Nicolas Collins Interview

A while back we at sat down with Nicolas Collins the man who quite literally wrote the book on sound manipulation with regards to electronic music. Collins’ 2006 book Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking has proved to be extremely popular with hobbyists, electronica music enthusiasts and sound artists themselves alike. As well as this, Mr Collins has proven through this book that not only is he very knowledgeable in his field (and with good reason given his list of accomplishments, which include a myriad of contemporary compositions and the fact that in many ways he is a pioneer of this particular music genre) but also that he can convey his ideas and designs in such a manner as not to be daunting or confusing to those who may have a more base level of understanding of electronic circuitry or indeed music theory/sound manipulation in general.

In this interview we discuss with Mr Collins the pros and cons of software vs. hardware, how and why he started to tinker and toy with circuitry, who influenced him throughout his career and what he thinks lies ahead with the hacker scene in the future.
We hope you enjoy watching this interview as much as we enjoyed sitting down and talking to the man in person.

Essential Reading: Handmade Electronic Music by Nicolas Collins

So you’ve seen the monome, x0xb0x, atari punk console, people making their own pedals/synths and the vast amount of interesting things to be done with the Arduino. This abundance of DIY activity has awakened a primitive beast deep down in the reptilian core of your brain. This awakening infiltrates the rest of your consciousness and suddenly you find yourself looking at videos of smug jerks with their own DIY instruments thinking, “I hate you so much. I want to make things too. F__ off with your home made modular synth. I hope you choke on it!”

If the above describes you perfectly then you may very well have some rage issues which I cannot help you with. What I can help you with is your potential hacking skills by advising you to buy a copy of “Handmade Electronic Music” by Nicolas Collins.

This book should be the foundation for anyone attempting to get into hardware hacking, electronic instrument building or any form of DIY music making. First published in 2006 (second edition 2009),  this book takes the reader from the very beginning and teaches you the fundamental rules and techniques of hacking as well as what tools and materials you will need to get started.

Collins introduces us to the fact that there is music all around us in our everyday lives. (I’m sure he would have gotten on swimmingly with John Cage if they ever met.)  In one chapter, any electrical appliance can become a source of interesting sound using just a small amplifier and a pick up coil (see video below). In another, he unlocks the hidden audio potential of credit cards and other objects that make use of electromagnetism. It is essential to be aware of unusual sources of sound when hacking and Collins lays this foundation before moving on to more advanced topics.

While on the one hand opening our eyes and minds to the untapped musical potential of our surrounding environment, Collins importantly takes time out to explain essential hacking skills such as soldering (without which you won’t get very far), finding the clock circuit in hackable toys (and subsequently how to mess with said clock to produce cool sounds), how to understand different types of switches, how to power and package a hacked toy, how to take an idea from breadboard to circuit board and how to put the finishing touches to a completed project. You will also learn some very useful theory such as Ohm’s Law which is explained very simply and clearly.

One of the best aspects of the book is that it was written with the musician/composer in mind rather than the electronic engineer. This means that any possibly confusing principles or technical jargon are explained thoroughly and are related directly to the projects that comprise much of this book. (Speaking of the projects, there is also a DVD that accompanies the text with 13 video tutorials (also on YouTube), 87 video clips and 20 audio tracks from an international array of hackers, musicians and artists.) These projects include making your own condenser mic, pseudo-theremin, analog to digital converter, animated dagguerreotype, digital to analog converter and even a small power amplifier.

Another thing I really like about this book is that Collins relates each topic and chapter to artists and musicians that make use of DIY principles and techniques in their work. He also places everything into context with historical anecdotes detailing the progression of the technology he is talking about.

I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone interested in DIY music making. The only difficulty I can see people having with this book is the sourcing of the components for each project. Appendix A goes through some resources but because Collins is resident in the USA they are mainly based across the pond. The only source he lists that would be applicable to Irish or UK hackers is Maplins (which would probably be my last choice of supplier due to ridiculously high prices). A good source for components in small consumer quantities is Bits Box which is based in the UK.

Without a doubt, this book will give you the know-how and skills necessary to confidently attempt to make any demented contraption you can think of and is the perfect introduction to the art of hardware hacking.

Bryan Dunphy