Part of the beauty of the circuit bending technique is that it brings instrument making and basic electronics into the hands of anyone who wants to do it. As Ghazala says, “Working with toys has advantages beyond the eccentricities and power of the final voices: No knowledge of electronic theory is needed whatsoever to circuit-bend. Toys open themselves to the process. Anyone can do it. Simply, a wire is used to make connections between arbitrary points on the circuit while the toy is making its usual sounds. A switch is then wired between points discovered that produce an interesting sound so that the effect can be turned on at will. This procedure will usually result in a number of switches that can often be mounted on the toy's housing. If you learn to solder and can drill holes in which to mount your switches, you can circuit-bend.”
What better way to get into the electronics hobby than by reclaiming what other people no longer want and transforming them into new works of art. Reed Ghazala has built a life out of doing just that. In the process he has created a folk art for the electronic age, as he wrote articles on his instruments, and taught others how to go about bending. He even wrote a whole book on the subject.
“The discards of our society pile up around us like coconuts in the surf. Picking up an abandoned toy, picking up a coconut, rewiring the toy, poking holes in the coconut, flipping the new switches on the toy, blowing over the new holes in the coconut, letting the toy's new music direct you to it, letting the coconut's new music direct you to it... these things are part of us. This is how musical thought systems are born.”
Reed Ghazala’s Anti-Theory Workshop is a true laboratory of radiophonics and alchemical imagination.
Circuit-Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments, by Q. Reed Ghazala, Wiley, 2005
Gravikords, Whirlies and Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments, written and produced by Bart Hopkins. Ellipsis Arts, 1998 [Book and CD set.]
http://www.anti-theory.com/ various pages within Ghazala’s website
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.