The Premise

My goal with this video was to explain something whose sound we're familiar with, yet which we might know surprisingly little about. That is, the synthesizer.

I was amazed in my conversations with people what wildly varying ideas they had about what a synthesizer is. A lot of the answers involved a keyboard, but this video gets at the crux of what's making those weird and wonderful sounds we've learned to love.

The process

I sat down with the Korg littleBits Synth Kit and broke down this already simple kit to its bare essentials. It comes with a few pieces that are fun to use and make some wild sounds, but aren't essential for understanding how a synth works. What does a person really need to know? What might this person want to know if she isn't intending to head out and start recording, but simply wants to know a little bit more about the machines making the sounds she's been dancing to?

I gauge the quality of the work by the number of good things left out.


Yes it's a single take, but it took a few tries.

The process of recording helped me further refine this to the bare-bone essentials. What began as a 15-minute video became less than 4 minutes, offering the right amount of punch without being superficial. It's 2017, and there are a lot of other YouTube videos calling. To have someone watch 15 minutes on synthesizers when it's only for curiosity? Unlikely.

4 minutes? I'm a bit more hopeful.

The Point

A synthesizer is an electronic instrument. One of the implications is that it makes sounds that aren't directly connected to the interface we use to make these sounds. The Korg littleBits kit is only one example of what this interface can look like – in this case, a few small knobs on a small device that needs to be held together with another hand, and which frequently comes apart. Yet as a learning tool, I can't recommend this kit highly enough.

As designers we have the opportunity to explore meaningful ways for a musician to interact with his instrument. When you hit a piano key softly, it plays a quiet, muted note. The harder you hit the key, the louder the note becomes, and the more bright its timbre. This is an easily learned relationship, so much so that young children taking lessons can get a handle on it quickly, and experienced players master in order to layer nuance into their performance.

This relationship of note-velocity-to-loudness-and-brightness is one of many relationships between an interface and the sounds it produces; there are so many others. The point of this video is to open up some curiosity in interaction designers of how they might transfer their skills to an area that can flourish from their vision.

So often, the greatest innovations come from outside.