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littleBits + KORG Synth Kit

Build your own analog synthesizer using simple, Lego-like electronic pieces that snap together magnetically

by Nara Shin in Tech on 08 November 2013

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New York-based littleBits has been making big waves in the design industry since their electronic modules-maker took over the MoMA Design Store. Instead of building talking puppets or electric toothbrushes, this time around the two-year-old startup is concentrating on breaking down barriers in the electronic music-making realm; seeking to make it more accessible to those who aren't fluent in the language of wires, circuitry and programming. In collaboration with KORG—one of the top synthesizer innovators in the world and with 50 years of experience under its belt—littleBits is manufacturing a DIY Synth Kit "for ages 14 to ∞" to build their own analog synthesizers.

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The Synth Kit includes 12 labelled electronic Bits modules, each which have one task—whether it's a micro-sequencer or filter that connect magnetically to create circuits. This means no wiring, no soldering and no programming required. What might normally take hours to build, took us less than a minute to snap the power, keyboard, oscillator and speaker modules together to start making our own sounds. There are apparently over 500,000 circuit combinations alone with the 12 Bits modules in the Synth Kit; since every module is reusable and compatible with others outside of the kit (such as light sensors and motors), the possibilities for configuration are infinite.

The accompanying booklet isn't at all like those bare, illustrated assembly guides that come with furniture products; it offers detailed definitions for important terms like controllers and signal generators so the building experience is educational—and relevant, by citing popular albums that have used synthesizers (from the likes of Kraftwerk to Stevie Wonder) and encouraging users to emulate those signature sounds. Furthermore there are hundreds of offline and online tutorial projects available, like the Keytar and Synth Spin Table.

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"You can connect it to speakers, microphones, a computer, you can record a track—it's a real instrument and not just a toy," says littleBits founder and TED Senior Fellow Ayah Bdeir, a leader of the open source hardware movement. "It's easy to use because, like any other littleBits products, it has magnets. It's simple and color-coded, so you literally get started within seconds and you don't have to have a degree in electric engineering or a musical background."

Reggie Watts, a master of improvisation in both comedy and music, is also an avid supporter of littleBits. "It kind of breaks down all of the elements that make a synthesizer in a very quantifiable, immediately interactive way," he says. "Usually when people see pictures of old modular synthesizers, they see perhaps people with switchboards, plugging and unplugging paths that are all hooked up to oscillators and various forms of modulation, frequency cutoff, etc. I think it's nice to be able to go, 'Oh! This is what synthesis is—just these basic elements.' And when you combine them together, it creates greater complexity." See what Watts builds from the Synth Kit in this littleBits video demo.

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The littleBits + KORG Synth Kit is a great introduction to how an analog synthesizer works; it strips away the intimidating schematics and thrusts the user straight into producing new sounds and music. And those of us who have tinkered with building hardware and electronic circuits from scratch will be relieved to put our soldering irons away—leaving more time for experimentation and faster prototyping. It's exciting to see the concept of "play" championed in the engineering and technology sphere, which is crucial for innovation.

Pre-order the Synth Kit from littleBits for $159; only limited quantities are available and kits will ship out 6 December. You can even drop a suggestion for new modules in their dreamBits forum.

Second photo by Nara Shin, all other images courtesy of littleBits

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