Eschewing a conventional interface, you interact with Shnth using this wooden case and sensors. But note the USB port: from there, Shnth can use a deceptively-powerful programming language to make an array of sounds. Images courtesy the developer.

Eschewing a conventional interface, you interact with Shnth using this wooden case and sensors. But note the USB port: from there, Shnth can use a deceptively-powerful programming language to make an array of sounds. Images courtesy the developer.

Shnth is a digital synth in a wooden box with a surprisingly open-ended programming language. It’s like a lo-fi sonic computer, touched with your fingers via a handmade interface, and with sonic capabilities that can be re-programmed over USB.

And there’s a coloring book to go with it, too, with pictures of Max Mathews and microsound for you to sketch in. The drawings there, like the sounds that come out of its outputs, full of rough, digital edges and unexpected swoops and swirls of timbre, seem to encourage coloring outside the lines.

Peter Blasser of Baltimore is the synth’s creator and eccentric spokesperson. When he visited England earlier this year, the event was captured in a documentary. Those 25 minutes or so are just published, brimming with personality and wacky sounds.

The Shnth Comes to England – with Peter Blasser from Rodrigo Constanzo on Vimeo.


Instrument designer Peter Blasser, of Ciat-Lonbarde and Shbobo,came England in March 2013. He delivered a workshop at the University of Huddersfield on his latest instrument, the Shnth, along with its programming language, SHLISP. The Shnth is an embedded, ARM-based, digital synth, with built-in analog control.
Peter Blasser — Peter’s digital side, and where you can get your own Shnth instrument. — Peter’s analog side, and where you can get a multitude of his other instruments.
Event organized by Rodrigo Constanzo and supported by The University of Huddersfield.
Filmed by Angela Guyton

Underneath the hood, Shnth is an ARM-based digital synth with analog controls, an unpredictable, reprogrammable hybrid. As the creator puts it:

The Shnth, by Shbobo, is a computer music device that features the ARM Cortex M3 32 bit processor. It connects to host computer via USB, wherein the host computer (windows, linux, or macintosh) may read its “squish data” and create graphics and sound. Or, the Shnth itself is a standalone synthesizer, which may be programmed by host in the new language, “Shlisp”, by Shbobo. It is potentially self powered, by batteries, which are charged, again, via USB. A switch turns it on, and 16 bit sound comes out a standard stereo 3.5mm jack. Like a laptop; it is “handtop”. Four bars on top feel your fingers and two woven antennae below sense flesh, complimented by a battery of buttons. There are red lights.

The code documentation, like the synth, seem to embrace dada-like indeterminacy, but don’t be fooled: Mr. Blasser has actually built a pretty powerful DSP language and shoehorned it onto the low-cost ARM chip. The programming language is called shLISP, but has nothing to do with LISP – it’s really just a general purpose, atomic DSP language with lots of sound superpowers. You even get Csound- or SuperCollider-style opcodes – only with funny names. (Salsa? Horse? Slew? Swamp? Smoke? Sauce?)

Type in your code using free tools for Mac, Windows, or Linux, and then the synth inside runs the results on the ARM CORTEX M3 as Assembly code. That coaxes every last ounce of processing power out of the chip.

Exploiting the ARM, the resulting sounds can be quite beautiful, as if someone is stroking and plucking the digital chip itself. And past the funny names (butts and nuts?), I imagine some sound hackers could actually rather enjoy the code. Everyone else may simply load up some code and see what happens.

If you want to buy this box, it seems US$300 can turn into a Shnth of your very own.



Thanks to Scott McLaughlin for sending this our way!

  • Percivale

    A quirky novelty but I should think not worth $300.

    • Peter Kirn

      The best way to judge this is to have a look in the documentation. It’s a powerful DSP language inside. For those able to use it, $300 is a steal. I doubt it’s for everyone – but then, I doubt he’s making very many; for the rest of us, it’s nice to see what it can do in the video.

  • wednesdayayay

    I have a shnth and love it

    “- in one sense the shnth is like a complete modular synth with 20+ oscillators, 12 filters, 16 lfo/envelopes, 8 n-length sequencers, 8 slews, 12 granular sounds, 16 delay & karplus effects, 8 sample and holds, 8 random generators, 8 pulse divider/staircase generator with a variable length, 8 variable duty cycle pulse wave, unlimited nuts for circuit bending, waveshaping, comparators,etc. plus peter is still developing more opcodes, including some really unique ones, so this is just whats in the initial release. so just by its nature its designed to be flexible. – 2nd, the way peter designed all these operators to work together was pretty ingenius in that any thing in shlisp can be plugged into any other thing in shlisp including of course itself, i.e. there is no distinction between audio, control signals, gestures,etc they are all just ‘data’. plus everything in shLISP effects the sound in some way, there are no other programming structures to setup or learn. alot of the power of shLISP come from the simple idea of recursion, i.e. plugging an expression into the parameter of another expression then plugging the output of that into the input of another expression, and so on and so forth. so basically everything can be modulated by everything else..again, just like in a modular synth. – 3rd, there are several ways to pre-compose patches if you desire – there are the sequencers which can store preset parameter values and switch them at the press of a button (sort of like the serge SQP); there is the ability to trigger sounds or switch them on and off, using buttons though actually any gesture or other opcode can do can patch the mic to fire off an envelope which makes a sound audible when the mic input rises above a certain threshold for example. and then a third way to compose is to arrange various situations within a txt and step through them in the order you desire. they can be very subtle variations on the same patch, maybe with diff’t parameter values or changing the filter type,etc or they can be completely different sounds in the order you want to perform them..or you can jump around them randomly with a sample and hold for example. 4th, this is all wrapped in a custom-designed touch interface (4 bars, 9 buttons, 2 touch antennas, 1 mic) which can all be used to control any aspect of the synth. again i think this is the critical thing about the shnth – because there is no distinction between ‘audio’, ‘control signals’ and ‘gestures’ any of these things can be substituted for anything else in any expression, as many layers deep as you want. so you can squish the filter cutoff and Q while speaking into the mic which is being AM’d by a triangle wave which is being modulated by the antennas you’re touching…and then you can take that whole thing and make it determine the tuning of your granular oscillator which is having its rate and grain envelope being determined by bar presses, etc. i can’t stress enough how powerful the simple idea of recursion is when implemented in a ‘modular synth’ paradigm like this.”

    here is a brief idea about tuning the shnth

    “will definitely do a tuning one. just to try and answer your question here briefly, with the Shnth the opcode ‘srate’ sets the fundamental frequency (which is 4 octaves below the *actual* sampling rate). if you want to do tonal stuff then its best to specify the srate using 16-bit numbers, then you can dial it in exactly. meng qi made a very helpful srate calculator which gives the ‘short’ (16-bit number) for each corresponding note on a standard keyboard, its available on the shbobo forum. so basically the nume and deno of an oscillator specify its pitch relationship to that fundamental based on the just intonation tuning system…so for example a horn with a nume of 96 and a deno of 64 will be a perfect 5th above the fundamental (ie 3:2 ratio), one with a nume of 80 and a deno of 64 will be a major 3rd above it (5:4 ratio), etc. there’s a couple of really good websites on just intonation online, i can send you the links if you like. its gets really interesting when you get into the larger prime limits like 11 or 13, then you can explore these really hairy microtonal scales. i’ll try to explain all this better in a video and associated forum post but hopefully this will help a bit until then.”

    a blog post by peter (ciat lonbarde, shbobo) that goes into a lot of detail about tuning all his instruments

    the first two videos in the tutorial series that has recently been started covering shnth concepts

    here is a video example of the ability to jump/bend through patches live allowing for instant reprogramming of the shnth on the fly with no host coputer (unless you want one)

    here is a video with poor audio quality (sorry) but that shows a shnth controlling aalto through max/msp

    this one is showing the shnth controlling illucia applications through max/msp and processing “vocals” through the built in mic. I put this together very quickly so the controls are not very elaborate but more a proof of concept
    this one is a little loud/crunchy watch your speakers/headphones

    this one is a shnth (with the preloaded patch) playing through a ciat lonbarde plumbutter

    some sounds coming from a sort of emulation of an analogue instrument (quantussy section of the cocoquantus) being used in a couple different ways

    this one is for those people who are still with us, PB himself talking about a standalone application that is available for the shnth (there are also more coming)

    have fun sorry about formatting

    • Peter Kirn

      Amazing comment. Thank you. Great to read your impressions!

  • Elder

    Peter Blasser is child of Andy Kaufmann & Don Buchla…$300 for a ltd edition handmade device made by a individual not a corporation, totally worth it!

  • Peter Venuto

    Peter Blasser is an unmitigated genius and Shnths are the future now OK. The price is a pittance. This has crossed the line into public sonic service! THANK YOU PETER BLASSER! can’t wait to get my hands on one or several!

    • wednesdayayay

      hear hear

      i can only imagine modifying a shnth’s mic input to a line in and playing one shnth with another


  • jojo

    peter recently released a graphical interface for the shnth called Fish, it makes it super easy to write your own Shnth patches even if you can’t program at all! there are some examples here:

  • Robert Marsanyi

    This is beautiful. Ordering for my birthday next month. I’ve been looking for 20 years for a replacement for my old oscillator-in-a-cigar-box, and this one comes with a philosophy.

  • Howard Moscovitz

    Brilliant. Peter has his own way of thinking about music, instruments, art and philosophy – all as one.

  • paradiddle

    influenced by shrdlu!