littleBits, a New York-based outfit started by MIT Media Labs graduate Ayah Bdeir, is based around a very basic idea: creating "simple and sophisticated electronics for learning, prototyping, and play." The company has designed and produced a wealth of small components that snap together with magnets, therefore bypassing any sort of soldering or delicate electrical work and opening up the world of electronics to children, curious adults, and anyone who wants to unleash some nascent creativity. Its most recent product, the Synth Kit, has already caused quite a stir, as it comes with the seal of approval from co-designer and music-technology giant Korg. The Synth Kit follows littleBits' modus operandi in that it's a fully analog modular synthesizer the user can construct from 12 separate, snappable components—including a tiny keyboard, four-step sequencer, a small speaker, a battery power source, and a host of circuits which help manipulate the sound.
How It Looks
Each component of the Synth Kit has been carefully manufactured to optimize ease of use, and this ethos extends to the visual aesthetic. The modules are incredibly small and have a playful appearance, using bright colors and child-like fonts with the absolute minimum amount of controls and knobs. It’s easy to see why kids would be attracted to getting their hands on the Kit, even without knowing what the various pieces do. Furthermore, each module is color coded based on its function, which expedites figuring out the right order to snap each piece together to make sound-producing circuits.
How It Works
Despite the fact that creating a working modular synthesizer from discrete pieces seems like a complex and possibly overwhelming task, using the Synth Kit could not be easier. littleBits has prevented any confusion by providing a detailed and incredibly well-organized instruction booklet that not only details how each module works and suggests circuits to build, but also gives a brief history of the role of synthesizers in popular music and how a synthesizer actually produces sound. The various knobs and buttons on the modules feel firm and respond easily, and getting the modules to snap together is, well, a snap.
Larger fingers might have a bit of a hard time playing precisely on the Synth Kit's minute keyboard, as its buttons are fairly small. But this certainly isn’t a dealbreaker; the Synth Kit is hardly meant for playing a Bach sonata. Since it quickly allows the creation of random melodies and rhythms that would be practically impossible to play otherwise, the four-note sequencer is particularly fun to use, especially for those new to analog sequencing.
How It Sounds
The sound of the Synth Kit is where littleBits collaboration with Korg most reveals itself. The two available oscillators utilize square and sawtooth waveforms and have a raw, buzzy sound that is very reminiscent of Korg’s popular Monotron modules, albeit with an even raspier tone. Similarly, the filter (which is actually based off the famed Korg MS-20 filter) has a pleasantly squelchy quality and is capable of all the wonderful resonant sweeps expected of an all-analog design. Another highlight is the delay, which—despite not having a huge range of repeat times—quickly lends itself to the kind of squealing, warbly feedback that a much higher-priced pedal would provide. Combining the Synth Kit’s noise module with a short, percussive envelope produces some very unique drum sounds that would certainly sit well in a smeared, gritty techno production.
The Bottom Line
With the ability to spend hours rearranging its modules in every possible order imaginable, littleBits' Synth Kit has the potential to be a very addictive piece of equipment. The combination of its modular capabilities, small size, and playful visual aesthetic is a welcome relief from the complex, technical boundaries that many high-quality electronic instruments have, and will undoubtedly appeal to a range of users across all ages. The somewhat limited sound palette of the Synth Kit isn’t likely to be a game-changer for any seasoned producer, but it’s nonetheless easy to conclude that littleBits has come up with a special reimagining of what an electronic instrument can be.