Korg and littleBits have joined forces to make what's basically analogue Lego. What's not to like?
As an adult male who plays football, has a girlfriend, and whose acne-ridden days are long past, I don't view myself as a geek. But as someone who can spend hours trying to work out why a particular acoustic instrument sounds as it does, and yet more attempting to recreate it on a synthesizer, I fear that I am not just a card-carrying member of the fraternity, but a Companion of the High Council. In truth, the signs were therefrom the start. Some of my earliest memories involve boxes of Lego and Bilofix, and a trip to see the stunning window displays in the Meccano shop in Vienna was one of my favourite pre-pubescent days out. It should therefore come as no surprise that the second synth I ever used was an EMS Synthi AKS, which eschewed pre-patched signal paths and provided a set of modules that had to be inter-connected using patch pins before any sound could be heard. I spent months working out how to wring usable sounds out of this so, by the time I was 18, I was pretty confident (rightly or wrongly) that I could patch an acceptable trumpet, flute, violin, lead synth, bass or sound effect on any synth placed in front of me. Now let's fast-forward to the present day... It has been many decades since I played with Lego, and only one fewer since those early experiments with the EMS but, in all that time, it never occurred to me that the two concepts could be combined. All of which brings us to the littleBits Synth Kit.
littleBits (small 'l', capital 'B') is an American company founded by Ayah Bdeir, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab who describes herself as an engineer and interactive artist. But despite this odd combination of skills and even odder nomenclature, her success — and that of her company — is laudable; littleBits has been cited as one of 'CNN's Top 10 Emerging Startups To Watch'. Mind you, it hasn't all been plain sailing. She developed the first littleBits prototypes in 2008 and it took a further three years before the first modules were ready for sale. As is often the case, overnight success appears to have taken years of hard graft.
littleBits modules each have a single function, and they snap together using magnets and a physical male/female architecture to ensure that they're connected the right way around. Each has a small circuit board mounted on it and — where appropriate — suitable controls to allow you to affect what it does in sensible ways. However, they're not electronic construction kits — there's no inserting of components and no soldering — so they teach you little or nothing about the underlying functions of each board. Instead, all the modules are complete and ready for use, so whoever described them as "electronic Lego bricks for the iPad generation” hit the nail on the head.
Announced in 2013, the Synth Kit (which was designed in partnership with Korg) is a fully functional, if somewhat basic, analogue monosynth comprising 12 pre-selected modules delivered in a compartmentalised box in which you can store any unused items during any given project. The modules themselves are brightly coloured and playful, some are small enough to be swallowed by a three-year-old, and the childlike paradigm even extends to the fonts used on the boards themselves.
First comes the p1 power module, which has blue cheeks for easy identification. This converts your power source into littleBits format: you can use it with the supplied PP3 battery and cable, or connect a 9VDC mains converter. Some people have reported that using an external PSU results in hum and buzz problems, but I experienced nothing like that. A regulated unit costing around £10 worked perfectly and, while my signal analyser revealed an increase in the amount of high-frequency noise present in the audio signal (there's quite a bit, even when using the battery) there were no significant problems.
First come two i31 oscillator modules. These each generate two waveforms called sawtooth and square. Neither of these names are accurate; the first wave is best described as 'saw-like', while the second should be called a pulse wave because its duty cycle is around 40 percent. You can tune the oscillators across a wide range of pitches, right down to subsonic, which is just as well because there's no dedicated LFO module in the Kit. A conventional pot controls coarse tuning, while fine tuning can be obtained from the trimmer alongside it.
Further signal generation is supplied in the form of the i34 Random module. This can be used as a white noise generator or as a sample and hold module that can be triggered using things such as the i30 keyboard and i36 micro-sequencer. The first of these is a tiny representation of a single octave (C-to-C) keyboard with micro-switches for keys and a trimmer that allows you to select one of four octaves in which to play. Unfortunately, the calibration of the octave selector in the review kit wasn't accurate, so higher octaves were successively flatter than lower ones, which made it impossible to play melodies spanning multiple octaves simply by changing the octave setting. There are two keying modes (note on/off and Hold) and, in addition to the CV and Gate signals that pass down the main left-to-right signal path, there's a trigger output with which you can (for example) trigger the sample and hold functions.
The micro-sequencer offers just a single row with four steps but, with an internal clock for controlling the speed of playback when gated by, say, the keyboard, plus the ability to be driven by an external clock, this is more fun than it might seem. It also offers a trigger output that allows you to shape the resulting notes using (for example) the simple AD (attack/decay) contour generated by the i33 envelope module. There are no sustain or release stages so, if you use the i33 as a conventional audio contour/VCA, the note will be truncated as soon as you remove the gate. But, on a more positive note, it has a separate trigger input so it's possible to create more complex shapes than would otherwise be possible.
Next, the i32 filter module appears to be based upon Korg's Monotron filter. It has an uncouth character that many will like and, with resonance that will self-oscillate when requested, plus a CV input for the cut-off frequency (which almost but not quite tracks 1:1), it's remarkable value for around a tenner.
The final audio module is the i35 delay, which offers control over the delay time and the number of repeats. With a maximum feedback exceeding 100 percent, sounds can be made to echo endlessly, but the best thing about it is that it acts like a tape echo: change the delay time while the sound is playing, and you change its pitch, with the appropriate 'catch up' when you stop turning the knob. It's pure Hawkwind, circa 1974.
The kit also includes three modules that extend the others' functionality. The w19 split module (called a 'wire' module, and differentiated by its orange cheeks) allows you to send a single signal — whether audio or CV — to two inputs, while the i37 mixer does the converse, allowing you to mix two signals and present them to a single input. The final module is the green-cheeked o24 Synth Speaker, which contains a small amplifier and a one-inch speaker that allows you to hear your sonic masterpieces. This offers a 3.5mm output socket that allows you to direct the results to external amplifiers and monitors so, just for fun, I connected the Synth Kit to a pair of full-range PA speakers. Doing so revealed that, while it may look like a toy, the kit can create sounds and effects with genuine punch.
For people with no experience of synthesis, the Synth Kit manual — which is written and illustrated in a style more suited to a junior school than a recording studio — will be immensely useful, especially since it includes no fewer than 10 projects that will do much to explain to a novice how synthesizers do what they do. It also suggests some projects that wouldn't be out of place on Blue Peter, combining Synth Kit modules with plastic and cardboard to build devices such as a (toy) guitar synth. So, although there's no electronics to be learned here, there's nonetheless a great deal for enquiring minds to enjoy.
Having learned how to connect the modules, snapping them together to create synthesis architectures is straightforward and can be done 'on the fly'. What's more, the modules look and feel surprisingly robust, and I found the controls to be (for the most part) firm and positive in action, even though the knobs' responses are of necessity a bit coarse in places. However, it soon became apparent that the kit would benefit from the addition of more splitters and mixers, especially when creating sounds using the trigger outputs and inputs that lie at 90 degrees to the main left/right signal path.
Even more frustrating was the lack of the a8 'BitBoard', which is supplied with the kit in the US but not in the UK. This acts as a sturdier base for your setups, holding the modules in position when you hook them together, and ensuring that there's no flexing and loss of power when you add new modules or adjust the controls. Indeed, I suffered a moment of panic during the review when one end of a 3.5mm patch cable from another synth slid under one of the modules, and the Synth Kit stopped working. I feared that I had shorted out a component or five, but it turned out that the chain of modules has just flexed a little, cutting the power to the last two or three. So, unless there's a legal reason why the BitBoard has been omitted on this side of the pond, I hope that littleBits will reconsider their decision.
Despite these niggles, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Synth Kit. The oscillators, while basic, have an aggressive, buzzy sound that many users will enjoy, and the filter certainly never made it through a Swiss finishing school. The other module worthy of special note is the Delay, which turns the description 'basic' into a compliment.
Despite being almost unplayable as a conventional performance instrument, the Synth Kit is capable of creating some surprisingly impressive analogue sounds, and I could imagine it being used as a source of samples in otherwise digital studios where a bit of tortured squealing might prove arousing.
Of course, you may prefer to pigeonhole the Synth Kit as a musical toy rather than a musical instrument, but that's a false distinction. Back in the 1970s, I spent hours trying to recreate the sound of the synth on David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' (also used to great effect on the album The Man Who Sold The World), but failed. When I discovered that the 'synth' in question was nothing more than a Dubreq Stylophone I learned a valuable lesson. If the Synth Kit achieves the same success (it's rumoured that three million Stylophones were sold in the '60s and '70s) Korg and littleBits will be laughing all the way to their respective banks.
In general, I hate the concept of 'democratising' anything because it usually means reducing it to the lowest possible denominator while devaluing the commitment, work and talent of anyone who spends years mastering a skill. But in reducing the building blocks of analogue synthesis to their bare minima and making them available at such a low price, I think that littleBits have done something a bit special. Inevitably, the Synth Kit will be a passing fad for many purchasers and, while others may find it addictive, I suspect that many of the kits will end up languishing in the bottom drawer alongside other discarded techno-toys of yesteryear. But avoiding that outcome could be simple. If littleBits were to create the extra modules needed to integrate the Synth Kit with mainstream synthesizer products, I could see the range thriving, both as an educational tool and as a source of useful sound generation and sound mangling modules. But however you approach it, please don't fall into the trap of criticising the Synth Kit for failing to be a serious instrument. Stick one in front of your primary school age child and see their eyes light up. Alternatively, stick one in front of your father. You may well obtain the same reaction.
I have no doubt that the wish list for additional Synth Kit modules will eventually become long and comprehensive. In addition to the obvious need for more multiples and mixers, the most important additions for me would be Insert and Extract modules that allow you to inject external audio signals, CVs, clocks, triggers and gates into the littleBits chain, and then extract the resulting sounds and signals when and where wanted. These would make it possible to create innovative, low-cost littleBits signal processors as well as to use the modules as extensions of existing modular synthesizers. This may not be as unlikely as it sounds. The i21 Microphone module already exists and, in addition to its small onboard microphone, it offers a 3.5mm input that allows you to inject line-level audio signals into the chain. Sure, it isn't supplied with the Synth Kit but, because of the standardisation of all the littleBits modules, there's no reason why it shouldn't work well with it.
Other sensible new modules could include an oscillator with more waveforms and modulation options, a dedicated LFO (the i31's waveshapes are not really suitable for this job), an ADSR contour generator, stand-alone VCAs, a ring modulator, an arpeggiator, and a selection of additional effects such as chorus, phasing, distortion and reverb.
True to the open-source philosophy of littleBits and its founder, the circuit diagrams of all eleven Synth Kit modules are available on the web from https://github.com/littlebitselectronics/eagle-files. The figure below shows the diagram for the i32 filter, which may look daunting but is pretty straightforward for an accomplished electronics engineer. Consequently, I can see the Synth DIY-ers wielding their soldering irons mercilessly against these helpless little modules. Well... not entirely helpless. All of the components on the boards are miniature and many are surface mounted, which is going to make modifications much trickier than they would otherwise be.
- It's great fun.
- It's great value.
- It can sound surprisingly good.
- The UK version is supplied without its base, which can make connections unreliable.
- You can't interface it with conventional synthesizers.
- It needs more splitters and mixers, plus a wider range of modules, to achieve its full potential.
In the movie industry, the Synth Kit would be called a 're-imagining' of the analogue monosynth. By combining the concepts of children's building bricks with modular synthesis, littleBits have created something that may appeal to all age groups and — with further development — might extend far beyond its initial purpose. Sure, a Synth Kit alone isn't going to create the next electro-pop masterpiece, but it will go a long way to teaching novices how it's done. It's far from perfect, but it's also far from expensive. Most importantly, it's far from boring.