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Blipblox After Dark - Playtime Engineering

Blipblox After Dark - Playtime Engineering

by Ellison Wolf, Rio and Kiina Schreiner

While Playtime Engineering’s original white BlipBlox has a very Playschool aesthetic—with its white, red, and blue design—and looks at home next to a cartoon-laden sippy cup, their new BlipBlox After Dark—with a sleeker, darker, and somewhat mysterious looking color scheme is more Munchkin Miracle 360 Trainer Cup—as well as a can of Heady Topper [provided you can score some]. That’s right, beer. But the beer is not for the kids, it’s for the adults, who can and will commandeer this unit “after dark,” when the wee synthesist has retired to their bedroom for their evening slumber. While this new BlipBlox still falls into the toy/educational category, it has serious sounds and potential for pro studio implementation with its completely redesigned synth engine and internal electronics, and therefore, a much broader user base.
The original BlipBlox was an interesting concept when it came out; a real, playable synthesizer designed for and aimed at potential budding synthesists. Not just some keyboard with immobile sounds, or barn animal howls, but something that was a real instrument; a real synth for the diaper-sporting crowd. Designing something for that type of age bracket comes with much different obstacles and intention than your typical synth. First, it has to be certified safe and rated for that purpose. It also has to be extremely tactile. A Moog Source type of interface just isn’t going to cut it. Last, it has to be immediately fun—programming, screens, and scrolling are no-nos. The original BlipBlox checked those boxes, but After Dark takes these concepts and aims for a higher plateau, to also include synth loving parents and aunties and uncles.
Though it’s got the same layout as the original in terms of the buttons, knobs, and the two addictive levers, the attractive new color scheme of the After Dark is a nice update with a cool looking translucent smoke colored housing, some see-thru knobs, buttons and levers. The most important development is the evolution of the sound engine and internal electronics. There are more pro-style synth sounds and functions, and it’s obvious how much the BlipBlox has grown the moment you power it up. This is a synth that can attract the little ones, keep them interested, give them something to grow into, and also provide them with something as usable as a genuine studio tool no matter where on their musical journey they are, providing the adults don’t take it for themselves first.
One issue with thinking about the original as a potentially advanced instrument is that the original doesn’t have any indication of what each knob, button, or lever does on the unit itself, something After Dark has addressed. It’s really a question of who it’s aimed at. No text is perfect for those who can’t read, who just want/need to touch things and be stimulated, for those 3+ years of age. After Dark, while still perfectly fun for 3+ age bracket, is aimed at the more mature, 10+ years of age crowd, according to the manufacturer.
Powered via power adapter or batteries, the party starts the instant you turn it on. Flashing lights, music, beats…it’s ready to go! While there is an internal speaker that sounds pretty good, After Dark is able to connect to DAWs, sequencers, electronic keyboards, etc., via a MIDI IN jack and a ¼ jack output, which can also be plugged into external speakers for better fidelity.
After Dark has over 300 melodies with which to play any of the sixteen available oscillator types, with the sequences selectable via the SEQ button. There’s no indication of which sequence you’re in, since there’s no screen or anything, so you just have to keep pressing the button until you find one you like, and each time you choose a new sequence a new drum pattern and new drum sounds are randomly chosen to accompany the sequence. Since there is no way to input notes without using an external device via the MIDI IN, you are dependent on the preprogrammed melodies, which can be configured using your computer. I find the lack of no keyboard a strong statement—whether intentional or not—as in traditional western music the melody is the most important and impactful way of expression, but with synthesis, this isn't necessarily the case. By omitting a keyboard with which to create a melody it separates the BlipBlox from being—and looking—like just another kid's plastic toy keyboard, but even more importantly, it reinforces the difference—whether the BlipBlox user understands or acknowledges it or not—between "conventional" music and synthesis, something most kids aren't exposed to.
The ways in which you can tweak the sequences are many: There’s a multi-mode resonant filter with both the cutoff and resonance being adjustable, and two envelope generators and two assignable LFOs. There’s even an adjustable stereo delay, though with only the ¼ mono output, and with only the one onboard speaker, it doesn’t really translate all that well to stereo. Still, the delay is cool and tweaking it was pretty fun. There are also RANDOMIZE and SOUNDFREAK buttons for quickly changing the sound in unpredictable ways. Some of the parameters can by manipulated by holding down a button or two and then adjusting, and in this way it’s very much like a “normal” synth with button combos and menus and such, but these are the more advanced features that don’t have to be accessed to enjoy After Dark, and rather, might be the things that newbies can figure out when they aren’t newbies anymore and get more comfortable and curious about synthesis as well as the Blipblox’s full capabilities. These features are kind of like the icing on the cake in my eyes, and the manual does a good job explaining how to access the deeper features like the Modulation Matrix, Drum Edit mode, and adjustments for the filter, resonance, and so on.
One of After Dark’s main attractions is its drum machine and even though it’s just kick and snare, it’s very immediate, and the buttons are really responsive. With over 100 pitch-adjustable samples available for each drum, it’s pretty versatile, though editing the drum sounds is one of the “advanced” features. You can shut the sequencer off so that After Dark is a drum machine only, and likewise, by holding down KICK and SNARE at the same time you can turn the drums off. Sometimes the drum sounds got lost in the sonic sequential maelstrom coming out of the speaker, but using an external speaker helped this issue, and being able to use After Dark as a standalone drum machine? Pretty dope.
There are LED displays throughout After Dark for various indication type purposes, though it’s not the most intuitive or streamlined way to do this—no OLED display or anything—and some of the labeling is a bit vague [the manual helps with laying this out well], but this isn’t aimed at screen-addicted knob tweakers, it’s for hands-on, real time experimentation, and the LEDs are definitely attractive and fun. Not knowing all of the LED indications while I was playing it never detracted from my overall experience at all.
I wanted to see how After Dark integrated into my modular system, and testing out the MIDI IN on channel 1, I enjoyed being able to sequence it with the Five 12 Vector sequencer to use it as an external synth voice with the onboard delay. It sounded different than anything else in my rig, though it would be nice to have a stereo output [TRS] for a little separation of the sequencer/melody and the drum. Either way, controlling After Dark with an external sequencer was great and the controls are really fun to play. On that end it brings me to my only other wish for the BlipBlox; to have a MIDI output in order use After Dark as a MIDI controller itself. What can I say? I really want to map those very Millennium Falcon-ish levers onto some external filter cutoffs and VCAs and blast off into hyperdrive and After Dark could be a really fun controller for a soft synth or modular if it were completely mappable. These are definitely more advanced features that I’m wanting, and in this aspect I am thinking of the BlipBlox in terms of a studio tool and not a kid’s toy/learning device, which it most certainly is at its core.
BlipBlox After Dark is a fun toy, a great learning tool, an excellent introductory synth, and a fun synth voice, but really you shouldn’t take my word for it, I’m way above the intended age market for this, which is why I decided to enlist my next-door-neighbors, Rio and Kiina, to give me their feedback on it. They had the BlipBlox After Dark for a week and were the perfect beta-testers for it as they’re both musical and have a little experience with synths, as I’d previously brought over the Teenage Engineering POM-400 [reviewed in this issue] for their input. Shout out to their dad Jeremy for helping set it all up.
Rio, age 9
Jeremy: Do you like it?
Rio: Yes I do. It's really fun and after you know all the buttons it's easy to control. I like that there is a mixture of different controls such as the lever and the knobs, and I like the colors. I like that some of them are red and others are light blue and purple and black. I love that it lights up according to the song and the designs are awesome. I think this is a good synthesizer for ages 3 - 9 but I also like the ones that you have to plug in to noise. [Ed: "Plug in to noise"…love it!]


Kiina, age 7
Jeremy: Do you think it's easy to use?
K: It's kind of easy to use because it has all the buttons and basically you just have to like, click it.
Jeremy: Does it make you want to play with a bigger synthesizer or do you think this one is good enough?
K: This one is good.
Jeremy: Do you like the buttons? Do you wish they were a little different?
Kiina shakes her head “no.”
Jeremy: Is it fun?
K: Yes!!! [Enthusiastically.]


So there you have it. I suppose you could have just skipped to Rio and Kiina’s thoughts and ignored mine, as they’re probably more applicable here, but as someone on the higher end of the 3+ recommended age scale, I was surprised by BlipBlox After Dark from an adult perspective. There’s no doubt it hits the right spots for kids; fun looks, playability, ease of use, and lots of blinking LED action, but just a little under the surface is a deeper, pretty configurable, and usable instrument, masquerading as a child’s toy. I think the BlipBlox After Dark is something that could stick around in the household for a while, moving between playroom and studio, to be enjoyed by any age, no matter how many years ago the sippy cup was left behind.

Price: $189

blipblox.com