Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Finding the hidden sounds in circuit boards - circuit bending

Things that make noise such as children's toys, little piano keyboards, walkie talkies have a power source, speakers and usually a circuit board with some bits and pieces in it like resistors, capacitors, some stuff I don't really know about yet and in some cases LEDs (light emitting diodes). The manufacturers arrange this starting material so that certain sounds are produced when the toy or instrument is played... according to their instructions. But a bit of tweaking can uncover all sorts of other available but currently hidden sounds, many of them truly awful, but some quite pleasant.
Circuit Bending for Absolute Beginners
WhenTue, 8 February, 15:00 – 17:00

Bring your old keyboards to make new weird sounds. Think Casio, Yamaha... Noise-making toys also work. Not everything will work but we'll have a bash...may have to ask for a small donation to cover cost of potentiometers/wire etc an introduction here:
I spent Tuesday afternoon at the Really Free School in Bloomsbury Square playing around with some circuits and making some noise. The School opened a couple of weeks ago and closes in a couple of days (although it will likely re-appear somewhere else). The people running it have squatted the property which was once offices (and previously a rather lovely house) and unfortunately have to leave and move elsewhere. Their website is and I heard about this because of a mailing list ( I joined when they ran the Temporary School of Thought a couple of years ago.

I've blogged recently on the Temp School of Thought - I went to a film showing there but none of the classes, and a talk by Dougald Hine at the Really Free School. Keeping with the theme of creative living and squatting is a post with some scanned images of a groovy book called 'Alternative London' from 1974.

We sat in a room at the front of the house at large worktables while our tutor told us a little bit about the principles of 'circuit bending' and how to go about getting some bonus sounds from a hacked / modified (modded) bit of kit. She showed us a keyboard which she'd taken apart, added some switches and other twiddly knobs, and from which she could get some eerie sounds possibly not intended by the manufacturers.

I'd brought along half of a walkie-talkie to tweak. A year or two ago I did an afternoon class, which I blogged about here, in Brighton with Ian Helliwell which included a taster session of circuit bending (along with creating a mini theremin from an electronics kit and playing around with tape loops) and I started work on the walkie-talkie then.

There were about eight or nine of us sitting at the worktable with people popping in and out to visit. The people in the room next door (well, it's the reception / living room I suppose) were probably making a much more tuneful noise than we were. The people living in the house brought a baby grand piano with them, there was also a cello and a couple of guitars. People seemed to be really rather good at music.

We took apart the toys that people had brought with them (apparently there's a second hand children's toy shop in Pimlico which seems to provide rich pickings for dismantle-able toys which have circuit boards and speakers in) and got to work with a strip of wire. With the device switched on (might want to be a bit careful here) you basically use the two ends of the wires to poke about and connect both ends to different points of metal on the circuit board. Sometimes connecting them up results in silence, sometimes in white noise, sometimes in a high pitched squeal and sometimes in a fairly pleasant buzz or tone. Depending on your tastes if you like the sound produced you can solder in the connection for keeps.

Even better, if you have a potentiometer to hand you can connect it to two wires and then, on finding a suitable connection, twiddle the potentiometer's knob to make the pitch or volume (or whatever variable you've discovered with your random connection) go up and down.

There are also some pictures on my Flickr page - the lighting isn't very good, it's more of a bright spotlight. This is because we're in a squatted propertly with plenty of electricity (all paid for, utility companies are required to connect up properties which have occupants at the occupants' request and I believe connecting the electricity is an essential part of squatting a property to prevent being accused of stealing the electricity) but with many of the ceiling light fittings absent.

A couple of people in the class dismantled a tiny little plastic drumkit that they'd brought and rewired it so that it made some quite cool sounds when various buttons (that they added) were pressed. You can see them soldering in one of the pictures.

I've described this circuit bending to a few people and they mostly want to know where they can do it so I've added a few links below in case you might fall into that intrigued category.

Places where you can go and do or find out more about things like circuit bending (and 'arts computer' stuff) in London
Dorkbot is more of a show and tell for projects that you've been working on but you'll always find someone in the crowd who can help you but the monthly-ish events aren't workshops. They do usually have an annual event in which workshops feature though.

Hackspace - I've not been to these yet but you can find more details here

Ian Helliwell's Analogue sound course - if and when it runs again it will probably appear here but also see here and

MzTEK ("An Arts Collective for Women in New Media and Arts Computing") hosts workshops for women only on a variety of electronics and other things like laser cutting.

OpenLabs - I attended a circuit creating workshop (making some noise too) at the Kinetica Art Fair and Evan Raskob from OpenLabs was teaching it. Lots of fun but against a backdrop of the Kinetica fair it was quite hard to hear what was going on with my own battery operated mini speaker. Given the squealy noises I was making, perhaps not a bad thing ;)

Technology will save us - I spotted a sign-up sheet for this at the Kinetica Art Fair and signed up, haven't investigated it yet but looks full of potential for classes although they might be a little beyond my budget. and

Tinker It - I am not sure if they are still running courses but they have run Arduino workshops in the past (Arduino is a circuit board whose chip is controlled by a computer programme). and

For people who like non-electronic technical crafts but like sewing then these people might have a class for you: The Make Lounge, in Islington.

I bet someone's reading this and thinking "but she's forgotten X" if so, do let me know, thanks!

You might also like these other posts of mine, tough luck if not :)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment policy: I enthusiastically welcome corrections and I entertain polite disagreement ;) Because of the nature of this blog it attracts a LOT - 5 a day at the moment - of spam comments (I write about spam practices,misleading marketing and unevidenced quackery) and so I'm more likely to post a pasted version of your comment, removing any hyperlinks.

Comments written in ALL CAPS LOCK will be deleted and I won't publish any pro-homeopathy comments, that ship has sailed I'm afraid (it's nonsense).