When it comes to synthesizers, gear fetishism tends towards hardware that is incredibly well-designed and built. In other words, stuff that feels as great as it sounds. Toy synths like Casiotones, originally designed for children but eventually picked up by serious electronic musicians, were the great exception. Teenage Engineering’s portable and powerful yet visually toylike OP-1 synthesizer blends the two worlds in wonderful fashion. But the OP-1 now has a little competition with Bristol-based software designer and freelance maker Liam Lacey’s Vintage Toy Synthesizer—at least, conceptually.
This electronic instrument is a vintage toy wooden piano reborn as an open-source, standalone polyphonic digital synthesizer. The Vintage Toy Synthesizer grew out of Lacey’s fascination with vintage wooden toy pianos. For him, there is something aesthetically pleasing and charming about their miniature form factor and clunky keyboard mechanism.
“The roots of the project started with an experimental toy piano sampling project with my brother, Ali, which eventually became the Impact Soundworks Curio: Cinematic Toy Piano Kontakt instrument, followed by a project I did at MIDI HACK 2015 where I turned a toy piano into a basic USB-MIDI controller,” Lacey tells The Creators Project. “I felt like the next logical step in this series of projects would be to attempt to convert the piano into a standalone synthesiser—an idea inspired by my day job at Modal Electronics.”
When Element14 announced their Music Tech Design Challenge, Lacey saw it as the perfect opportunity to attempt a toy piano synthesizer. It also allowed him to combine his day job as a lead software developer at Modal with his “out of hours” activities and identity as a music tech maker and hacker.
Lacey explains that the entire enclosure of the synth, including the key mechanism, is made out of the existing wooden toy piano. The only piece he had to replace is the top panel, a custom-constructed replacement made of acrylic, made using laser cutting and engraving. The synth’s “brain” and sound engine runs on Linux on a BeagleBone Black single-board computer, with the sound engine developed using the open-source C++ audio DSP library, Maximilian, as well as RtAudio.
“The keyboard mechanism uses homemade pressure sensors made out of Velostat for detecting key interactions, and uses an Arduino microcontroller for processing this data,” Lacey says. “A second Arduino microcontroller is also used for processing dial and switch interactions on the front panel.”
Lacey says that the Vintage Toy Synthesizer is mostly likely a one-off DIY synth as opposed to a commercial product. He never really envisioned it being developed for anyone but himself.
“However, a synth in this form could appeal to any synth players or electronic musicians looking for fresh forms of inspiration,” says Lacey. “I believe the overall feel, design and aesthetics of the instrument play a big role in the overall playing experience, with these elements also helping to nurture inspiration, and can even affect your perception of the sound created.”
“Embedding a synth into a wooden toy piano provides a more vintage, traditional-instrument and unique feel to playing electronic music,” he adds. “And in doing that it could help provide new types of inspiration to the music-making process.”
So, while the Vintage Toy Synthesizer probably isn’t going into production, it does seems that Lacey is throwing down the gauntlet for other synth makers to try something similar. At the very least, it encourages more makers to hack acoustic instruments into electronic gear.
Click here to see more work by Liam Lacey.