Hall of Fame: Casio VL-1

Long before the iPod, you could make your own tunes for on-the-go musical entertainment

Nope, this isn't a fancy extra-long calculator. Though technically the VL-1 has calculator functionality built into it. But we digress.

This is a mini keyboard, and if you don't recognise it, then you're clearly too young to remember composing digital synth masterpieces in the back of your parents' car while your mother, through gritted teeth, praised you for your clear and obvious musical talent.

While our button mashing creations didn't exactly set the world on fire, Casio's mini-synth, in the right hands, was a fun, powerful tool.

We've still got one lying about somewhere, so while we dust it off, feel free to catch up why the VL-1 is a true tech icon:

 

Casio VL-1 - what's the story?

In the late 1970s, Casio’s main business was making calculators, but the ’80s saw them branch out into watches and synthesisers.

Bottom of the heap was
the Casiotone VL-1, a toy synthesiser with calculator-style buttons and instruments (Piano, Violin, Flute, Guitar and, er, Fantasy) that sounded nothing like the real thing.

Originally designed for schools, it has since become a cult classic, lending its recognisably toy-like voice to tracks by everyone from Talking Heads to the Beastie Boys.

While it may look and feel as cheap as a single chip perched on a 1p coin, the VL-1 is surprisingly capable. The ADSR function lets you combine sounds into a dizzying variety of lo-fi chipnoises, and its sequencer lets you record and play back up to 99 notes. For many, though, the VL-1 ‘s charm lies in the beats.

The VL-1 sold like hot, delicious cakes, so there are plenty of good-condition models on eBay if you're after one for yourself. If you’re willing to put in a little more time and money, you could even find a boxed one.

Spend still more, and you can buy a custom ‘circuit bent’ version: hackers often add extra panels, controls and effects to a VL-1 to make it capable of even more strange noises. We’re guessing this voids the warranty, but your street cred will undoubtedly shoot through the roof.

Remember these top micro-synths?

Stylophone

This tiny pen-operated synth was popularised by David Bowie and has been used by brilliant bands such as Pulp, Kraftwerk and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Korg Monotron

The first analogue synth from Korg for 25 years was something of a surprise: a machine the size of a fag packet with a ribbon for a keyboard. It can make some astonishing noises.

Meeblip

Team the VL-1 with this self-assembly synth and you’ll get more out of it. Proper geeks will love its open-source status and dedicated hacking port for unlimited tweaking potential.

Mixtape alpha

Produced by the High- Low Tech group at MIT’s Media Lab, this touch- controlled pocket synth is designed to look just like an old C90 cassette tape. Anyone remember them at all?

Also in 1980...

Music - Kate Bush: Never for Ever

Bush’s third album was the first to feature synthesisers and drum machines, but it did so without losing her ethereal weirdness. Opens with ‘Babooshka’, which is a tune.

Film - Caddyshack

The first film directed by Harold Ramis set the tone for most of the American comedies of the 1980s, the majority of which also starred Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. Oh, where is Chase these days?

Gadget - Commodore VIC-20

Most people just used it for games, but the VIC-20 evidently did some good: after an 11-year-old Finn called Linus Torvalds got one as his first computer, he went on to create the world’s most important OS.