Synthesis as Child's Play: KORG and littleBits Make Modular Magnetic

There’s something about the feeling of playing with LEGOs. Take a couple of bricks, snap them together, and with a click you can begin to create something new, one connection at a time. Musicians have long wanted to find a way to apply the same notion to modular synthesis. And so there have been various prototypes that attempted something like this, some even literally using LEGO bricks. It’s taken until now for that to really come to fruition, however. littleBits, in collaboration with Korg, is the first maker to put snap-together, toy-like modular synthesis into practice.

from Peter Kirn in De:Bug 178

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The littleBits Synth Kit is a series of modules available for US$159 (plus shipping and VAT). It’s a box full of all the basic modules you’d need to build a simple synthesizer, including oscillators, an envelope, a filter, a delay, and a step sequencer and keyboard.

The Synth Kit is littleBits’ first synthesizer product, but it isn’t their first hardware. The New York-based startup has gotten lots of attention for introducing electronics tinkering to children. Like a hardware platform like the Arduino, you can use littleBits to interconnect lights, motors, sensors, and the like to make your own hardware. But unlike the Arduino, you don’t have to connect wires or resistors; everything runs off one 9V battery and connects via tiny magnetic connections. Putting together modules – and, by extension, prototyping your own hardware – is as simple as snapping together the blocks.

With the Synth Kit, too, the fun begins when you connect these parts together. Snap one oscillator into the other for frequency modulation. Use the “split” and “mix” modules to mix together two detuned oscillators. Sequence a drum machine by connecting the step sequencer to the noise oscillator. Or take the noise oscillator and put it before the oscillator for random, sample & hold style pitches.

The strength of the littleBits Synth Kit as far as sound is the collaboration with KORG, and specifically, with Product Originator Tadahiko Sakamaki (KAOSSilator, nanoSERIES, etc.) and Chief Engineer Tatsuya Takahashi (of monotron and volca fame). The sound DNA of the monotrons is available in the box: the analog oscillator and the delay are each adapted from the monotron series. The filter is derived from the MS-20 (the second-generation, slightly cleaner filter, not the 1978 MS-10/MS-20 variation).

And, as a result, the Synth Kit is a lot of sonic fun. The delay sounds as brilliant as always; the filter – whether self-oscillating or sweeping – has its distinctive MS character.

Just don’t expect to get a full-fledged, desktop modular synthesizer for your $159. The magnetic design is ingenious and lots of fun to snap together. But just as you wouldn’t want to build a real house out of LEGO, the magnetic connection is also easily lost, disrupting power and sound. The parts are tiny, and once they’re chained together, can be a bit unstable. There’s no MIDI input. The noise floor isn’t exactly what you’d call high-fidelity (though the lo-fi sounds are part of the charm).

Some of these shortcomings may be addressed in future: littleBits says they plan a MIDI module at some point, and perhaps more modules if these are a success. There’s also a plastic accessory you can buy to hold modules in place, or you can hot-glue your favorite circuit to a homemade keytar, as the instructions recommend.

There’s also the simple problem of running out of hardware modules and connections. With just one split and one mix connection, and a limited number of modules in the box, there are a limited number of combinations possible.

But if you think of the littleBits as a sonic set of LEGOs, it makes a lot of sense. For kids learning about synthesis and sound routing, there’s never been anything this direct. And for adults, it’s still an incredibly-fun and unique way to build new hardware in seconds. If you can budget for another set of littleBits modules, it really shines. Then you can add LEDs, motors, touch sensors, sound input, and other ideas. There’s no easier way to turn a synth into a kinetic sculpture or quickly experiment with novel input and output ideas.

Just as with Lego, there’s a price to pay for the convenience – people able to build their own instruments can make something more powerful and more reliable, and often get more for their investment. But even people with those skills may find the toy-like qualities of the littleBits Synth Kit irresistible, especially with the addition of KORG sounds.

Price: 159 Dollar

littleBits

4 Responses

    • Peter Kirn

      Yeah, apart from the fact that those examples tended to be expensive and/or were available in limited runs, I don’t think a single one made it this easy to repatch synth modules in hardware. The idea has been long in coming, as I said in the lead of the story. But no one has made a widely-produced, $160 kit that lets you patch together things with magnets like this. The fact that there have been so many attempts to do something like this only adds to the relevance of seeing a shipping product that’s affordable, available, that covers a range of synthesis modules (some were just electronics kits), and that makes the interconnect easy (without requiring massive modules).

      There are tradeoffs in the design, some of which might mean that this isn’t for everyone, but I still think that’s an accomplishment.

      Reply
  1. klangular

    This things is beautiful. All of those other education kits posted in the comments are pretty sweat too. But not nearly as inviting to dive into.

    If the Little Bit Synth kits catch on, the company can ramp up their production lines and then costs will come down even further.

    Reply

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