Synth and Software’s Top Ten Tiny Instruments
Mark Jenkins traces the history of pocket-size sound makers
180-pound six foot weighted keyboard controllers are still a going concern, but there’s also a trend toward miniaturization.
Maybe this started in Japan, where space is always at a premium and very compact apartments are a typical location for music making. But now other countries are catching on too, while a huge second-hand market makes sure the miniature instrument scene remains busy and exciting.
Here’s our Top Ten history of instruments so small they can fit in your pocket.
1. The Stylophone
Launched in 1968, the Stylophone was an unprecedented instrument design, using contact pads and a metal-tipped stylus rather than mechanical keys.
While it was aimed at musical beginners wanting to pick out melodies from a song book, the instrument nevertheless found some professional use. The most famous example is David Bowie, whose big Stylophone upward glissando can be clearly heard on “Space Oddity.”
Dual stylus, bass, percussion, and keyring-sized models followed, and the design was revived more recently. It still sells for under £30/$30, alongside a white David Bowie special edition and a more professional GenX-1 model with a filter and effects.
Electro-pop singer Little Boots has been seen playing one. But the most outstanding use of the Stylophone remains Kraftwerk’s 1981 song “Pocket Calculator,” with the band holding out the Stylophone on a long cable for their live audiences to play
At the same time they used a Texas Instruments calculator for digital sound effects; a tiny toy organ-like keyboard from Mattel called the BeeGees Rhythm Machine for melodies; and a custom-made drum pad for percussion.
2. Casio VL-Tone VL1
In 1979 Casio was only known as a manufacturer of calculators, but their VL-1 or VL-Tone had a significant impact on the musical instrument market. Basically a calculator with some monophonic digital synth sounds, a micro keyboard, and a speaker, it became a first instrument for many interested in getting into electronic music.
The VL-1 inspired the company itself to get into keyboard manufacturing with the CT201 and a whole line of domestic keyboards. After that the more professional CZ and VZ lines came to include very upmarket samplers, drum machines and other instruments.
The frankly terrible bleepy rhythms of the VL-Tone found some professional use – most notably on the hit “Da Da Da” by Trio – and the instrument is now seen as collectable. It can be fairly costly when in good condition.
3. Roland TB303 Bassline/TR606 Drumatix
Launched in 1981, this compact matching couple designed to replace a band’s rhythm section wasn’t at all popular – mainly because the 303 didn’t sound much like a bass guitarist playing.
Soon the instruments were being cleared out cheaply. But eventually they found themselves used and abused for a more radical form of rhythm creation with the birth of Acid, and a complete revival of analog sound – which had by that time been somewhat swept away by digital.
That’s not to say that the 606 sound was all that popular, because the preferred partner for the 303 became the analog sounding TR808 drum machine, or digital sounding TR909.
But let’s not go on too much about this duo – they weren’t really pocket sized and have now been emulated so many times in hardware, software, modified hardware, better software, and then hardware again that they’re very easy to get hold of, and in fact difficult to avoid.
4. Yamaha QY10/SU10
Yamaha hadn’t shown any prior tendency towards miniaturization (certainly not in their 200-pound CS80 synth) when their QY10 appeared in 1990. This was not so much a miniature synth as a miniature workstation, with drums, multiple channels of polyphonic (not editable) synth sounds, a pattern and song sequencer, a tiny keyboard of rubber buttons, and a battery power option.
Designed to fit in a VHS video cassette case, the QY10 was sturdy and with good enough sounds to use it as a drum machine, bass synth, or even (given its full size MIDI In and MIDI Out connections) as a source of piano and other sounds.
The instrument was quickly followed by a whole QY range – QY20, QY100 and so on – but these gradually became larger, so they could no longer be regarded as pocket-sized. However the instrument fit readily onto a small shelf built into the design of the CS1X, CS2X, AN1x and other synths.
It also gave birth in the UK to Novation. The company launched with the MM10, a 2-octave keyboard with pitch and modulation wheels that supported a QY10 upright like a book of sheet music.
Any of the range remains a good purchase on the second user market – they’re not regarded as highly collectable despite including sounds such as a good Moog Taurus on the QY10, making it an excellent partner for a MIDI bass pedal.
Five years later Yamaha launched the SU10, a battery operable sampler a little thicker than the QY10 in design but still easily pocketable. This featured a bend or filter ribbon and had lots of possibilities – to the extent that it’s now seen as quite desirable, with prices as high as £200/$200 (though more usually around £100/$100).
A pocket sampler can be a useful thing – trigger different drums, sound effects, or even whole snatches of melody in your songs. Or again, use it as a sound source for MIDI bass pedals or other types of controller.
Roland’s MS1 Sampler from the same year is a very similar design.
5. Roland PMA5
Roland’s response to Yamaha’s QY range was slow in coming, but in 1996 one of the most remarkable pocket instruments ever seen was launched, the Roland PMA5 “Personal Music Assistant.” This unique device, barely talked about now, was part of the company’s LA Synthesis range, which included the D50. But it was more similar to an MT32 desktop or D110 rack module, in that it was multitimbral with built-in effects and added 8-track sequencer/accompaniment functions.
The PMA5 looked like a Star Trek tricorder and could be slung around your neck on a strap in a jaunty fashion. Boasting very few buttons, a huge (for the time) LCD display handled all the programming in conjunction with a stylus, offering displays of a virtual keyboard, mixer and so on.
So you could turn up at a show, open up your PMA’s Filofax-style portfolio case, plug in to the PA, and jam along with one of hundreds of accompaniment patterns or with your own compositions.
But for some reason the PMA didn’t catch on. If you ever see one now, it could cost up to £200/$300.
We’ll skip through a period starting around 1999, when many compact instruments appeared, though not necessarily quite pocket-sized. By that time Casio’s CZ101 and Yamaha’s DX100 mini key synths were becoming common on the second-hand market (Roland, Ensoniq, Sequential and others never offered equally compact competitors). Zoom’s ST224 Sampletrak appeared, looking just like a drum machine, but in fact it was a powerful sampler – though a little bit more than pocket sized.
6. Korg Monotron family
In 2010 Korg stripped synth design right down to basics with the Monotron, the company’s first analog oscillator synth in over 25 years. Making a Stylophone look huge, this was a tiny palm-sized device that still managed to include a battery power option and a speaker. It resembled a Stylophone in that it was played from a short ribbon keyboard, but this time with your finger. The single oscillator could be filtered and given vibrato or filter modulation.
The Monotron family grew, adding models with effects, dual voices, and eventually drums and sequencing – but as you’d expect, the instruments by this time were becoming larger than pocket size.
Monotrons are still in production. For producing theremin-like effects, a bass drone, or the odd pulsating noise that fades away into the distance, they can be incredibly good value.
From 2013 the company launched the Volca range with the Chords, Beats, and Bass models, later added to with the West coast (Buchla) synthesis style Volca Modular, among others. But these desktop designs are fractionally too large to be considered pocket-sized.
7. Artiphon Orba
As is the modern way, Orba was launched with a successful Kickstarter project in 2019, and a Version 2 quickly followed. It’s now available through music stores at around £100.
Shaped like a large round pill box, Orba has top panel controls for its synth and sampler functions. It’s also a looper with accompaniment functions, and a MIDI controller, so has a lot to offer in all sorts of recording and performance applications.
8. Eurorack and Arduino
While a Eurorack isn’t usually very small – though you could get two or three modules into a pocket-sized Pod by 4MS, using mains or mobile power – some makers of digital modules do make them in a stand-alone version.
1010 Music’s NanoBox Fireball is a tiny microprocessor-based 8-voice polyphonic digital synthesizer with a touch control area like a Korg KAOSS pad. It sells for around £400/$500.
You can also find tiny modules based on the Arduino, a microprocessor programmed in the language C++ and very popular with hobbyists. There are many free designs for tiny Arduino projects you can build yourself, including drum sets, “pianos,” sequence and pattern players, theremins, guitar processors, light-controlled instruments, and more.
But this is where you need to get familiar with breadboards, electronic components and (usually) some soldering before having anything musical to show off.
Pocket Operators from Teenage Engineering are of course along the same lines. These tiny calculator-like microprocessor-based instruments have different musical functions, and you can synchronize them together to make intricate pieces of music.
9. Korg NTS1 Nu:Tekt
Released a couple of years back, this exotically named device – which sounds like a second child for Elon Musk and Grimes – is a recent addition to the trend for instruments in kit form, started perhaps by the Moog Werkstatt-01 around 2014.
Not that this type of kit construction is as difficult as in the days of ham radio; there’s certainly no soldering or demanding component matching involved. No, the NTS1’s construction routine involves mainly bending some boards, fitting them into a chassis, attaching knobs and other controllers, and you’re ready to go.
Physically similar to a Korg Monotron but with exposed controls on the top panel, the NTS1 is an incredibly powerful and flexible monophonic digital synth in a very small package. Inevitably this means many functions are hidden behind a menu hierarchy, and you most likely will have to keep the instruction manual by your side – but for around £80 ($120) you might well find all this worthwhile.
There’s a matching NTS-2 Nu:Text Oscilloscope if you want to see what waveforms your NTS1 or other synths are making, though at around £160/$200 that’s much more expensive than a similar kit-form oscilloscope without a casing.
10. Roland Aira Compact range
The most recent introductions to the miniature instrument family come from Roland in a development from their Aira dance-oriented instruments. The T-8 Beat Machine, J-6 Chord Synth, and E-4 Voice Tweaker each at around £170 ($200) are truly pocket sized, have colorful case edgings, and work from internal LiOn battery or mains power.
Predictably the T-8 has drum sounds from Roland’s entire range, from the TR606 to TR808 and TR909, in six channels alongside a TB303-style bass synth. With 64 preset drum patterns of up to 16 beats plus built-in effects, it’s designed to have playback patterns varied quickly and spontaneously. A “Probability” parameter varies playback patterns for a more human feel.
J-6 can be a stand-alone synth, and it has built-in sets of chords called “genres,” which can be played either from its micro keyboard or from an external instrument. Sounds including arpeggio and trill patterns are modelled after the Juno 60 keyboard, and can have filter setting and other parameters varied while playing, in up to 64 step patterns.
USB-C connection allows the J-6 to control a more powerful soft synth like Roland’s JD800 software package.
Finally, E-4 can mangle any audio input using a vocoder with its own built-in sound source, pitch and formant shift, loop, and other effects. It takes a simple dynamic mic in a front panel socket and has a noise gate and lowcut filter to improve your incoming sound.
Human voice beatboxing can be layered and looped for up to 24 seconds, and there’s built-in reverb, delay and chorus. Pitch correction can be subtle or hard, and you can create three harmonies related to your incoming voice. Like the Korg Volca instruments, there’s a Sync connection for other instruments in the series as well as USB-C for audio and MIDI.
That concludes our historic roundup of powerful-sounding though tiny instruments – but there are sure to be many more to come, both from Arduino-related independent designers and from the larger companies aiming to put their musical firepower into your back pocket.