Handmade Electronic Music workshop – a personal recount of the experience

I attended (along with about 19 other participants) the Handmade Electronic Music workshop by Nic Collins with the motivation to enjoy soldering and building electronics from scratch, get ideas and inspiration about different ways of approaching giving electronics workshops and deepen my understanding of this subject as a whole. I was told that Nic Collins was a unique teacher, I was not misinformed. Below is a breakdown of the 3 day experience.

DAY 1 //

Nic begins the session with a few brilliant anecdotes, contextualizing what will be covered in the following days.

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We begin with an intro to electromagnetism.
How does a speaker really work?
What are the physics of oscillation?
Nic elucidates these concepts with a couple of evocative drawings, and by simply hooking up a speaker to a 9V battery, already revealing a myriad of possibilities of sound involving such banalities as: scrap pieces of metal, beer caps, and loose change. We proceed to do it ourselves. Within seconds, the entire room is clicking, and buzzing, mutated squeaks, and scratches can be heard. Various objects bounce off the speakers diaphragm. Twenty speakers ‘gritting’ in unison. Already I am amazed of what variations in sound I am producing with ‘nothing’. This goes on until the wonder factor is slowly wearing off. I look around me and I see inventive combinations involving bits of metal metal, tools, nuts/bolts, keys, and even the metal rim of the workshop table. And radios! Someone figured out that the experiment with the battery hooked up to the speaker, when done next to a radio, can distort the received radio signals because of electromagnetic interference! cool.

The whole idea behind this workshop is to be initiated to new perspectives on sound as well as sound chain explorations. Every element in the chain can be played with, modified, and fed into other parts of the chain in a different order. This morning’s experiments was a brilliant example of this.

We then proceed to circuit bend radios. Since I neglected to notice that the huge radio I hauled all the way from Rotterdam was actually powered by AC (plug-in-the-wall-deal), instead of battery powered, I observed my workshop mates in action. Though I am familiar with circuit bending toys, it somehow never occurred to me that one could also do so with a radio. New perspectives…

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Next experiment: the DI box (or direct injection box)
First Nic demonstrated the speaker as microphone (literally using a speaker like a microphone) and the different pitches you get from different sized speakers. We try our own speakers… (the Barrie White effect from those fairly big speakers is by far the most popular of these tests : )

We proceed to discovering secret sounds; an exploration of the usually unheard. We build and experiment with a contact mic and then a coil (or inductor) mic. The inductor mic, also know as the telephone tap mic, can make audible the interference (or electromagnetic emanations) of your laptop, phone, radio, electric switches, basically anything that is ‘powered’. A wonderful excuse to build a portable setup (with mic and amp), set off on a city tour with headphones and listen to the electromagnetic soundscape!

The rest of the afternoon is spent circuit bending. As we know, toys built in the past two decades are incredibly boring, essentially only playback computers. But, if you find the clock (in the circuit) you might be in luck, and even ‘old mc donald had a farm, ee-i ee-i ooo’ can sound pretty funky.
1) Open your toys
2) Wet your fingers
3) Get kinky!
4) Once you’ve found the spot (most likely the clock in question), place a potentiometer in place of the existing resistor and voila! adjustable distorted nursery rhymes.

And by now the day is over and we are half deaf from all these experiments…

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DAY 2 //

The day begins with the story of Richard Lerman (the piezo-electric guru) who soldered the ends of guitar strings to a contact mic and played this spider-like instrument with a propane torch. The mental image in itself is enough to trigger even the half asleep morning participants such as myself. However, it had not prepared me for the actual sound of such a concocted instrument – a beautiful and bizarre chiming harmony. Magical. (I believe those recordings are from ‘Matter of Scale Other Pieces’ by Richard Lerman).

And now the experiments begin…

Today the deafness will worsen, we will build our own oscillators. We begin by building a very simple square wave (low frequency) oscillator using a bread board, a chip, a capacitor and a resistor. We play with changing the value of the capacitors and resistors to modify the pitch. We swap the resistor with electrodes, using coins, anti-static foam, scrap metal, anything lying around, or our own body as resistance. With a bit of imagination the possibilities of squishing anti-static foam to modify sound are endless.

After lunch we get into combining oscillators and oscillator modulation (both linear and ring modulation). The cacophony is loud and wonder infused. Some people built a non-powered tremolo, which Nic states is the purest way to control sound (because there is no noise generated from power). I (and a few others) built a looping switch by attaching a photosensor to an LED. The effect was not as dramatic as I had hoped once i fed in Senior Coconut into it, but I would have needed to adjust the leakage of light coming from underneath the photosensor.

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And that’s a wrap for today!

DAY 3 //

The third day was for me the most satisfying. Nic explained how to make the circuits for mixers, preamps and distortion, and other signal processing. Once the theory was given (laced as usual with wonderful metaphors and anecdotes), we were left to our own device to build what we wanted.

I began by building a 3 input mixer with volume control on each input (what Nic calls the ‘engineers mixer’). I haven’t tested it. I go straight into building an amplifier. This was not specifically explained but I feel that for a non-musician such as myself, I could get much more use out of an amplifier than a distortion circuit. In his book, Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking, Nic Collins explains how to make an amplifier from a chip, a couple of capacitors and resistors, this is what I spend the afternoon making. Everyone is busy soldering their favorite circuit onto PCBs and then testing them. When I finally test my amp I notice that the potentiometer acts like a switch! This is unusual. I can at least hear music! and from any input I like, I test from neighbors’ circuits as well as from an Ipod. I don’t have time to debug it because the day is already coming to a close, but I have the tools and some extra knowledge acquired over the course of these last 3 days to do that at home.

Its been a great workshop! I have indeed enjoyed myself, learned a great deal and been inspired to build new things as well as gained a new perspective on sound (and chains of sound as Nic puts it).

Just before closing time, Nic asks six people to volunteer for the playing of an instrument he has devised which essentially ‘plays’ old discarded motherboards. A little rehearsal is performed and the jam session is crazy. This will be performed Tuesday night at the book opening party @ STEIM for Nic’s second edition of Handmade Electronic Music. Come one come all!

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