Categories: Hardware Prototypes/Non-Commercial products

Submitted by:Elias Jarzombek

24 May 2023

Elevator Pitch


Abacusynth is a kinetic synthesizer inspired by an abacus. Its playful interface allows anyone to explore synthesis and timbre, regardless of their musical experience.

Product Description


The Abacusynth is a synthesizer inspired by an abacus, the ancient counting tool used all around the world. Just like an abacus is used to learn the fundamentals of math, the Abacusynth can be used to explore the building blocks of synthesis and timbre. Timbral modulation is arguably just as “musical” as melody or rhythm, but it’s not often emphasized for someone learning music, usually due to the complexity of synthesizer interfaces. The Abacusynth presents a fun, tactile device that allows anyone to explore timbre, regardless of their musical experience. I took inspiration from an abacus because it provides familiar and flexible interactions that evoke experimentation and discovery. It is a standalone device that features a built-in speaker so that anyone can start exploring right off the bat. It can also be controlled via MIDI and sends a line out. The design creates new possibilities in both the performance and production space. Timbral adjustments, normally made by turning dials, are brought into focus through this kinetic interface, which is just as fun to watch as is it to play.

How It's Innovative

The visual and tactile interface makes it easy and fun to create rich synth sounds. The core timbral building blocks (oscillators, harmonics, and filters) are organized in a spatial layout that prioritizes interaction and invites experimentation. Each rod represents an oscillator. Moving a block laterally adjusts a low pass filter and spinning it modulates either the pitch or volume. A knob on the side allows you to control the oscillators waveform, harmonic multiplier, and spin effect. Knobs on the front control overall volume and the ADSR envelope. When no MIDI device is connected, these knobs control a two note drone sound, so you don't need any external device to start experimenting. Spinning motion/oscillation is at the core of all sound, it's in oscillators, modulation, rhythm. Everything we hear can be broken down into sine waves. I wanted to build that into the interface, so that the instrument itself demonstrates the musical concepts that it employs. The instrument's kinetic nature means that no two takes will be exactly alike. The spinners are bound by the laws of physics and they slow down over time, leading to unique rhythmic patterns. This means that playing the Abacusynth is an active process. You need to keep interacting with it as the motion subsides.

See MIDI Innovation In Action

Most Inspiring Use Cases

The Abacusynth breathes new life into live synth performance. My favorite use case is collaborative: when one person plays the notes using a MIDI controller and the other plays the timbre. This allows the audience to see and hear how these two aspects of the music relate to each other. The spinning action, visible from both sides of the synth, allows you to "see" the sound and hear how modulation changes the feel of the music. It's perfect for creating evolving ambient soundscapes or imbuing sequenced loops with energy and tension.

Expansion Plans

Moving forward, I am thinking a lot about modularity. I designed the inner section to be removable (so it doesn't have any electronics in it). Theoretically this could be swapped out for another more experimental design (maybe featuring one or two bigger spinners). Additionally, the core concept could be reduced to individual modules that could be stacked or linked together in some way. This could be a powerful tool for learning about music and sound, as additional complexity could be introduced over time.


This year I won 2nd place and the Peoples Choice Award at the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition (videos: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/19NhLu6ZpZbNh-wDqyvIGEd3H3oBJNcKM). I am currently developing a second iteration that is more robust and portable. I have received interest in this idea as a product and I hope to develop my fabrication process so that I can create and potentially sell them. I would love to talk to anyone experienced in the business side of making instruments!