The practice of building and hacking unique musical instruments has a long and fascinating history filled with wonderful characters and contraptions such as Harry Partch, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Reed Ghazala and New Zealand’s own Phil Dadson.
The inventive work of such pioneers can often seem beyond the range of normal human skills but building your own musical instruments and sound-making devices can actually be very achievable and rewarding. Thanks to the explosion of “maker” culture fueled by the internet over the last decade or so, there is now a great range of resources and support available for would be instrument builders.
There are still relatively few books available on this subject but one really great one is Handmade Electronic Music: The Art Of Hardware Hacking by Nicolas Collins. This title was recommended to me by Dunedin artist and musician Pete Gorman who has built some fantastic instruments and sculptures based on Collins’ designs.
In a number of fun projects Collins covers lots of important beginners topics such as tools, soldering techniques and basic electronics. As well as detailing projects for building instruments from scratch Collins also provide a lot of helpful guidance for hacking or circuit-bending existing devices or instruments. Circuit-bending is an idea originally developed by Reed Ghazala and describes the process of creatively short-circuiting and modifying battery-powered instruments and toys to make them behave in new and surprising ways. This can be a fun and accessible way to get started with instrument building, hacking and electronics in general because you begin with something that already works.
If you have an interest in any form of DIY technology, Make magazine is great for all things geeky and homemade and often features musical projects encompassing everything from cigar box guitars to digital synthesizers. Even some of the non-musical projects in Make would be inspiring reference points for instrument builders.
A large area of recent growth in the DIY musical instrument community has been analogue synthesizers. From simple projects such as Ray Wilson’s Sound Lab Mini Synth to room-sized, modular monsters, the synth DIY community is larger and more active than at anytime since the 1970’s. Some the best resources for synth DIY are online discussion forums such as the DIY forums at electro-music.com and muffwiggler.com. These sites can seem a bit arcane and intimidating on first glance but are generally very friendly and supportive of both noobs and experts alike. Ray Wilson’s websites are a great place for beginner synth builders to start reading and learning. At Music From Outer Space Wilson presents many well-documented open-source circuit designs and some good introductory reading about synthesis while at Solder Planet.com he provides lots of very useful online tools for helping with electronics and synth design.