Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hardware Hacking

I've always been interested in electronics and how they work, but whenever I would decide to actually try and learn about schematics or whatever, the particular information source was always too "clinical" or assumed that I knew more basic fundamentals than did. Long story short, I always walked away going "ahhh, fuck it".

Since getting interested in modular synthesis I've been able to understand some of the more abstract fundamentals and concepts to general electronics. Also, through the brain-picking of colleagues I've been able to have a general idea of what resisters did, what capacitors did, etc. I still wasn't able to actually look at a schematic and understand what it was.

So I had been looking for ultimate beginners books that went about teaching through application; ie. making something, not just explaining everything like a spec sheet.
At AH Bay Area, I won a copy of the "Best of Analog Dialog" book which was a compilation of various application examples using Analog Devices ICs. I thought I finally had exactly what I was looking for... But, my heart sank when I started to dive into it and once again was saying to myself, "ahhh, fuck it".

Fast forward to the most recent TapeOp (no. 61 Sept/Oct 2007) and an interview with Nicolas Collins. Nicolas Collins is an "electronic musician" and teacher at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago. His book, Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking, is essentially based on his course of creating, modifying, and otherwise "abusing" electronic devices in order to make sound. Basically, it's like old school circuit bending (it's not exclusive to electronic toys) with a healthy dose of circuit design.

I must say, this book is absolutely brilliant. It's not written like a typical course book (in fact I wouldn't have known it was based on course material had I not actually read the intro) and it does not delve into great deal about general electronics or "engineering", it just gets right into actually making something.

Some fantastic examples are wiring up tape heads from cassette recorders or answering machines and swiping them over credit cards. Or making a piezo microphone and dipping it in "Plasti-Dip" (a plastic normally used to coat hand tools) so that it is water proof and usable to record under water, or even the sound of water freezing / ice melting!

By far my favorite part (thus far, I haven't even gotten half way through) was using a cheap CMOS inverter chip to create several square wave oscillators. He didn't actually explain schematics until you had a working circuit on a breadboard (with actual photos). I can now actually say that I understand many aspects of schematics now thanks to this. The way he will show you a modification to the circuit (swapping a resister for a potentiometer) with a real picture and then with the schematic representation made prefect sense and allowed me to better understand what the schematic meant. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all.

So anyway, long post short, go by this book. It's awesome. I already have several ideas for cool little instruments that I want to make, AND thanks to this book I feel like I can actually make them. Thank you Nicolas Collins!!!

Now I might actually understand what that Analog Dialog book is talking about after all. :D

1 comment:

kakihara said...

OHHHH!!I love that book!
A friend of mine gave it to me last year.... I've read it all, still didn't have time to make anything so far... :(
but it,s there in my head LOL!!!