My attempts at Circuit Bending

Towards the start of Autumn 2000, I was idly searching the www for experimental sound/music stuff. I chanced upon an article by Reed Ghazala, who explained the strange art of 'Circuit Bending'. This is basically a process by which anyone can make bizzare alien electronic musical instruments! The procedure is essentially to take apart any battery-powered (low voltage!) electronic sound producing toy and indescriminitely short-circuit it while it makes it's sounds. When you hear an interesting change in the sound, you mark the connection you made and later solder a switch or other component to the circuitboard. Eventually, you have a device which makes noises never imagined by the sensible people who designed it! (Other people explain this far better than me! ...take a look at some of the circuit bending links for more in-depth info!)

I became marginally obsessed with this wonderful concept, and began collecting things to experiment on! Here are some of the few things I have constructed so far. Though largely incomplete, most have been performed with at various events by myself and other members of Fatal Floor, under the name of Cementimental.

Oh, and by the way, many of these devices were named by picking word combinations at random from a dictionary, which is the best way to name anything.

Sound samples of these devices can now be heard on my cementimental sounds page!

Street Trash

Found a megaphone-style toy voicechanger at the car boot sale and on that same day transformed it into a deranged effect pedal in a fit of creativity. It was made with guitar in mind, but works well (ie badly) with other sounds... It has a kind of interesting gating effect which means that if you play quietly it sounds normal but loud strums come through utterly trashed. Totally wrecks all tone + tune, can make all sorts of robotic modulations, or approximate the sound of hearing the music played thru broken speakers next door. Also produces a nice screetch at the end of each note sometimes. In conjunction with other effects it's great for feedback noise. Has all sorts of quirks, the in and out sockets are contrary, some of the pots are wired up backwards, the controls are quite unpredictable, the volume is all wrong, the wet/dry control is actualy more like wet/distortion, and there's currently a horrible ground hum which I'll fix soon. It's all round horrible!

It's named after another great car boot sale find, an old 80's VHS copy of the stunningly insane movie 'Street Trash.' The film's themes of melting and general grim nastiness seemed apt for this device.

'Before and after' demo clips played by Sir Concord Discount. These don't do justice to the range of sounds which can be produced, I'll record more when I've fixed the grounding problem causing the awful hum you can hear:

Ghost Box

Once a Real Ghostbusters voicechanger found at a bizzare Cardiff cheap shop in a converted church, this is now my main noise device! It comes close to my idea of building a 'noise band in a box' which would free me from carting around a whole load of devices + pedals!

It can produce a range of harsh, distorted tones, sarcastic screams, and electrical crackling, as well as arctic gale soundscapes, laser barrages, a bassy hardcore beat and just sheer noise.

The original voicechanger electronics have been heavily circuit bent and rehoused in an old toy radio. The internal speaker is quite alarmingly loud and the unit can be battery-powered for mobile use, so maybe one day I'll dare to go busking with it! :) It also still just about functions as a voicechanger, although my half-baked attempts to add a preamp to the mic input have made it a bit hit + miss in this respect!

Hmmm, i really should cut down those pot shafts.

Demo sound: Download short noise track made using only the Ghost Box. (1.2mb mp3)

For identification purposes, here's what it looked like in a previous incarnation:

Untitled Guitar

All I managed to do to this is add an extreme pitch control, but that's enough! Very silly instrument. The original toy already benefited from a light-trigger for the sounds, which makes it quite rock-outable! Has been extensively used in Gymnastic Decomposition recordings and performance.

Parcel Bomb

Modified siren sound kit. First example of my new anti-quality aesthetic. I needed to get it quickly playable for a gig so I stuck it in a cardboard box. It has a kind of keyboard, made from card and tinfoil, which changes the sound in confusing ways. Slide switches on the top select different combinations of modulations, or something. Mostly makes kind of 8-bit videogame sounding crunchy/bleepy loops. Demo sounds soon.

Click the photo for a large version

Motor Box

Circuit from a very shiny toy raygun, rehoused elegently in a video mailer. Currently somewhat broken, but did make some good industrial sounds, including almost the exact same engine noise as in the game 'Carmageddon'! A feedback control made all sorts of strange blooping also possible.

Hear demo (900k MP3)

Kamen Sampler Prototype

Two McDonalds toy 'Masked Rider' voicerecorders wired together to form a dual no-fi sampler. They each have a light-sensitive extreme pitchshifting control. Their outputs are unceremoniously soldered together instead of being properly 'mixed', so when they both play at once they phase out and otherwise distort each other's sound, sometimes in quite complex and unpredictable ways. Samples are looped by holding the button down, I usually tape them both down while playing. Pressing the eyes (ow!) produces nice punching and motorbike sound effects to which I'll get round to adding pitch control some day.

The markets and charity shops of Newport are rife with unHappy Meal toy junk, so I'm going to collect as many as possible of these and combine into a multichannel supernoise sample box some day...

Speak and Noise Prototypes

Speak and Spell's are definitely one of the most popular bending targets. I've added basic modifications (pitchbending, looping, etc) to mine based on the schematics by circuit-bending pioneer Reed Ghazala, and when I get round to it will now start to explore the circuitry myself! The original red speak produces some wonderful sounds already, really nice ringing and crunching noises. I've found points to connect for 'ET' style operation whereby the machine works as usual but all the words and letters are in an alien language!

The Super Speak & Spell isn't actually all that super for bending, there doesn't seem to be a pitch control, although it does spout some nice streams of gibberish. Also it features the voice of Brian Cant! I've slightly decorated both machines with collage and rubberstamped stickylabels. Speak & whatevers are almost passé in circuitbending circles these days, but I don't care, I still like the sounds they can make, and will continue to delve into them!

If you're a fan of these classic Texas Instruments you may like to download my Speak series icons sets for Mac + PC!

Grassjelly Sampler

NEW! A very very lo-fi sampler made from the insides of a 'Talking Tag', a gift tag which records messages. They're a little bit expensive for such a tiny cardboardy thing... but maybe you'll get a present with one attatched!

Housed in a nice sturdy upside-down grass jelly tin, it can now sample and playback at varying pitch. There's also a bit of unintentional body-contact from the exposed metal of the can, and a 'noise' switch, which produces some pretty extreme noise at low pitches! Soon I'm going to build a timer of some sort to trigger this device for looping purposes!
Hear what it's done to Björk on my sounds page!

If you have never encountered grass jelly, it's a blackish-brown jelly which can be bought in Oriental supermarkets. the picture of the can of a bowl of glistening black cubes is always incredibly aesthetically pleasing! (see below) It comes in two flavors, sweet and unsweet. Sweet tastes nice, pretty much just like sugar with a bit of maltiness. Unsweet smells fairly nasty; you're supposed to add your own sweetness.

see what's inside!

Optical Theramin Loo

This is a simple VCO/'optical theramin' which I built from the schematic from Carrionsound - thanks Dave! It fit just perfectly (well, apart from the battery!) in a tiny plastic toilet I happened to have! This is the device that people are most amused by, and it sounds great too! Lowering the lid allows a lot less light in, and thus gives it a lower pitch threshold... or you can open the lid to allow for painfully high notes!

Unfortunately it's slightly broken at the moment... it's gone really quiet for some reason... Agh!?


This ex-winnie-the-pooh-talking-telephone-thing features a comedy english cheap voiceover man asking you to identify colours, numbers, and Pooh characters. If you're feeling childish, it can of course exclaim 'Poo'. I've added various pitchbending controls, an extra-loudness switch and a weird clicking noise. The toy obviously originally came with phone cards to insert in the slot in the top, which could connect/disconnect combinations of 4 contacts to cause different A.A.Milne characters to call. However, I've found that if you insert a card prior to switching on the device, you get a continous ringing noise. Cards cut with appropriate notches cause repetition of numbers instead. When turned to a certain high pitch, the device stops ringing and proceeds to repeat every one of it's sound in order!

I recently discovered that through distortion it can make a truely disturbing pained human cry!

I also added a pilot light, and a pilot:

Butcher-Bird Sleepwalking

I bought this toy machine gun thinking it would simply make a machinegun sound. However, it actually produces a long sequence of different gun sounds and rather conradictory shouted orders ("Drop the Gun! Fire!"). I've added body contacts which dramatically bend the pitch/speed and, the lowest speed can be switched from normal to very slow low rumblings. There is also a maximum speed switch which produces an instant Digital Hardcore-esque track!! I've also made it possible to switch off the flashing light in the barrel, as this compromises the range of noise produced! It's now slightly broken though.

Flail Pelican

In progress, next to unrelated
but cool Takeshi Kitano target.

Sound testing by Cementimental
A really cheap and nasty keyboard from the car boot sale! It dissapointingly does not make any semblance of a guitar sound but, as the woman I bought it from warned me, it is very noisy.

Modifications include tin foil body contacts for pitch bending - quality workmanship! There are also 4 bare wires sticking out. When these are touched a VERY high screetching noise is produced, which subsides into a lovely cruchy distorted noise if you squeeze hard enough. There is a screwdriver currently taped to the front, as this is the only way I've get found to make a great, but very unpredicatable low distortion sound. The keys on the neck play the ususal silly tunes, happy birthday etc. These can be distorted and warbled in a humerous fashion. A switch turns the horrid generic keyboard notes into a nice distorted bassy sound. It's all a bit hit and miss, especially volume-wise, but I like it!

Oh, and it's now sprayed copper with tigerstripes. Tasteful.

Click HERE for a bigger picture, with annotations of the features!

Scampi Transplant

My very first attempt at circuitbending! It's one of a pair of generic cheap toy walkie-talkies, modified to make... uh... a racket. If you switch on and twiddle one or both of the two variable resistor antenii, you get varying high-pitched whines, and also if you're lucky a nice grumbly distorted noise. The resistor knobs also act as contact points so that touching them changes the sound too. Even before modification turning the so-called 'volume' control actually just altered the weird radio noises, and now it sometimes dramatically varies the sounds produced. Fabulous feedback can be created by holding both units near each other while one transmits ordinarily. When my new additions are switched on, the device broadcasts indiscriminitely and irregularly to the other (as yet unaltered) radio, which is fun.

The device 'Ill Will' (below) was attatched to Scampi Transplant, but not in a way that actually makes much difference, so I removed it.

Click on the image for actual-size-ish version.

Ill Will

Ill Will was once a stupid cheap talking beanbag. My friend Tony recently dreamed that the Devil Himself was inside on of those things.

But not this one. He's so simple a circuit that I've been unable to alter the sound produced at all really. All I've managed to do is add a push button which resets the sound so you can make him stutter, and replaced the cunningly simple motion-switch spring with a normal switch. But anyway, he cries 'Help me, Help me!' and 'Oh No!' in a pathetic fashion, and looks pretty good!

He's currently less than operational, as I've removed his switches to use in something more exciting.

Dish Pixie

'Dish Pixie' is a vivisected talking Pikachu keyring. The only modification of sound I could discover was pitch bending of the voice, which is achieved by making contact between his new antenni with varying finger pressure whilst squeezing his tummy. Very occasionally I've made the poor thing emit an entirely different wierd electronic noise, but this is so intermittent that I've never found out how I did it. It just happens.

I've taken him apart so many times that the extremely compact switch mechanism has become slightly wonky, which means that he is quite tempremental, and often clams up entirely for some time.

The keyrings attatched are for educational purposes only, and are not wired up to anything.

- Click on him for big pika pic.

In addition to the above, I've discovered an amazing range of messed up noises by shorting out the many tiny contacts inside an cheesy Yamaha keyboard. The sheer number of possibilities makes it too complex to perminantly alter, but it's an endless source of wierd noises and breakneck speed beats just waiting to be sampled!

I've only just begun! more to come soon!!

Back to the Cementimental page

Or off to other circuitbending pages which are better than this one!

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