tone lab

c. 2018
Tone Lab is a music device that allows any user to experience the basics of synthesizers firsthand by allowing users to stack blocks physically to produce sound.

It was conceptualized during my senior thesis project in the undergraduate industrial design program at Ohio State University, where it was awarded best in show.
Lead designer
Research documentation
appearance model
project video

Synthesizers are creative powerhouses with a huge learning curve.

Synthesizers create an empowering experience for making music. Seasoned musicians are capable of making entire compositions with limited equipment.
Newcomers, however, experience a difficult learning curve. The complexity of synthesizers limits users' ability to make creative discoveries using trial and error.

Design Opportunity:
Empower more creators.

I began to wonder: Why do some of the basic concepts of synthesizers seem so niche and hard to understand? What kind of new sounds might we hear if more people could easily understand the concepts behind digital music making?

Increasing the tactile experience

I started sketching concepts that might help users think more spatially. I wanted to bring order to the input methods while also focusing on toy-like interactions that promote playfulness.

Testing the effects of a linear journey

I needed to verify that a linear journey, wherein a user is presented options within a sequence, is truly a better experience.
So I created a simple test: I would present participants with four knobs, each assigned a unique effect. I gave the control group no instruction other than to experiment, listen, and try to discover the effects of each knob. I asked participants to indicate when they felt they understood each effect and attempt to describe the sounds they heard.
The test group were instructed to try each knob in a specific sequence. This group indicated their understanding more quickly and provided more accurate descriptions. This convinced me that users would more quickly and better understand each knob's effect via a linear journey than via random exploration.
Control group: participants were free to try out the knobs in any order.
Test group: participants were instructed to try out the knobs in a specific order.

Build a stack to build a song

I realized that the best way to increase tactile playfulness while also creating a linear journey is to create a simple vertical stack. This stack represents the layers of sound built by the user. To modify the sound, add another layer. To undo that change, simply remove it.
To help illustrate how Tone Lab works, I made an appearance model with LED animations. The lights cycle through a 16 step sequencer loop.

Tone Lab has been featured in the following: