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Critter & Guitari: Artisanal Synths

Meet the tech hobbyists who made a one string guitar and a pocket piano.

by Josh Schneider
18 November 2013, 4:37pm

When it comes to tech hobbyists, true brilliance is born not from an industrial mindset, but from an artistic one. Boutique synth-makers Chris Kucinski and Owen Osborn, founders of Critter & Guitari, embody this ethos naturally, taking their handmade instruments from the garage to the main stage.

Equal parts artists and tinkerers, the college buds met amidst a confluence of digital music technological advances and found in each other kindred spirits. With the hands of installation artists and the hearts of musicians they came together as collaborators on a number of musical art pieces, the first—and their eventual company’s namesake—was the Guitari.

The original Guitari.

A single string half instrument/half controller, the Guitari was first conceived as a means by which a traditional instrument could interact with a digital signal. The Guitari served as a first dalliance of form and function—part guitar, part modular controller—but the two experimenters were unsure what world they wished to inhabit. Were they traditional craftsmen, building homemade banjos as a high-school aged Owen had? Or were they pioneering virtuosos, diving deep into the world digital signals?

Just as Apple’s success is based a slick design aesthetic coupled with intuitive, user friendly operating systems, so Critter & Guitari, have rapidly risen to occupy a similar space in the music gear world. Their various experiments, culminating in, among other innovations, the adorable Pocket Piano.

An array of pink Bolsa Basses.

As the name suggests, the Pocket Piano is a tiny synth packing a varied array of wavelengths and modes. Shifting the pitch allows for a full keyboard’s worth of notes, and the various modes and tweaks allow for a wide variety of tonal play.

Functional as a MIDI controller, the Pocket Piano can pull double duty droning a second Piano, a light rig, a Balsa Bass (their bass synth) or whatever your twisted mind can come up with. While not as versatile as some desktop platforms, the Pocket Piano is the perfect combination of just enough flexibility and artful limitation.

Another invention, the Kaleidoloop messes with audio input signals mimicking analog tape manipulation in an obvious homage to audiophile pioneers. While not immediately obvious as a musical instrument, the Kaleidoloop is playful, and simple manipulation soon exposes endless possibilities.

The Kaleidaloop.

These "toys" were born from Owen and Chris's "research laboratory”—the art collective Dear Raindrop. Before creating their current lineup of candy-colored Pianos, they toured the world creating interactive soundscapes.

This period was a crucial time during which Chris and Owen refined their ideas. Tired of leaving their babies to one-off galleries and limited run installations, the duo set up their synth-shop, laboring over every element of the design and construction process. I met up with the creators to discuss where they came from, and where they might be going.

Noisey: I hope you aren’t offended when I say this, but there is something so playful about the Pocket Piano, it’s such a fun little toy.
Owen: I always liked the word toy. I always called instruments toys. I said that to a woman the other day and I didn't know she was a musician, it turns out she's a professional violinist, plays a Stradivarius and stuff. And I was like “Well instruments are just sophisticated toys.” But she didn't seem to mind it because I think most musicians understand.

They call it playing right?
Exactly. You don’t get into music because it's an easy job, you get into it because you love it. I think toy is the perfect word, because it's something you want to play with on a childlike level. But then of course it has to have some complication to be interesting musically.

Where did the name Critter & Guitari come from?
Owen: Guitari was the name of an instrument I made a long time ago. It was a one-string electric guitar. It had one string down the neck, and you'd hold it against this electronic contact and it would really just spit out a voltage that you could use to control sounds in a computer. So the computer would do all the synthesis. You could play notes, it sounded like a theremin, and then you could also play samples, divide the neck into different parts of the samples. And then you could just affect other people’s sounds, running sound through it, and use it to control effect processors. It was more of an experiment. Critter was more of a vibe.

We had this thing called the Critter board, which was like a whole line of electric boards. Critter became a code-word for stuff we were working on.

Where did you meet?
Owen: At Skidmore College in 1998.

Chris: He showed up to school with a bunch of banjos he'd made. And that was very inspiring. I'd played music but I had never made an instrument. But then he showed up with all these cool ones, and we started playing music together, and gradually over time we got more interested in building them. We went to school at a pretty cool time when DV video had just come out and Max MSP, C sound, supercollider, and Pro Tools. All that stuff had just congealed enough.

Owen: All of a sudden, all this stuff was available on a personal computer, years of peoples work was suddenly exposed.

Chris: That was a fun time because digital audio, digital music, and video were—for the first time—one. And they could be controlled at once.

Owen: With a lot of the work we were doing, we weren't thinking “Oh we gotta turn this into a product,” but it was kind of the undercurrent, that we could make a bunch of these things and sell them. It took a long time to make something that's actually reproducible in a way that's easy enough to pay for itself.

Chris: And also interesting enough to need to be produced. We made a lot of one-off things that were great but maybe a little limited or hard to use. But it was an idea we had to figure out.

Owen: The design elements were the last things we figured out. Making something compact, nearly pocket sized, and durable. There's some element of luck, a happy accident. We were really lucky that people responded to it.

Tell me about your latest product, the Videoscope, that’s not really a musical instrument.
Owen: We used to go up to this place, the Experimental Television Center outside Binghamton, New York. They had all this really weird video equipment for patching video signals together the way you would on an analog sound synthesizer. They had this giant modular video equipment. You could add colors, break the video signal into red green and blue colors, and then recombine it. You could slice up and blend different signals together into weird patterns, weird plaids.

Oh cool, so the videoscope replicates a traditional oscilloscope, hooking into the TV picture and manipulating the signal based on a third-part audio input. I’ve been messing with one and I think it’s really cool how you can see the staticy snow on the TV respond to the Pocket Piano, changing in line with the wave patterns. You can really see the difference between sine, cosine, sawtooth, and square wave patterns visualized in the TV signal distortion.
Yeah! Exactly.

Tell me more about this art community you were involved with, Dear Raindrop.
Owen: I used to live down in Virginia Beach and I knew this kid named Joe in 8th grade and we started doing weird art projects and sculpture together. And then when I was at Skidmore I introduced him to Owen. Joe and his girlfriend had started working together and we all combined our interests and our abilities doing art shows, traveling the world. We'd make these interactive musical sculptures, like this big Sphinx, or these tiny video machines, but it was sort of a proving ground, or research laboratory. We'd learn what happens when you make something and there's only one of them and you'd have to leave it behind in another country, it's sort of sad. But it's great.

For more from Critter & Guitari, check out these sick animations, part trippy cartoon, and part product advertisement. And find them online at Critter & Guitari.

Critter & Guitari in the Art Space

The Bolsa Bass

The Kaleidaloop

The Pocket Piano controlling the musical tesla coils at David Blaine’s "Electrified."

Follow Josh on Twitter - @jshmsh