For music geeks, building a synthesizer has always been a way to experiment with sound, far beyond what commercial synths will allow. But for those who have never picked up a soldering iron, it can be intimidating. Last week, open-source hardware startup littleBits unveiled its answer: SynthKit, a modular synthesizer kit that lets anybody—from hardcore hobbyists to toddlers—snap together their own miniature playable synths.
The littleBits Synth Kit, a collaboration with Japanese synthesizer company Korg, comes with 12 color-coded modules that each contain a standard synthesizer component: oscillators, a sequencer, a delay knob, a speaker, even a tiny keyboard. These pieces can be snapped together in any combination, making for an open-source, DIY analog synthesizer with hundreds of thousands of possible arrangements.
At last Thursday's launch event in New York City's East Village, these little interchangeable widgets were on full display. Several demo tables invited attendees to mix and match synth parts, with each combo resulting in different sonic possibilities. The resulting sounds can range from oscillating effects reminiscent of modern electronic dance music to the melodic, computer-y tones of a 1970s Kraftwerk album. Like a pre-built synthesizer, each knob and switch warps and twists the sound into something new—even allowing for on-the-fly, structured compositions.
To demonstrate the Synth Kit's capabilities in a live music setting, littleBits and KORG hosted a series of live electronic music sets, starting with New York electronic artist Nullsleep and ending with comedian, musician, and gadget enthusiast Reggie Watts.
"One thing that stood out to me was their potential for spontaneous," Nullsleep said of the kits. "It's like a synthesizer version of Legos."
Of course, this isn't the first chance music geeks have had to assemble their own synthesizers. Hobbyists have been doing this for many years, either through pre-packaged kits or off-the-shelf components. The difference here is that no soldering or wiring is required. Each circuit piece's magnetized and color-coded end makes them effortlessly easy to snap together and pull apart, just like previous, non-musical hardware kits from littleBits.
This simplicity is a big deal for a few reasons. First, it lowers the barrier to entry for people who want to experiment with music hardware hacking, but don't have any experience modding circuits and messing with soldering irons. For the uninitiated, activities like this carry with them a very palpable sense that you might break something. The whole mission of littleBits is to remove that psychological stigma and make the open source hardware movement accessible to just about anyone. When the Synth Kit ships on December 6, that democratic ethos extends to a whole new community of curious would-be hackers: Those with an interest in making music specifically.
The Synth Kit's possibilities don't end with music. Notably, the components of the kit are compatible with other litteBits modules, so it's possible to build a synthesizer that integrates with other types of sensors, lights, and whatever else littleBits cooks up down the line.
Admittedly, the Synth Kit isn't for everybody. The folks most enthused about the product are undoubtedly going to be those with an existing interest in synthesizers and electronic music. Still, the kit is so easy to use that it opens up this world of instrument-building to anyone else who's curious. Indeed, even if you've never touched a synthesizer before, dead simple open-source hardware kits like this may well unearth a whole new passion. Who knows? Either way, it can't hurt to experiment.