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Reggie Watts Builds a Synthesizer, Bit by Bit


The synth stylings of Kraftwerk. When that song "Autobahn" came out 1974, and, yes, I was around to remember when it came out then, synthesizers were the cutting edge in music technology. It really were a rarity, but not so today. Synthesizers are everywhere. In pop music, from the top 40s, to indie synth pop, you definitely heard synthesizers, maybe you've even seen them in action. But do you know how they work? Yeah.

A toy company called littleBits wants to show you they've created a do-it-yourself synth kit, a tiny synthesizer you can make yourself. No electronics knowledge required, almost as simple as plugging together those Lego blocks. And just in case you thought you were too cool to play with toys, well, that isn't stopping comedian Reggie Watts. Reggie helped littleBits develop their synth kit.

And you might know Reggie from his TV show "Comedy Bang! Bang!" Maybe you've seen his comedy performances where he improvises everything right there in the spot, songs on the spot, using electronics. And he's right here on our stage, as we - somebody use to say, with us, with his little synth. And we're going to talk about it. And welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Reggie.

REGGIE WATTS: It's my pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Also here to demystify the synth is Paul Rothman. He is the product development manager at littleBits and the man behind the Synth Kit. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PAUL ROTHMAN: Hi, Ira. Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: How did the idea get - come about for the kit?

ROTHMAN: I think, you know, some of the idea came from just a general knowledge that we had in the company, backgrounds in music, a couple of our engineers are music majors.

FLATOW: But you - and grew up playing violin and piano?

ROTHMAN: No, no. That's actually...

FLATOW: Now, Reggie did. Reggie did.

ROTHMAN: That's actually Reggie, yeah. I did study music here in NYU, specifically music technology and electronics. But, actually, a conversation that Reggie had with I at the TED Conference last year, a combination with the Japanese company KORG reaching out to us, interested in seeing if there was something that we could do together, kind of set this whole kind of product in motion.

FLATOW: And, Reggie, when did you discover an interest in synthesizers? Having that musical background, was it a natural thing?

WATTS: I think it was. I always - ever since - as far as I can remember I was always interested in little, tiny gadgets that make sounds. And, you know, I started with kind of acoustic-based artists like Ray Charles. But when Stevie Wonder, when you would hear sounds on the radio that we're, like, computer robot sounds or rocket, you know, it's on a rocket, I immediately was fascinated with the idea. And also the scene in "Fame" when the...

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

WATTS: ...guy's unloading his synthesizer from the car.


WATTS: (Unintelligible) I don't know what it does, but we're loading it into the school. They're like, put that over here. Be careful with it. You know, like, how huge and monstrous it was, and yet it produced all these incredible sounds. I loved the idea of harnessing a computer of sorts to make music.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Reggie Watts and Paul Rothman. And you - how do you build electronics into your comedy act. How do you build it in there?

WATTS: You know, it's pretty standard. You know, Robin Williams do it. No. I mean, I was in bands for a long time and I became interested in affecting my own vocals. Actually, Jay Clayton who's - who lives in New York, she was my teacher in jazz at the time. A few other musicians were running their vocals, their voice through effects. I found that to be really fascinating.

So the idea of controlling all of the sounds that a sound engineer would do usually became fascinating to me. And then over time, I started learning about looping. And I'd already been involved with synthesis since high school when I had a Roland W-30 which was the first music workstation...

FLATOW: Ah, yes. Yes.

WATTS: ...sampler. And, yeah. And I started mixing the two together on stage because it allowed me to create broader, larger scale immersive ideas from just one person.

FLATOW: Paul, can you give us the basics of what a synthesizer is, in a nutshell?

ROTHMAN: Sure. I mean, at the core of it, you have different circuits that are performing specific functions, so signal generators like...

FLATOW: Show. Show us your...

ROTHMAN: I can also - OK, sure.

FLATOW: You got your littleBits right there.

ROTHMAN: All right. So in this case...


ROTHMAN: ...I can connect an oscillator, and I can sweep through different frequencies here, all the way down into a low frequency range which is generally a different kind of thing, which is a controller. And I can change the timbre. So you've got different wave forms, so that would be an oscillator. And then you have things like a filter, which will affect the sound.

So you've got controllers like a keyboard, a sequencer, things that modify the sound, like a filter. You can include other things, other kinds of controller, sample and hold functions, delays, things like that. And it's basically how you combined these different elements to kind of create an instrument that's unique.

FLATOW: And how are you able to make it so compact and so easy to build to get it, like, little building block.

ROTHMAN: Well, that's kind of...

FLATOW: That's the magic of the whole thing.

ROTHMAN: Yeah, that's the kind of the magic of what we do at littleBits itself. And a lot of that is really based on the technology that we have available. You know, 30 years ago, we didn't have components that were this small. We've got surface-mount technology and - so we're able to pack a lot of electronic circuitry into a small package. But to make this system so simple and easy to use was just a lot of kind of planning and designing from littleBits and from KORG.

FLATOW: Well, you've got about a dozen littleBits there. What's the minimum number that you need?

ROTHMAN: The minimum number that you would need would be three in terms of the Synth Kit because you need a blue module, which is power, you have a pink one which is the oscillator, and then the output, which is a green module, the speaker. So that's the minimum. And you can basically mix and match any number of different modules...

FLATOW: And how much do you have to know to do - just pick it up and put it together?

ROTHMAN: Yeah. I think, you know, people that have some sense of a synthesizer can just jump right in it. For people that need a little bit more handholding, the kit itself comes with a booklet that walks you step by step each module, what they do, kind of talking about the history of synthesizers, as well as the individual functions.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break, and when we come back we're going to twist Reggie's arm, I think, a little bit. It doesn't look like it needs much twisting. He's got all this equipment (unintelligible)...


FLATOW: ...ready to play for us.


FLATOW: So stay with us. Reggie's going to do a little synthesizing for us when we come back. Talking with Reggie Watts and Paul Rothman. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. We have more information about littleBits on our website at sciencefriday.com. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about synthesizers. Synths are all over pop music. But how do they work? Well, there's a new do-it-yourself synthesizer that breaks it down and you can build one yourself. It's called littleBits. LittleBits product manager - product development manager Paul Rothman is here. He helped develop littleBits synth kit, which is a do-it-yourself, DIY synthesizer.

Comedian and synth enthusiast Reggie Watts - you might know him as the co-host of IFC's "Comedy Bang! Bang!" - is here. And we've been promising it and now I'm going to throw it over. Right here on our stage, Reggie Watts performing something that - you don't know what you're going to do before, is it not?

WATTS: You know, I wish I did. I wish I did. But I just didn't prepare, unfortunately.


FLATOW: Take it away.

WATTS: All right.


FLATOW: That was great. That was great.

WATTS: I was like...

FLATOW: I wanted more.

WATTS: I was like, oh, (unintelligible)


WATTS: One component was down, but it was OK (unintelligible)

FLATOW: Now - but you - if you go into a recording studio, do you have to have something planned? Don't they want to know what's going to be coming if they're doing an album or something?

WATTS: No. No.


WATTS: It's - for me, you know, I had a solo album I put out in 2003. I just went into the studio with Steve Fisk. He was like a huge synthesizer guy. And we just had all these - I just had - I just told him, I need a drum sound. He would like put a drum sound. I do like the drum parts, and I would, like, do the bass line. And then we would just create a song, like, in half an hour. And then I would do, you know, vocals over it. I just find it much easier to create in the spot. That way I don't have to rehearse.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And do you think you could do a lot of that stuff - you have your own little synthesizer here - with the synth kit?

WATTS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Do you think it's possible to do basically all that kind of stuff?

WATTS: Oh, definitely. I mean, you know, it's just about recording and coming up with great sounds. So with littleBits, you know, the evolution of how to interface with the sounds, I mean, I'm kind of like in a way an amateur. I, you know, I'm still learning about synthesis, and this kind of gives me a clearer idea because I - it's all mapped out. So I can actually go, oh, that's where they get that sound from. That's how is that - that's able to be created.

FLATOW: Can you imagine if everybody could crowdsource this together and everybody have a band together and play all of this?

WATTS: I think it's possible, yeah.

FLATOW: You guys are looking at each other like I hit a nerve or something.


WATTS: It's like, hey. Hey, man, that's a good idea. Big worldwide jam session.


WATTS: Absolutely. I would completely - I mean, the technology is there.

FLATOW: But it's - it's possible to do that. The technology is there.

WATTS: Absolutely. I mean, all of these things - I mean, you know, with like high-quality lines and, you know, with like hardly any lag and delay, I mean, people can jam together now with pretty virtual ease. I mean, it's pretty incredible what you can do.

ROTHMAN: And I'm pretty sure somebody's working on that. It's somewhere out there.

WATTS: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you know...

FLATOW: You heard it first.


WATTS: Yeah, yeah. Hi, guys. You heard it here first.


FLATOW: How does looping your voice work?

WATTS: Looping is - it's pretty easy. It's, you know, it's a machine that essentially records your vocal sounds. It really came from the early tape delay days, like with the Beatles when they would experiment by stretching huge amounts of tape across the room and recording something and then having it take very long time for it to come back around and then hear it again. So it came from echoing. But more specifically, looping records, a chunk of audio or whatever information, and then is able to repeat it over and over again consistently. And then you can add on top of it. So it enables you to very quickly generate something, whereas like when you were hearing the performances with the synthesizer, it's an arpeggiator of sorts. And that is repeating over and over again.

It's not technically looping. It's actually just creating sounds with pulses. But looping is I would say probably more, I guess, in the recording. So you record your voice. It repeats it. And I can record anything, and then add that to the loop.

FLATOW: Yeah. Is there something a synthesizer can't do that you would like it to be able to do?

WATTS: You know, synthesis has come such a long way. And also the definition of what a synthesizer - like pure - synthesizer purists would say that monophonic synthesizers that are modular are true synthesizers, that polyphonic synthesizers aren't true synthesizers. I would say that the idea of having a computer be able to generate sound from numerical values is so advanced these days - don't even understand that when they're hearing a synthesizer on a modern pop music track, oftentimes, it's an emulation of a synthesizer. It's not actually a synthesizer. It's a simulation of a type of synthesizer or a sound that a synthesizer made or a sample of a synthesizer being performed. There are so many variants to how computers could create. So in a way, we've kind of maxed it out. I mean, there's also a human perception level at which it just stops being relevant to our senses.

FLATOW: Until somebody comes along with something we never thought could happen.

WATTS: True.

ROTHMAN: Yeah. There are still some sounds that we haven't really mastered the synthesis. The human voice is extremely complicated.

WATTS: Oh, true.

ROTHMAN: Acoustic instruments like the saxophone are really rich in their harmonic...

FLATOW: Can you impersonate other instruments on there?

ROTHMAN: It's - impersonation is much better in the digital sort of realm. You can - with analog synthesizers in different sorts of modules, you can. You can, for example, you know, using a sawtooth wave form, an envelope with kind of a slow attack and a slow decay. You can get stuff if I roll off the filter a little bit. Maybe something that would be kind of like a string, like a cello or violin. But it's, you know, it's a complicated process to emulate all the things that go into an acoustic instrument - bridge resonance from a violin and the sound of a bow striking the strings. So it's a lot of computation that can go into, like, really emulating an instrument. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. There's something called attack, something decay. That shapes how the sound goes?

ROTHMAN: Right. So I was just kind of demonstrating a little bit what that was like. No pun intended.


ROTHMAN: Got me again.


ROTHMAN: So the envelope, I can kind of - this is an envelope with a very short attack. So the sound comes on instantly. So on...

FLATOW: And it fades quickly.

ROTHMAN: Yeah, and it fades right now quickly. So this would be analogous to hitting a piano key and removing your finger very quickly, whereas if you hit a piano key and kept your finger on there, it would be more like a short attack and a long decay.

FLATOW: It's like the pedal a little bit.

WATTS: Yes. Yeah.

ROTHMAN: Right. So the string is allowed to vibrate. And in this case, we're doing that electronically. And then if I also bring the attack up, it's a slow rise and a slow fade as well.

FLATOW: And what's - I think people often confuse frequency and pitch.


FLATOW: What's the difference between - demonstrate what frequency and pitch, if you can.

ROTHMAN: Well, the way that we would perceive it, it would be basically the same thing in the sense that frequency is how you would measure a periodic wave form. It's the number of cycles per second that you can record. But pitch is something that actually is particular to our brain, and it's how we perceive sound. So we can perceive a frequency and that's the pitch. And so we say things like, OK, we have a low pitch or a high pitch. But that's something that's developed in our brains, and some people have a better sense of pitch than others. You know, there's a concept of perfect pitch which...

WATTS: And relative pitch.

ROTHMAN: And relative pitch. So, you know, people that are tone deaf have a poor sense of this versus trained musicians who have a very sharp sense of this.

WATTS: Yeah. If you can hear, you can hear frequency, but you may not be able to pick out tone, tonality.

FLATOW: If you've just joined us, we're talking with Reggie Watts, comedian, musician, filmmaker. He is co-host of IFC's "Comedy Bang! Bang!" And Paul Rothman, product development manager at littleBits. He helped develop littleBits' Synth Kit.

Reggie, do the musicians understand what their - how the instrument - the synthesizer they're playing? Or they didn't - don't have to know that.

WATTS: You know, with something like littleBits, you can have a very vague, general knowledge. But it's really the practice of interfacing with it that you kind of discover things, which is probably the most important way to learn about something. But a lot of musicians don't necessarily know. They - some people just learn it from other people, and they may not have actually studied the technical aspects of it. But as long as they know that, well, this knob tends to do this and this knob tends - over time, they'll have a general knowledge of it. But they could also master the instrument without actually knowing the technical aspects of it.

FLATOW: I'm now going to show you how old I am because I will use a term no one use anymore. You know, you watch musicians, groups, bands, they're playing guitars or they could play - they could be Dave Brubeck on his piano or whatever, and they get into this groove with their music.

WATTS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Is it easy to do that with a - as a easy with something that is not really an instrument per se, you know? But you're sitting there, and I notice you groove in with - I was when you were playing music.

WATTS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Is it a little harder or is it - doesn't matter once you get into it?

WATTS: Well, I mean, the thing about, like, humans performing rhythm and tone and texture and timbre and all that, it's like there are these microsubtleties that people are responding to. So there's kind of like a deeper human level, organic level to it. But computers have kind of - or synthesizers have kind of an organic element to them and that there are aberrations that will occur. But in general, the way that you condition a sound - and even though it's repeating over and over again, especially like with the - with an arpeggiator or something like that - there is a group to it.

I mean, as for by - you're playing Clockwork earlier or even early industry artists like Front 242 and so forth, they just had - they were just running sequences. But there are still a funkiness to it. And that's what I really enjoy about computers. It's like - sometimes, they're so angular and so square.

FLATOW: Do they have a personality?

WATTS: I think so.


WATTS: Every - I mean...

FLATOW: Every...

WATTS: ...synthesize(ph) enthusiasts, you know, there's like rolling, you know, I have Roland 106. It's like, that's the one or, like, the Andromeda or, you know, whatever synthesizers you can think of. Early modular synths, you know, sent the emulators, the Minimoog, they all have different characteristics because, like, what littleBits does is shows you all the different aspect of - the modular aspects of synthesis. It really depends on the quality of the components that you're using, the order in which you place them, and the amplifier.

There are so many elements that go into making a cohesive unit. That by the time you're done with it, it kind of becomes its own character. Even though littleBits have the same components, oftentimes, if you got these people together, which we were kind of talking about, meet up at some point in the future, you're going to hear the differences that - in all of those different kits, even though it's the same - it comes from the same place.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Reggie Watts and Paul Rothman about synthesizing music. Paul, let me ask you...

ROTHMAN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...what about - what's timbre?

ROTHMAN: So timbre actually is...

FLATOW: Yeah, I pronounced it wrong.

ROTHMAN: Yeah. It's a...

FLATOW: Timber, right.

ROTHMAN: It's a confusing...

FLATOW: I was asking about the wood.



ROTHMAN: So, yeah. Timbre is basically the quality of the sound, and timbre what would differentiate your voice from my voice or a flute from a saxophone. So it has to do with kind of the tone quality of a sound source. And so in terms of the - of synthesizer, you know, we can listen to a square wave and then listen to a saw tooth. And they have two different sorts of characters to them. And then you can adjust that timbre more by doing filtering. So in this case, there's a lot more high order harmonics in the sound. And if I just roll them off, the sound becomes less bright. And so that's basically kind of the differences. It's the differences between sound quality and perception, I would say.

FLATOW: How much of my - as I'm getting - excuse me. As I get older, I can't speak anymore. That's one thing. But I can't hear those high notes anymore. As musicians, do people start missing those sort of things?


FLATOW: You noticed that they're gone and...

WATTS: Yeah. It's something that you worry about, you know, somebody who loves sound. I think synthesize, in general, kind of allows you to still hear some of those because the sound that's created from the synthesizers are so strong and static to a certain degree. It's different like if someone's singing. There's a complexity to what's going on, and it might sound lower quality if it's like a rich sound because you're not able to hear as many of the variance. But synthesis, you can still kind of hear everything.


ROTHMAN: Yeah. I mean, in this sort of audio range that we're working with, most people - but as people do get older, the frequencies that they can hear tend to drop down, you know. So you might be losing some information in the - on the other...

WATTS: Although I will say that Neil Young, when he - I ended up in this weird situation. I ended up in Neil Young's car, and he had this new - I think it's called Pono is the name of this audio format that he's coming up. But he was talking about how he thought that he was losing his hearing. But from listening to his old favorite recordings because MP3s, you know, were so compressed that he was missing out a lot of the audio information. But when he put - when he listened to it at full resolution, like from the studio as though you were at the studio session. They had the final mix. You know, like, here put on these headphones. You're going to listen to it straight from the source. He was able to hear again. So, sometimes, it has to do with the quality of the sound.

FLATOW: Yeah. He's probably listening on vacuum tubes.


WATTS: Most likely.

ROTHMAN: In his car.

WATTS: Yes, in his car with a staff to go for a stuff.

FLATOW: But that's a very good point because, you know, people - there are people growing up today, they think that MP3 is high quality music.

WATTS: Yeah. I know.

FLATOW: You know...

WATTS: It's absolutely incredible.

FLATOW: And they've never heard the original stuff and what we - harmonics and everything you got.

No. They're like, oh, what about - oh, I was missing all this? Oh, wow, it's very open sound. Oh, I thought it was really small and had (makes sound) at the edge of the hearing curve. I don't know.

Well, we've got about 30 seconds left. Do you want to plug something? You're going to appearing in some place?

WATTS: Yeah. Am I, you know, all my schedule, Paul.


WATTS: No. I am - yeah, I mean, I'm doing - we're about to film season of "Comedy Bang! Bang!" I'm working on some video projects. I'm working with Jash.com, which is me and Sarah Silverman, Tim and Eric...


WATTS: ...Michael Cera. And we all do our separate videos, kind of like a YouTube network. So I'm making videos for Jash. And I'm going to be working on an album, I think, next year with all my favorite producers. So a lot of stuff.

FLATOW: You'll be busy. And you, Paul?

ROTHMAN: Yes. You can pre-order the Synth Kit. The next round that we're doing will be available in January. So you can pre-order @littlebits.cc.

FLATOW: It looks like a lot of fun. We played with it here in our office. It's great to hear. Yeah. All right. Thank you both for taking time to be with us. Reggie Watts, comedian, musician and filmmaker, co-host, as he says, of IFC's "Comedy Bang! Bang!" And Paul Rothman, product development manager at littleBits. He helped develop littleBits with Reggie (unintelligible). Thank you, gentlemen. Have a happy...

WATTS: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: ...and healthy holiday season.

WATTS: You as well.

ROTHMAN: You as well.

FLATOW: Have a great - play holiday. Happy holiday to you all. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.