Saturday, April 30, 2005

Circuit Bending

Throwing caution to the wind as far as housecleaning and schoolwork are concerned, I went with a friend to a Circuit Bending workshop at The Tank this afternoon.

Circuit bending is when you open up children's electronic toys (cheap ones, if you're a beginner), play around with the electronic stuff inside, and see if you can find ways to make the shrill electronic nursery rhymes a little more interesting: feedback, looping, distortion, etc.

The first hour or two were frustrating. I unscrewed the back of a little keyboard, experimented with shorting various circuits, made one interesting noise, and then dead-ended. Same thing with the "Funny Camera" I tried next. The Funny Camera* had two buttons. One, when pressed, cycled through a series of three phrases/noises and set off a light on the third. The other did just the third noise and the light. A. and I became fascinated by whether and how one could control which of the three noises was made. I had a few ideas, took some stuff apart, but no luck. "Smile!" "Say cheese!" "Click/flash!" over and over again, always in the same order. I did find one way to short the circuit so that it made a scratching sound alternating with the click - A. said it sounded a lot more like a camera than any of the actual intended sounds. But that was it. I had another idea of how the three sound cycle might be working, but one of the wires connected to the batteries broke off and I decided it wasn't quite worth the effort of stripping the wire and attempting to re-attach it.

I was reaching the give-up-easily point when A., who had been playing around with the keyboard I'd abandoned, discovered that it had two settings: the first, one-note-per-key, the second, a-whole-tinny-nursery-rhyme-per-key. "Beautiful Dreamer," "When You Wish Upon A Star," "Happy Birthday," we had 'em all. He also found some promising "bends" and we were off. We hooked up resistors of different sizes with a switch so that we could alternate between normal speed, normal pitch and high speed, high pitch ("Alvin & the Chipmunks"). We tested different resistors until we found just the right chipmunk-setting, not too fast, not too slow. We changed the switch to a potentiometer so that we could alter the speed & pitch on a gradient instead of just slow/fast. And finally, coolest of all, we replaced the potentiometer with a light-sensitive resistor so that by waving our hand over the sensor, we altered the speed and pitch of the nursery rhymes. Oh joy! Hours of fun!

And I must point out that given time, space, and tools to experiment, a basic information sheet explaining the purpose of the varous electronic parts, a couple of more experienced folks around to answer questions, and a partner who stuck it out when I got frustrated, I learned more about how circuits work than I ever did in any of my formal education, and I raised several questions about what I could do, how things worked, and what would happen if... What would happen if a computer with internet access, or a few basic books on electricity and electronics were on hand? If I could come back a couple more times and play around?

I think I just experienced truly open-inquiry learning.

*Don't you DARE buy any toys like these for my hypothetical future children. Is that clear?


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Blogger Diana said...

Circuit bending is the creative short-circuiting of devices such as low voltage, battery-powered guitar effects, children's toys and small synthesizers to create new musical instruments and sound generators. sportsbook, Emphasizing spontaneity and randomness, the techniques of circuit bending have been commonly associated with noise music, though many more conventional contemporary musicians and musical groups have been known to experiment with "bent" instruments.

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