Create music with the littleBits Electronic Music Inventor Kit

Create music with the littleBits Electronic Music Inventor Kit
If you’ve never heard of littleBits before, they are one of the biggest names in technology education. Their main product is a lineup of circuit blocks that can be simply snapped together with magnets, making them very accessible to pick up and play. littleBits can be great for teaching kids about electronics, and it’s also nice for makers who playful experience.

littleBits components layout

One of their part types is the littleBits Synth Kit, a pack of parts for making music and analog synthesisers (they’re the pink ones in the picture above).

Today we’re going to look at the Electronic Music Inventor Kit (the recommended starter product), as well as the auxiliary parts not included in the Music Inventor Kit. If I'm honest, I’m a huge nerd for analog synthesizers in general, so I’m very excited to check these out. Anyway, let’s dive into it. You can pick the kit and all the other parts I talk about from GetHacking Online Store.

Out of the Box

littleBits Electronic Music Inventor Kit product shot on GetHacking Online Store

littleBits Electronic Music Inventor Kit unboxing shot on GetHacking Online Store
The Electronic Music Inventor Kit comes with the following:

  • 1 speaker
  • 1 power supply + 9v battery
  • 1 oscillator
  • 1 sequencer
  • 1 keyboard
  • 1 accelerometer
  • 1 proximity sensor
  • 1 jumper wire
  • 2 mounting boards
  • 8 hook attachments
  • Various stickers and paper templates

Now, if you don’t know what an oscillator or a sequencer is, that’s fine. We’re going to break down what each of these things is and how to use them.

Power Bit, Oscillator Bit and Synth Speaker Bit from littleBits Electronic Music Inventor Kit

The most essential 3 components in this box are the power supply, the oscillator, and the speaker. The way I think about it, the oscillator makes a soundwave, and the speaker plays it out so you can hear it. If you connect three components as shown above and turn on the power supply, your speaker should start making a constant tone.

Twisting the knob on the oscillator will make the tone higher or lower. There’s also a fine-tuning slider (or in older versions a knob) on the side which can change the tone by smaller amounts. If your speaker doesn’t make a noise, this might be because the oscillator is set all the way down or all the way up, which will not produce an audible tone. The speaker also has a volume slider (or in older versions a knob) which can sometimes start all the way down. With just this setup, you can already make some fun sci-fi noises:

If you want to make something that sounds a little more pleasant to the ears, you’re going to need the keyboard attachment. The keyboard goes before the oscillator and will let you play specific notes. This works because the oscillator will make lower sounds when supplied with less voltage so that the keyboard can reduce the incoming voltage to the right amount. This also means that towards the end of your battery’s lifespan, the oscillator will start to slowly drop-in pitch.

Power Bit, Oscillator Bit, Synth Speaker Bit with the additional Keyboard Bit from littleBits Electronic Music Inventor Kit

Using this setup, you can play any melody, although you can only play one note at a time. There’s a knob on the side that changes the octave, although it can become very finicky to use it in real-time. Additionally, there’s a switch in the upper-left corner of the keyboard that acts as a piano pedal, sustaining each note until another note is pressed.

(Being the second rate guitarist I am, I decided to go with Smoke on the Water)

It’s here that some of the problems with the oscillator start to arise. The knob that controls the pitch is both tiny and awkward to use and doesn’t stay in place very well. Over an extended period of use will start to come out of tune. It’s also quite easy to bump it accidentally while playing. Additionally, some notes will be noticeably out of tune, although this is inconsistent and can sometimes be fixed by turning the power off and back on.

It’s also here that the mounting boards start to become important. As your synth gets longer with more pieces, there are more points where the magnets can come loose while moving, leading to momentary breaks in the sound. Attaching your synth to the mounting boards helps a lot with this, though it can be challenging to fit everything on the board.

Accelerometer Bit and Proximity Sensor Bit from littleBits Synth Kit

In addition to the keyboard, you get two additional forms of input: the proximity sensor and the accelerometer. These can go in front of the oscillator in place of the keyboard (or in addition if you want to get really crazy) and will modulate the tone in different ways. The proximity sensor will detect the distance to something held over it and pitch the sound down the further away it is. This lets you make a pretty good theremin impression.

The accelerometer is a little bit gimmicky. It will produce a higher note the more it is accelerating, so if you shake it will make some quick laser noises. Using the mounting board is mandatory for this one since the magnets will easily detach while shaking.

The last component you get with the Inventor Kit is the sequencer. Unlike the other components we’ve talked about, this one goes after the oscillator and modifies the sound with an effect. The full Synth Kit contains quite a few of these, but the Inventor Kit only comes with the sequencer. The sequencer has two modes, Speed and Step, determined by the switch in the upper-left corner. Let’s talk about Speed mode first because it’s a lot easier to understand.

Power Bit, Oscillator Bit, Sequencer Bit and Synth Sound Speaker from littleBits

The sequencer has four knobs, and a smaller speed knob in the bottom left. While it’s receiving a signal, it will go through each of the knobs in turn and adjust the volume of the output based on that knob. There’s a slight delay before going to the next knob, so if all knobs are turned up, you will still get a rhythmic pulsing sound. By adjusting the knobs, you can create various rhythms and beats.

The Sequencer uses the same tiny knob to control tempo that the oscillator uses for pitch, and it’s even more of a problem here. When the knob occasionally or gets knocked askew it is much more noticeable on the sequencer. Trying to get the sequencer to sync up with something else like a song played through speakers is almost impossible, and getting it to sync with another sequencer is tough since there are no standardized notches on the dial.

If you do want to use two sequencers together, you need the second mode, called Step Mode. This mode isn’t that useful if you only have one sequencer, and since the Inventor Kit only comes with one, I left it for last. In Step Mode, the sequencer will use the input frequency for its speed and ignore the dial entirely. This lets you connect two sequencers together and have the second one move forward every time the first one finishes a cycle (essentially have it be exactly 4 times slower). With this setup, you can make complicated rhythms with sounds happening on any beat.

The only thing you can do with Step Mode right out of the box is to connect it directly to the output of the oscillator. Because of the way Step Mode works, this will cause the sequencer to cycle extremely quickly, producing a note with some harmonics. This note will change as you play different notes on the oscillator, letting you make an interesting dirty-sounding synth that can be customized with the 4 knobs on the sequencer. I recommend playing around with this setup for a while to see how it works.

Not in the Box:

While the Electronic Music Inventor Kit comes with enough to make a synthesizer and play around with some configurations, there are quite a few useful parts from the full Synth Kit that I was surprised not to find in the box. Below I’ve listed the components I think are the most important. If you do want to buy the Inventor Kit, I would recommend picking up some of these to give you a few more options to play around.

Noise Generator

Notes are cool, but sometimes you just want some noise. The noise generator can be used in place of (or in conjunction with) the oscillator to make a static hissing sound called white noise. This piece opens up the possibility to make drum-like sounds, which I think adds a considerable amount of possibility space. White noise can be pitched up or down with the oscillator to make more of a bass sound or more of a snare sound, and each can be put through the sequencer to make some satisfying drum beats. White noise with the accelerometer can make a snare drum that actually triggers when you hit it.

Enveloper
The enveloper adjusts two parts of the sound, how quickly each note starts (called “attack), and how long each note can be held for (called “decay). If you put an enveloper with high attack after your oscillator, each note will slowly fade in rather than starting abruptly, creating a sound similar to a violin or horn. If the enveloper has low decay, each note will be a short pluck. These two knobs really help to differentiate synths, letting you make soft pads or sharp plucks. The enveloper also combines really well with the noise generator, allowing you to make more convincing drum sounds.

Delay
Who doesn’t love making things echo? The delay effect to me is one of the most satisfying effects to use in a synth, and one of the easiest to grasp. The delay piece has two knobs, one that controls how far apart the echoes are, and one that regulates how long the echo will last. Very short delay can be used to create a reverb effect, which makes the synth sound like it was played in a cave or large building. It’s versatile, and oh so satisfying.

Just More Parts
A lot of the pieces in the Synth Kit get better in multiples. Two oscillators will let you make a synth that harmonizes, or a synth and a drum beat, or a more complicated beat with different parts. Two keyboards will let you try to play chords, or do a duet with a friend. There’s a lot of interesting combinations to let you flex your creative thinking, and more parts give you more options for doing so. After playing with just the Inventor Kit for a while, I was left hungering for more options.

Conclusion

The Electronic Music Inventor Kit is perfect for someone who is looking into synthesizers and electronic music for the first time. The easily snappable parts let you see clearly what you’re doing and reconfigure things to play around. You can pretty easily make some cool sounds, and there is enough depth to let you explore for a while. If the Music Inventor Kit piques your interest, you can always pick up more parts later.

People with a little more experience with synthesizers or electronic music might start to run up against the edges of what you can do, both with the limited part selection and the irritating mechanics of some of the parts. If you do get more parts, the rabbit hole can open up quite a bit, although you will still probably be irritated by some of the mechanical inconsistencies. With my full box of Synth Kit parts, I was engrossed for a good few days, making drum machines and harmonizers.

Anyway, that’s all for this product review. Happy Hacking!