catsynth pic: Reed Ghazala Tape Canvas Device

I was reviewing Get LoFi for yesterday's circuit-bending article, and came across a reference not only to Reed Ghazala, whom I also referenced, but a catsynth pic to boot!

Who knew the “father of circuit bending” was also a cat person? Then again, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised…

The tape canvas (illustrated above) itself is interesting as well, allowing expressive control of a device and process that is traditionally linear. It inspires me to revive my interest in musical reading of barcodes using a CueCat, which has the added advantage of continuing the feline theme.

The CueCat has proved a difficult device to work with, however. I have a modified version that gets beyond some of the proprietary issues and shows up as an HID device that can be read in OSW, but I have yet to make it work properly.

Adventures in Circuit Bending: Vtech Tiny Touch phone

Last evening I embarked on a circuit-bending project, and this forum provides me a unique opportunity to document the experience.

For those who are not familiar with circuit bending, it basically the process of modifying the electronics in existing audio devices, usually simple analog circuits in musical toys. In the process, one can add new expressive controls to create a unique, albiet “lo fi”, instrument. A great introduction on circuit bending can be found at Reed Ghazala's Art of Circuit Bending. Additionally the blog Get LoFi has a wealth of information and circuit bending projects and instruments.

This experiment involves the Vtech Tiny Touch phone. It plays a few simple phrases relating to numbers and colors as the buttons on the phone are pressed. You can listen to an example here. Vtech toys are good circuit-bending fodder, and I've tried the phones before. During my first attempt, I shorted out the integrated circuit (oops), which ended that effort. The second time I did a simple bend across a timing circuit that allowed me to alter the speed and pitch of the sound with a potentiometer. I had this instrument open for kids to play with during the my show at Zeum in San Francisco this past spring, which turned about to be a death sentence for it. One kid happily showed his parents and me the capacitor he managed to pull off the circuit board. This time I'm going more slowly and methodically, with the goal of a more interesting and robust instrument.

First, we open up the phone to reveal its guts (i.e., circuitry):

Now grab a test wire (i.e., with clips on the ends) and start looking for interesting “bends” by shorting different points in the circuit. In general, this is a hit or miss process and experimentation is the rule of the game. However, care should be taken to avoid shorts that could damage the audio circuits. In particular, stay clear of anything that connects directly to the batteries.

A rather effective short is opposite corners of the IC board, as illustrated by the pink dots in the closeup below:

Shorting these leads, which essentially drops the resistance to near zero, slows down a timer and thus the speed and pitch of the audio, as can be heard in this audio clip. Note the slower version of the telephone ring. From this result, one can conclude that varying the resistance changes the timing and pitch of the sound, in particular highwer resistance yields higher pitch, with infinite resistance (i.e., open circuit) restoring the original behavior. Such a bend is a good opportunity for a potentiometer to mechanically change the pitch, or a photocell to use light as a pitch control. For now, I am attaching a photocell using alligator clips:

Cupping my hand over the photocell and moving it closer and further while pressing buttons yields variable-pitch sound and beginnings of a new circuit-bent instrument.

I could stop here and make this bend permanent, but I would to continue with other options, including switching between photo, mechanical, and null modulation, as well routing other signals over this bend to create FM synthesis. I will continue to document this project here as I find more time to work on it.

Weekend Cat Blogging #64: Luna and laptops

Luna gets distracted while checking whether the battery on our iBook is subject to Apple's recall.

Apple has determined that certain lithium-ion batteries containing cells manufactured by Sony Corporation of Japan pose a safety risk that may result in overheating under rare circumstances.

That is Apple's gentle corporate-speak way of saying “may burst into flames.” Fortunately, it looks like we dodged this one. My Dell Latitude at work was not so lucky, and is now relegated to desk duty while awaiting a replacement battery. Ironically, my home Dell Inspiron whose warm and toasty characteristics I described preparing for my August 6 performance was not on the recall list – indeed, since installing the fan-control software things have improved significantly.

Thanks for boo_licious and her cats Ms. G and Fluffy over at masak-masak for hosting this Weekend's Cat Blogging.

It looks to be a pleasantly lazy Saturday for all of us.

catsynth pic: Gingerbread

MIT Media Lab assistant professor Dr. Joseph A. Paradiso includes the above photo of his old Himalayan cat Gingerbread atop a synthesizer cabinet as part of his web page documenting his modular synthesizer. His collection of modules and writings about synthesizers are quite impresesive, and I've spent a bit of time looking through them. That is one of the fun things about looking for these pictures of cats and synths: it often leads to something more interesting.

Dr. Paradiso's synthesizer has received note in Keyboard magazine, and he had a synth rig featured at the 2004 PrixArs Electronic festival. He has some great photos of synth rigs from the 1970's as well.

Miami Schools Try to Ban Cuba Book

From NPR radio:

Morning Edition, August 23, 2006 · The Miami-Dade school board seeks to ban a book on Cuba, saying its portrait of life there is overly positive. A federal judge has ordered Vamos a Cuba back on school library shelves while the district fights a lawsuit aimed at keeping the book available.

I'm guessing my previous article on Cuba would get banned in Miami schools as well. It seems like the Miami Cuban-American cabal can't accept anything remotely positive about life there, and will stifle any level of dissent from the party line. Anyone still think these are the guys who will “bring democracy to Cuba”?

¬°Viva la revolucion!

Worthless Kitty Redux: April 6, 2006

Excerpted from an article originally posted elsewhere on April 6, 2006:

I was anticipating being a wreck tonight, but actually I'm somewhere between at peace and numb. Having a glass of wine, listening to one of my favorite nighttime CDs (Xenakis Electronic Music from the 50s and 60s). Luna must be somewhere nearby, but she's earned a little time to herself after cuddling and purring w/ me for well over an hour straight. She's really good that way.

I was looking out my bedroom window earlier – mostly dark, except for the nighttime glow off the sides of the houses and buildings and bright spot of neon and fluorescent lighting from the convenience store nestled in the middle of them. For a moment, it seemed like I was living somewhere on the edge of a large city (as opposed to simply “on the edge”).

In contrast, on this night I'm pretty relaxed and content, and instead of Xenakis I'm listening to the soothing sounds of the dishwasher.

Luna joins Weekend Cat Blogging…

at least if I'm not too late already. Weekend Cat Blogging, or WCB, is being hosted this week by Heather along with her adorable cats Pause and Carmel. Hopefully, I get this post in time. If not, it's a good excuse to post a recent action shot of Luna enjoying a new gift from a friend:

I have also added a separate category for Luna alongside the existing cats category for those who want to see more of her and less of the other stuff…

Little Sound Dj and "lo-fi" synthesis

I came across some interesting resources while visiting Ouroboros Complex the other day, in particular references to lo-fi synthesizers for small devices, such as Nanoloop for the GameBoy. Unfortunately, there was no free demo that I could run on my VisualBoyAdvance emulator, but I did find another synthesizer/sequencer that did: Little Sound Dj. It is set up like an old-style tracker application:

One can assign notes within a phrase (or larger structures called songs and chains) to various instruments. The instruments can be pulse tones, noise, built-in drumkits (emulating several classic lo-fi drum machines like Roland TR and even a “drumulator”), and custom waves that you can hand edit:

Although it is cute and fun to play around and see what one can do with such a limited but nonetheless interesting pallette, I think it falls short for actual musical work because of the interface and lack of interoperability with my other software and hardware instruments. Much of the lo-fi synthesis can be easily accomplished with OSW (check out the lo-fi and swiss_cheese tutorials) or several freely-available VST isntruments – and Ableton Live! remains a much more usable system for quick real-time pattern editing. I will be looking into some other lo-fi synthesizer plug-ins or algorithms to use in OSW and post more in a future article…