U Robot

The last littleBits Synth Kit I’ll be doing for a while.

I’ll come back to it if they release the LFO bit that’s supposed to be in development. A proper ADSR envelope would be nice too. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye on prices and try to snap bits up when they’re cheap. One more oscillator, another filter and two more mixers would be useful. Also a second speaker so I can split outputs to different effects.

There’s another problem I’ve found with the kit. The pink connectors at either end of each bit are sturdy, but the supports on the underside of the keyboard and mixer bits break far too easily. The mounting boards are part of the problem – you really have to push to get a bit in then prise and pull to get it out. So I’ve broken the keyboard and a mixer trying to get them from the board. I’ll have to glue the supports back on.

It’s been fun using the littleBits kit, but I think I’ve fallen in love with the Volca Bass. What a fantastic little instrument it is, especially for the price. You can tease so much variation out of it, and it all sounds amazing. There are no effects on the “U Robot” bass at all. I’m not even using all three oscillators, just two of them slightly detuned. The LFO is synced to the tempo and is modulating the filter cutoff with a square wave to give a delay effect.

It’s time to move on to the Volcas in fact. Up until now, I’ve been using the Bass and Beats for backing only – simple sixteen step sequences that run from the beginning to the end of a piece. But the Volcas’ real strength is in their tweakability. It’ll be the same sixteen step sequences as before, but instead of keeping things interesting by playing a melody over the top, I’ll be muting/soloing, tweaking parameters, swapping parts, that kind of thing. My instinct is always to play, to avoid too much repetition. So tweaking without playing is going to be a challenge.

Jelly Tot

I thought I’d try to stick to the littleBits Synth Kit’s natural sound this time and do something robotic, but I veered way off course. I ended up with this vaguely latin-sounding thing. Not one of the better ones.

One more from the Synth Kit, then I think I’d better move on.

A couple of things I’ve learnt using the Synth Kit and two Volcas. First, it’s ok if the Volca Bass is out of tune. The bass in “jelly tot” is a full semitone out with respect to the SQ-1 sequence, and if I hiked the pitch up an octave it would sound awful. But if there’s enough bottom, you can get away with it. This gives you more freedom to move about with the melody.

Second thing, if you do keep the melody moving and interesting, you can get away with those sixteen step sequences for quite a while. In “jelly tot”, the SQ-1 sequence, the drums, and the bass are all simple sixteen step sequences that last about two seconds. The piece is over two minutes long, so they all repeat over sixty times!

End Game

It turns out the littleBits keyboard isn’t faulty – it’s the oscillator causing the problem and it’s not a fault. The littleBits oscillator has a potentiometer labelled “pitch” and a little dial labelled “tune”. This is misleading. What the dial label should actually read is “calibrate”. I bet almost everyone using the kit thinks it’s a fine tune dial, but its real purpose is to adjust how the component maps incoming voltage to outgoing pitch. Very confusing.

Another piece using the sixteen steps of the SQ-1. This time you can hear clearly what the El Capistan is doing to the sequence. I wish the littleBits synth kit had a full ADSR envelope. It’s only attack and decay. Once you put the envelope in the chain, you lose the ability to sustain. The envelope just runs its course.

The Next Day They Were Gone

February, the darkest month of the year. Freezing temperatures. The flu. And this year, I’m working my way through a box set of soul-crushing slaughterfest “Game Of Thrones”. There’s no way I could do anything but a dirge this week.

The humble littleBits Synth Kit producing some fairly good strings. Of course, it’s the not-so-humble BigSky that’s doing most of the work. It’s set on cloud mode. And the El Capistan is mangling the wave pre-reverb to give some depth. More detune between the oscillators would give a richer sound, but for the reasons listed below wasn’t practical. Volca Beats providing barely audible drums and Volca Bass filling in the bottom end.

The biggest problem with the littleBits Synth Kit is tuning and tracking. I can have two oscillators perfectly in tune, but come back the next day and they’ll be out of whack. This is at the same room temperature and after they’ve had some voltage through them. Then there’s tracking. Regardless of conditions, an octave on the keyboard is never an octave on the oscillator. And the margin of error seems to vary depending on which oscillator module I’m using. That’s why much of this stuff I’m doing sounds out of tune half the time. There’s no way to compensate.