Circuit Bending: How Sinclaire built a synth out of a Sega Genesis

We chat with the Sydney group's keys player Jake about how he builds his bizarre contraptions

If you're not yet around Sinclaire, it's safe to say that you're well and truly missing out on something special. The Sydney outfit's twinkling brand of indie-pop is near irresistible, fusing anthemic guitars with smooth production on singles like 'I Needed You' and new hit 'Let's Fly To Rome' to maximum effect.

What many don't know about Sinclaire, however, is that the band's resident keyboardist Jake is quite the boffin, studying electrical engineering and building some of the gear heard in the group's music by hand. Being the tech nerds we are, we were totally fascinated when we heard about this - especially when we found out Jake built a synth out of a vintage Sega Genesis video game console.

 

Naturally, this fascinated us, so we reached out to Jake to find out all about his history with circuit bending, how he goes about his work, and exactly how he turned an old video game into a very functional synthesiser. 

 

 

Tell us a bit about yourself, Jake - how'd you get into circuit bending?

Jake: "I was always intrigued with the way things work, and just always building stuff. Tinkering, holding onto junk to upcycle it into some gadget or another - there was a lot of useless stuff. 

 

"I broke first ground in the music electronics side of things when I found out I could convert an old CRT television into a budget oscilloscope. From there, I was obsessed with building oscillators, experimenting with waveforms and electronics at an early age. I had studied piano from a young age, but surprisingly, it took years to realise music and electronics even went together. I got my first synth in 2015: a Moog Sub37. Full blown, head over heels in love.

 

"After having studied the basics of electronics in first year uni, I started to dive into the DIY world. I made some fuzz pedals for my mates (with mixed results), and cobbled together a bad spring reverb, just coming up with wacky ideas for pedals and synth bits and pieces."

 

Who inspired you to start doing all of this? 

J: "Joshua Hayward from The Horrors. This is a really early memory of mine - I was watching some documentary on the Horrors and Joshua Hayward was talking about how he builds pedals for the band on tour. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I have always loved The Horrors music. Something about that dark tattered, imperfect rawness just gets me.

 

"Also, Sam Battle from Look Mum No Computer is a big one. Not going to lie, I used to tell people that this is who I wanted to be when I grew up. Sam builds some of the most ridiculous contraptions you have ever seen.  Synthesisers out of Gameboys and Commodore 64’s, analogue synths that are designed to make fart noises, flame throwing pipe organs, synthesisers with 1000 oscillators, fully polyphonic organs out of Furbies, the list goes on and on. The guy is a maverick. Sam has an amazing energy that inspires you to get in and do something no matter how silly you think it might be.

 

 

"Hainbach is also one of my favourite ambient musicians and composers. He relentlessly makes music and attempts to capture his physical space into sonic form. Hainbach started building a collection of really old electronic test equipment, function generators and filter banks. With these contraptions, Hainbach is composing music and making sounds in the way that the early pioneers of electronic music did, like Wendy Carlos, Suzanne Ciani and Pierre Schaeffer.

 

"Finally, Simon the Magpie is one of the most batshit crazy YouTubers. Simon is a legend in the circuit bending scene. Circuit bending is the process of taking a piece of technology and forcing more musicality out of it by shorting out bits of circuitry, adding potentiometers and buttons whatever that makes it weird and twisted."

 

Tell us about some of the first things you built. 

J: "My very first project was a light that was controlled by music. I am pretty sure I was 12 at the time. It used one transistor and a couple of resistors. I saw it on instructables.com and had no idea what i was doing. It worked out just fine!

 

"Continuing the thread of audiovisual, ny second obsession was converting old CRT televisions into Oscilliscopes. I learnt the basics of how an oscilloscope worked in Year 12 physics. I found an old junk TV and started fiddling (side note - this is very dangerous and you should not do it). I made my strange oscilloscope and was delighted. I could change the colour of the wave, I could plug my iPad into it and see GarageBand synth waveforms. I could stare at my favorite song's waveforms. A dream come true.

 

"Once I started uni, I realised that there was quite a community online for audio electronics - people out there hunting down guitar tones and drooling over Klon clones and worshipping germanium transistors. This inspired me to get in and build one of my own, I called it the Tone Fighter. It was an obscure transistor driven op-amp fuzz. It was un-buffered and gate-y and weird, and has the tone control from a Big Muff. In my online escapades into MuffWiggler forums I found out there were people building synthesisers. This blew my tiny mind, and so off I went."

 

 

What about some synths and sequencers? 

J: The Triple Oscillator Box was a really easy one that got me into the world of synth building. It really is the most simple thing. There is a project that Look Mum No Computer details on YouTube, where he shows a way you can make a simple Sawtooth oscillator with three components. If you are looking to get into building, you should check out the Super Simple Oscillator on YouTube."

 

"I made a digital logic drum machine when I was studying digital logic at uni and realised it was fundamentally how drum machines work. I then found out there was a gadget put out by Spark Fun called a Wav Trigger. It is essentially a board that you load samples onto and can trigger polyphonically using digital logic. From there, I used some basic CMOS logic chips to make an eight step sequencer that can trigger the samples. I intentionally made some of the digital logic exposed so that using patch cables you can mess around with the order of the trigger outputs and the timing. This give you heaps of freedom to all kinds of patterns, and there's also no restriction to what you load onto the Wav trigger. You could have melodic notes, kick drums, the sound of your mate sneezing - whatever you want. My favourite set of samples that I have loaded at the moment is the drums from 'Idioteque' by Radiohead.

 

"During my studies I undertook a course that required us to design and build something that doesn't exist. So we got stuck into building a new type of synthesiser. I always had an idea of creating a sequencer that works in two dimensions. Notes assignable to a point on a grid and a cursor that tracks the X and Y axis (like an Etch-a-sketch). The X and Y parameters are controllable by independent sequencers with the same flexibility as the drum machine previously mentioned. The sequencing element of the synthesiser interfaced with a custom-built synthesizer voice. This consisted of a filter clone from a Korg MS20, A single oscillator with a sub-oscillator and an envelope generator that I designed myself. The result is a wonky, bleepy bloopy machine that I love for its complete and utter weirdness.

 

"Now, the Frankenstein Sega Genesis Synth. There comes a point in every synth nerds career where they tackle the concept of FM synthesis. FM is a way of building waveforms from the ground up using sine waves and really extreme modulation. For those who don’t know, there is a classic synthesiser called the Yamaha DX-7 which is responsible for all the cringe sounds of the '80s. Lots of people have a love/hate relationship with them. This is due to the fact that FM synthesisers are nearly really tough to program. In the DX-7, for example, there are 168 individual parameters. It is not viable to put 168 knobs on the front panel of a synthesiser, so they deal with this by using a digital interface."

 

 

What has this got to do with Sonic the Hedgehog?

J: "Sega released a flagship gaming console in 1989 called the Sega Genesis. The Sega Genesis generates its sounds using a distinctive voice chip Yamaha YM2612 (sexy name I know). The YM2612 is a six voice, four operator FM synthesiser chip, which has a very distinctive sound. There are a few people out there who love the idea of accessing this chip inside the Genesis to harness all its weird FM goodness. Look Mum No Computer had done just that. Using resources from Catskull Electronics, (who has developed a MIDI interface for the chip), LMNC made a MIDI controller allowing for knob control over the FM parameters.

 

"I hunted down a Genesis on Gumtree and have dived head first into doing a conversion. Although the global pandemic stunted the progression of this project, I have it in a playable state as a polyphonic synthesiser. I just need to piece together the bank of approximately 70 knobs and switches to control all those pesky FM parameters!"

 

Why do this whole DIY / musical upcycling thing in the first place? How do you even get started?

J: "When you spend the time building or circuit-bending something, you begin to develop a connection to it. The machine starts to become alive. By diving in with a soldering iron, you truly feel like you are bringing something to life. There is something inherently satisfying about reaching into a retro piece of tech and unlocking it’s musicality that would have been lost.

 

"There is also the thrill of the chase, all the inherent messiness of it all. Sometimes, you stumble upon some sounds that no one has ever heard. Sometimes you fry the motherboard and it’s... ah... game over. The biggest piece of advice is to just freaking get in there and do it. Start small! Electronic components are very cheap. There is a huge community online, and there is no failure, only learning - and also used power filtering capacitors on digital logic IC’s."

 

 

Sinclaire's latest single 'Let's Fly To Rome' is out now - listen to it here!

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