- The 201 Musical Synthesizer is dedicated to musical play and experimentation.
- It’s simple and easy to pick up and use, much like a guitar.
- It’s a Kickstarter product and will cost $295.
Music is fundamentally about play, but most modern music-making machines forget that.
When anyone picks up a guitar or sits at a piano for the first time, they pluck and tap and get interesting sounds out of it immediately. Keep going, and eventually, something you like might happen. Practice and education improve your technique and ability, of course, but you don’t need to learn how to use it to make those first sounds. That’s kind of the idea behind Critter and Guitari’s 201 synth. You can just switch it on and go, although perhaps the design isn’t all that.
“Interesting, but I really wish they’d use proper keyboard keys,” says musician RJH29 in a Synthtopia comment thread.
The 201 has no screen, no menus, and nothing to confuse you. It has a cute piano-style keyboard made up of wooden nubbins, just like Critter and Guitari’s popular Organelle synth. And up top, it has five knobs. The first and last are for metronome speed and volume, and the rest are for tweaking the sounds.
You can pick from six sound “engines,” ranging from a plucky, string-like instrument through synthesized human voices to drums. There’s also an arpeggiator in there, which plays the notes of your chords separately, and a little sequencer that can record your played melodies and repeat them.
And that's about it.
We typically say that we "play" an instrument, and that's an excellent description here. By removing most of the distractions that get in the way of playing fancy synthesizers, the 201 encourages you to just turn it on and fool around. You can't surf the presets for half an hour because there is no preset menu. Instead, you tweak the knobs to find a sound you like, sculpting it yourself by ear.
Some will find this freeform nature intimidating, potentially because they're used to the crutches of the computer. Others will find it liberating, perhaps for similar reasons. It's battery-powered and has a built-in speaker, so you can play anywhere, but it also has MIDI, so you can connect and sync it with other gear in a studio. The 201 is simple, but it's no more a toy than a simple flute or other stripped-down acoustic instrument.
That's not to say it's perfect. Those keys look really annoying to use, and aesthetically the wood could be polarizing. I really don't like it in this case.
Despite its welcome simplicity, the 201 Musical Synthesizer still has a computer inside, of course. And that means that it can be hacked. And, in fact, it’s designed for this. Like Critter and Guitari’s other instruments, the 201 is built on open-source software, and anyone can create patches for it using the Pure Data and Faust musical programming languages.
In short, this lets people dig in and create their own patches to totally customize the sound and behavior of the device. These patches can also be shared with non-programmers, which opens things up even further, even if you’re unable to or don’t care about writing your own.
Some of the best electronic instruments encourage play. The first one that comes to mind is Teenage Engineering’s OP-1, which is more complex than the Critter and Guitari 201, but conceptually simple. It uses a tape metaphor, allowing you to record onto a virtual four-track cassette, complete with adjustable tape speeds and tricks. It also has many more sounds, sequencers, and effects, but is really built for playful experimentation.
“Children are learning through play, and adults are playing through art,” musician and pioneering artist Brian Eno told musician and Apple Music DJ Zane Lowe in a recent interview.
Artists who use the OP-1 love it and come up with sounds that could never come from more conventional machines. These devices can kick jaded musicians out of a creative rut by stripping away their own expectations to be “productive” and come up with something worthwhile. A pianist might just sit at a piano and play for the joy of playing, whereas electronic musicians tend to obsess about “workflow” and creating songs to share.
Devices like the OP-1 and the 201 break this habit, and although they can certainly be used to record and create songs, they can also, primarily, bring the fun back to making music.