When the occasional brand X keyboard shows up in Goodwill or thrift stores, they're nearly always in need of some TLC. Which is where guys like Mike Walters come in. Walters, an A/V guy who repairs and sells vintage keyboards on his mysterycircuits.com site, got into circuit bending--modifying cheap circuits and keyboards to create hybrid sounds--through instructions he found on an Internet site. But it's one of those things you really need to learn by doing: Walters fearlessly rips out circuit boards, "hot rodding" and rewiring old cheap gear and manning his soldering gun and alligator clips like a Jedi warrior.
The tools of Walter's trade are a soldering gun (and plenty of solder), alligator clips and wires (leads), cheap circuit boards taken out of trashed Casios and video games, and plenty of good old-fashioned ingenuity. A tinkerer who happens to be a longtime musician (he currently plays keyboards in indie rock band Jett Rink), Walters turned his love of electronic music--this is a guy, mind you, who has a large DEVO tattoo on his calf--to a full-time side job.
The workroom of the townhouse he shares with his wife, a medical resident, is filled with hipster collectables: an old "Science Fair" kit; a Manhattan Research CD/booklet set on orchestra-leader-turned-electronic-music-inventor Raymond Scott; and a bio of Gary Numan, of whom Walters is a huge fan. It's also a vintage keyboard geek's wet dream: There's a '70s ARP AXXE synth, a Hammond L-112 ("the Booker T. model," Walters notes) complete with a Leslie speaker, a vintage Moog, and his "everyday" keyboard, a '60s, US-combo organ called a Melo-Sonic 300.
Walters has been collecting vintage keyboards for some time, but he says that it took eBay to really run prices into the stratosphere. On one hand, it ensures that synth buffs will have access to the stuff; on the other, that they're going to pay dearly for the convenience.
To illustrate the circuit-bending concept, Walters does a quick demonstration using a junked Casio and the aforementioned tools, adding a photo resistor and connecting points with alligator clips. "I've made a theremin," he says, controlling the woo-woo pitch emitted by the circuit board (plugged through an amp) by varying the proximity of his hand. Walters then shows us his first invention (one that gets used at every Jett Rink gig), the "Globotron." The device is pure Mystery Science Theater--it's a blue and green hollow plastic earth ("I think it was a lunchbox for some nerd kid in its previous life," Walters says) with a circuit card from an '80s video game called "Stop Thief" with knobs and oscillators. To control the unit's photo resistors, Walters uses a flying saucer-shaped device made with an ashtray, a stove burner cover, a bulb (covered with an "unshrunk 'Shrinky Dink,'" used as a light diffuser); it's pure Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Along with his creations, Walters also repairs keyboards for local musicians, which came in handy when he picked up his new/old Moog at the post office. After eagerly awaiting the synth's arrival, he plugged it in to be greeted by ... nothing. When he took the keyboard apart he discovered that two connects on the transformer had fallen off during shipping. "So, it really wasn't any big deal," he says.
For people that aren't interested or knowledgeable about electronics, modified keyboards do turn up on eBay. The Web also is a good resource for sites on how to tackle circuit bending yourself, as well as resources to find schematics and information about vintage keyboards if you already own one.
If you're interested, contact Walters at his site, www.mysterycircuits.com, where he promises to "talk your EAR off about electronics, Hammond organs, subtractive synthesis, two-stroke motors [he's also a scooter fanatic], or quantum physical wave formations and the ethereal quality of their frequencies. Seriously. Get me drinking and I'll babble over trivial shit that really means nothing."