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Circuit bending: Hacking a Furby in the name of music

The Future of Music, episode 3

For the third episode of The Future of Music, I’m in Margate, England, standing in front of 44 Furbies that have been hacked and wired together to create a giant, playable organ.

You might have seen this absurd instrument when it went viral on YouTube earlier this year. It’s the creation of Sam Battle, aka Look Mum No Computer, a mad scientist of sorts who’s made a name for himself by modifying toys like these rows of slack-mouthed Furbies via a process called circuit bending. And, as he shows me around his studio pointing out other far-out circuit bent creations with a laissez-faire attitude — like his flamethrower synth — it quickly becomes clear he’s not driven by anything except sheer curiosity. It’s just how his brain is wired (pun intended).

“When you get the first thing to work, it’s amazing,” Battle says about circuit bending as his face lights up. “It’s magical!”

Circuit bending is the creative (and often experimental) process of taking apart old, battery-powered toys and synthesizers and fiddling around with the inner components to have them make unintended and new sounds. It was pioneered as a method of making music by musician and technologist Reed Ghazala in the 1960s. Ghazala himself was not the first to practice it, but he did conceive the term circuit bending later on, in 1992. It’s not as popular as it once was, and Battle is one of the few people currently circuit bending things on a scale as grand as the Furby organ.

The wonderful and enticing thing about circuit bending is that it’s based upon chance, and requires little to no technical knowledge in order to modify a thing to make unexpected sounds. Simply find an older, battery-operated audio toy or synth and pop it open. While it’s making noise, touch a printed circuit trace, component lead, or integrated circuit pin with a test lead (or even a licked finger!) and keep it in place while touching other parts of the circuitry. Eventually, you should hear a combination that interrupts the electricity and creates an interesting sound. At this point, if you want to have control over the new sound, you can solder the two points together with something like a pitch dial or toggle switch.

This is the basic idea of circuit bending, and Battle takes it to the extreme.

Photo by Christian Mazza / The Verge

The circuit bending ethos of Frankensteining old things to create completely new instruments grew into a sizable community through the 2000s. There was such a demand that a market developed for bespoke companies to make custom circuit bent instruments for musicians like Beck, REM, Men Without Hats, BT, Bloc Party, and many more. Casio’s SK1 was a small sampling keyboard that was popular to customize, but one of the most ubiquitous items used for circuit bending was the Speak & Spell, an electronic educational toy with a speech synthesizer. People liked to poke around inside them due to the open inner design, how many sounds it was capable of making, and Texas Instruments’ choice to not restrict use of the toy’s language cartridges by region. It was also Battle’s introduction to the circuit bending world.

“I remember I was a real big fan of this guy called Casper Electronics,” Battle recalls. “He did a lot of Speak & Spell stuff and that taught me a lot of what to do with it; [How to] build other circuits onto the machine to make it even more circuit bent, and even more crazy, and do things it’s not intended to do in a musical form.”

Founded in 2000 by Pete Edwards, Casper Electronics created circuit bent musical instruments for musicians like Danny Elfman, Rahzel of The Roots, and Mike Patton of Faith No More. Speaking with Edwards, he echoes the same sentiments about why circuit bending took off. “The movement, I think,” he tells me, “was largely based on how novel it was that this thing does something you wouldn’t expect. [It] is this exploitation of this little window of time when the scale and complexity of electronics was just right. It was complex enough to do wild stuff, but simple enough that a little hack could make it malfunction in cool ways.”

At its height during the ‘90s and through the 2000s, circuit bending was a thriving DIY community that was even adopted by some of music’s biggest stars. But now it’s dwindled, and people like Battle are rarer to find. “Consumer electronics have evolved in a way that’s completely oblivious to these hacking practices and have moved away from hackability,” Edwards says. “They’re not as physically accessible. It’s just that simple. I was teaching circumventing workshops for about 10 years and I stopped because eventually, no one in the workshop could hack anything. There was nothing to bend, because the circuits just weren’t bendable anymore.”

Older toys and synths were easy to bend because they had exposed circuitry that used through-hole mounting — a process where component leads actually run through holes in a printed circuit board. Newer toys generally use surface mount technology, where components are attached directly to the surface of a board. That makes the leads tricker to get at. And, SMT components are smaller and harder to tell apart than through-hole components. All of this means they're simply harder to bend. Additionally, new toys tend to have most functions packed into fewer components and use purpose-built microprocessors (instead of generic components), which are usually hidden under a glob of epoxy.

Photo by Christian Mazza / The Verge

This is why Battle’s studio looks like it’s been through a time warp, and is littered with old Game Boys, Commodore computers, and yes, Furbies. “Modern toys [aren’t] as hackable as the old ones,” laments Battle. “You can still hack them, but they require a different way to do it. It’s not usually as obvious.”

Because of all this, circuit bending isn’t as popular anymore, but the spirit that first spawned it still exists. Edwards says it’s now channeled elsewhere, in other artistic musical outlets that provide the same sense of satisfying exploration. “You find a medium that does it better,” says Edwards, “which is just simply modular synthesis.” One popular option, he says, is Eurorack, a standardized system of modules that can be connected with patch cables or switches to create custom synthesizers. “The Eurorack format is an extremely effective, highly experimental sound exploration medium. So, most people that made a real go at being professional circuit benders now make modules.”

Battle does make his own modules in addition to crazy things like a flamethrower synth. But even his more “practical” modules are injected with a bit of signature peculiarity. One side of his studio has a wall of handmade hardware that he carts along for live performances. In the middle of it is a block of black, dusty fur, with two bulging eyes and a pair of chatter teeth. Its name is Cosmo, and other modules can be patched to it in order to control the movements of the eyes and teeth.

Photo by Christian Mazza / The Verge

Over the course of the day with Battle, I get to try out a synth bike, we play around with his lightsaber theremins, and he even skins a fresh Furby so I can try out circuit bending for the first time. I delve in and quickly manage to glitch out the Furby into a fuzzed-out string of stutters. It’s incredibly fun to immediately hear the effects of blindly poking around a circuit board, but it can’t be ignored that I’m playing around with something that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Electronics have, as Edwards said, moved away from hackability, meaning for the most part you’d have to, like Battle, outfit yourself with old tech if you wanted to try it out.

Battle’s visions appear to represent a bridge between the previous generation of circuit benders and what its future could look like. Although many of Battle’s creations use the relics from the past that originally made circuit bending popular, there’s something singular and fresh about his pure curiosity and ability to transform toys into items of wonder. Technically, he’s also so good he’s managed to bend “unbendable” gadgets like the Wonder Bible audio player. “Right now I’m trying to take existing projects that I’ve had in my head and just make them larger,” Battle tells me. “Because I can, I guess. The only answer I have is, ‘Why not?’”

Is there a future for circuit bending? “I think, from the perspective of modifying kids’ toys, no, not really,” says Edwards. “But, from the perspective of people approaching consumer products and electronics with an adventurous spirit and finding new ways to use them, absolutely.”

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