Songbirds on my lawn by kelly heaton

I just realized that I neglected to post this video to my blog…

Here are six transparent pepakura-style songbirds, each containing a unique, analog electronic sound generator. The birds are linked by rainbow cables to a breadboarded computer (i.e, “bird brain”) that uses shift registers, astable multivibrators, and transistor switches to achieve a pseudorandom sequence… so the bird’s songs don’t sound repetitive, of course. I’m chasing after the mysteries of life —the spark of life. Eventually these little fellows will perch in a sculpture called “Birds at My Feeder,” (2019).

life-like bird song circuit by kelly heaton

This simple circuit sings like a bird, even with chirp variation! This effect is caused by various discrete non-linear components in a breadboard. I tried to build a soldered version and, while it sings, I haven’t been able to reproduce the life-like quality of this circuit (hence my theory that parasitic capacitance is at play).

In the front half of the breadboard, you see three astable multivibrators that create an irregular tempo. These are connected back to various locations in a “chirp generator” circuit (based on the classic doorbell canary design with an audio transformer).

Same signal, many sounds by kelly heaton

I've been migrating my circuits out of the breadboard and into soldered form. I'm also hooking up speakers so that my sound generating circuits are ready for installation in a sculpture of Virginia's nocturnal ecosystem. Because most of my circuits use a custom piezo electric speaker (built with my own amplifier board), I have to install each piezo element into a physical housing... and there's some interesting "play" here. One electronic signal can generate many different sounds depending upon the speaker's physical design. Here's a video of me testing various installations of a piezo element for an insect that makes a steady background noise.

It's cool to experiment with the interface between electrical signal and material properties. It's also critical to get it right, or else the piezo element will make a horrible rattling or screeching. Even a tiny drop of glue (to fix the piezo element in place) will alter the sound quality --usually the pitch-- and superglue can sound different from rubber cement or hot glue or tape. All of this is no news to a human musician, who knows that a note ill-played (even slightly) is a fail, and teensy subtleties often make the difference between average sound quality and genius.

It is interesting to wonder what makes animals of the same species sound different in nature: is it their electrical impulse or their physical form? (Is it their schematic, their CAD file, or their bill of materials?) Members of the same species inherit the same circuit design as well as physique. External physical factors, such as climate, have some degree of influence over material properties of the body --for example, a dehydrated cricket sounds differently than the same cricket wet with rain; a fat frog sings a different tune than the same frog skinny; and so on and so forth. We also know that "animal circuits" are sensitive to electromagnetic fields, and capacitive coupling undoubtedly affects individuals in close proximity. I suspect that physical factors play a greater role in the variability of an individual's song if but for no other reason because birds sound the same whether they are sitting on a tree branch or an electrical transformer (at least, I think they do). PS: Eventually I will tackle the challenge of bird song, but their vocal complexity requires more computation... which is why I have started with insects.

To end this log, I leave you with one more video clip of my "background noise" insect. Here it is with a plastic spool installed over the piezo (now painted green, black, and white). The soldered perfboard is embedded in a cardboard cutout that is painted to look like a forest creature sounds. Soon, this mixed media object will be joined with other embellished animal circuits to build a vignette of nocturnal musicians.

Follow me on Hackaday by kelly heaton

I have started a project to describe and share my analog electronic circuits designs so that people can better understand my electronic practice. My project, located on, is called “Hacking Nature’s Musicians.” You can find it here:

In a recent project log, I describe how I create chirping crickets using discrete transistors. Check it out:

Machine-centric intelligence by kelly heaton

We struggle to relate to machines on their own terms, despite the fact that we created them. I suppose there are people with fluency in some machines, but the body of knowledge in computer science alone vastly exceeds anyone's capacity to understand. Moreover, there are subtle and often surprising effects that arise from even basic electronic components - instruments for manipulating electricity in ways that have yet to be discovered. 

However, if you add human features like the eyes in this video, suddenly we connect. But with what do we relate, really, besides our own reflection? We must push ourselves beyond human-centricity to see things for what they really are.

Bluebird with cricket by kelly heaton

Video documentation of "Bluebird with cricket," 2018. Watercolor and analog electronics on paper, 15" x 15" x 1.5"

Note that the breadboard visible in the video is unrelated to the piece - I am just using it as a convenient source of 12V DC. The other circuits in the breadboard are in-development for other works of art.

Bluebird with cricket, 2018. Watercolor and analog electronics on paper, 15" x 15" x 1.5"  The colors of this photograph are truer than the video, but still not as vibrant as the actual work. I used cobalt and manganese blue, both of which have such an electric quality.

Bluebird with cricket, 2018. Watercolor and analog electronics on paper, 15" x 15" x 1.5"

The colors of this photograph are truer than the video, but still not as vibrant as the actual work. I used cobalt and manganese blue, both of which have such an electric quality.