Same story as the Tremoloa, I saw a weird object and I just had to have it!
This one is a little different, though, in terms of…well, everything. I watched some YouTube videos showcasing its quirkiness, and I loved it. This Amazon Otamatone was cheap-ish, so I’d decided to try it. I didn’t know what I was getting into.
History first, as usual
The Otamatone was born in 1998 by the CUBE toy company, and the Maywa Denki design firm, led by brothers Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa. There are 6 different variations of this instrument. That’s basically it. Not exactly a romantic tragedy.
Their products have a shaky balance between art and functionality, tending to lean toward the more silly and playful than serious professional quality. Just watch any video of Nobumichi Tosa, president & CEO, presenting and promoting his products. It resembles more a gag or parody than an actual promotional work.
Even the name “Otamatone” is a play on words, being a mix between the word “tone” and the Japanese word “otamajakushi”, which is their word for tadpoles. Aptly named, as the shape resembles both an 8th note and a tadpole. But it’s this same silly, smiling, carefree spirit that made me fall in love so quickly with their company.
Things in the “grownup” world often try too hard to be serious and professional, so I appreciate the refreshing call back to simpler times, and the relaxed mindset of those individuals.
Due to Amazon’s amazing fast shipping, I had only to wait a day or two for it to arrive. When it did so, I most joyously ripped open the package, and was immediately confronted by my first botheration. 3 AAA batteries required.
Now, at the price of $24, you can’t expect everything, but as rechargeable electronics become more and more standard, I cannot help but be slightly disappointed.
Alas, technology still had not squashed the enemy of my youth!
Impatient, as I am, I extracted the required batteries from my wireless keyboard and mouse and with some difficulty, managed to put the battery cover back on. The springs in the back are a little too tense. There are 2 switches on the back: one to control power and volume, the other to change octave.
This thing is adorable! I don’t know of many instruments with a face, but this one has a very Japanese-style cuteness in simplicity.
It just looks so happy to be alive! Who am I to crush it’s dreams?
As for playing the darn thing, prepare yourself for quite an ordeal. After switching it on, sound is produced by squeezing the ribbon on the neck. By sliding your finger up and down you can change the pitch, higher up the stem being lower pitched, while the closet you get to the bottom, the higher the pitch. Unfortunately, there are no frets, or any markings at all to indicate where you are on the scale, so actually hitting the note you want is next to impossible just out of the box.
Squeezing it’s cheeks opens its mouth, and since the speaker is inside the mouth, this causes what is popularly called a “wah wah” effect, which can be manipulated to articulate your notes in a rather unconventional way. I simply hold the mouth open to increase the volume.
It takes a lot of practice to get anywhere. I have had it for 2 days now, and I can just barely pick out “someday my prince will come”. The ribbon is also, to quote Wikipedia, “-deliberately delinearized to resemble a guitar, so there is a shorter distance between higher notes than between lower ones”. So the lower notes are further apart than the high ones.
This makes it difficult to vibrato near the low notes, because your finger has to travel a lot farther. To play this well will take some dedication.
It is a pain. Literally. My forearms are terribly sore, and playing for extended lengths initially can cause your fingertips to ache. Much like violin and guitar, I assume that with time, callus and muscle will improve.
I’m told that the larger models are easier to play, and I believe it. On this particular model, the ribbon is set a little too deep into the stem, and it’s so short that the notes have to be closer together, making it easier to hit the wrong note. The larger model has a larger ribbon, making it much easier to hit the the intended one.
The larger model also has a more precise volume knob, an audio out jack, which can be used for headphones or an amp, AND IT COMES WITH BATTERIES ლ(ಠ益ಠლ)
Despite my afflictions, I do enjoy playing the otamatone. The mid-octave reminds me of a theremin, and the upper register sounds very similar to a violin, and it’s very easy to play something that sounds moody and Mellon-Collie (see what did there? Eyyyy..?. ☜(ﾟヮﾟ☜)
This invention and it’s playful nature have even spawned several humorous music video covers.
I love it! It’s cute, somewhat functional, fun to play, and despite it’s flaws, it delivers to the point of looking past these.
I highly recommend it to everyone, from the serious musician, to the regular guy who has no experience in music. Anyone who likes cute things that make music, and who likes to have a good time.
If you want to pick one of these bad boys up for yourself, I’ll provide the links here: