Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bent Circuits and Buzz Machines

It's midwinter here, a good time for indoor activities. Since I like electronica but don't have any musical training or talent, I decided to spend some time circuit bending and playing with buzz machines.

It's fairly easy to get started bending circuits. Go to a junk store and buy some battery-powered toys that make sounds or music. Take one apart to expose the circuit and put some new batteries in. Now, while the thing is making noise, try short-circuiting it at random with a piece of wire. When you get interesting results, mark the relevant connections with a felt pen. Later you can go back and try inserting switches, variable resistors or other components at these points, or even new circuits. When you've got something that makes a whole range of unexpected sounds, you build it back into the original case or put it in a new housing. The prevailing aesthetic seems to prefer modding the original case, as in Reed Ghazala's Incantor. Voila, a new musical instrument! Some toys seem to lend themselves to the process more readily than others; I didn't have much luck until my third attempt. As you might imagine, the whole thing is very hackish and aleatoric. (For more information, see Ghazala's Circuit Bending and/or Collins's Handmade Electronic Music.)

Building musical instruments from circuits is pretty low-level. Buzz machines simulate these kind of instruments and many others, allowing the user to virtually plug together hundreds of different kinds of noise generators, synthesizers, filters, delays and so on, to create layered and complex compositions. This is done at a level that is more familiar to most musicians, using tracks, beats and notes.

Both bent circuits and buzz machines lend themselves to a kind of feedback-driven exploration. If you have something that sounds cool, you can make a note then try adjusting the circuit: change connections, add or remove components, tweak something. If you like the results, keep going. If not, back up and try something else.

Sitting at the workbench, fiddling with wires and inhaling molten solder and burnt plastic, I've had plenty of time to muse about digital history. At this point our discipline is where music was in the first half of the twentieth century. There is a long, classical tradition that most historians know and work in. There are a few new technologies that are familiar and widespread... we might think of, say, word processors the way that they thought of vinyl records. There are a few technologies that are becoming familiar but aren't taken very seriously (wiki = theremin?) While the more avant-garde are playing with the equivalent of tape loops or prepared pianos, there hasn't yet been widespread adoption and endless modification of these and other techniques. They're still the domain of Brian Eno and not of Madonna. This makes it difficult to teach digital history, because students have to be simultaneously exposed to low-level stuff that is still far from their day-to-day research (e.g., programming in Python) and high-level stuff that is potentially relevant but tangential (e.g., data mining). What's in-between doesn't exist yet.

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