My approach to video circuit bendingPosted on April 11th, 2014 No comments
I get asked quite often about how I approach video bending projects, so here are my thoughts. Because I am trained as an electronic engineer my approach is theoretically and technically driven as opposed to the experimental approaches that other people may use. I find this works particularly well with video bending because you need to retain the structure of the video signal if it is going to display properly.
When starting out on a project the first thing I do is to find all the documentation I can about the unit. If I can obtain schematics or service manuals then these can be a great help. For an interesting unit I am happy to buy service manuals if they are not available for free because it saves so much time and hassle. So far it has always been a good investment. If I do get hold of good documentation then examining the circuit will often give me ideas about how things might be modified. Basically I am looking for places where key signals, like the separate RGB colour levels, can be intercepted and modified. There is more discussion on that below.
If I don’t have a good manual then I will look at the circuit on the board and try and reverse engineer the key parts. This normally starts with identifying the main chips on the board and through the datasheets and knowledge of the normal operation working out how the signal flows through the circuit. Once you get an idea of the signal flow then you can start to focus in on areas that seem to offer the possibility of modification.
Finding bending opportunities is partly science, partly art and partly gut instinct. You want to find a signal or processing function in the circuit that is amenable to modification. A composite video signal consists of the video information (luminance and colour) combined with synchronization information (horizontal and vertical). In most cases you don’t want to over-distort the synchronization information because this will prevent the signal displaying. Finding opportunities to just modify the video information is important.
For the video signals then a lot of units will separate video and sync information internally. If you can pull out pure luminance, hue or RGB signals from the circuit then you can make these available to process and distort through other circuits without damaging the synchronization. Just additively mixing in audio or other video signals on top of a video signal can be interesting. Some, cheaper, circuits don’t separate the video and sync information and it can be hard to bend the signals for these.
Many video mixers also contain various gate signals that control how different parts of the same picture are processed in different ways. These are used to implement things like wipes and colour fills. Pulling out these gate signals or being able to inject new gate signals can create fantastic effects. Try xoring two gates from different mixers together and then injecting the result back in to the original circuit.
As well as going after the signals you can go after the processing functions. A simple trick is to modify the circuit to remove the limits on how strongly a processing function affects a signal. For example if you have a circuit that controls the colour saturation then it might be possible to boost the gain of this beyond what is intended and create super-saturated and unstable colours in the output.
Another thing I like to do is to see if it is possible to replace manual controls with control voltages. In this way you can sweep control values rapidly, even within one frame of a video, under the control of an external circuit. A lot of effects just come from feeding an audio signal in to a control voltage that varies some aspect of a video signal.
Intellectually I find it more interesting and more satisfying to work with primarily analogue video equipment, but I guess I should add a word on digital equipment. In circuit bending on digital circuits a common technique is just to ground certain address or data signals so that the circuit starts to misbehave. The results are unpredictable, but fun. This approach carries quite a high risk that the outputs of the digital circuits will be damaged as they try and drive a grounded signal “high”. I suspect this is the cause of a lot of equipment damage caused by circuit bending attempts. One reason you can get away with it on some older equipment is that they used NMOS logic. A feature of NMOS is that it has no active pull-up device (just a resistor) so grounding the output is acceptable.
People often ask me if I have ever blown anything up while circuit bending. So far the answer is “no”. I think this is largely because I am normally working with a reasonably good idea of how the circuit is meant to operate and I understand what common electronic circuits will and won’t tolerate being done to them. However, circuit bending is a full contact sport. If you can’t tolerate the risk of destroying what you are trying to bend then you shouldn’t have opened the case.
Personal safety is your responsibility. My very strong preference is to only work on equipment that is powered from a low voltage source or, if it has an internal power supply, where the high voltage elements are fully protected against accidental contact. I recommend you don’t work on designs where high voltage components might be touched.
Older equipment will contain lead, and possibly other unpleasant chemicals. Always take appropriate precautions including through hand-washing before handling food.
I don’t know how much it is possible to teach circuit bending. Particularly with video it is a black-art and relies heavily on experience and luck. Hopefully these hints will help those that want to give it a go though. With a lot of old analogue equipment being sold cheap just get something and start exploring.