Masters Project: 3. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 2)

The Death of the Radioscramaphonia
/First Workshop

In this mini-series I will talk about circuit-bending as part of Creative Project, as well as occasionally, how it will relate to my Main composition project.

When I started planning this entry I had completed my first Circuit Bent instrument and gave it the name ‘Radioscramaphonia’. I then made the mistake of adding things to it. In particular I wanted to increase my potentiometer, and to add an audio jack socket to allow for an easy way to amplify it. However, at that stage I did not have the skills or dexterity required to make these changes. As a result, I had to pronounce the death of Radioscramaphonia.

I even went to UKC to ask the computing department if they could help, but even they were unable to resurrect Radioscramaphonia.

Although, yes I was saddened to see my instrument give up its life, its sacrifice was not in vain. Instead, I had to see this as a learning opportunity. What could I have done differently? What can I take away and learn from this experience?

Firstly, I’ve learnt the hard way that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!’.

Secondly, I learnt not to over complicate the task when you don’t have the skills (yet). I could have easily just replaced the speakers with the audio jack socket, instead of attempting to find a way to bypass it when an audio jack was plugged into it. Whilst I know this is possible, I am now aware that I do not have the skills or dexterity yet to achieve this.

Thankfully, however, this happened after the first workshop I ran as part of my Creative Project, in which I tasked myself with introducing the members of the Canterbury Chirst Church Scratch Orchestra to Circuit Bending.

The first workshop consisted of a potted history, followed by a demonstration of Radioscramaphonia, which led into them opening up toys to discover potential sounds that they could produce. Unfortunately, due to health and safety (and time scale to some extent), I was unable to allow them to use a soldering iron. To compensate this, I discussed with them about the built in failure to a project such as this. I warned them that the sounds they think could happen may change when wires and buttons are added, and new sounds may be discovered in the process. I also made it clear to them that there was a chance that the instruments may give up during the soldering process. I have had personal experience of this, but had no idea at the time that this was going to happen to my Radioscramaphonia. As an attempt at a backup to this problem, I advised them to explore more than one toy each.

The main toys they wanted to be bent were; a Pink Mini-Keyboard, a Pink Guitar, and a Leap Frog French/English Language toy.

The only one to survive from the main choices was the Pink Mini-Keyboard.

During the exploration of sounds in the first workshop, the speakers of the Pink Guitar were knocked and disconnected from the main circuitboard. After multiple attempts which included; replacing the batteries, replacing the wires, replacing the speaker, removing the speaker and connecting it directly to an audio jack socket; my attempts proved futile. Sound was still being made, but after a few seconds at full volume, it would decrease and end with it being barely audible, even with amplification.

I did not have time to continue trying to fix this. So as the person who was playing the Pink Guitar had their heart set on a toy guitar, I popped to the local charity shops and found another toy guitar to circuit bend instead.

This attempt at circuit bending proved successful.

The second toy that did not survive this process was the Leap Frog French/English Language toy. Simply put, during the soldering, I must have accidentally connected something I shouldn’t have, and it just stopped working. So instead, a Farmyard Barn toy was circuit bent.

In the workshop we had discovered that hands-on was the best approach for this ensemble. The group weren’t over fond of the potentiometer, instead favouring the wires that used the body (and some spit) as a method of resistance. They also decided that they wanted a simple bend with resistant contact wires, and only a couple of buttons if possible that maybe triggered a new sound to be emitted from the toy.

With this in mind I’ve bent the toys with very little adaptations.

The Pink Keyboard had the contact wired added, and one button. The best way I can describe what the button does is to say that it makes the current audible. I’m not entirely certain this is the case, but for the sake of being able to imagine the kind of sound it produces, we’ll stick with that description. The contact wires on all the devices change the resistance of the sound produced. Commonly this decreases the speed, which lowers the pitch. But occasionally it can increase the speed and pitch.

The replacement for the Pink Guitar, a White Guitar, also has these features. Another button was also added which sends a current via two connections which trigger sounds to be played. However, the connection isn’t clean, so instead you hear a quasi-random sound in terms of where the playback is cut with each pulse of current. Again, as my expertise do not lie within the fields of electronics or circuitry, I can only, certainty at this point, hazard an educated guess at what happens with the new connections I make.

The Farmyard Barn toy was an interesting and very simple bend. No connections I tried sent any signal like those of the previous two bends. So this one would have no added button. Once again I added the contact wires, but in terms of additions, this was the only one. Instead, by shear chance I discovered by making contact with the workings of the metal strips that were underneath the plastic animals that acted as trigger buttons for the relevant sounds, the velocity at which the sounds were played was vastly decreased. With the addition of the contact wires, this dark and sinister sounds of an alien machine or creature emanated from this innocent looking toy.

So far this was all the bending I had done in the time scale available between the first and second workshop.

In the next blog entry, I will talk about the second workshop, the naming of the instruments, and the plans for the rehearsal leading up to the performance. As well as some photos of the finished instruments.

– Jason Hodgson (10th March 2017)

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