ROUTLEDGE Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking

Nicolas Collins is an instrument-building animal, and he wants you to be one too. He has spent the last three or four years touring the world, doing workshops
Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

In Handmade Electronic Music. Nicolas Collins takes you step-by-step into the exciting world of DIY electronic instruments.

Nicolas Collins is an instrument-building animal, and he wants you to be one too. He has spent the last three or four years touring the world, doing workshops aimed at musicians who want to delve into the ever-deepening world of DIY electronics. His new book, Handmade Electronic Music ($24.95), combines his workshop notes with historical sidebars and an eclectic and inspiring CD featuring a panoply of first-class builders and players.

Handmade Electronic Music is not the first book aimed at musical home brewers (the ground was broken by Craig Anderton's Electronic Projects for Musicians, in 1975), but it is the first to encourage design and experimentation rather than just a craftsmanlike reproduction of given circuits. It reads more like a science book than a cookbook. In fact, its chapters reminded me fondly of Mr. Puddicombe's eighth-grade science class, with its reassuringly uniform experiment reports, every one with sections ritualistically labeled Purpose, Apparatus and Materials, Method, Observations, and Conclusions.

After an introduction that is by turns inspirational (“Fear not!”), practical (“Try to avoid short circuits”), and poetic-philosophical (“Many circuit hacks are like butterflies, beautiful but short-lived”), Collins's musical-scientific journey begins by observing the vibratory world around us. Almost everything vibrates, either electromagnetically or mechanically. We can capture those vibrations with a guitar pickup, a tape head, or a simple contact mic (made from a Radio Shack piezo buzzer) and turn them toward our own nefarious musical purposes. (Collins's droll humor tends toward the mad-scientist end of the spectrum.)

The World Is My Oscillator

The surprising sounds of highly amplified kitchen equipment are an avant-garde staple: witness Paul Lansky's classic “Table's Clear.” We can turn the nefariousness up a notch with a second piezo buzzer configured to inject vibration into our innocent mechanical subjects, turning flowerpots and bicycle frames into effects processors. Having gone this far, it's only a matter of time before the inspiration comes to feed the output back into the input, making infernal pie-tin and toilet-float oscillators.

From there the book introduces the reader to circuit bending, the art of rewiring surplus electronics to do unexpected things. There are good chapters on identifying and mod'ing clock circuits, sussing out useful bends (he recommends a literal hands-on approach), and adding nonstandard controls using photoresistors, pressure sensors made from antistatic foam, and even pencil drawings (graphite pencil lead makes a good resistor). In some ways Collins's brief treatment of the subject goes beyond Q. Reed Ghazala's indispensable, pioneering guide Circuit Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments (Wiley, 2005), suggesting the use of fruits and vegetables as pressure-sensitive resistors.

Next up is a detailed discussion of breadboarding that starts out with instructions to build simple oscillators from widely available CMOS inverter chips. (Digital inverters are really just high-gain inverting amplifiers. They make great distortion/fuzz boxes, and feeding their output to their input makes them oscillate. A simple resistor-capacitor in the feedback path lets you control the oscillation frequency.) All of the resistive controls mentioned in the circuit-bending section can be applied here as well, as though they were little resistive modules. Circuit design is a lot like patching a modular synthesizer but at a subatomic level.

Having mastered the inverter-oscillator, we're ready to attack the ubiquitous CMOS NAND gate, which you can think of as an inverter with an extra control input. Wiring it up like an inverter-oscillator and plugging a signal into the extra input gives us all sorts of complex ring-modulation action. Of course the modulation input can be anything at all — another NAND oscillator, a circuit-bent Speak and Spell, a guitar plugged through an inverter-fuzz, whatever.

A series of chapters on video hacking (TVs are full of oscillators!) leads into the book's final section, which combines practical advice about building mixers and amplifiers and dealing with AC power with an inspiring discussion of controller hacking. Video game controllers are really just digital interfaces to a load of switches and variable resistors. Crack one open, and you can easily repurpose it to sense temperature, humidity, motion, weight, air pressure, compass direction, acceleration, gas mixture — the list goes on and on.

Watch This

My son Tim and I have enjoyed many hours following Collins's lead, using a telephone pickup to explore the radiation our laptops emit and wiring up and tweaking some of the book's examples. We've even used our home-brew contact mics in live performances.

Twenty years ago, Popular Electronics ceased publication, inaugurating a long lull on the do-it-yourself front. However, things are picking up in the DIY world — notably with the advent of O'Reilly's Make magazine — and Collins's book is just in time to catch a newly receptive audience. Despite some quirks (the chapter labeled “Ohm's Law” talks a lot about resistors but doesn't actually explain Ohm's law), I recommend Handmade Electronic Music wholeheartedly to anyone interested in exploring sound.

Value (1 through 5): 4