I'm standing next to Dmitri Ponce as he fires up the mountain of analog gear he has amassed in the middle of his living room/studio. He starts hitting the pads on his Roland TR-505 drum machine and quickly programs a loop of a jacking snare and hi-hat combo. Then, he begins plugging RCA cables into a network of patch bay connectors on the upper right corner of the drum machine. Suddenly, the drums begin to pitch up. Then down. He plugs in more cables and the loop begins to distort and toughen. A strange resonance appears when he puts in one cable, a metallic effect with another.
This isn't your father's 505.
But it once was. This pawn shop TR-505 has undergone a radical makeover. Ponce has cut into the guts of his machine and did some Dr. Frankenstein remodeling, or what is more commonly referred to as circuit bending. Wires have been soldered to points on the ROM chip; potentiometers were built in to control different volumes and pitch. A copper contact point that allows for bends to be controlled by touch is strung out from the machine and connected to a wooden briefcase which now contains this monster. Additionally, Ponce has modified, or modded, his kit by adding eight separate outs, eight separate volume knobs, and trigger outs that allow it to be used as a sequencer. A drum machine generally considered the runt of Roland's TR-series litter is now a force to be reckoned with.
Ponce is part of a growing number of dance music producers who are delving into the dark art of bending and modding their studio gear. Circuit bending is the process of intentionally shorting the circuits of an electronic device—whether it be a throwaway, battery-operated children's toy or a high-end audio sampler—and then controlling these new circuits with an assortment of switches, patch bays and potentiometers. In layman's terms, it's about "pushing these machines to do things that the original designers went out of their way to avoid happening," as Paul Norris explains it in an email exchange. Norris, whose website, circuitbenders.co.uk has been "selling and offering to mod circuit-bent gear" for nearly ten years. Norris adds, "The popularity has definitely increased a lot over the past couple of years," due to the fact people are finding out they can resurrect their old gear. Most of the hardware Norris bends and modifies, "would probably have been either thrown away or sold for a fraction of what it [originally] cost."
Ghazala began bending these devices into what he calls "alien music engines." He also began refurbishing the exteriors of his Speak & Spell's, making each machine unique. Perhaps Ghazala's greatest contribution to today's bending culture, though, is his proselytizing of the DIY ethos: you don't need a degree in electrical engineering to hack a machine. Instead, all you need are a soldering iron, wire, some components, and, most importantly, a piece of gear that you don't mind potentially destroying.
There's also one more crucial part of the bending equation: the integrated circuit (IC) of your machine needs to be of a large enough size to easily see and manipulate. The 1980s and early '90s were a boom period for synthesizer manufacturers. Technological advances made for IC's small enough in size and inexpensive enough for companies like Roland to mass-produce gear that was both portable and affordable. Simultaneously, the explosion of techno, house and hip-hop created a new consumer market that manufacturers readily supplied. Synths, drum machines and samplers began flooding the market—some are legendary, like the Roland TR-909, and some, like the TR-505, well ... not so much. But what all gear from this time period do have in common are IC's that are relatively large compared to today's more integrated, and smaller, surface mount components. The larger the IC, the less chance you have of corrupting your operating system or frying the circuits. It is these large ICs that people like Ponce and Norris are exploiting through circuit bending.
Ponce's journey into circuit manipulation was one of necessity. Ponce has been producing music in San Francisco since the mid-'90s under various names including The Sexicanz, Los Cyber Cholos and, most recently, Dmitri SFC. But after having his studio burglarized twice over the course of six years, Ponce was at a point where he had to build out his studio from scratch. "I couldn't afford to go out and buy a Juno-106," Ponce explains, "So I started researching online" to see if "I could find something that might still be analog that's a little cheaper, that's less well-known." Through this process he stumbled upon circuit-bent toys and keyboards. "A lot of them looked really cool 'cause I'm an old-school gear head," he says, but adds, "you listen to it and it sounds painful, like noise." Ponce recognized the potential of using bent and modded machines in a studio designed for making house music. As we continue listening to the twisted TR-505 drum loop, Ponce says, "It sounds crazy right now but you mix it in ..." He pushes up the faders on his mixing board and hazy deep house rises up around the drum beat. The loop begins to blend into the mix, its strange textures softening until it subtly shades the edges of the track.
Ponce is planning to teach the first DIY circuit bending class at Robotspeak, a San Francisco school and shop that offers classes in both digital and analog production. He's also been bending gear for fellow dance music producers like Gavin Hardkiss and Wade Hampton. Jonah Sharp has been making music since the early '90s as Spacetime Continuum as well as managing his Reflective Records label. Lately, he's begun collaborating with Ponce as the live analog act, The Juan Livet, and playing the pair's circuit-bent gear.
Ponce bent an Alesis HR-16 drum machine with an extensive patch bay for Sharp. Now, in a studio that includes a TR-808, a Nord Modular, an Arp Omni-2 and an Oberheim OB-8, it's the bent Alesis HR-16 that has become the starting point for Sharp's music production. Sharp explains, "When I just sit down with this [Alesis HR-16], I just get inspired. It's very random, it's kind of an exploration. This thing is a starting point, that's why it's here." Sharp has also become a true believer in the DIY ethic that accompanies circuit bending. "Back in the '90s, I was never, never interested in what was happening inside these machines ... like how does electricity make noise, make music," he tells me. Sharp has now become a DIY disciple and is currently learning how to both bend and maintenance his gear.
For today's producer, circuit bending is a gateway into a parallel universe of sound: sometimes strange, often extreme, but infinitely intriguing. It's also a shortcut to achieving sonic textures that would take hours to reproduce using software. Norris would even argue the results of circuit bending can't truly be replicated by a computer. In either case, at the heart of circuit bending is chaos: harnessing the unpredictable behavior of electrons. "I've probably circuit-bent and modded more kit than I can remember," says Norris. "But even now I'll be working on a drum machine I've modified a dozen times before and some sounds will come out of nowhere leaving me stunned and thinking, 'What the fuck was that?'"
In 1980, a man in Melbourne, Australia, named Robin Whittle began designing modifications for the Casio M10 and MT-30 digital keyboards. One of these modded keyboards eventually got into the hands of the legendary band, Devo, and was used on their EZ Listening Cassette series. Around 1983, Whittle had expanded his modding repertoire to include the Roland TR-808, TR-606 and TB-303. By 1985, Whittle had become successful enough to start a company, Real World Interfaces, and began working on instruments full-time. Then, in 1993, Whittle recounts in an email he wrote to the Analogue Heaven mailing list, "I was doing CV and Gate inputs for [producer] Ollie Olsen's TB-303 and I decided to try a few other mods" when "it became clear there were more to do." Eventually, Whittle installed over 20 mods for the TB-303 and redesigned its front panel to contain all the new controls. His creation was even given a new name: Devil Fish. Whittle then gave his own personal Devil Fish to Richie Hawtin who used it on two tracks for his seminal 1994 Plastikman album, Musik. A legend was born.
Modding is the process of adding functions that go beyond the manufacturer's original design. Some mods are utilitarian, like adding a MIDI In to a TR-808. In the case of the Devil Fish TB-303, the mods were like taking a Volkswagen and turning it into a Porsche. Originally released in 1981, the TB-303 was designed by Roland to provide bass accompaniment for guitarists, a role in which it failed miserably. It wasn't until a few years later when producers in Chicago discovered some of the idiosyncrasies of the machine that acid house was born. Even so, the TB-303 lacks the sound control most dance music producers expect from a synthesizer. So Whittle "fixed" this by adding variable control over both the volume envelope and the soft attack. Now, with the Devil Fish, producers could really shape the bass. This is what modding is all about: more options for more control.
For today's live performers who use older analog gear, modding is a necessity. Moniker is an all-analog live techno act in San Francisco comprised of Emilio Giraudbit (who also owns the club, 222 Hyde) and Kenneth Scott. They use both a TR-808 and LinnDrum drum machines, neither of which came with MIDI installed. Instead, both instruments used DIN Sync which Giraudbit told me was "too dicey" to use live. So, he had MIDI installed on both machines to provide the syncing stability necessary for live performance. Giraudbit also had tuning mods installed for several of the TR-808 drum sounds as well as a decay mod for the kick drum. These new functions had an unexpected result. "The tuning mods...turned out to be very useful in the live setting," he says, "Combining the long decay on the kick while tweaking the bass tuning lets me do rolling basslines which can be fun."
something that could have existed but
perhaps was just a bit too complicated
or bizarre to be mass-produced."
But Giraudbit didn't do the modding on his machines like Ponce did. Instead he sent them out to a technician. The reason? Modding is a step up from circuit bending both in terms of technical skill and know-how. As Eric Archer describes it, circuit bending requires "little or no theory" about electronics. "It's just trying random stuff until either you like the result, get tired or fail by destroying the device." To properly mod gear, though, Archer says one needs to "learn to read schematics and understand a little about how electrons move ... you know in advance more or less what effect you want to produce."
Archer is a sound and visual artist whose medium is the actual circuits themselves. Based in Austin, Texas, he's pushed the envelope of DIY bending and modding to its logical endpoint: circuit design. A self-taught electronics freak, Archer quit a career in chemistry to pursue his love of manipulating audio gear. "I picked stuff to bend that I hadn't seen done before, forbidden stuff with AC power connections like FX processors ... digital answering machines make glitchy lo-fi samplers." Eventually, Archer found work repairing high-end studio gear. His time spent inside these machines gave him "insight on how technological progress has guided the evolution of electronic music ... looking under the hood at synths of different eras, you can ... see the struggle between the consumer and the manufacturer." Archer now designs and builds his own drum machines and synths from scratch. "I'm fascinated as an engineer by the challenge of recreating these circuits ... the fun part is making creative changes to arrive at something new, something that potentially could have existed back in the day but perhaps it was just a bit too complicated or bizarre to be mass-produced."
Dance music has always been driven forward by new sounds. Circuit bending and modding are offering producers a new path into uncharted sonic realms. As Norris puts it, "I think the main reason people circuit-bend their kit ... is that they are bored of the normal, predictable methods of synthesis or sound manipulation, and want something that can produce noises that make people sit up and take notice." Moreover, people are realizing they have the power to manipulate their gear themselves. The DIY community has grown through a network of websites with how-to videos, schematics and help forums to guide the uninitiated into the mysterious world of circuitry. Sharp has already tuned in. "[DIY has] given us a new world where we can dream up our own machinery and build it, [it's] a cult of the Maker."