Handmade Electronic Music – Mini Book Review

Saturday, January 9th, 2010 | Building Things, Electronics

Handmade Electronic Music
The Art of Hardware Hacking
Second Edition with DVD

by Nicolas Collins

 ISBN 9780415998734
£21.99 (cheaper online)


Beeep Buz-z-z-z-z-z P-p-ping!

First of all I must say that before I read this book I my experience of electronics was very basic. I had begun to get interested in making circuits but didn’t really know where to start. As it turns out this publication is an outstanding introduction. 

Nicholas Collins is a composer and performer of electronic music who has worked with John Cage, Alvin Lucier, and David Tudor he is also Professor of sound at The School of Art Institute of Chicargo. It’s clear from the start of his book that this is a man on the same wavelength as the many experimental musicians and artists, the makers and hackers. His teaching style is hands-on, informative and favors the rational of  the ear over that of the oscilloscope. 

HEM Kicks off Part I with what tools you’ll need to get started and outlines the ‘Seven Basic Rules of Hacking’ which starts out like this”

Rule #1: Fear not!
Ignorance is bliss, anything worth doing is worth doing wrong, and two wrongs can make a right.

Swiftly into Part II which is entitled ‘Listening’ where the subject of ‘Circuit Sniffing’ is introduced. This part covers various ways in which we can listen to and make sound from electrical sources. It also includes detailed how-to’s on: soldering, making a contact pickup, and making an electret microphone.

In Part III it’s time for ‘Touching’ and techniques for making your body part of the circuit are introduces. There is also an introduction to circuit-bending. And a tiny bit of theory (Ohm’s Law – well kind of….)

Part IV is ‘Building’ and covers how to make sound using simple (and cheap) CMOS chips. Various well documented projects progress through: making an Oscillator,  Cross Modulation of  Oscillators, Feedback Loops, Tone Controls, Gating, Tremolo, and panning signals, amplification, distortion, pitch tracking and even a simple sequencer!

Part V covers ‘Looking’ where sounds are drawn from: IR remote controls and Video signals. He also covers ways in which LCD displays can be corrupted.

Part VI ‘Finishing’ sweeps up the loose ends by looking at making your own Mixers and Mixer matrices (think aux sends), he shows plans for a cheap and simple power amplifier, using sensors to interface with a computer, and a quick look at alternative power supplies including: solar, dynamo, and using transformers instead of 9v the battery power which is used for the projects in the book. At the end of this part is an informative and inspiring look the work of  a selection of makers. 

The book is rounded out with an excellent set of Appendices. Covering Resources on the web, books and other sources. All the tools and components needed are listed – US suppliers are listed (which is not very useful to most of the world). The ‘Rules of Hacking’ are expended to 25 in number. And finally notes on the DVD which includes links to a million and one interesting web sites. 

The DVD has features some of the projects in the book, an artist gallery which gives you some nice examples of other peoples work, and and audio section. It’s not a super slick affair  but it gets the job done and is an excellent accompaniment to the book.

What did i think of this book?

Simply put – I love this book, it’s fascinating and informative in equal measure, Collins has the demeanorof a child at play as he talks you through ripping apart CD players, radios, and transforming kids toys into demonic sound makers. He obviously still has a lot of fun exploring sound and sound making. Writing clearly and logically (with a hint of the magical) the ideas raised really do come across in a powerful and  inspirational way. Although there is not much in the way of technical speak, there is enough to get you going and the websites listed at the end of the book will take the interested reader further. 

My only criticism is that as soon as you start this book you want to start making circuits, It would be amazing if this book came with the components required to build some of the projects. 

Want help with the components – Look no further!

Limited “Handmade Electronic Music” Preview via Google Books

Here are a couple of projects which I made from the book:


Have a happy 2010,

Leafcutter John.

p.s. I know it sounds like I’m getting paid to say I love this book. It would be nice, but no.

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14 Comments to Handmade Electronic Music – Mini Book Review

[…] with Nicolas Collins excellent book “Handmade Electronic Music” My review and videos HERE. I decided to do this because it took me quite a few attempts to obtain the correct parts from uk […]

Pete Hindle
January 9, 2010

This book sounds good, but from previous experience I know I suck at electronics – is it going to help me in general, or is it more of a cookbook of “things to make strange noises”?

Leafcutter John
January 9, 2010

It depends on what you are looking to do, did you have a look at the preview on google books? If you hate strange noises then i don’t recommend this book, however it goes deeper than that and there a plenty of insights between the covers. Don’t be worried about the electronics involved, it starts very simple – see my first video – and is very well explained.

February 3, 2010

I’ve read th first edition of this book. Do you happen to know what changed with the second edition?

Leafcutter John
February 3, 2010

Basically there is a DVD with the second edition, and there are new projects plus more examples of artists work. There is a full two page description in the introduction which details all the changes.

February 4, 2010

… thanks!

One Hundred
February 18, 2010

I love the CMOS sequencer! Any chance of posting a schematic and a parts list up for an electronic noob? I’ve made an Auduino before but that’s about it!

Leafcutter John
February 18, 2010

I don’t have time to do that right now, but if you do a search for “4017 sequencer” you’ll find more than enough information. I use a homemade vactoral/optoisolator (LED + LDR in heat-shrink tubing) to control the volume through the pedal.

Best of luck!

One Hundred
February 18, 2010

I’ll have a look around and I just ordered the book from Amazon, so hopefully that should help!

Leafcutter John
February 18, 2010

oh yeah the book has a good sequencer circuit and it’ll show you how to make a vactoral. My sequencer is just a mash up of a couple of the circuits from the book.

One Hundred
February 18, 2010

Excellent, I can’t wait to get my mits on it! I just tried to order your list of parts from Rapid, but some of the pots are out of stock :(. But it’s probably best to read the book before going straight into building, so the delay is probably a good thing to stop me destroying components :)!

March 9, 2010

I just received my copy of the book after reading this review, and I love it! What a great book. Easy for the novice and entertaining for the more experienced. Great stuff!

January 5, 2011

Yeah, have to agree, excellent book, keep re-reading parts of it.

Just got about 90% of the parts, missed the jacks, so cant hear anything, DOH! Didnt know about this site or your rapid list. Oh well, next time.


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