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Erica Synths x Richie Hawtin Bullfrog

Analogue Synthesizer By Robin Vincent
Published April 2024

Erica Synths Bullfrog

Erica Synths and Richie Hawtin’s educationally inspired synth isn’t just for kids.

The concept behind Erica SynthsBullfrog synthesizer is an unusual one. It comes from the noble idea that synthesis can be educational. The idea that, behind the bleeps, bloops, sweeps and fizzes, there’s science, art and electronics that can, if given the opportunity, broaden the mind of the child. Everything about the Bullfrog synth is informed by the hope that it will find itself sitting on the graffitied desk of a Year 10 physics student and live to tell the tale.

Bullfrog comes from a collaboration between Erica Synths and electronic music producer Richie Hawtin, who was looking for a way to broaden access to synthesizers through schools. Erica Synths are no strangers to education. Last year, they released a series of educationally focused DIY kits that taught you the electronics behind the modules you were building. Erica Synths’ lead visionary Girts Ozolins was once a high school maths and physics teacher. So, Bullfrog feels very personal, like it holds a lot of expectation and gravitas.

The question this raises for me as a reviewer is whether this is a science project for kids, or if Bullfrog can be a cool synth in its own right. Does meeting the needs of the educational environment make the product better?

Sizeable Hardware

The first surprise is the sheer size of the synthesizer. It’s a proper desktop machine, much bigger than the Eurorack device I was expecting. The modules could be described as being 4U in size, but the synth is spread out and more intertwined than on a regular modular system. It has a one‑piece front panel, so while the signal routing may be modular, the reality of the individual modules is not. I wonder about the reasoning behind the modular/non‑modular choice. On the one hand, the synth is screaming to be taken apart, but on the other, it needs to retain a consistent intention and form if you are going to teach it successfully.

The second surprise is the colour. If Erica Synths is anything, it’s all about the black, and that Eastern European techno vibe. But here we have fun, we have light and joyfulness, we have strong child‑like colours deliberately defining the elements within the synth. The Bullfrog probably wouldn’t look out of place carrying diseases in the children’s waiting area of your local GP surgery. It’s a liveliness that may put off a lot of Erica’s regular customers, but I feel totally drawn to it.

The Bullfrog is fairly substantial, measuring 40 x 385 x 210mm and weighing 1.8kg.The Bullfrog is fairly substantial, measuring 40 x 385 x 210mm and weighing 1.8kg.

From left to right, we have a full‑range analogue VCO in bold blue, a low‑pass VCF in grateful green and a VCA with an unexpectedly integrated analogue delay in rupture red. To the right we have two envelope generators, and below them a sample & hold circuit. Messing up the ordered lines under the VCO and VCF is a three‑channel mixer in boastful black. At the top is a clock divider; although there’s no clock as such, you can grab a pulse from the sample & hold circuit.

Across the top is an intriguing blue slot. We’ll come on to that later. This leaves us with a volume knob and an integrated speaker in the shape of a bullfrog. The speaker isn’t fabulous, but it’s loud enough and decent enough for classroom shenanigans. Thankfully there’s also a mono output and a headphone output on the back, along with a MIDI In, CV and gate in and a USB socket for firmware updates.

The Bullfrog is big, chunky and dependably solid. It’s great for both the sticky fingers of primary and the barely controlled grapples of secondary. While there is something undeniably toylike about it, this is a serious piece of hardware and the Bullfrog feels like it will survive the most challenging of environments.

The Bullfrog’s rear panel is home to 3.5mm sockets for CV and gate inputs and audio input, a quarter‑inch audio output, a MIDI input and a USB-C port.The Bullfrog’s rear panel is home to 3.5mm sockets for CV and gate inputs and audio input, a quarter‑inch audio output, a MIDI input and a USB-C port.

Signal Flow & The...

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