The Beginner's Resource Guide to Electronic Instrument Building

Electronic music refers to the production of music by using electronic instruments and technology. Some of the popular electronic music instruments include the electric guitar, the synthesizer, and the Hammond organ. Initially, electronic music was used in Western art music, but presently, electronic music has made inroads to popular music domains such as electronic dance music and experimental art music.

The Basics

The fundamentals of creating an electronic music device are soldering, basic electronic knowledge, and safety. Soldering is the process by which the vast majority of electrical connections large enough to be visible to the naked eye are made. An understanding of basic electrical theory will help the beginner comprehend both how a device functions, and how it can be altered and made to function better or differently. A familiarity with basic electronic components including resistors, capacitors, transistors, integrated circuits, and more will be a great tool in the successful creation of any electronic noisemaker. Likewise, such a familiarity will help the tinkerer avoid anything that might cause smoke, fire, or worse. Safety is a very real and worthwhile consideration for the DIY instrument builder. Even when just circuit bending small, battery powered devices, one should be aware that a large enough capacitor can hold a charge powerful enough to deliver a significant shock. Such circuits are generally limited to devices such as camera flashes, which deliver a great deal of energy over a short period of time, (and are rare in toys of the type that are typically circuit-bent) but it is worth noting that when venturing into larger and more powerful devices, there may be enough residual charge left in large capacitors to cause serious harm. Musical tinkering need not be a dangerous hobby however, so long as one remains aware and exercises a moderate degree of care.

Circuit Bending

Circuit bending is primarily a process of low voltage short-circuiting on electronic devices such as children’s toys or audio players. It is a process used to discover random and spontaneous sound effects. Circuit bending was pioneered in the 1960’s by writer and musician, Reed Ghazala. Presently, it has become a favored hobby of DIY-minded music enthusiasts because it offers a multitude of sound and noise possibilities from inexpensive materials. Circuit-bent devices are gradually increasing in popularity and are making appearances in music by increasingly mainstream artists. Typically, circuit bending involves exposing the internal components of a sound-emitting electronic device, and using wire, alligator clips, and/or probes, intentionally bridging and shorting portions of the circuit until it generates a unique sound unintended by the designer.

DIY Synthesizers

For some, DIY synthesizers are extremely enjoyable to create but there are certain considerations, and a moderate learning curve to be aware of. First, DIY synthesizers are time consuming, especially if you are a novice. Secondly, certain basic-to-moderate soldering skills are required to make a functional synthesizer. Thirdly, basic electronic knowledge is a must. Many other skills can contribute to the hobby. Some synth enthusiasts take great pride in creating devices that are as much works of art as they are functional musical instruments.

The basic component of a synthesizer is an audio-frequency oscillator. This component creates the fundamental audio element that every other synthesizer element will act upon. Some of the components which are added to many synthesizers include voltage controlled amplifiers, (VCAs) low frequency oscillators, (LFOs) low and high pass filters, (as well as notch and bandpass filters) and many more. These elements are frequently aligned in such a way so as to allow the output of one to be plugged into the input of another so that they may interact, creating unique sounds. Some components may not feed audio at all, but instead simply generate a signal to control the behavior of others. Not all such components (often referred to as modules) are included in every synthesizer, but they are the key to making synthesized tones interesting.

The construction of electronic music devices is a very broad endeavour, but the fundamental requirement is the desire to create something new. Be curious, and be safe!