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littleBits + KORG Synth Kit
November 13, 2013 5:32 PM   Subscribe

"The Synth Kit that just hit the market originated a year ago, at a TED conference where Bdeir and comedian/musician Reggie Watts met backstage after giving talks, and started discussing the idea of littleBits musical instruments."
posted by kliuless (47 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
The blocks can be interchanged like no other synthesizer

(aside from modular synths... which this is very consciously a tiny version of)

the set makes it immediately clear how a synth works: the keyboard produces tones — or sine waves, depending on how technical you want to get — which the oscillator and delay then warp; the filter and envelope add tone and color to the notes.

(that is not how a synth works)
posted by naju at 5:47 PM on November 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Huh - looks pretty neat. I hadn't seen the littlebits stuff before -it seems like the real trick with stuff like this is making modules that work well with each other. Looking at the schematics for the normal littlebits module, there is quite a lot of signal conditioning etc going on around the core of each module. I'll be interested to see the schematics for the synth modules (they claim they will release the schematics after the kit is officially released). I can't tell how proprietary the littlebits are - in the video it looks like reggie is using them in a breadboard - in which case the envelope and filter blocks might be nice easy-to-integrate modules for more advanced DIY audio electronics.
posted by ianhattwick at 5:53 PM on November 13, 2013


Yeah... It's a modular synth. A novel and incredibly inexpensive one, but, yep. Not exactly the totally new thing the clueless author of the Wired article seems to think.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:54 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


(that is not how a synth works)

How does a synth work?
posted by Sokka shot first at 5:59 PM on November 13, 2013


To get pedantic, the keyboard produces signal that says "I'm note X I was pressed this hard (maybe) and I started and I ended" the oscillator takes that and produces a waveform (sine, square, saw, pulse, triangle, etc.) the filter has frequency and resonance, that controls how bright and awesome the sound get over a duration which is controlled by the envelopes, there can be an envelope for the filter and the VCA (AKA the keyboard) the envelopes determine how the note rises, sustains and falls. (attack, decay, sustain and release) then there's a whole bunch of other stuff as well, but that's the basic idea.
posted by Annika Cicada at 6:01 PM on November 13, 2013 [17 favorites]


Yep, exactly. The Wired article got the synth components almost entirely wrong. LittleBits actually seems like a great tool for understanding this stuff!

Also great for learning synthesis - there's a new modular synth app for iOS that's actually a HELL of a lot of fun: Pulse Code Modular
posted by naju at 6:09 PM on November 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


How does a synth work?
Well, when two waveforms love each other very much...
posted by b1tr0t at 6:11 PM on November 13, 2013 [17 favorites]


I've seen variations on the "electronic Lego" approach over the last 30+ years. They usually provide instant gratification, but sometimes get frustrating when you want to try combinations not anticipated or permitted by the packaging limitations.

Still, it looks like this is well-thought-out and the price isn't outrageous. And the adventurous will hack and circuit-bend these as they continue learning.

As a teen I had one of those 50-in-1 electronic lab kits (with all those springs on a breadboard) and I learned alot of electronics from it. And I built a PAiA Gnome micro-synth kit while bombing out of uni. Synths are fun.
posted by Artful Codger at 6:27 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


And I built a PAiA Gnome micro-synth

I saw one of these just a week or two back. I didn't realize the 'keyboard' was supposed to look like that ;-)

Nice work, to be sure.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:34 PM on November 13, 2013


And I built a PAiA Gnome micro-synth kit while bombing out of uni. Synths are fun.

Artful Codger, that looks amazing. Can you run a guitar/anything with a lead through it?
posted by misterbee at 6:36 PM on November 13, 2013


Synths are fun, but yeah - there have been so many small, cheap, modular synth projects out there that it's clear that the Wired writer didn't spend five minutes with Google. Not that these don't look like lots of good times and I think Korg's current habit of making cheap, fun, weird noise generators is entirely admirable.

But other things of awesomeness are available.
posted by Devonian at 6:37 PM on November 13, 2013


Devonian: korg is making amazing true analog synths for next to nothing. The monotron was the coveted filter of the ms-20 for fifty bucks. The volcas are incredible. These may look like toys but are the real deal. The ms-20 mini is a real ms-20.

Or maybe I'm just an analog synth nerd with biased love ;)
posted by Annika Cicada at 6:41 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


How does a synth work?

Filter, MIDI, patch and quirk
Fucking synths, how do they work?
And I don't wanna talk to a scientist
Y'all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed
posted by davejay at 6:44 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Annika - yes, I have some recent Korg noise makers here. They're not toys!

I don't have a ms-20 mini.

Not yet.

(Oh, that link in the last post didn't work. That's the second link I've messed up today. No idea what's going on. Anyway, here it is. Other approaches are available.)
posted by Devonian at 6:50 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh... oh ... now I want an MS-20 Mini. Why did you do this to me?
posted by uncleozzy at 6:55 PM on November 13, 2013


There's a much more substantial write-up available on Create Digital Music. I'm very excited for this project.
posted by raihan_ at 6:57 PM on November 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've spent the past couple of days playing with the Korg Volcas. I have an MS-20 on order I've been waiting a while on. When it comes to analog, Korg is on a roll. I will likely end up with this too, and I can't wait for the modules to become available a la carte, and as well as more expansion modules (LFOs, MIDI/CV input, 1/4'' out) to become available.
posted by sourwookie at 7:05 PM on November 13, 2013


Very cool stuff.
posted by empath at 7:19 PM on November 13, 2013


Agreed that Small Analog Things are incredibly popular right now, and I couldn't be happier to choose between them. I was super tempted by both the Volcas and the MS-20 Mini, but I ended up with a Microbrute. I think I chose wisely for what I need - I've played with it over the last few days (with stackable banana plugs for extra routing on the modulation matrix) and it's just about perfect in massive sound, unique character, form factor, and "draw" (don't know how to explain this other than that it's a very welcoming piece of gear, and encourages me to constantly get hands-on and weird!) Anyway, there's never been a better time to get into hardware, if you're so inclined.
posted by naju at 7:21 PM on November 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oooh, this looks like fun. I had a friend with a Korg MS10 way back when, we used to mess around with it, used it with a WEM Copicat and ran tape loops around the room, and threw in various inputs of a musique concrete/kinetic sculpture variety. It was a lot of fun.
posted by carter at 7:27 PM on November 13, 2013


I think Patchblocks stole the show from Korg though.
posted by Foosnark at 7:34 PM on November 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh... oh ... now I want an MS-20 Mini. Why did you do this to me?

Or you could shell out a hundred bucks less and get a far more interesting (and playable) Arturia Minibrute.
posted by item at 7:39 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


...and if you's that attached to the MS-20's filter, run the Minibrute through a Monotron.
posted by item at 7:43 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The minibrute also uses the steiner-Parker filter, the only reasonably attainable synth you can find that uses it, so the sound is really distinct (as opposed to moog ladder filter on everything)

But yeah, this is a good time to be into synths! Imagine if little bits had happened in 1980 as opposed to the casio PT-1?
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:58 PM on November 13, 2013


While the minibrute has aftertouch (want!) and an arpeggiator, it is a single oscillator (with some clever tricks, I know).
The MS-20 has no PWM or LFO trigger sync.

Sigh.

I'm going for the MS-20 first simply because I'm getting it for below wholesale and I'm cheap.

maybe I shoud get the Minibrute first then hold out for whatever analog poly Korg is likely to release next.
posted by sourwookie at 8:10 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Can you run a guitar/anything with a lead through [a PAiA Gnome]?

On mine... yes. I modded it by putting in extra jacks to access intermediate signals, patch another sound-bender in the path, etc, and tip jacks to access and inject control voltages.

Gnomes were about $60 as a kit when I got mine. I've seen them on Ebay for north of $400 sometimes.

Anyway, nice to see all the analog synth love here! I'd thought the whole world had gone VST (which is pretty amazing too)

[bonus link - Gnome schematics ]
posted by Artful Codger at 8:29 PM on November 13, 2013


Damn you, Foosnark. I've just ordered a Patchblock.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:10 PM on November 13, 2013


How does a synth work?

Synths don't work, they're all on the dole.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:45 PM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


How does a synth work?

You don't work a synth, you play it!
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:07 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd thought the whole world had gone VST

Nah, any EDM producer with money has a studio full of analog gear. For example - Deadmau5
posted by empath at 12:05 AM on November 14, 2013


How does a synth work?

Well for subtractive synthesis (which is what these are), you start with a pure wave form generated by an oscillator -- generally either a sine, saw, square or triangle wave.

Something to note about those waveforms-- a sine wave is a 'pure' note -- it's a single frequency. Most real instruments don't produce sine waves-- the also produce additional 'harmonics', which are essentially sine waves whose frequencies are integer multiples of the base note. If you take an infinite number of these multiples (x2, x3, x4, x5 ...) and play them all at the same time, you get what's called a saw wave -- this is similar to what a violin does. If you take the even harmonics (x2, x4, x6...) you get a triangle wave, the odd harmonics give you a square wave, which is similar to what a wind instrument produces.

Those straight waveforms alone still sound extremely unnatural, though. So there are two ways to shape them -- one is with the amp envelope, which controls the volume (amplitude) over time. It has 4 parameters -- attack, decay, sustain, release. The attack is how long it takes to get to the maximum volume, the decay is how long it takes to drop down to the sustain volume, the sustain volume is the volume it stays it while you hold the note, and the release is how long it takes the volume to go to 0. Those controls would be the difference between a percussion sound and something like a string instrument or a piano note.

In addition, you can use filters, which remove certain frequencies from the sound -- no real instrument is a perfect set of harmonics, so you need to remove some to make it sound more natural and organic. The filter can also have envelopes that change the shape of the sound over time. And you can have more than one filter.

That's basic subtractive synthesis, but it can get a lot more complicated, with multiple oscillators and filters, and many layers of effects like delays, reverb, choruses, and so on.
posted by empath at 12:19 AM on November 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Well, when two waveforms love each other very much...

How is midi formed?
posted by The Bellman at 6:55 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


It takes all my will not to order one of these kits. I just don't have the musical chops to make this stuff sound cool. :(
posted by hot_monster at 7:49 AM on November 14, 2013


How is midi formed?

middi
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:05 AM on November 14, 2013


middi

I can't tell you how many times I tried it that way and the way I posted it, knowing it would be funnier with the extra "d" but also knowing some jerk would snark at me thinking it was a mistake. Bah.
posted by The Bellman at 10:10 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


some jerk would snark at me

Good god, man, if you're afraid of that, you'll never post *anything* to Mefi!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:12 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Imagine if little bits had happened in 1980 as opposed to the casio PT-1?

I think I still have my PT-1 around here somewhere...I learned a lot about recording with that and a borrowed Tascam 4x4.
posted by malocchio at 10:33 AM on November 14, 2013


I really like electronics, and the idea of modules that plug together for learning.

BUT ... that said, in the real world, this is not an electronics learning tool, this is a synth broken into pieces. These modules will get the wires pulled out of them, and stepped on, and lost, and eaten by the rabbits. SO for $199, buy the kid a real synth instead. S/he will still have it, and concentrate on learning to play cool stuff on it, all through high school.

Then it will get taken to the Freshman Dorm, where it will have the wires pulled out of it, be barfed on, and eaten by the vampires from the floor above. Or it'll go to the Thrift Store, where some other little kid's momma will buy it for $18 and the Chain of the Miracle of Life will be nourished again.

Want the kid to learn elecronics? get them a bucket of parts, a breadboard, a book of schematics, and a Radio Shack gift certificate.
posted by Twang at 10:45 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I built a PAiA Gnome micro-synth kit while bombing out of uni." -- Artful Codger

Man ... you really IS a codger.
posted by Twang at 10:55 AM on November 14, 2013


the filter has frequency and resonance, that controls how bright and awesome the sound get

So that's why I'm not a star -- I should've been patching everything through the awesome filter all these years.
 
posted by Herodios at 12:35 PM on November 14, 2013


So that's why I'm not a star -- I should've been patching everything through the awesome filter all these years.

Alternatively...
posted by Sys Rq at 12:39 PM on November 14, 2013


Alternatively...

I just won a bet with myself. Thanks Sys Rq, now I gotta take myself out to dinner.
 
posted by Herodios at 1:14 PM on November 14, 2013


Man ... you really IS a codger.

But - oh, the things I've seen. Analog tape. Tube compressors, when no-one thought they were cool. Neve consoles, when a guy named Neve actually made'em.
posted by Artful Codger at 4:07 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


How is midi formed?

middi is kinda like the language that tells the machines what notes to play. It doesn't make the sounds itself. It prefers to talk to digital synths. If midi wants to talk to an old-school analogue synth, then it needs some extra stuff to translate what it's saying.

Neve consoles, when a guy named Neve actually made'em.

Yeah, and I bet paired with a tape machine made by a guy named Studer, too, right?.
posted by ovvl at 4:27 PM on November 14, 2013


Ja. Willi Studer.

There's now some performance videos of the littleBits synths on Synthtopia. Great site btw, and I hadn't realized til this thread that there were so many new little synth projects out there.

Finally, a shout-out to PAiA, who still have some synth kits on the market, including the Fatman. Kits are a blast to build and you learn alot.
posted by Artful Codger at 5:16 AM on November 15, 2013


Finally, a shout-out to PAiA

I typed up and then hemmed and hawed over posting a bit on PAiA because I think these clicky LEGO-style modules are about 5% nifty and 90% limited and disposable, but I didn't want to sound like a grumpus—that said, spend $600 on a small PAiA 9700S starter system and, thanks in large part to having dual multimode filters and open patching, you'll still be able to find new sounds ten years from now, instead of being stuck in the ubiquitous analogue-purist tweezy flavors-of-lowpass-vanilla trap.

For the same price, though, you can get a Kurzweil K2000 or something in the E-mu z-plane EOS-derived synth range and have a world of possibilities instead of a hip doorbell.

Yes, I'm a grumpus, but when the video says "limitless in the hands of a master," they really don't understand what limitless means.
posted by sonascope at 7:49 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


> being stuck in the ubiquitous analogue-purist tweezy flavors-of-lowpass-vanilla trap.
Bwap. Bwaaaaap. BooooowwwwaaaaAAAaaaoooo. Bao. Baooow.

EeeeeeeeoooooooouuuuuwwwwaaaeeeEEEooouuu.

FFooooweeeeeooofff. fffFFFSssssSSSSSShhhhoooooooo.

Byap. Byap. Beeyap. Ooooooyyyyyyyyap. Oyp. Oyyyeeeep.

excerpt from "Synth Day at the Codger's"

(sorry, couldn't resist.)

Re PAiA - I thought linking to the Fatman was appropriate because it's only around $100 more than the littleBits, but would possibly still be musically useful when the littlebits have been consigned to a bottom drawer.

And to be brutally honest, a free or cheap multitracker application and a few free VST synths are pretty near unbeatable for a fast-track intro to synthesis, sequencing and recording . Buy one of those UK magazines-with-DVD for $20 (eg Computer Music) and you get just about everything (except for the computer) to start playing around with.
posted by Artful Codger at 11:59 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


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