Artiphon Orba ($100)
The Artiphon Orba looks a little like a paperweight and fits in the palm of a hand, but it’s remarkably versatile. A central button allows you to toggle through four different sound settings (typically drums, bass, chords, and lead) while the eight pads around the circumference of the instrument’s dial-like surface allow you to play notes or drum hits; with the onboard sequencer, you can record simple loops and layer them together into a four-part jam. One of the nicest things about Orba is that playing it simply feels good—spinning a finger around the eight keys can create mesmerizing spirals of notes, and there’s a surprising amount of control baked in. The keys are velocity-sensitive, meaning that the sound will vary in intensity (and sometimes timbre), depending on how hard you tap; they also support aftertouch, allowing you to change held sounds by applying pressure. The longer you play around with the Orba, the more features you’ll discover: Shimmy your finger from side to side to create vibrato or affect the brightness of a note; tilt it to play effects. And if you smack it on the side while in drum mode, you’ll even generate a “clap” sound.
Things really get interesting once you fire up the app on a tablet, smartphone, or computer. Here, you can select any of 12 keys for playback, as well as toggle between major and minor. You can also change the preset sound sets, selecting from banks like “Cartridge Artiphon” (vintage video-game sounds), “Ambeeant Artiphon” (insect-inspired pads), and even a sound set designed by experimental-music mastermind Richard Devine. And the feature set keeps growing: Artiphon recently announced Orbacam, an app that lets you add your Orba creations to smartphone videos with simple visual effects that strobe in time to the music. Being a big fan of Instagram filters, my daughter loves this one.
Artiphon isn’t expressly marketed as a toy, and it’s true that some of its features may not be totally intuitive to younger kids. Like any instrument, it takes practice: My six-year-old has yet to create a very convincing loop with it, and even I have trouble getting my drum beats perfectly timed. (A snap-to-grid quantization feature to corral stray notes into a steady rhythm would be a nice addition for a future update.) But it’s appealing to play around with—my daughter loves to jam on it while strapped into her car seat for the 12-minute drive to school—and its complexity means that there’s a ton to discover as kids get older and develop motor skills and musical sensibility. You can even use the Orba as a MIDI controller (via Bluetooth or USB-C) to play software synths on your tablet, smartphone, or computer, opening up a whole new world of expressive potential.
Age Range: A 5-year-old will have fun making sounds with it; older kids and adults will better be able to take advantage of its capabilities
Power Source: Internal battery, USB-C
Audio: Built-in speaker, headphone jack
Connectivity: MIDI out (via Bluetooth or USB-C)