The Peculiar Sonic Possibilities of a Strange Japanese Toy Instrument

+ Ryan Lott (of Son Lux) teaches how to build custom virtual instruments for sound design and scoring in Designing Sample-Based Instruments.

By Aaron Martin

What do you do when a bizarre, smiling toy instrument from Japan shows up on your doorstep? Figure out how to make music with it! 

I received a cryptic text message in February from a friend letting me know that a birthday present would be showing up in March. I had no idea what to expect… until a package from Japan arrived.

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The gift was an amusing toy instrument called an Otamatone. It looks like an over-sized, anthropomorphic music note. Oh and please, take a second to visit the company’s website. It’s as kitschy and ridiculous as you might hope for something like this. The company sells “fashion accessories” to dress up your Omatone, and a banner advertisement at the top of their home page reads, “BUY OTAMATONE — cool electronic music instrument — squeeze the head!

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The stem acts as the fingerboard and the notehead generates sound. I generally enjoy incorporating many kinds of sound elements into my music, so I was intrigued to see if the instrument had the potential to be useful to me beyond the novelty of its appearance. 

Often when I’m trying to figure out if I can make a new instrument work with my music, I’ll attempt to create a piece with only that new element, even if I wouldn’t then use it by itself in future tracks. Doing so helps me to gauge the instrument’s strengths and weaknesses, and serves as a crash course in learning to play a new device.

So, that’s what I set out to do with the Otamatone, which resulted in a droning, echoing piece called “Clasping.”

+ Read more on Flypaper: “What the Heck is a Shakuhachi?”

The Otamatone has two volume settings. For recording, I used the louder setting. It also has three pitch ranges: “Low,” “Mid,” and “Hi.”

I found the Low setting most useful for drones (the Otamatone’s “mouth” can be squeezed to create a pulsing effect). The Mid setting seems to be the most functional. It can be used for drones, ostinati, or melodies. The Hi setting is good for melodies and long sustained notes with vibrato.

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I was able to layer two tracks of each for “Clasping” but any more than that started to sound garbled. It turned out you can have too much of a weird thing.

I’m a cellist, and this might sound crazy, but learning to play the Otamatone, I was surprised to find some similarities with the cello! It has a neck with no frets that is activated when a finger moves across it. This allows for the same freedom of adjusting pitch that I have with cello, although it takes much more work to achieve pitch stability.

It was also a surprising realization that I can effectively employ vibrato.

Although I can’t imagine that I will be recording any more Otamatone-only pieces anytime soon, I did find the toy far more useful than I had originally expected. I hope to use each of the pitch settings to fill out arrangements and may even start to add it to my live instrumentation.

So next time you come across an odd, anthropomorphic, foreign electronic toy entreating you to squeeze its head… pull out your recording gear and see what you can make with it!

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with artist-led courses by KimbraCom TruiseJlinRyan Lott, and the acclaimed Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

Aaron Martin is a cellist and multi-instrumental composer based in Topeka, KS. He has collaborated with artists such as Machinefabriek, Dag Rosenqvist, and Christoph Berg among others, and has released albums on labels such as Preservation (AUS), Eilean Records (FR), Type (US), Dronarivm (RUS), Facture (UK), and Under The Spire (UK).

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