Creative Instrument Builders:
The Mutant Data Orchestra
is a project centering around an analysis of digital culture through
the elucidation of hidden sounds within cheap electronics. Through the
act of circuit bending, or the extreme modification of electronic devices,
I am able to produce completely alien sounds from apparently benign
I find most of my devices at thrift stores for very little money, looking
mostly for toy keyboards, digital answering machines or sound-making
toys. When I get a device home, I'll open it up and look at the circuit
board and try to determine where I should put switches and potentiometers,
using my fingers to run the circuit through my body or using a clip
lead with two needles to select specific shorts. Generally, I tend to
look for the biggest, juiciest chips on the board, since they usually
are the digital ones, which only deal with two voltages, +5v and 0v,
which represent high/low or 1/0 in digital parlance.
I tend to shy away from the analog sections, but these areas can be
fruitful as well. The area I avoid is the amplifier section, since this
area has a specific function that I need and usually only causes problems.
After determining the relevant contacts I'll be using, I decide what
type of switches to use and how they should be placed on the surface
of the instrument. The internal design has a direct relevance to the
external interface, so often I'll be using switches in arrays, or program
switches layered with throw switches. I also install a banana jack into
each device so that they can communicate with each other. It's a one-channel
buss that is very flexible due to the wonders of banana plugs; I call
it the NDB, or the Naïve Data Buss, and it has proved quite interesting
in the generation of autonomous sound organisms.
Packaging is also important, so I usually go for appropriate casings.
I have one briefcase that houses two interconnected Casio SK-1 samplers
and four digital answering machines with 15-minute recording times each.
I'm working on a larger flight case to house several keyboards and other
devices as well. Coupled housings with internal power and mixing make
setup at performances a lot easier. One thing I really try to do is
make sure that when all of my new switches are in the off position,
the device plays the way it was originally intended. Sometimes this
is impossible, which is fine as well.
I have about 15 different instruments in the orchestra, each one having
its own unique voice. I am always looking for more instruments to work
on, and even hacked an analog test oscillator, homemade by someone else.
Soon I will begin work on a telephone voice scrambler used for secure
conversations. Anything is possible, and with the current and growing
electrosphere, more and more different devices will surely be available
in the future. I usually avoid pro gear due to the cost. And a lot of
work can happen within the software realm, so it's pretty pointless
to hack it.
Shards of digital noise.
When I interconnect all of the separate instruments, I often get waterfalls
of layered sound working as an autonomous organism. At other times transient
signals have a completely alien nature, surprising one of the possibilities
within the realm of synthesis. Whenever I tune into an interesting rhythm,
I'm usually attracted to it through an interest in discovering patterns
that aren't available elsewhere. The sounds and patterns seem endless,
so whenever I am working with these units, I like to have a tape deck
available because I usually won't be able to reproduce any interesting
sounds I come up with. They become highly potent sound objects, just
waiting to be turned on and reveal totally new sounds.
I usually use this system in a live context, whether performing or recording.
Recorded works can later be assembled into compositions, but I'm really
more interested in live sound and real-time composition, with a close
interaction between the performer and the instruments. It's a real-time
balance between the machines surprising me while I surprise the machines
through the selective pull of a switch or an added connection to another
device. Ideally, I attempt to build living organisms in front of the
audience where my brain has an integral place within the network. Every
performance is different and encodes a certain state of mind relative
to that moment.
I basically designed the Mutant Data Orchestra devices for my own use,
and since I don't label any of the switches, it would be hard for other
performers to use them. I have performed on them with my brother, Mark
Bain, but I trust his aesthetics so it worked out well. It was at my
first show with my extended kit at the 1998 Dutch Electronic Arts Festival
(DEAF) in Rotterdam (www.v2.nl).
He was vibrating the V2 building with a computer-controlled motor system,
and I invited him to collaborate on the performance as well. The theme
of the festival was "The Art Of The Accident," which seemed
appropriate to both projects. Another show we did, in 1999, was at the
Het Paard, a large night club in Den Haag, with me on stage controlling
the MDO and him on vibrating building being fed back through the mains
from several arrays of geophones. Some destruction happened as well,
but that was the point of the exhibition. So his vibration projects
do work well with the MDO since it adds a rhythmic element to the proceedings.
I enjoy collaborating with others but end up gravitating to those who
have sensitive ears and are able to direct their consciousness appropriately.
Currently I'm working with Ffej Mandel on analog synthesizer and Mishka
Morris on cello and effects, which is working out well. When they are
around, I also work with Tero Nauha, a Finnish throat singer who has
the uncanny ability to sound like a machine, and David Ledogar, a dancer
who dances to be felt and not to be seen. He channels energy from the
sound and projects it into the audience as subtle energies. I don't
know ... it works for me, but I tend to suspend disbelief. Eventually
I want to hook him up to the NDB with an EEG device.
The sound of the MDO isn't for everyone. The first show I did was a
rave at the old Eyedrop studio, and in the middle of the set a person
announced that there was belly dancing in the next room, so everyone
left, pretty funny for a first show. I've also worked with the (Boston-based)
out-jazz group nmperign, including Bhob Rainey on soprano sax, Greg
Kelley on trumpet, and James Coleman on theremin; it turned out pretty
well. It was at a defunct cold war lab at MIT that had isolation pads
in the middle of the room for testing gyroscopes, part of Draper labs.
We had the two horn players on each pad, and surrounding them was a
suspended floor of 1/2" aluminum that my brother was vibrating.
It was interesting, because at the beginning of the sets the audience
would be sitting against the wall, but as the sets wore on the audience
would slowly move out onto the vibrating floors, some completely sprawled
on their backs, like testing the water with your toe.
There are a lot of other people who circuit bend, and I would be into
performing with them, especially if they could incorporate the NDB so
that it would be a networked performance, but so far I am the only one
who utilizes a network in this medium. I also would want to make sure
that the voltages other performers send are safe for the devices.
Basically I'm performing without a net. It is very easy to flip a switch
and crash all the devices, so I do have to be careful about what decisions
I make. This is what makes it interesting to me the fact that I always
have to work against failure. I'm working with broken gear, so failure
is always part of the equation.
I've been interested in producing
electronic music since the late 1970s. Eventually I got into the whole
sampler/MIDI reality, but became less than enthralled due to its lack
of "liveness." Samplers have their uses, but the sound is
still prerecorded and dead to me. And MIDI? There's nothing worse than
seeing a MIDI band set up their complete studio on stage, press one
button and then proceed to remix a prerecorded sequence that's deader
than dead. I think liveness within electronic music is important these
days because so many people pass off prerecorded electronic music as
being live, especially within the electronic dance community.
Modular analog gear has always been influential, especially the Buchla
stuff as well as the EMS Synthi with its matrix patch board and briefcase
packaging. The whole history of electronic musical instruments is of
interest to me, and I especially appreciate the more odd devices like
the Mixtur-Trautonium played by Oskar Sala, or the behemoth built by
Thaddeus Cahill called the Telharmonium. (www.obsolete.com/120_years).
Recently, I've been impressed by the work of Raymond Scott at the Manhattan
Research Inc. (www.raymondscott.com).
Eventually I gravitated to researching electronic sound circuits and
then discovered the plethora of cheap sound circuits in the thrift stores.
I began working on the dual SK-1 briefcase when I found an issue of
Musical Instruments (EMI) with an article on bending the SK-1 by
Q.R. Ghazala. I tried out a few of the bends and was hooked. I ended
up writing to the author expressing my excitement with the possibilities
of his techniques and he even responded with a letter on his amazing
stationery, covered with his drawings. He seems like a great person,
and he's been doing this since the late 60s, starting out on old transistor
The Japanese noise scene was also very influential. I saw a great Merzbow
show in 1994 at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, which clued
me in to the spiritual potential of pure noise and the fact that some
noise is good and other noise can be bad. Noise can have a quality that
goes against the common belief that all noise is the same, and that
it annoys. A lot of noise projects utilize interconnected pedals and
effects that I can also appreciate from a network sensibility. One of
the first people to utilize these ideas of interconnected electronics
was David Tudor. I really liked his algorithmic approach to live work
the composition is the setup, the algorithm.
Finally, I would have to mention the first circuit benders, Bébé
and Louis Barron, who did the soundtrack to the 1956 film Forbidden
Planet. For this they built several types of sound circuits and then
proceeded to distress them through overpowering; then they recorded
the resulting sounds for the film.
Locally, I really like the work of rebreather, who use similar techniques
but produce a completely different sound than mine. Paul Rubenstein
also makes some great string instruments that are auto-activated through
motorized magnets. He also has a great ear with his devices and winds
his own coils as well. I'm always interested in checking out what others
are doing with homemade or modified electronics, since it usually reveals
truly new sounds that you might not find with commercial gear.
Advice for instrument
First of all, I would check
and Q.R. Ghazala's excellent articles on basic circuit bending techniques
and the sample shuttle article on bending the Casio SK-1. Then I would
just start messing around with shorting circuits in cheap electronics.
Of course you have to take precautions when working with electricity,
so if you are unsure of what you are doing, either give up or just use
batteries. I'm pretty much self-taught on electronics, but that is why
I started this work: to demystify the workings within electronics, especially
John Bain has two degrees
in architecture and currently is working in sound, video, and interactive
lighting devices. To Bain, working in sound is "like practicing
architecture blind." Sound samples of his Mutant Data Orchestra
can be heard at (206) 736-7300.