So, synthesizers are pretty cool instruments, making the sounds for the most of the music I listen to right now. Yet they are quite limited in where and how they can be used. For instance, I can play my guitar at home, but I could take it to the park or to a friend for a quick jam-session. Not so simple for a synth: I'd have to plug it out of my studio setup, take a midi keyboard or laptop and just hope the place where I'm going has the right connections to plug in again.*
Another point where I feel synthesizers are performing worse than traditional instruments, is in their connection to the user. Where I can feel the vibrations of my guitar resonating through my hands and body, the sound of a synthesizer comes from a speaker a few meters away from me. Similar on the control interface; A guitar is quite clear in the fact that if you pluck a string,a sound comes out. But for a synthesizer you will have to learn the function of dozens of knobs which often have several layers of functionality.
On the other hand the palette of different sounds coming from a synthesizer is bigger than that of most traditional instruments. Also the possibilities for programming the notes allow for things not possible on traditional instruments. So why choose one or the other? I wanted to create a synthesizer which has the flexibility and direct connection of a traditional instrument.
As I've done this project for Meeblip, one thing was certain, I would use a Meeblip Micro
as the sonic centerpiece. Other than that, everything was still open. Would it become a drumbox or rather a guitar-like synth? After looking at a lot of different synthesizers, reading up on synthesizer design literature and sketching lot of variations, I came up with something.
After making a lot of prototypes of all the individual pieces (interface, electronics, sequencer etc) I finally found the 'final form' which is made in the next steps. All functions are directly accessible through the knobs and switches on the interface The internal speaker allows the instrument itself to vibrate, which, especially when you place the instrument in your lap, help you feel what your playing. The instrument is controlled through a circular sequencers, in which you set the notes form a range of -12 to +12 semitones from a center note set by the base knob.
My design is meant to address the issues I have with synthesizers in a few ways. Most obvious is the fact that it runs on battery power and includes a decent hifi amplifier and speaker, allowing it to be used anywhere. By using prettily grained wood, the instrument looks a lot more delicate than if I'd used plastic. This also references its appearance more towards acoustic instruments, which are usually made of wood. Last thing I did is make the interface as direct as possible. It didn't need to be intuitive, (who makes great music on a guitar the first time (s)he picks it up) but it does need to be reliable and consistent, so you can really learn the instrument. (Please discuss whether or not you feel like these points are valid!)
*Companies like Korg and Casio did make portable synthesizers running on batteries and including a speaker, but these are, at least to me, seen more as toys than as serious musical instruments; Their plastic encasing doesn't really place it in the same line as for instance an acoustic guitar or a Moog. While the small portable synths often sound great amplified, their raw sound is nearly always weak and I've never seen them used in a song.