Playing music is supposed to be fun! Remember? Sometimes electronic instruments we choose to play are so complicated that using them is a chore, or at least requires a ton of practice. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Here’s a bunch of instruments that are simple and playful like any good toy, but still powerful enough to make some real jams.
Introduced a few years ago, the Monotron is perhaps the simplest effort in Korg’s recent push to make consumery instruments that will be accessible to a broad audience. The Monotron has a ribbon keyboard, and can call itself a “real” full-fledged synthesiser because its simple circuit has the required ingredients: A voltage-controlled oscillator, a voltage-controlled filter, and a low-frequency oscillator. That’s all you need to get started.
The original Stylophone went out of production more than 30 years ago, but because of the recent renaissance of the synthesiser, it’s been brought back. All of the old details are still there, including the Stylophone’s trademark conductive metallic keys, and the stylus that gives the block its name.
The tiny Pocket Operator series synthesizers are the most recent instruments on our list, and perhaps the one that packs the most possibility into the smallest space. The POs come in three flavours: “Factory” (for synth leads), “Rhythm” (a drum machine), and “Sub” (for bass lines). Each Pocket Operator has 16 different sounds, plus a 16-step sequencer, and its own set of effects. You can also sync together a chain of POs full an even fuller sound.
The Otamatone is so weird. No you don’t blow into the top of the eighth note shaped instrument. Instead, you play the synth using the ribbon keys, and control the shape of the sound produced by giving the head at the bottom a squeeze.
Originally developed as a teaching tool for a workshop at the annual Moogfest hoedown in North Carolina, the Werkstatt-01 is a very simple synth circuit. It contains lots of the key ingredients of Moog’s way more epic (and way more expensive) modulars. It’s sold as a kit, with the intention of teaching beginners about electronics. The more you know how a synth works, the more you’ll be able harness its power.
Developed in collaboration with Korg, the LittleBits Synth kit contains all of the common modules you’d find in a larger synthesiser, like an oscillator, filters, and step-sequencer. Each module snaps together with others magnetically, just like other LittleBits electronics kits do. This also means that you can connect together the synth with other Littlebits modules. Don’t let the diminutive size of the modules fool you, though. As the Reggie Watts video above shows, the kit has some serious sound inside.
The music of early video games inspired tons of music, and some synths have been designed expressly with the purpose of playing music that sounds like the 8-bit soundtracks of yore. But how many synths are designed to look like old arcades? Only the Pianocade. The design isn’t just a gimmick either. the joystick controller is great for controlling lots of conceptually directional parameters in music, such as pitch and speed. Sadly, after funding his way through one round of Pianocades, the creator announced he wouldn’t be making more any time soon. Something about “blah, blah, blah, my family and my job.”
The Atmegatron’s 8-bit digital sound might be based on the video game music from your Nintendo, but my word, that sound is thrown for every possible loop by this incredibly efficient little package. Break this little box out and you’ll have some wacky tones in no time, but the Atmegatron has so much sound programmed into it, that this little toy will take you a long time to master.