The secret's out: Pocket piano is synthfully fun
February 13, 2013By Peter Crimmins
Video by Charlie Kaier
Noah Beresin recently moved into an apartment on Third Street in Old City. Before he got a kitchen table, he got all his keyboards and synthesizers set up, plugged in, and fully operational.
One of his favorites is the pocket piano.
"They are like super weapons," said Beresin who, as Xaphoon Jones, had been one-half of the hip-hop duo Chiddy Bang and now a producer for hire. "It's like an accordion from space."
The pocket piano, about 8 inches long, powered by a 9-volt battery with a built-in speaker, is outfitted with 16 round wooden buttons that each produce a tone, and a few more to tweak it.
"We live in an age where 99 percent of music are made by four software programs," said Beresin. "People do entire records on midi programming -- put vocals on top and it's done. The things that make recordings sound great are not cold, midi-calculated synths. It's weird bits of audio that you can't control. Things that have less knobs."
The pocket piano slowly crept into the world about three years ago, and has been quietly making its way into people's hearts and midi chains. It usually starts with someone pulling the instrument, which is about the size of a power strip, out of a backpack while backstage or during a break at a studio. Then musicians with antenna for picking out new sounds descend on it.
Jack White, Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips), Mikael Jorgensen (Wilco), and Damon Albarn (Gorillaz) have all twiddled with the pocket piano.
The 'people's piano'
At less than $200, the pocket piano could be the "people's piano." It was invented in Philadelphia, in a little studio in East Falls, where two friends are busy inventing and developing electronic instruments. Or musical toys. Or both.
"We don't really make the distinction," said Owen Osborn, one-half of Critter & Guitari. "We want to be able to lie on the couch and play, but adding features necessary if you want to make a fancy recording setup using one. We have output jacks so you can plug it in an amplifier, and we have these midi plugs so you can plug in sequencers or drum machines or whatever so you can lock tempo."
Osborn and his Critter & Guitari partner, Chris Kucinski, have been making musical instruments together for more than 15 years, since they met as undergraduates at Skidmore College in upstate New York.
"Owen showed up at school with a bunch of banjos he had made, and that blew me away," said Kucinski, turning to Osborn. "And the next thing I know, you had some class, and you had a pipe thing ..."
"A pipe bell instrument," said Osborn. "It was just hanging pieces of pipe from a hardware store."
"But they were having so much fun, and I really wanted to be in that class with them," said Kucinski.
Factoring in the fun
For years they have been part of an artist collective called dearrainbow, making interactive electronic toys for gallery installations. Their East Falls studio is crammed with old prototypes and gallery pieces. Some are just circuitry taped inside cardboard boxes. On the wall is a series of old security telephones embedded with tiny screens; pick up the handset and a video sequencer generates random sound tones through the earpiece.
The eponymous Guitari is a guitar-shaped synthesizer with a single string stretched down a fretboard. It produces a tone when you touch it, changing as you move up and down the fretboard, like a diddly-bow for a spider from Mars.
"It taught us a lot about what kinds of things people are willing and interested in experimenting with," said Osborn. "A lot of the ideas make their way into these more mass-produced instruments."
Critter & Guitari also make a square-shaped sampler called the Kaleidoloop. It's shaped like a cigar box because that's what they used for the prototype. It has a self-contained power source, a built-in speaker, like the pocket piano. Both are designed to be fun to hold.
"As far as portable synths that are battery powered with built-in speakers loud enough to play with an acoustic guitar in a a jam session around a campfire, there's not much out there," said Osborn, who has moved about 5,000 units so far. "That's been a big hit, the pocket piano. The Kaleidoloop's a little more experimental in nature."
The experimental band Man Man loves their Kaleidoloops. They have two, and are using them in the mix of their forthcoming album, still nameless, due later this year.
"There's a thing when you play music and you stumble across something as magical as these things, and this company -- you want to hoard it," said Ryan Kattner, aka Honus Honus. "You don't want to tell people or share it. But the secret's out."
Sallies of sound
Sitting in the Fishtown home studio of fellow bandmate Pow Pow (Chris Powell), the two Man Men use the Kaleidoloops to volley sound back and forth. Each "K'loop" has a built-in microphone and speaker, and two buttons that control volume and speed. Powell produces a sound -- like the snap of his fingers -- and Kattner plays it back in a faster pitch, reversed. Powell records that into his box and flips it around again, bouncing it back to Kattner with added sound of a beat-box beat. Kattner collects that, tweaks it, and sends it back with more added sound.
They do this deftly, worldlessly, using only sound to cue the other. It's as fascinating to watch as McEnroe and Borg, building a richly textured cacophony.
"Pretty soon we'll get the sound of Chris' neighbors pounding on the walls for us to stop," laughed Kattner over the din.
Kattner and Powell want to use the Kaleidoloop during Man Man's live performances, to sample and playback the band in real time. In the meantime, they have a hard time holding onto them. Sometimes when they let a friend play with one, it doesn't come back.