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The 8 Best Electronic Music Toys for Kids in 2022

Oct 14, 2023

By Philip Sherburne

Since my daughter was born six and a half years ago, she's been surrounded by music, and I’d like to think that the immersion is paying off. Mu's acid-house banger "Paris Hilton" was her first favorite song—fortunately, long before I had to worry about her deciphering the lyrics. We’ve listened to plenty of Frozen and Moana in the car, but we’ve spent even more time singing along to children's folk singer Ella Jenkins, and lately she's been amusing herself by learning the lyrical intricacies of Bill Callahan's "Too Many Birds." (What can I say; she's a chip off the old block.)

A big part of my daughter's musical education has also involved making music. When she was just a year and a half old, we started doing Music Together classes, which I rate as one of the highlights of her first couple of years. And since she's been old enough to bang on things, my wife and I have filled the house with toys and instruments, everything from the typical shakers and slide whistle to one of those musical playmats that you play with your feet, which she encountered at a party and absolutely had to have. (A word to the wise: They’re noisy, take up space in your closet, and your kid will get bored quickly—which is good, since they’re so damn noisy. I don't recommend them.) In recent years, we’ve graduated to electronic instruments, in part because I’ve been playing with synthesizers since I was 16 and I want my kid to have everything that I did, and then some.

Fortunately, there's been a recent explosion of synthesizers and other musical gadgets aimed expressly at kids. Some they can figure out on their own, some will require parental supervision, and some are so cool that even non-parents might end up wanting one for themselves.

The Blipblox is a curious, entrancing, and unique device. It's essentially a kind of groovebox, yet you might just as well call it an infinity machine, because music pours out of it ceaselessly. The source of the sound is an onboard synth paired with a sequencer (that is, a device that plays back patterns of notes, in this case a constantly shifting series of pre-programmed ones); you manipulate the sound via a bevy of colorful knobs and levers that positively beg to be turned, twisted, pushed, and pulled, while drum settings let you add kick, snare, or beatbox patterns. Diagrammed arrows sketch out certain possibilities lurking within the signal chain, but they might as well be the dotted lines on a pirate's map: Tap this, yoink on that, and see what happens. The makers have intentionally left the machine's functions cryptic. Features like filter, waveform, and envelope shape—the basic building blocks of synthesis—remain unlabeled; this is a machine you learn by touch, not by reading the manual.

Blipblox has its limitations. You can't alter the preset sequences, and there's no on-board keyboard to allow you to play notes. (You can, however, attach a keyboard controller via MIDI, the software protocol that allows electronic instruments to communicate data like tempo and pitch.) But there's a reason for those design decisions: By keeping the sound flowing, it encourages hands-on play, rather than long pauses between hunting and pecking. Ultimately, the Blipblox may be more a toy than a bona fide musical instrument, but it can reward hours of exploratory play while teaching some of the elementary principles of basic (and not-so-basic!) synthesis. And the flashing lights will give kids the thrill of sitting at the helm of a spaceship.

Age Range: 3+Power Source: Battery, DC 5VAudio: Built-in speaker, 1/8" phono outputConnectivity: MIDI in

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The Artiphon Orba looks a little like a paperweight and fits in the palm of a hand, but it's remarkably versatile. A central button allows you to toggle through four different sound settings (typically drums, bass, chords, and lead) while the eight pads around the circumference of the instrument's dial-like surface allow you to play notes or drum hits; with the onboard sequencer, you can record simple loops and layer them together into a four-part jam. One of the nicest things about Orba is that playing it simply feels good—spinning a finger around the eight keys can create mesmerizing spirals of notes, and there's a surprising amount of control baked in. The keys are velocity-sensitive, meaning that the sound will vary in intensity (and sometimes timbre), depending on how hard you tap; they also support aftertouch, allowing you to change held sounds by applying pressure. The longer you play around with the Orba, the more features you’ll discover: Shimmy your finger from side to side to create vibrato or affect the brightness of a note; tilt it to play effects. And if you smack it on the side while in drum mode, you’ll even generate a "clap" sound.

Things really get interesting once you fire up the app on a tablet, smartphone, or computer. Here, you can select any of 12 keys for playback, as well as toggle between major and minor. You can also change the preset sound sets, selecting from banks like "Cartridge Artiphon" (vintage video-game sounds), "Ambeeant Artiphon" (insect-inspired pads), and even a sound set designed by experimental-music mastermind Richard Devine. And the feature set keeps growing: Artiphon recently announced Orbacam, an app that lets you add your Orba creations to smartphone videos with simple visual effects that strobe in time to the music. Being a big fan of Instagram filters, my daughter loves this one.

Artiphon isn't expressly marketed as a toy, and it's true that some of its features may not be totally intuitive to younger kids. Like any instrument, it takes practice: My six-year-old has yet to create a very convincing loop with it, and even I have trouble getting my drum beats perfectly timed. (A snap-to-grid quantization feature to corral stray notes into a steady rhythm would be a nice addition for a future update.) But it's appealing to play around with—my daughter loves to jam on it while strapped into her car seat for the 12-minute drive to school—and its complexity means that there's a ton to discover as kids get older and develop motor skills and musical sensibility. You can even use the Orba as a MIDI controller (via Bluetooth or USB-C) to play software synths on your tablet, smartphone, or computer, opening up a whole new world of expressive potential.

Age Range: A 5-year-old will have fun making sounds with it; older kids and adults will better be able to take advantage of its capabilitiesPower Source: Internal battery, USB-CAudio: Built-in speaker, headphone jackConnectivity: MIDI out (via Bluetooth or USB-C)

Designed by parents and synth designers David Menting and Toon Welling, and manufactured in Utrecht, the Netherlands, the Dato DUO got its start as a Kickstarter campaign in 2016. The instrument is based on a simple premise: Making music is best when it's a collaborative activity. This compact little sequencer/synthesizer unit is designed to be played by two people at once. On the sequencer side, there's a colorful row of keys and an eight-step circular sequencer, plus controls for basic functions like tempo control, key transpositions, and note length. On the synth side, three sliders allow you to morph parameters like waveform, filter frequency, and release. (Within about 30 minutes of taking it out of the box, my daughter had discovered what she called "the chicken sound," a faintly acidic squawk resulting from a just-so combination of cutoff, release, and envelope settings.) And there's more: Glide, bit-crush, and "overdrive" buttons let you add dynamic accents in real time; a lovely little delay adds a dubwise hint of mystery; and the "detune" knob lets you create harmonies across the instrument's two oscillators. Oh, and there are even a pair of touch strips for playing kick, snare, and hi-hat sounds with your fingertips.

The end result is a simple-to-use yet remarkably full-featured machine that's fun for one person to use and an absolute blast when two people are jamming together. (The pyramid shape is a stroke of genius; hunched over it, it reminds me of playing Battleship as a kid.) The designers have clearly put a lot of thought into the DUO; there are enough parameters to give players real control over the sounds, but not so many that they become intimidating. The circular sequencer and monophonic output—that is, just one note at a time, avoiding clashing dissonance—make it simple to generate ear-pleasing loops, while the controls keep playback dynamic. And the plethora of expansion options (audio out, MIDI in/out, sync in/out) mean that the DUO can easily be incorporated into a growing arsenal of instruments as your kid grows—or, you know, folded into Mom's or Dad's home studio of assorted modular gear.

While the price tag may be steep, of all the kid-friendly synths I’ve tried, this one has the best sound of all—for proof, just check this demo track by veteran IDM producer Solvent, made using only sounds from the Dato DUO's synth and sequencer, which were then layered and arranged in Ableton. There's no doubt about it: This gorgeous little groovebox is the real deal.

Age Range: 3+Power Source: 5V DC (micro USB)Audio: Built-in speaker, headphone outConnectivity: MIDI in/out, CV sync in/out

Sweden's Teenage Engineering makes some of the coolest, most visually appealing audio gear out there. In addition to its stellar industrial design, the company's signature is its quirkiness: Pretty much everything it makes has at least one curious little feature to set it apart. (Consider the OB-4 Bluetooth speaker and FM radio, which includes a metronome, "digital tape reel," and ambient drone setting generated by stretched and reverbed snippets of live radio broadcast. At $599, it ain't cheap, but that kind of panache comes with a price.) While some of Teenage Engineering's synthesizers are pretty high end—consider its build-it-yourself modular range, or its famous OP-1 synthesizer, used by folks like Beck, Bon Iver, Tame Impala, and Depeche Mode—the Pocket Operator series has a relatively budget price tag, between $49 and $99 apiece.

There are currently nine different units on the market, all designed to resemble old-school pocket calculators, and while each one functions as a sequencer/groovebox, their features range pretty widely. The PO-12 Rhythm is a drum machine; the PO-14 Sub makes basslines; the PO-20 Arcade replicates the chiptune sounds of classic arcade games. I picked up the PO-33 K.O! because I figured my daughter would get a kick out of recording her voice and re-pitching it. I was right; she can't get enough of yelling gobbledygook into the sampler, then spinning the pitch knob until it sounds like she's just inhaled a gallon-sized helium balloon.

That said, while you can get some pretty incredible results out of the Pocket Operators—just check this on-the-fly cover of Röyksopp's "Poor Leno," created entirely on the PO-33—programming sequences and tweaking sounds takes some patience, and prior experience with pattern-based sequencers wouldn't hurt. Smaller children probably won't get much out of the instrument. (It's also a pretty no-frills affair, essentially just a metal circuit board with some buttons and an LCD screen; you might consider an optional silicon case, though you’ll need to break the detachable metal hanger off the unit to make it fit.) But older kids will have a blast banging out simple grooves, and given the way kids’ brains work, they’ll probably have an easier time figuring out its intricacies than you will. The complexity of the feature set means that there's really no ceiling to what they can do with it, provided they put in the time. Want proof? Veteran American breakcore producer Dev/Null created his new album Microjunglizm entirely on the PO-33, and it bangs.

Age Range: 6+Power Source: 2x AAA batteryAudio: Built-in speaker, headphone jackConnectivity: CV sync

Tasos Stamou is a musician and instrument maker who hacks, or "circuit bends," old toys and electronic devices to make far-out musical gizmos. (I haven't actually tried any of these, but they come highly recommended by friends.) His Modified Peppa Pig Toy Sampler adds pitch control to its bevy of preset sounds; the Paper Jamz Pro Mic Aetherial Noise Generator generates bizarre drones; the Computerized Arcade Melody Sequencer turns an old Radio Shack toy from the ’80s into a synth and sequencer with a bleepy, dub-siren effect. If you have dreams of bringing up your kid to be the next Dan Deacon, any of these would be a good place to start.

Age Range: For bigger kids and young-at-heart grownupsPower Source: variesAudio: variesMIDI: varies

At some point in my daughter's infancy, we discovered a silly little toy called the Tap & Play Magic Piano. Jam the device's cables into pieces of fruit—apple, banana, orange, whatever—then touch them, and the toy plays a different note for each piece of fruit. A little gimmicky, sure, but kids love it. (If you don't feel like wasting fruit, you can also use Silly Putty.) They seem to have gone off the market in the U.S. (though Spain's Eurekakids still has them). But Playtronica's Playtron takes the same functionality and, paired with its computer app, lets you use objects—fruit, vegetables, glasses of water, house plants—as an ad-hoc MIDI controller for sampling, performing, and sequencing sounds. It's pricier than the Tap & Play Magic Piano was, but the creative possibilities are considerably greater.

Age Range: 3+ (with parental help)Power Source: n/aAudio: Only via computer (or tablet/phone)MIDI: MIDI out

Honestly, you can't go wrong with a simple Casio keyboard, and this model, which has been around for a while, is a great starting point. Don't let the model numbers confuse you: The SA-76 has an orange base, the SA-77 has a gray base, and the SA-78 has a pink base. This was one of the first musical purchases we made once my daughter had progressed beyond the xylophone-and-shakers stage, and we still get plenty of use out of it. The keys are sized for smaller hands, yet the 44-key length (three and a half scales, basically) offers a nice amount of range. There are 100 preset sounds to choose from, ranging from stock piano and organ sounds up through reeds and guitars to percussion and white noise, plus five drum pads to bang on. Eight-voice polyphony lets beginning players and straight-up fist-mashers make satisfyingly rich sounds by playing up to eight notes at once. It's chintzy, but in a way that will probably sound appealing to parents who grew up on indie music. The demo songs will drive you crazy, but if your kids are like mine, they will also love them.

Age Range: 2+Power Source: 6x AA battery, AC adaptorAudio: Built-in speakers, headphone outMIDI: No

The Otamatone is a popular Japanese musical toy that resembles an elongated eighth note (also a tadpole and a ladle—both of which, it turns out, are called "otamajakushi (おたまじゃくし)" in Japanese). A ribbon controller runs the length of the thing: Squeeze to play single notes, slide to connect two notes with a swooping portamento effect. Squeeze the mouth at the base to create a "wah" effect, or shake the instrument to create vibrato. Parents may find it a little creepy; kids will probably think it's adorable. I haven't tried one; this classically trained cellist says that they’re actually surprisingly hard to play. But hey, 35 bucks and a little practice might just turn your kid into the next TikTok star.

Age Range: 6 months+Power Source: 3xAAA batteriesAudio: Built-in speakerMIDI: no

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