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BC033 - Play with Toys: How DJ and Electronic Music-Making Equipment Became Kid Stuff, and Vice Versa
My presentation from Pop Conference 2023.
The author delivering the below in room 202 at the Clive Davis Institute.
For the final weekend of April I flew to New York and spent four days participant-observing Pop Conference 2023, which took place at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute in Brooklyn. It was a jam-packed weekend; my report will appear in Love Injection. Below, you’ll find the presentation I did on Friday morning—I was third on an 11 a.m. panel. It’s rough and could use more editing and reporting, but the idea was to deliver a fun overview of an important but oft-overlooked area.
A couple of notes before I begin. One, I said in my abstract that this would be a multimedia presentation, and strictly speaking that will be true. What I did not say is that I have absolutely no interest in or patience with PowerPoint, so my multimedia will not be smoothly integrated but ad hoc and janky. You’re welcome! The other is that this survey makes no claim to completeness—just remember that during the Q&A, when you pelt me with all the things I overlooked. After all, I’m going to do the same thing to you all damn weekend.
Now, let’s begin at the very beginning. I’m going to start with a long excerpt from the introduction of Jim Dawson and Steve Propes’ 45 RPM: The History, Heroes & Villains of a Pop Music Revolution, published in 2003:
The flat recording disc that became the industry standard for most of the twentieth century was the brainchild of a self-educated German-Jewish immigrant American named Emile Berliner, who in 1888 developed a method of using acid to etch sound grooves into a zinc-coated circular plate, then making rubber-coated copies and playing them back on a manually operated turntable with a floating needlelike stylus attached to an amplifier horn. When Berliner demonstrated his new "gram-o-phone" at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, it seemed whimsical to the Victorian mind, and the only client he attracted was a German toy manufacturer who hired him to create a talking doll [with] a small children’s record player. In order to fit the hard rubber plates inside the company’s dolls, Berliner miniaturized them to three inches in diameter, with less than a minute of sound capacity. His discs for the kiddie players were a little larger, five inches. The recordings were nursery rhymes, little songs and recitations. . . . After Berliner formed his own United States Gram-O-Phone Company in Washington, D.C., he standardized his "plate"—that’s what he called it—at seven inches in diameter and increased the speed into the neighborhood of seventy revolutions per minute, which gave him better sound quality because the extra velocity allowed the needle to extract more music per moment. In 1896 he hired a young entrepreneur named Eldridge R. Johnson to develop a spring motor that could be wound up, so that a talking machine could play recordings at a steady, pre-set speed. Four years later, Johnson replaced Berliner’s primitive acid-etched zinc masters with his own much superior wax process . . . Calling his new enterprise the Victor Talking Machine Company, Eldridge Johnson retained Emile Berliner’s seven-inch disc size but decided in 1901 to introduce an alternate format: the 10-inch record, with a new standard speed of about 78 rpm, give or take a revolution. . . . But then one day the company’s top executive set out to kill the 78 and go back to their original seven-inch record.
Let’s take the story up a few years later. Famously, by the mid-fifties, the 78 was dead, the 33 1/3 RPM long-player was aimed at adults, and the 7-inch 45 was aimed at kids. It stood to reason that the kids would get their own player for them. There were a few, like the Close ’n’ Play. This ad is from 1967.
Within a few years, the Close ’n’ Play would be supplanted by this classic, which you didn’t even have to close the lid on.
Now, chronology aside, I’m mentioning these at the top because the Fisher-Price record player, in particular, is renowned as a hip-hop DJ’s crate-digging tool. Joseph G. Schloss writes in his Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop: “It is not unusual for producers to carry children’s record players (which, unlike adult turntables, tend to be both portable and impact resistant) with them, in order to preview potential acquisitions. While it may unnerve record-store owners to see hip-hop producers listening to, for example, Sesame Street records on a Fisher-Price record player, other crate diggers instantly recognize this as a sign of a kindred spirit.”
That wasn’t the whole story, of course. In 2012, a member of the Cratedigging message board posted this complaint: “There’s a lot of love for Fisher-Price record players, mostly due to the throwback to childhood factor . . . But truthfully, the needles are often quite harsh on all records. They literally shred records. So you might get a lot of dirty looks from record store owners who watch you drop a needle on their stock, so I wouldn’t even try using it as a portable.”
We will return later to turntables, or rather their digital equivalent, aimed at children. But before tech or kids’-toy manufacturers got there, they busied themselves aiming modular synthesis at the underage market. Not all of them were instruments, either.
The Speak & Spell was introduced at the June 1978 Consumer Electronics Show. Three years later it would feature prominently on the title track of Kraftwerk’s Computer World—along with another kids’ toy. Here to tell us more is Thomas Heckmann, aka Spectral Emotions, Drax, Trope, Electro Nation, Silent Breed, and loads of other aliases sure to raise a flutter in the hearts of nineties ravers everywhere.
Now, the Bee Gees Rhythm Machine wasn’t Mattel’s first attempt at modular synthesis for kids—in 1979, it had manufactured the Magical Musical Thing, which looked like a Jay Ward rendering of a recorder and sounded something like a Coke can being pelted by rubber bands.
That ad also predicts another use for these machines: They would later be the frequent subject of circuit bending—re-soldering the machine’s circuitry to make the most alien sounds possible—which has long been a staple of electronic music’s experimental, glitch, and noise wings.
But the Rhythm Machine was supplanted definitively in 1981, when Mattel issued the first enduring classic of the genre. It wasn’t a synthesizer, but a drum machine.
Again, Kraftwerk were fans. So was Buddy Rich.
And so were Canadian prog-rockers Saga, whose 1982 single “On the Loose” was an early MTV hit; they would bring the machine onstage to duet with the band’s drummer.
Let’s jump ahead slightly. By 1985, the Japanese electronics maker Casio has been making pro-grade synthesizers for years, not to mention digital wristwatches. The time had clearly come to expand into the burgeoning youth market. The Casio SK-1 wasn’t the first synthesizer a kid might buy from Target, but it was the first with a sampler.
The SK-1 was a bestseller; it sold a million units. And as the technology expanded and improved, so did the model. Within two years, Casio’s sampling keyboard for kids was up to an SK-5, and it had been joined by a plethora of other electronic instruments.
Synthesizers, drum machines, and other electronic music-making tools were abundant during the nineties, in part because so much original pro gear was flooding the secondhand market in the late eighties—the boxes and tools that was responsible for so much hip-hop, techno, house music, and other DJ-centric styles. That stuff would become prohibitively expensive over time, just like DJing in the vinyl era. You had to have the newest 12-inches, you had to cart them around, and you had to know how to mix and blend them in order to call yourself a real DJ. But that would change too as the 2000s began. By the 2010s, digital DJing—either pseudo turntable style, a la Serato Scratch, or via a production interface such as Ableton Live—would be the norm. Naturally, the kids loved it.
The NuMark PartyMix DJ Controller not only fits inside a backpack, a catalog listing tells us, it also comes with a “built-in light show” that lets its user “shower the room with beat-synchronized colorful light patterns, creating the perfect party atmosphere!” One satisfied customer wrote: “My children play with this too.” Or, as a onetime professional DJ friend told me, “My controller is a Fisher-Price toy, basically.” And more and more kids are learning. That friend, Dory Kahalé, spent some time before the pandemic teaching DJing to children aged eight to twelve. He reported that only the twelve-year-olds take it seriously; the younger kids just hack their way into making the BPM go as fast as possible. For the record, that’s 1,200 beats per minute.
Recently, I interviewed Richie Hawtin, one of techno’s biggest producers and DJs. He’s also worked on many other projects, including helping to design a pro DJ mixer called Model 1, which is also available in a consumer version. I asked if he could see something like that modeled down to a younger person’s toy. He said, “Since you asked me about kid things, I am very interested in technology that may help younger people get involved in electronic music. Potentially, there’s going to be something we’re working on, another collaboration with a different brand that may fit a little bit of what you’re talking about.” He also said that he was about to look at, quote, “a prototype of something we’re working on. It’s more in the synth era area rather than the DJ area. I actually have a meeting later this week to discuss what we want to do.”
Depending how young Hawtin is aiming for, he already has competition.
This is the Blipblox, and as we can see, it’s aimed at a much different demo.
See that beard? According to Troy Sheets, the Blipblox’s inventor, that’s the target audience: “It appeals mostly to dads,” he said. “Basically, our key demographic is synthesizer enthusiasts with kids. That’s a no-brainer, right? Every synthesizer enthusiast with a kid is going to want a Blipblox.”
Sheets lives in San Francisco, having spent a quarter-century programming for large companies before going into business for himself. He and his wife run Playtime Engineering, the company that makes the Blipblox, in part because he had saved up a chunk to start it. He’d been into industrial music as a teenager before going to his first rave in 1996, age 18. “It was a beautiful time, because it was a new scene,” he says. “This is music that just was not being played anywhere else. We didn’t have these music apps. If you want to hear a certain type of music, you would have to go out to a party.” (Most of what follows is me quoting him, by the way.)
“I’ve always been interested in electronics and computers. I was programming computers at about ten. Went to school to study electrical engineering with [a] computer emphasis. I’ve always been interested in technology and really focused on that. So, those two things—the technical side and the music side—[were] coming together, first in L.A., and then after school when I moved to the Bay Area.
“The idea of the making my own gear seemed like a stretch for a long time. It wasn’t until probably the early 2000s [that] I started tinkering with synthesizers. I always thought synthesizers were as much toys as they were production tools. They’re just very fun devices. They make crazy sounds. They have blinking lights. They look like a spaceship control panel. And just the exploring the sounds, even if you’re not producing music, just having fun exploring sounds—I was convinced there was a way that we could simplify that, and basically take out all the complexity, and leave all the fun parts of it, and design a durable product that you could basically throw to a kid and let them go crazy with it.
“But nearly every synthesizer has knobs that can be pulled off and become choking hazards. And no one had really thought of locking those knobs down under the faceplate like we did. It just wasn’t really safe to give kids a real synthesizer. I know there’s some other fun toys out there. But no one had really done a product like the Blipblox before.
“I think the first thing you see with the Blipblox is that there’s no keyboard. And really, almost every other music toy on the planet has a keyboard. Almost every music toy, the concept is, you play the notes, or you press a button and it makes a sound. So our design philosophy was, we’re going to eliminate that that device is going to play the notes itself. And the kids can focus on sculpting the sound, with the tempo control, the filters, or the modulations. The focus on the Blipblox is exploring those modulations, exploring the texture of the sound, and [less] so playing the individual notes.”
The first version of the Blipblox has very little labeling of individual buttons and knobs on the machine. I suspected this was on purpose. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s actually one of the most difficult design decisions we made. On the first unit, we spent a lot of time trying to decide, do we keep this abstract for the youngest kids who aren’t going to know what a filter is anyway, and just letting them follow the signal flow? We think there was good educational value in having kids so understand how things flow from one module to another. That’s what we’re really focused on. In our later models—After Dark and SK2—we do have those controls labeled. We also sell an overlay for our original models, and that gives the labels to the controls. I’m not saying it was the right decision. We still like how on the original white unit, it is unlabeled, it really gives it the most toylike feel to it.”
Finally, I asked if he knew whether or not musicians were adapting it. He answered immediately: “Yes. We do a lot of events in LA, such as NAMM. We get to mingle with a lot of industry professionals there. These aren’t necessarily the big stars, but these are the producers behind the scenes are doing a lot of the music creation. And I know a lot of studios in LA, have Blipbloxes now, just as a part of their sonic arsenal. It’s interesting, because we have our original white version, which has an 8-bit sound. It literally has an 8-bit processor in it, so it has some more [of a] video game kind of sound to it. Our newer models have more processing power so we can get more sort of smoother, more realistic synth sounds. But it’s interesting that the producers are liking the original white model. They liked that real toy, 8-bit sound. They think that that’s a more unique sound, actually.”
And that is our inconclusive conclusion. Thank you.
 Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, 45 RPM: The History, Heroes & Villains of a Pop Music Revolution (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 7-8.
 Joseph G. Schloss, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2014), 87.
 rchecka, post, cratedigging.co/3/4781/fisher_price_record_players_, November 25, 2012.
 See electronicmusic.fandom.com/wiki/Synsonics.