DIY: Circuit bending

Bryhanna Greenough is in ur furby bendin ur circuitz.

Craig Squires does funny things to Speak & Spells.

Sitting at my living room table, he’s plunking away at his collection of mangled, bleeping children’s electronics. He’s unscrewing the back casings to expose the circuit boards, bunches of wires and bits of masking tape. Cracking open a Krazy Komputer, he happens upon some fossilized baby puke.

“Never know what you’ll find inside these things,” he says.

As one of the main forces behind the city’s biennial festival of sonic exploration known as the Sound Symposium, an original member of Newfoundland’s first punk rock band Da Slyme, and a member of The Black Auks improv music group, Craig is no stranger to freaking out the locals with music. He’s always on the lookout for new sounds.

What we’re doing is called circuit bending. We’re opening these noise-making electronics and rewiring them in the hopes of coming up with some new sounds. Some musicians record these sounds and use them as samples, and others—in search of a more unpredictable element—permanently modify toys with switches and knobs that make them do unexpected things.

Basically that’s what Craig has done with his old Texas Instruments Speak & Read. Flicking a couple switches when it’s on produces a seemingly random stream of phonemes and bleeps. He says it’s handy for a live improv set, like he does with the Black Auks.

He licks his finger and runs it over a circuit board.

I’m not a musician, but I wanted to try my hand at circuit bending. Just popping apart the plastic and getting a glimpse of what’s inside sounded pretty fun. There’s also a feeling of satisfaction in taking a mass produced toy someone essentially threw away and repurposing it into a one-of-a-kind invention.

The day before I was on the hunt for an electronic victim of my own. With ten bucks in my pocket I set out to pillage the Village. I brought with me a printout of Craig’s e-mail:

“There’s a certain vintage of gear that’s easy to get interesting stuff out of,” he says. “Look for older items from the 80s or early 90s. Look for toys that have sampled sound—animal noises and stuff. Furbys are know goodies. Also older Mattel stuff.”

I rounded up a huge armload of electronics and planted myself on a couch in the furniture section. I cracked open a pack of AAs and started the activations.

“If you know a toy where the sound slows down and goes wobbly when the battery gets low, that’s gold.”

I got lucky and scored a Furby and a crappy little keyboard that goes ‘doooiiiing.’ Cost: $3.99 and $1.99.

In case you don’t know, a Furby is a robot that looks like a cross between an owl and gremlin before it gets wet. They start out speaking their own language (Furbish), but they appear to learn more English as they get older. Some models respond to infrared and interact with one another. They’re disturbing little beasts. Anyway, I had high hopes.

Back at the house, I found instructions online for Furby bending. With the scissors I snipped away his fur coat, attached by strings and plastic clips. Hearing Furby talk with his insides exposed made him even creepier.

“You me friends, hmm?…Hee hee hee.”

Unfortunately, later when Craig and I cracked Furby apart, his insides didn’t look much like the online diagram. He was a new version. Craig pointed out a dreaded ‘black blob.’

“The problem with more recent toys is that everything has been stuffed into one chip (a ‘black blob’) and it’s not possible to get at the control and data lines to screw them up.”

We prodded semi-randomly at the nodes with wire, but not much happened. Then suddenly Furby had the robot equivalent of a grand mal seizure. I’d triggered a mechanical bend! I had to hit the off switch to stop it. Oh poo. Craig consoled me, and said with a bit of work I could still probably get some good sounds out of it.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“The Speak & Read was a great success, but sadly most other attempts resulted in ‘death’ or not much interest,” he says. “It’s a shame, really.”

Materials & Warning:
To try this yourself, you’ll need a mini screwdriver to open toys, and a piece of electrical wire for making new connections in the toy or keyboard circuitry. Search online for instructions for your particular toy—you never know.

Only try this with battery powered electronics. And even with battery powered toys might get zapped. You have been warned.

Illustration by Kira Sheppard.

One comment

Women’s Film Festival: Short Circuits

Adam Clarke picks out some highlights for tonight’s collection of shorts down at the LSPU Hall.

20 October 2011

  1. sean · October 20, 2011

    theres an entire little community on youtube dedicated to demolishing furbies. check it out:

Comments are closed.