Taming Circuit-Bent (and other) Instruments

As a musician and a circuit bender, I’ve struggled for years trying to reconcile my love for the unpredictable, bizarre sounds of my bent gear and the real-life, practical world of recording and composing music. Except for those into experimental noise and drones, recording this gear straight into your songs can be disappointing. But by using a few tricks I’ve learned for Ableton Live, you can rein in some control on your circuit bent gear (or any exotic instrument), and finally use those amazing sounds quickly and painlessly.


My favorite Live function is the ability to swap out a clip’s audio and still maintain all of the original clip’s envelope automation. If you haven’t explored Live’s clip envelopes yet, here’s your chance.

First, bring an audio loop (short or long, it doesn’t matter) into the Session View. This will be your “dummy clip,” so the audio will be replaced eventually anyway (I keep a stash of dummy clips in a folder, ready to go for any occasion). Next, check out the clip’s envelope settings; if you can’t find them, click on the little button in the bottom left marked “E”. Your audio will turn bright pink with a red line on top — that’s your clip envelope (Figure 1).

For every interesting way you can mangle and process audio in Live, there’s a clip envelope setting that can automate it. Want a low pass filter to sweep your loop every two bars? Or transpose a loop up and down every bar and a half? By drawing in envelope settings for your clip and inserting effects, you can turn a one-bar loop into an automatically evolving filtered, stuttered, effected, transposed monster.

After dialing in all the clip envelope settings you want, replace the audio with something much cooler (like the sound of a circuit-bent “Speak ’n Spell” glitch meltdown) but maintain the existing envelope settings. To do this, drag an audio clip onto the white title box of your dummy clip (found under the word “Clip”) or directly onto the dummy clip’s waveform window.

My favorite use of this technique is for live performance improvisation. I’ll record a short burst or drone from some odd piece of gear, drop it onto a dummy clip with some automated filtered delay, and kick off the song. It makes every set unpredictable, but imposes enough structure and movement to keep things under control.


Most circuit-bent gear is really well suited to generating beautifully odd percussive sounds. Putting these into a sampler used to required the somewhat painstaking process of recording, slicing, and individually saving each sample in one program, then loading the files into the sampler. But with Ableton Live you can record, slice, and load your glitches into Live’s Impulse drum machine in under a minute.

1. Record a short (under five seconds) improvisation of your gear’s glitchiest garbles into Live’s Arrangement View.

2. Unfold the track to see the waveform you recorded.

3. Zoom in so you can make nice, precise edits.

4. As your circuit-bent “Tickle-Me-Elmo” probably can’t slave to MIDI clock, turn off “Snap to Grid” in your options menu so that you can slice your audio however you like.

5. Chop your glitches into little beat-sized pieces (Figure 2) by clicking within your recording and using the edit menu’s “Split” command, or typing Ctrl-E (a keyboard shortcut worth remembering).

6. Drag Live’s Impulse beat sampler into an available MIDI track. You’ll see eight empty slots ready to be filled by your samples.

7. Drag each slice you’ve made onto an open slot, and you’re ready to start playing your glitch-filled drum machine.

Also note that you can use this same technique to drop an improvised drone or noise into Live’s melodically-oriented “Simpler” instrument.

Chachi Jones lives in Oakland, CA, and runs Robotspeak magazine. His latest album Dymaxion Daydream is available on Lunaticworks. www.ChachiJones.com