A versatile modular
disguised as a toy
|The littleBits Synth Kit provides everything you need to build a versatile analog
synthesizer. It’s great for teaching kids and adults about circuitry and sound design.
Based on her work at the MIT Media Lab, Ayah
Bdeir designed a toy called littleBits, which she
describes as a “growing library” of magnetically
stackable electronic modules, each with a basic
(and color-coded) function. The blocks are
designed to inspire creativity and make circuit
design intuitive and fun to explore.
With the Synth Kit, littleBits offers 12 modules
that can be used to build a fairly sophisticated
synthesizer. The setup is so well designed
that even non-musicians can make music with
it. And it’s small enough that the entire set of
modules fits into a plastic sandwich bag.
It makes sense that littleBits sought the help
of Korg for this particular product, as the latter
has released plenty of great sounding, low-cost
analog instruments in recent years. In fact,
the Synth Kit’s circuits were designed in collaboration
with Korg’s Tatsuya Takahashi, who
was instrumental in developing the Monotron,
Monotribe, and Volca lines.
The Synth Kit includes two oscillators, each
of which is switchable between square and sawtooth
waveforms; a lowpass filter based on the
Korg MS-20, with controls for frequency cutoff
and resonance; a delay with time and feedback controls; a 2-stage (attack and decay) envelope
generator; a noise/random-voltage generator; a
single-octave mini keyboard with a range control
and trigger output; a 4-step sequencer with
two performance modes and a trigger output; a
2-to-1 mixer; a 1-to-2 splitter; a speaker module
that includes a 3.5mm mono output; and a power
module with cable and battery included. You
create a patch by snapping modules together.
The magnetic polarization on each end keeps
you from connecting modules the wrong way.
The package includes an illustrated color
manual that explains what each module does in
non-technical terms—perfect for introducing
newcomers to the joys of subtractive synthesis—
and offers patching examples, project ideas, and
The Synth Kit is compatible with other
littleBits modules, many of which you can purchase
separately. You can enhance your synth
with an inverter, a pulser, a mic, and pressure,
bend, and light sensors, among other things.
Individual modules are typically priced from
$12 to $20. As with any modular synth, you
will want more of everything.
I highly recommend buying a set of Mounting
Boards, which are perforated stands that
the modules’ feet snap into. These stabilize the
pieces so they don’t accidentally disconnect as
you build and play your instrument.
Fun in Miniature This basic set of modules
can be used to build a 1- or 2-voice instrument.
It even allows for basic frequency modulation
when you place one oscillator after the other.
One of my favorite 2-voice patches combined a rhythm track using filtered noise (sequencer->noise->envelope->filter) and a melodic voice
using FM and the delay (keyboard->oscillator-
>oscillator->delay). The mixer module combined
the voices before going into the speaker.
By pitching the second oscillator down and
selecting the square wave, I could use it to pulse
the first oscillator in approximate time to the
sequencer until it sounded reminiscent of Raymond
Scott’s early electronic work.
People interested in circuit bending will
enjoy exploring the Synth Kit: The system is
powered by a 9V battery, so it is safe to touch
the circuit connections on the underside of each
module. For example, if you wet your finger
and move it around an oscillator’s solder points,
you’ll hear the pitch change in unpredictable
ways. There is a lot of DIY potential here.
Likewise, the 1.25" speaker is the perfect size
for acoustical experimentation, because it’s small
enough to cover with cans and cups, as well as put
in your mouth for talkbox effects. I set a small
paper cup on the speaker, which made it louder
and added a nice buzz to the sound of certain
patches. A one-cent coin sits nicely on the speaker
cone and adds a gentle distortion as you play.
A Synth for All Ages With the Synth Kit,
littleBits has succeeded in creating an instrument
that is both musically satisfying and
easy to use. Despite the simplicity of the parts,
which makes patch building very clear, the kit
is capable of creating a rich sound palette that
you’ll find yourself recording and sampling often.
Just don’t forget to let your kids play with
it once in a while.
Strengths Sounds great. Easy to
use. Expansion modules are relatively
Limitations Does not include