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Build an Analog Synthesizer with littleBits


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Discover the wonderful world of littleBits! Learn the basics of sound, understand synthesizers and their history, and build a basic analog synthesizer that generates beeps, blips, and other fun electronic sounds. This workshop is hands-on and you will also learn how to control littleBits with an external MIDI controller and use littleBits to control Ableton Live and other Digital Audio Workstations (DAW).

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Build an Analog Synthesizer with littleBits

  1. 1. @cmairn
  2. 2. Agenda • Discover the power of littleBits • Learn the basics of sound • Understand synthesizers and their history • Build an analog synthesizer and more • Use littleBits modules to control music software Disclaimer: much of this presentation was inspired by the “Unleash Your Inner Rock Star” manual written by littleBits and KORG
  3. 3. What are littleBits? They are magnetic modules that require no wiring and no soldering. You can build circuits in seconds and they are color-coded: • Power is needed in every circuit and they always come first in the chain. • Input accepts users/environmental input and sends signals to other modules. • Output modules do something, like light up, make a sound etc. Only affected by input. • Wire modules expand reach and change directions to include other modules. There are billions of combinations with over 60 interchangeable modules! They are really fun and easy to use.
  4. 4. Sound is the vibration of air or another medium. Image source: Interactive Wave Simulator
  5. 5. Pitch is how a person perceives the frequency of a vibration. Everyone perceives pitch differently. Image source:
  6. 6. Frequency is how many times a waveform passes by a certain point in space over time and is measured scientifically. Image source:
  7. 7. Amplitude is an indicator of the amount of energy in a sound wave. The higher the amplitude the louder it sounds. Image source:
  8. 8. Timbre differentiates sounds of the same pitch. This is how we determine the difference between instruments. Image source:
  9. 9. Monophonic synthesizers, like this Minimoog, produce one note at a time. Image source:
  10. 10. Polyphonic synthesizers, like this Polymoog, produce many sounds simultaneously. Image source:
  11. 11. Brief History of Synthesizers More info: 1920 – Theremin 1928 – Ondes Martenot 1954 – Hammond B-3 organ 1965 – Rhodes piano 1968 – Hohner clavinet 1969 – Minimoog 1977 – Prophet-5 1981 – Roland Jupiter-8 (JP-8) 1982 – Roland TB-303 1983 – Yamaha DX-7 1988 – Korg M1
  12. 12. Image source: Signal Generators (Voltage Controlled Oscillator) Modulators Controller (keyboard) Patch bay overrides hard-wiring
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  14. 14. What is in the Synth Kit?
  15. 15. The power module lets you use a 9 volt battery to supply electricity. Source:
  16. 16. The oscillator is the main sound source and is capable of creating audio tones. Source:
  17. 17. The random module has two modes: "noise" and "random voltage.” Random voltages can control oscillators and make them play random pitches. Source:
  18. 18. The keyboard lets you play melodies. Source:
  19. 19. The micro sequencer sends out voltages based on the position of each of the four “step” knobs. It also has a trigger output, which can send voltages to any other modules. Source:
  20. 20. The envelope module has two controls: "attack", which is how long it takes to achieve maximum volume, and "decay", which is how long it takes to achieve silence again. Source:
  21. 21. The filter changes the relative volume of certain frequencies in the sound. The "cutoff" knob sets the frequency to be emphasized, and the other controls 'peak,' or intensity of the filter. Source:
  22. 22. The delay module takes incoming audio and repeats it, like an echo. It has two knobs: "time", which sets the delay length between a sound and its repetition, and "feedback", which controls how many times the sound repeats. Source:
  23. 23. The mix module allows you to combine two inputs and send them to a single output. It also has a volume control for each of its inputs (i.e., mixing). Use it to play two oscillators on a single speaker! Source:
  24. 24. The split module sends a single input to two wired outputs. It's great for connecting one output to two inputs (e.g, using a keyboard to control two oscillators). Source:
  25. 25. The synth speaker amplifies your circuits! Source:
  26. 26. MIDI Module MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) is a communication protocol for instruments. They don’t speak in sound, but in data. MIDI allows you to control synth modules from a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like Ableton Live and other MIDI-enabled instruments like keyboard controllers. Also allows you to create your own MIDI controller with littleBits modules by converting control voltages to MIDI messages. Multiple MIDI modules can be used at once to create polyphonic control. Source:
  27. 27. Using an external MIDI controller with littleBits MIDI Out MIDI In
  28. 28. Set MIDI Input and Output in Ableton Live
  29. 29. MIDI Out – littleBits becomes the controller In Ableton Live, change All Ins to littleBits KORG W5 MIDI Note: MIDI Out only happens via USB port. MIDI In MIDI Out
  30. 30. littleBits micro sequencer sending MIDI data to DAW Play around and change instruments/parameters etc. in Ableton Live and change sequencing duration/speed via littleBits
  31. 31. You can control a DAW via a littleBits MIDI module[s] and trigger other modules using the micro sequencer and tweak sounds from the DAW and from littleBits; it is seemingly limitless!!
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  33. 33. @cmairn