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In checking out some of the excellent makers coming to Maker Faire Bay Area this year, I noticed Lil DJ, an interesting looking musical toy project being developed by friends Jason Keppe, David Kesler, and Peter Gardner in Berkeley, Calif. Tired of the “pedestrian” musical content found in most toys marketed to small children, they decided to make a toy DJ turntable that would be aurally enjoyable for all ages. One of the great things about Maker Faire is the feedback that makers get from the community, and Keppe and Gardner are excited to share their most recent prototype with the public this weekend. Once they decide Lil DJ is complete, they will be open sourcing the plans, schematics, and source code.

Here are some sample tracks (not recordings of someone playing Lil DJ but the complete compositions which show the flavor of the songs one might create with Lil DJ):

Ambient

Classical

I was curious to learn more about Lil DJ, so I asked them a few questions:

What is Lil DJ?

Lil DJ is a musical toy that enables kids to create their own songs by layering pre-recorded beats and loops.

With Lil DJ, our goal is to raise the bar for musical toys by creating one that has excellent sound quality, design, and craftsmanship.  Most musical toys on the market sound and look terrible (just being honest!). Those toys make grown-ups want to hide the batteries as soon as possible to make the noise STOP. We believe that kids (and the grown-ups who love them) deserve to have a beautiful product that makes pleasing sounds; a toy that truly inspires creativity and fun; a toy that can be enjoyed day after day, year after year.

mf14ba badge 01 Lil DJ, Turning Toddlers into TurntablistsKids of all ages love the experience of activating sounds, beats, and loops by pressing buttons and scratching the records on Lil DJ’s two virtual turntables. It’s an accessible and fun way to experience music, to get behind the “wheels of steel,” and to get the party started right.

Another level of fun will come for makers and hackers because we’re going to release our plans, schematics, and source code to the community. Through those detailed instructions, Lil DJ will be a springboard for adults (and older kids) to get into Raspberry Pi programming. People will be able to source the parts themselves, but eventually we plan to offer kits to make it easier to get all the parts and put it together. Our current plans for the kit involve little to no soldering so, with some interest, motivation, and elbow grease, people of any skill level will be able to build their own Lil DJ. Then, of course, the possibilities expand even further: you can record and upload your own sounds and loops, program the buttons to execute different functions, and invent new features. The excitement of open source is that there’s no end to the possibilities for innovation.

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Peter Gardner and Jason Keppe with Lil DJ.

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The first prototype of Lil DJ. The red buttons play the loops, the green cranks were in place of turntables.

We’re still in the early prototype stage, laying out the components and figuring out what makes sense for the position of buttons and controls, but the physical design is also on our mind. Right now, we’re using MDF hardboard as the deck for Lil DJ. Once we’ve got the design down, we’ll move on to creating a more visually pleasing toy. We’re going to experiment with laser cut acrylic for a techie look and hardwood planks for something a little more refined. Wouldn’t it be great to have a children’s toy that looks nice if it doesn’t get put away? We’ve got big plans, but first we want to get feedback from people outside the project; people with fresh perspectives and knowledge. That is what is so exciting about getting the chance to show off our project at Maker Faire. We imagine that we’ll be getting a lot of interesting suggestions and feedback, but more importantly, we’re looking forward to getting to see how both kids and adults interact with the prototype and if they are as excited about it as we are.

If people seem excited about the project, we’ll probably run a Kickstarter to get the first run of kits made and in people’s hands. We’ll be keeping our webpage up to date about those plans, lildj.me.

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Lil DJ is controlled with a Raspberry Pi.

What are the main components that make it work?

Our first thought was to use Arduino, but we quickly realized that Arduino probably wouldn’t be powerful enough to do all the media-decoding and sound-mixing we need for this project. So, we went with Raspberry Pi. It is such an amazing platform. The interactivity comes from an array of buttons that trigger the loops, rotary encoders for the turntables, and a couple other switches for power and musical genre selection. The software is written in Java, making use of the Pi4J library to communicate with the controls and i/o expanders. The components so far are off-the-shelf purchased from online parts supply stores like Adafruit and Sparkfun. We might end up creating a custom-printed circuit board for the later version of the project, but that’s a ways off yet.

lil dj logoWhy did you decide to build Lil DJ?

Jason Keppe, a musician and father, has been kicking this idea around for a while. When his first son was around one year old, Jason was dumbfounded by the dearth of children’s musical toys that actually looked cool and sounded good. He dreamed up the basic vision of Lil DJ: a kinesthetically and aurally engaging toy that would be fun for everybody. Over the years he shared the concept with some people and got encouraging responses, but the idea remained a pipe dream.

One day Jason and David Kesler were at the park with their kids and Jason shared the Lil DJ idea. The idea resonated with David (a musician, composer, and producer) and he helped refine it.

But it wasn’t until Peter Gardner came on board; with his technical know-how, artistic vision, and generous spirit; that we were actually able to create the toy we had envisioned. Peter is an artist and tinkerer who is always looking for fun projects and was particularly keen to do something innovative with the Raspberry Pi.

When the three of us got together and talked about it, we had lots of laughs and synergy. We decided to move forward and really make this project happen.

oliver at lil dj Lil DJ, Turning Toddlers into Turntablists

The cardboard prototype of Lil DJ.

Then David moved out of town and, the creative process being what it is and life being what it is with jobs and kids and distractions, activity on the Lil DJ project lulled for a while.

But a few months ago, Peter breathed new life into the project again and added a badly needed sense of urgency. Peter said we should make a real Lil DJ and that the best way to complete it would be to give ourselves a deadline. So we decided to aim for Maker Faire Bay Area!  Peter had been going to Maker Faire for years and had a booth where he taught his popular Glovetopus craft for the last two. He said it was a wonderful experience.

When we signed up for a booth, we didn’t have much to show at all, but we’ve kept at it and we’re going to have at least one playable prototype in time for the Faire.

How do you know each other?

Jason and his family moved in next door to Peter and his wife in April of 2012. Our friendship and creative partnership has been fantastic. We’re both amazed and grateful at what luck we had in the neighbor lottery.

This project has been so enriching, rewarding, and fun. To stick with something from idea to full execution is a great feeling. To do it with good friends and with the hopes of sharing it for others to enjoy is even more awesome. Thank you for giving us this opportunity, Maker Faire, and thanks for talking to us!

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Laura Cochrane

I’m an editor at MAKE and CRAFT. I like hiking, biking, and etymology.


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