Feb 15 | Circuit-Bending & Electronics

Read Before Class

Optional reading

In Class

Bring an electronic sound toy to mangle and cajole into an otherworldy contraption.

  • Battery-powered only. Nothing that plugs into the wall.
  • Older is better: Do some searching at the thrift store because modern toys are often un-hackable.
  • If it’s really boring (like a toy phone that just beeps) you probably can’t do much with it.
  • Things that play a variety of recorded sound-effects are often the most fruitful to hack.
  • Complex devices like professional keyboards are often un-hackable, but cheap or old keyboards are often very hackable.
  • Risks are encouraged and some failure is expected.


  • We will introduce basic electronics (capacitors, resistors, potentiometers, switches, buttons, etc.) via circuit-bending (modifying existing electronic objects) and building audio oscillators whose properties are controlled by light, physical touch, graphite lines, etc.


  • In 1993, the Barbie Liberation Organization swapped the digital voice-boxes of 300 Barbies and GI Joe dolls, then returned them to store shelves. A (faux?) AP news article published in the 1990’s zine “Unit Circle” and “Home Surgery Instructions” (pdf) describing their not-so-simple hack. Analysis of their strategy on Beautiful Trouble. (BLO member Igor Vamos later co-founded the Yes Men.)
  • David Tudor pieces
  • Peter Vogel’s sculptural circuits (via 2011 documentary The Sound of Shadows)
  • Léon Theremin’s eponymous instrument that sprang from the imagination of radio. (Aura Satz video featuring Lydia Kavina, theremin virtuosa and grandniece of Léon Theremin.)

Further Research – Artists and Musicians

Further Research – Electronics Resources

  • Radio Shack used to be the place to get basic electronic parts. Now they are few and far between. Consider these alternatives…
  • In NYC we’re lucky to have Tinkersphere (a short walk from Cooper!) They have a bewildering array of electronic parts at fair prices.
  • Adafruit is a woman-owned mail-order DIY electronics powerhouse in Tribeca.
  • Sparkfun is another mail-order electronics store, catering to hobbyists.
  • Argo Electronics is one of the last remaining Canal St. surplus dealers. Give them a look.
  • GetLoFi is a circuit-bending site with excellent kits and advice.
  • Beavis Audio Research (offline in 2015. RIP!) is similar to GetLoFi, with an emphasis on DIY stomp-boxes and effects. Check out their excellent guide to CMOS “1-bit” synthesizers (via Wayback Machine), which paraphrases a lot of the info from the Nic Collins book Handmade Electronic Music (today’s reading, BTW)
  • Arduino is an inexpensive platform for “physical computing” or “creative coding” (Meaning: “You can make physical objects do fun things via small computer programs, and you don’t have to be an expert.”) It’s the defacto standard for creating interactive objects or interfacing real-world objects with computers. There is a massive community online.
  • If you continue working with electronics, you’ll need a soldering iron. Most are crap. I recommend a soldering station from Circuit Specialists. Theirs are temperature controlled, so they warm-up fast and never overheat. They are designed to be repaired, and parts are available. Your solder won’t bead up and roll off the tip like it does on the cheap ones. Most include a stand and a sponge so you won’t burn your apartment down.
  • The Drawdio! A little oscillator circuit that responds to resistive surfaces like pencil lines, streams of water, etc. If you’re experimenting, I recommend this version. It runs on a 9V battery, drives a speaker directly, and uses very few parts.  (PAiA electronics offers something similar: free plans or a simple kit that can be constructed without even soldering anything!)
  • We read an excerpt from Handmade Electronic Music by Nic Collins. This is the book you want to get if you’re interested in electronics. It’s the perfect mix of background info and hands-on tutorials. No math!
  • Also check out Hackaday’s Logic Noise series for step-by-step instructions for simple synths (made of CMOS logic chips like the ones Nic Collins writes about.)
  • No resources list would be complete without the famous Engineer’s Mini Notebooks by Forrest M. Mims III, previously sold by Radio Shack. Within those yellowed pages you can find hundreds of circuit diagrams for LED flashers, tone generators, solar battery chargers, light-sensitive switches, and more. Mims made sure that the parts were available from Radio Shack, and most of them still are. These days you can find similar projects online, but most of them are pretty badly documented, so I refer to these books often.
  • My printable resistor color code chart for decoding the value of resistors using their colored bands.