Critter & Guitari make some of the most unique synthesisers I’ve ever seen. They don’t just sound cool — they’re explicitly designed to be both familiar to experienced musicians and encourage people to engage with the gear in new and creative ways.
When you think synthesiser, you probably think something like a Casio digital piano, or if you’re more familiar, maybe something more advanced like a fully analogue Moog synth. They are instruments with keys. Critter & Guitari’s core products — the Pocket Piano and the Bolsa Bass — look nothing like pianos, but they take at least part of their inspiration from the classic design, except that instead of piano keys you’ve got little wooden buttons.
Like all synths, C&G instruments come with a number of modes and tweakable parameters, which allow you to make sounds ranging from the relatively familiar, to the totally insane. W hat sets a Critter & Guitari instrument apart from any of the other versatile digital synths out there is the playful design.
The instruments come in fun colours that are inviting and sort of make the tools look like toys. The keys and knobs on the front aren’t labelled, so you’re forced to learn the layout (or not) and then work intuitively with the interface. In short, Critter & Guitari gear is designed to make you think creatively. You’re not sitting down to play Bach — you’re gonna make some weird noises.
Last year, the duo was kind enough to let Gizmodo photographer Mike and me come for a visit to their synth workshop and studio space, up a million stairs, and tucked away down long hallways in a huge old warehouse building in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood.
Founders Chris Kucinski and Owen Osborn started making musical instruments together when they were in school. Originally, they were making creative designs for for art shows. Here’s an example of an early homemade instrument.
Before designing their own enclosures, Kucinski and Osborn used cigar boxes to contain the electronics.
On the day we visited, C&G were assembling Pocket Pianos, the company’s original fully formed instrument.
In the beginning Kucinski and Osborn used to solder all of their boards by by hand, but now they’re assembled by a pick-and-place machine.
The metal enclosures are stamped outside Philadelphia
Stacks of the wooden base of the Pocket Piano
Today, the maple buttons are made in Philadelphia, and they’re varnished in a huge barrell. When Critter & Guitari was starting out, each and every button has spray varnished in whatever outdoor space they could improvise.
The tiny speakers that come built into the Pocket Piano. The Pocket Piano also has a 1/4-inch output, on the regular version. This is actually the MIDI version that’s being assembled.
Even though they don’t have to hand-solder any more, there are still a lot of steps to the assembly. For the simpler Pocket Piano, a single person who knows what they’re doing can assemble and test about 45-50 units in a day.
The Kaleidoloop is C&G’s most unusual device. Basically, it’s a sound recorder that allows you to manipulate the speed and direction of a sound. You can either us the build in microphone or the line-in as the source of the audio.
But! You can never erase a sound off after you’ve recorded it without wiping the entire SD card, giving the entire timeline of recordings an element of spontaneity. (Yes, you can just pop in a new card if you want.)
The instruments are popular with the nerdy synthesiser community that likes to assemble by rigs out of modular components so they offered up a module. The Melody Mill has six synthesiser modes — five of them are perpetrators — plus a sequencer.
The instructions for how to use C&G instruments are on the back. So if you stumble upon one, you can figure out how to use it without any help.
The Critter & Guitari workshop doubles a demo station for the products so you can see them all in action.
In addition to the audio synths, Critter & Guitari also make three video synths that turn sound into video signals: The Video Scope, the Black & White Video Scope, and the Rhythm Scope.
Pocket Pianos can be chained together so that one triggers the next. It can make for some wacky sounds.
Pictures: Michael Hession