Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Toy Instruments


Toy Instruments: Design, Nostalgia, Music by Eric Schneider is a pictorial tribute to the mass-produced musical instruments created as play objects for children. As noted in its subtitle, nostalgia is an important element of this book achieved through the combination of current photographs of the instruments and vintage advertisements that show gleeful children playing with the instruments.

These toy instruments are marvels of industrial design -- stylized products of colored plastic, transistors and microchips. Almost all are made by toy companies instead of musical instrument manufacturers. The majority are variations on the organ or synthesizer, but there are also a variety of microphones, drums, and even guitar and violin-like objects. Many instruments are associated with cartoon characters, or television show. Some were only manufactured for foreign markets like Japan and the Soviet Union.

The oldest instrument in the book is the Eltronovox manufactured by Nucelonic -- a miniaturized two octave organ manufactured in 1954. The cut-off date for the most recent instruments shown is 1986. One of the earlier instruments that achieved a level of popularity was General Electric's "Tote-A-Tune" from 1971, shown in the following video.



Toy Instruments is primarily a visual resource. Although the author does provide the name of the product, its manufacturer and its year of manufacture, otherwise there is very little text.

While design and nostalgia are well covered by this book, there is very little discussion of music. For instance Casio's VL-Tone VL-10 from 1981 (given a four page spread in Toy Instruments) has been used by many professional musicians.

"Become an instant musician, no experience need."
source: Advertisement in Popular Science, June 1981

The letters VL in the instrument's name refers to the VLSI (or very large scale integration) technology it used. VLSI was originally developed for video games and became the basis of sound sampling. According to the Digital Sound Processing For Music and Multimedia, it “allowed companies to customize their own fast circuit designs on to a single digital chip.”

Perhaps the most notorious use of the VL-Tone was the song "Da Da Da" by Trio, with its incessant use of the instrument's pre-programmed rhythm.



Another toy instrument illustrated in Schneider's book that made its way into popular music history was Mattel's Bee Gees Rhythm Machine of 1978.



Source: Synthwise

It's featured below by Kraftwerk in a live performance of their 1981 song "Pocket Calculator."




Handmade Electronic Music by Nicholas Collins provides another avenue for musicians interested in exploring the music possibilities of toy instruments. This book provides a primer on "hardware hacking" or "circuit bending" -- the customization of the circuits and components of these simple gadgets.

In a chapter with the subheading “finding the clock circuit in toys,” Collins explains that the “majority of electronic toys manufactured since the late-1980s are essentially simple computers.” He details ways of creatively hacking into the mass produced objects to create novel and unintended sounds.


A circuit bent "Megcos Music Toy" with LFO controlling Pitch modulation and or note triggering. Source: Youtube

Reading list:

Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music / Consuming Technology by Paul Th├ęberge (Wesleyan University Press; University Press of New England, 1997).

Digital Sound Processing for Music and Multimedia by Ross Kirk and Andy Hunt (Focal Press, 1999).

Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking
by Nicolas Collins (Routledge, 2009).

Strange Sounds: Offbeat Instruments and Sonic Experiments in Pop by Mark Brend (Backbeat Books, 2005).

Toy instruments: Design, Nostalgia, Music by Eric Schneider (New York : Mark Batty, 2010).

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