- Nicolas Collins: Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking
The Art of Hardware Hacking is listed in the Library of Congress under "Electronic apparatus and appliances-Design and construction Amateurs' manuals-Electronic musical instruments," and all of these labels are true for this unusual book, which is actually about unusual sounds. Not only will it guide the reader through the process of creating such sounds, but will also explain how the pioneers of unusual sounds, such as John Cage, David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, Leon Theremin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and others, achieved them. It is a compilation of simple instructions, showing how to rebuild some of the more obscure and obnoxious sound-creating devices from old and cheap electronics, saving waste from the landfill. It is a guide of how to be creative and inventive with electronics, which are so much a part of everyday life that they are too often considered as magical black boxes that can't be opened or altered or even used for a different purpose. It is presented as a playful approach to the basics of electronic engineering, and can be picked up by [End Page 96] the curious musician with no knowledge about electronics whatsoever, as much as it is a serious textbook for an electronic music course at a university. It only assumes that the reader has knowledge of musical terms.
Nicolas Collins is acting chair of the sound department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and an active composer and performer of electronic music. He has been a student of Ian Cross, Alan Blackwell, and Alvin Lucier; worked with John Cage and David Tudor; is Editor in Chief of the Leonardo Music Journal; and when he isn't busy with all this, he writes plug-ins for SuperCollider. He has taken a series of handouts for a course in summer 2002 at SAIC and turned them into a joyful, readable journey through the deepest fantasies of a little child, who constantly feels the urge to take her toys apart, try them out under different conditions, and alter their function, abusing them with curiosity and thus "sacrificing [them] on the altar of the weird" (p. 49). Some of these ideas border on heresy to those who strictly obey the label "No serviceable parts inside," and never look at those insides. For example, he encourages the taking apart of an old (battery-powered!) AM radio and, while it is running, tuning it into empty frequencies and touching the circuit board with wet (licked) fingers in different spots, to create unusual sounds.
But this is only the beginning. After teaching the reader basic soldering skills, the author goes on to show how the "soft spots" on any (battery-powered!) circuit are found and then carefully altered by bridging the existing resistors with different conductive materials like human skin (as in the licking touch), rusty nails, or even fruits and vegetables (they do have a conductivity!), or lead pencil drawings on a piece of paper. To anyone for whom all of this sounds confusing, one can listen to the enclosed CD, which features some of these experiments in real life, undertaken by established electronic music researchers. This CD makes for an excellent collection of weird sound pieces, all of them convincing and of good sound quality.
Mainly based on technology from the 1970s, The Art of Hardware Hacking takes one from the basics of soldering to the construction of customized PCBs (printed circuit boards), built and hand-soldered with cheap over-the-counter electronic parts, that do exactly what the electronic musician or engineer wants them to do, from an easy amplifier with distortion to a fairly complex synthesizer.
Chapter 1 describes the tools and materials needed, all of which are relatively cheap and easy to get, like...