A versatile modular synthesizer cleverly 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 historical information.
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 inexpensive.
Limitations Does not include Mounting Boards.