If you ever hope to approach the level of coolness exuded by Reggie Watts, LittleBits's latest creation, the Synth Kit, might be your best bet. Success is not guaranteed: Watts’s mastery, which you can view in all its glory above or over on his YouTube page, takes time, creativity, ingenuity, and talent. But, with the Synth Kit, amateurs can at least start to make some noise.
The Synth Kit, like the other littleBits kits, “breaks down technology into its very basic parts to bring the power of electronics to everyone,” LittleBits CEO Ayah Bdeir explained to Fast Company. But instead of using bits to build motors, lights, and motorized lights, the 12 magnetic pieces in this box click together to build an analog synthesizer, much like the ones sold by KORG, a partner for this project and an icon in the synthesizer world.
Like the other kits sold by LittleBits--all of which are intended to make engineering and technology accessible and fun--this one breaks down a device into modular pieces that can work together to create different aspects of a synthesizer: an oscillator, a keyboard, and a micro sequencer, for example. Like mechanical Legos, they click into one another to build something. But, instead of castles and houses, we're making instruments.
They can also hook up to any other non-musical LittleBits bits. Someone with a little more skill (and additional kits)--like Watts!--can create mechanisms that respond to music. Between all the different Bits offerings, there are over 500,000 possible combinations, according to the box. "You can make robotic and sculptural artifacts that respond to music," suggested Bdeir. Attaining that level of skill, however, takes a certain amount of know how.
The kits cater to beginners willing to learn. The magnetic connections, guided by a neon color scheme, ensure that tinkerers connect the right pieces together to create a functioning circuit. With the help of a step-by-step guide, it's easy to start making very rad sounds. Click a "random" module, filter, and delay into a speaker and battery, and it emits ghost sounds reminiscent of old-timey horror and alien movies. In about 20 minutes, I learned to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. (Full disclosure: I took piano lessons, for which I never practiced, from age 8-18.)
Bdeir says her brainchild has "a specific focus on amateurs" and kids. The kit only costs $159, cheap compared to the thousands of dollars some KORG synthesizer's cost. (An entry level MicroKORG costs around $400.)* Moving beyond the example instruments in the booklet, however, takes some understanding of how these pieces work. It's very easy to learn nothing about the mechanics of a synthesizer and make sounds by sticking pieces together. Only the curious will move beyond that to make more sophisticated creations.
The kit offers more possibilities to people who already have an understanding of how synthesizers work, like Watts and other professional musicians. The legendary electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, who Watts referred to "mister modular," was "super stoked" about getting his kit, says Watts.
For someone with an appetite to experiment, the modulars provide unprecedented customizability: "With this, it’s like whatever you want it to be," Watts explained to Fast Company. "You can just figure out what you need and snap it together and call it good. It’s modular, its customizable, and it's semi permanent." It would be like if Watts could take apart his delay peddle, tweak some things, and snap the cover back on.
Watts did, however, have one complaint. "The only thing that needs to be figured out is how to get larger microphones into the system," he said. "It’s just weird to have this big microphone plugged into this really tiny thing." The speaker of the littleBits Synth Kit is about the size of a matchbook.
[Ed. note: We changed this story after it was originally published to more accurately reflect the price of a KORG synthesizer.]