The Tone Lab Synth Stacks Songs Like Sandwiches

Industrial designer Colin Hearon’s Tone Lab digital instrument design was awarded first place “Best in Show” at Ohio State University’s 2018 Design Exhibition for simplifying the complexity inherent in learning how to compose music by turning the process into an intuitive physical act: stacking musical modules into songs, the musical equivalent of paint by numbers.

The Tone Lab is the outcome of research conducted by Hearon who found a sequential and linear approach to “building” music proved to be the fastest and easiest method for beginners to most easily become acquainted with layering effects required to compose a track. The experimental approach resulted in the incorporation of stackable tile blocks programmed with specific sounds and instructions. In action it’s imaginable to see using the Tone Lab as the construction of a sandwich of sound.

Obviously the limitations of building tracks using this method relegates the Tone Lab as a beginner’s instrument. But its undeniably intuitive physical interaction between tool and user invites experimentation and provides instant feedback/gratification, both ideal for stoking improvement amongst anyone new to composing music.

Gregory Han is a Senior Editor at Design Milk. A Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips, a selection of his adventures and musings can be found at