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Gadget Gurus Go Wild at Bent Festival

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The Bent Festival in New York City is a circuit-bending convention where adventurous geeks rewire toys and electronic gadgets.


From NPR New, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Lynn Neary.

For some people, a talking doll or a toy instrument isn't really a plaything unless it's been opened up and modified, its sound chip probed and short- circuited to create random beeps and tones.

The process is called circuit bending, and it appeals to musicians and other artists looking for a low-cost way to create their own unique electronic sounds. Each year, they gather in cities across the country at the Bent Festival, a weeklong, circuit-bending blowout. Reporter Lars Hoel attended the last leg of the festival in New York.

LARS HOEL: This is a story about grown-up children who like to break their toys.

PATRICK BOBILIN: There's a Barbie karaoke machine that I've modified. I rewired it so that the tape deck could go through the echo chip that was in it. It was built so that, you know, little girls could have a little party and plug a microphone into it, sing along and have an echo effect like they're at a real stadium or something. But that echo effect is, you know, you can access the circuitry and, you know, modify it and create, you know, a lot of weird, looping effects and weird glitches and tonal, you know, noise.


HOEL: Patrick Bobilin came from Amherst, Massachusetts with his Barbie karaoke machine, old tape players and other gear to be one of two dozen performers at the Bent Festival. Some of the acts have names like "Mr. Resistor" and "Loud Objects," which might give you an idea of what's going on here. Nearly everyone has taken apart some electronic toy or noise-making gadget and bent the circuit - literally, rewired the circuit board to make and create sounds that Hasbro or Mattel or Texas Instruments never intended.


JOKER NIES: I'm Joker Nies from Cologne, Germany...


HOEL: Joker Nies is part of an ensemble called die schrauber, which in German means "the tinkerers."

NIES: I tinker with speech toys and specially built instruments like a theremin instrument and the omnichord, which is omni - all the chords I modified. It's (unintelligible) and heavenly.

HOEL: How did you modify it?

NIES: It's got a gazillion of body contacts. We can modulate the sound in any way you want.


HOEL: Music performance is only a part of the Bent Festival, which is held in a huge former warehouse in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

Workshops provide hands-on instruction in circuit bending, and there are interactive displays, which let festivalgoers flip switches, turn knobs and press buttons to their heart's content.


Unidentified Man: You're not getting anything else good out of me.

HOEL: What happened to My Little Talking Computer?


BOBILIN: That's what happens. You hit a glitch and it fries it, and I don't know its reset switch. There you go.

HOEL: Aha.

Man: Yeah. That's what happens when you read instructions.

HOEL: For people who really enjoy reading the instructions, there's a magazine - of course there is - for the do-it-yourself circuit bender.

PHILLIP TORRONE: I'm Phil Torrone, senior editor of MAKE Magazine, and we do projects like aerial kite photography, mag stripe readers, how to turn a mouse into a robot - like, computer mouse into a robot - circuit bending, which of course, is going on here, what we like to call like, you know, science fair on steroids (unintelligible).

HOEL: And if you do build a kit from the pages of MAKE Magazine or rip apart a Speak n Spell or a Casio keyboard from the '80s, you are working closely with electricity. According to circuit bender Pete Edwards, the dangers are minimal - as long as you follow the rules.

PETE EDWARDS: You don't want anything that's plugged into the wall because - I've heard lots of horror stories. IT can definitely hurt you badly. If you're using a battery-powered toy, kid's toy, no - it is not dangerous at all.


EDWARDS: I've been doing this full time for seven years, and I've never gotten bored of it because there's always something new. If nothing else, it's funny and fun. Sometimes it's musically beautiful, sometimes it's just really complex and interesting. There's just so many levels of appeal.


HOEL: Full-time circuit bender Pete Edwards at the Bent Festival, New York. For NPR News, I'm Lars Hoel.


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