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Speak & Spell and Circuit Bending

Speak & Spell

We’ve got a different flavor for you this week. As you know, the cabinet contains a variety of what we would consider toys. Occasionally, the cabinet doubles as a toy chest in more ways than one.

In 1978, Texas Instruments, creators of many of our favorite pedal parts, scientific calculators, watches and submarine equipment, decided to dip into the educational toy sector. Of course, this coincided with and was a subsector of TI, a venture into speech synthesis that began in 1976. Like many of TI’s innovative endeavors, the chip was the first of its kind and was to be the start of an entire new product line: one concerned with what is now known as digital signal processing, or DSP; the crux of pretty much every modern digital device on the market.

The chip—the TMC0280—was the first ever speech synthesizer to fit on one chip, and TI was determined to prove not only its functionality, but its ability to be mass-produced. The easiest path to ensure both was sticking it into a device could maximize exposure while driving innovation in a field that so desperately needed it—educational toys. The result was the Speak & Spell.

It debuted at the 1978 CES trade show and shortly thereafter was everywhere. I distinctly remember playing with one at my uncle’s house in the mid-’80s. That particular model was one of the later versions of the toy, after TI switched from the introductory “individual-buttons” model to a membrane-panel model. In 1980, the product line expanded to the Speak & Read and the Speak & Math, each equipped with the snazzy membrane panel. This type of panel was rampant in consumer electronics of this era, and was found on electronics not limited to the Moog Source, my favorite synthesizer.

So why am I telling you all this? For that, we travel back in time to 1966, when Reed Ghazala unintentionally shorted out a toy radio and heard a torrent of electronic gaga spill from the speaker. Upon taking it apart, Ghazala found the mishap and quietly began sabotaging electronics on purpose to extract the sounds from within. He eventually called it “circuit bending.”

This brings us back to the Speak & Spell, which was the first device to distill powerful, cutting-edge transistorized technology into a super cost-effective package. Its status as a lowly education toy also relegated it to thrift stores where experimenters snapped them up in droves. Be that as it may, snippets of the Speak & Spell found their way into popular music even without intentional garbling, partly because the toy said whole words, or allowed users to spell words out using it as a crude vocoder, which was still expensive in 1978.

Songs like “Woodpeckers from Space” (1984) by Dutch band VideoKids employed one, as did Model 500’s “Night Drive (Thru-Babylon)” (1993). The rich timbre of the Speak & Spell’s voice also infiltrated bands that could definitely afford much more expensive studio equipment—you’ll find the telltale voice on Pink Floyd’s “Keep Talking” (1994) and Beck’s “In a Cold Ass Fashion” (also 1994). Depeche Mode’s debut album was named for the device. Self recorded an entire album using one, 2000’s Gizmodgery. Combine those with the hundreds of other examples and it led to a time in the mid-2000s that finding cheap, battery operated toys even at thrift stores became a rough trade. You can thank Reed Ghazala for that too, as he penned the definitive book on circuit bending in 2005, Circuit-Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments.

The art of circuit bending starts and ends with experimentation, and if you had the wherewithal to actually research it prior to 2005, you’d find that plenty of experimentation had been done for you. In fact, whole guides to circuit bending the Speak & Spell had been written and furnished to knowledge seekers.

Discovering one’s own “bends” isn’t difficult—it involves taking two wires, affixing alligator clips to an end of each, then attaching the clips to each other. While running the machine and pressing buttons, poke around on the board with the exposed wire ends. When you find something that makes the toy glitch out, try inserting an electronic component in between the two alligator clips. If the result is pleasing, solder two wires to those points and solder the other ends to a switch of some kind. Some circuit bending projects are so ambitious that they include an outboard patchbay with dozens of switches. Almost all included a quarter-inch line out jack that bypassed the internal speaker and let people plug the monstrosities into mixers or amplifiers.

Circuit bending began with battery-powered devices because it was impossible to fry one (or yourself) by haphazardly poking around with wires; at worst, the machine would power cycle. Toy keyboards and other devices followed. As we entered the age where refrigerators have the Internet, detailed schematics emerged for dated electronics, making once-fryable devices ripe for benders. The band Anamanaguchi was one such band to make use of such a circuit bent item.

As musicians, we owe it to ourselves to reach past the guitar, the pedals, and the amp, into the toy chest. Anything that makes noise is and should be on the table.

VideoKids - Woodpeckers from Space

Model 500 - Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) 

Pink Floyd - Keep Talking 

Beck - In a Cold Ass Fashion 

Self - Gizmodgery