Circuit Bending at Moogfest 2014: Inside the Wild Mind of Dr. Blankenstein

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It’s the dawn of Moogfest 2014, and scores of synth-heads are set to descend on Asheville, North Carolina.

Drew Blanke -- "Dr. Blankenstein" -- zinging his thing.

Drew Blanke — “Dr. Blankenstein” — zinging his thing.

Many will be there to listen, and many will be there to make music with all the Moogs they can eat – an audacious outpouring sparked by the mind of Dr. Robert Moog.

(Now said like Rod Serling): Among those enthusiasts will be one Drew Blanke AKA Dr. Blankenstein, a man so heavily influenced by the machinations of Moog that it has shaped his entire existence. From a personal furor over knobs and sliders, he has delved even deeper into the purposely primitive art of circuit bending.

(OK, you can go back to your normal reading-to-yourself-voice) The founder of his own prolific NYC-based workshop of custom synths and designer effects, Blankenstein will be part of the “Music Makers” event at Moogfest, happening Thursday, April 24th.

Tweaking, hacking, and bending technology in new sonic directions will be the order of the day there, and Blankenstein will have plenty of company as he and his cohorts urge attendees on to make machines do things they were never intended to – in glorious fashion.

Blankenstein has a sharp focus coming in to his portion: the little instruments used by Kraftwerk to create their famed song “Pocket Calculator“. That’s where he’ll string together a series of eccentric devices that he, and subsequently everyone in the audience, can bend (just not break!) to their heart’s content.

What set the good doctor on this curious path – one that’s not only amused his mind, but become his profession? Read on for a highly inspiring interview with an MD of musical mischief:

Why are people interested in circuit bending and “lower-tech” approaches now, more than ever, with so many sophisticated sound-making options available?

That’s a great question, one I also find myself thinking about.  I feel the answer is a perfect storm of sorts, let me explain.  A combination of three social phenomena happening at the same time, and growing at an almost exponential rate.

The first being an overwhelming surplus of outdated and forgotten electronics. From powerful but outdated computers to old baby toys, we have been producing it all at low cost for some time now… and it’s starting to build up in heaps!

This makes for a low cost risk environment for experimentation on just about any electronic device you can think of.  When it’s the only one you have, and you paid a lot for it… the thought of you popping the screws out of it, figuring out what makes it tick and going at it with a solder iron doesn’t even occur to someone.

Next we have an overdose of “smart” devices and “virtual hardware”.. stating the obvious.. laptops, tablets, virtual instruments (computer-based versions of previously-used-as-hardware musical equipment) Garageband and so.

For years music production nerds, and general musicians alike pined for the recording, sampling and sound productions toys of the big boys.  Over the past 20 years, year by year we have gotten them… and year by year they have gotten cheaper.  At what point does moving a computer mouse around, or rubbing your finger across a screen not feel like old fashioned creativity anymore?

Lastly we have INFORMATION, documentation, step by steps, organizations such as MAKE, and more documentation.  Nine times out of ten if you are thinking about opening something up and starting a DIY project, a Google search will result in any number of different websites, videos, blogs etc of others who have done a lot of the work for you already.

Since nothing sucks more than spending a bunch of money on something, opening it up and breaking it… you can see how these three things would lend themselves to some serious DIY action.

How has Bob Moog been a particular inspiration to you in your work?

Elmo...Circuit Bent.

Elmo…Circuit Bent.

That’s kind of like asking a beaver what he thinks of wood — what CAN’T I say about Dr. Moog!

I can tell you that I remember the very first time I touched a Moog synthesizer, and that it had monstrous effect on what would be the rest of my life.  The year was 1983, and I was six years old.  My love for everything space, UFO and Sci-Fi had already been supercharged by movies such as E.T. and Star Wars, leaving an uncontrollable need to turn knobs, push buttons and make “things” light up… anything that would put me at the control of the spaceships I longed for on the silver screen.

Simultaneously, I was becoming more and more aware of music, how it was played and the different instruments its made on.  Being both a fan of the Beatles and the current breakdance music scene (which of course included Kraftwerk) gave me a constantly improving good basis to make my judgments on.

It was also becoming increasingly clear to me that the sounds I enjoyed most from both genres of music seemed to be coming from keyboards, not keyboards as I had thought they all were (pianos and such). No, there were magical keyed machines that could make any kind of sound one could imagine, and with the push of a button it was an entirely new thing.

But the Casio keyboards I was coming across in my travels, at the guitar shop my brother took lessons from, toy stores etc… didn’t look like the keyboards I had seen on the newly launched MTV, nor did they sound like them.  I think I had even talked my parents into buying me my first keyboard, it was a Casiotone VL-1 (very similar sound to the calculator used in Pocket Calculator) and soon after the Casio Sk-1 Sampling Keyboard.  I was confused, where were all the knobs and sliders I had seen on TV?

This was foreshadowing to a larger esthetic and performance limiting issue that would plague keyboards for the next 15 years to come. Not coincidentally, both of those instruments would wind up becoming two of the most circuit bent and modified keyboards ever — I suppose I was not the only one wondering where all the knobs had disappeared to.

Finally, on a trip to Radio Shack, on a top shelf, in the far back of a store by the amplifiers and hi-fi systems and such… my eyes first met a Realistic (Moog) Concertmate MG-1 synthesizer.  Now THIS was the keyboard from outer space I had pictured in my mind’s eye! I asked, no… begged the employee to plug it into one of the available amplifiers for me.

Knowing with all confidence by my age, and apparent lack of money I wouldn’t be purchasing this machine that day… but having sympathy for my young tech loving mind and eager hands, he begrudgingly plugged it all in for me.  Leaving me to the machine he stepped back to do some other work, I was surprised to find it didn’t really make much of a sound at first.  So I pushed, pulled and turned every single knob and slider on that thing almost at one time… and suddenly…BANG! A sound like I had imagined in a dream or had seen on a Saturday afternoon Sci-Fi film, on a machine that looked, and felt like I was operating a spaceship.

Although I would never own that Concertmate synthesizer, I knew I was sold… it was a meeting with a machine I would never forget, and a day that would change the course of the rest of my life. That was the day I first met Dr. Bob Moog.

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