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Old toys make electronic music

Published: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 9:23 a.m. CST

DeKALB – Wondering what to do with those old electronic toys that keep counting, beeping, and singing from the bottom of the toy box? Try rewiring them to create new electronic sound machines. The practice is called circuit bending, and it’s the subject of a free hands-on lab hosted by STEM Outreach on Saturday, May 17.

The lab will be held from 9 a.m. to noon in Swen Parson Hall room 146, on the campus of Northern Illinois University. Free parking is available at NIU’s parking garage. Organizers say this hands-on lab will be fun for elementary and middle school students; parents are encouraged to play and discover alongside their children. STEM Outreach Associate Jeremy Benson said the group will take apart electronic toys and rewire them to make new sounds. Participants can bring their own used electronic toys or use one of those provided.

“We want participants to learn about electricity and have fun experimenting with circuits,” Benson said.

Benson will co-host the lab with circuit bending enthusiast Mike Taylor from NIU’s Digital Convergence Lab. Taylor holds a master of music degree in computer music and new media technology from NIU, and has been circuit bending for almost 10 years.

“There is a large community of people who are interested in circuit bending as a post-modern art form,” he said. “They take commercial products and make them into new instruments and aesthetic pieces.”

Taylor said the sounds you create will depend on the toy or instrument you start with, but benders can stumble upon interesting low-fidelity glitch noises and creepy, interesting versions of the children’s melodies that many toys are programmed to play. Speak-and-Spells and other toys from the 1980s have been popular items for bending, but Taylor's favorite bend so far came when he rewired a toy robot.

“When you cross a few key wires on the robot, it goes berserk and cycles through a continuous loop of screams and squawks,” he said. "It’s about hands-on trial and error and experimentation. Anyone who can hold a screwdriver can start bending. It’s all about discovery.”

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