GARY STEEL meets Steven Dourmashkin, the young inventor behind the just-launched Specdrums children’s instrument.
Those of us with children know just how hard it is to keep them occupied and away from the digital devices that they find so addictive. Most adults only get a few weeks off from the working grind each year, yet somehow, we’re expected to entertain the little monsters during what amounts to about three months’ worth of free time. It’s a nightmare!
Sphero – the company famed for its gyroscopically-inclined educational toy robots – has found a way to prise them away from their LED screens and give them something to do that’s a whole lot of fun, and educational too.
Last year it bought the Specdrums company and has worked together with its founder and creator Steven Dourmashkin to evolve the Specdrums concept into something that’s both novel and a great way to learn.
I met Steven on a brief promotional tour of New Zealand to launch Specdrums here, and he demonstrated the nifty colour-controlled music maker and explained some of the ways it can be put to good use.
Specdrums are incredibly simple to use but initially, the concept sounds a little baffling, especially to an old fart such as myself. It consists of an app with blocks of colour corresponding to notes as well as activating rhythms, loops and samples available from an on board sound library. But that’s not the half of it. The idea is to wirelessly connect a silicon ring to the app and use it on the roll-out cloth/rubber keyboard, which mimics the ‘keyboard’ on the app.
Yes, you can just ‘play’ the app on a phone or tablet, but that rather defeats the purpose. It’s much more fun and tactile to ‘play’ the roll-out colour keyboard with the rings. But that’s not all, folks! Because the notes are colour-coded, you can actually ‘play’ anything in your environment with a matching colour. So if you touch something in the house that’s coloured blue, it’ll play the ‘blue’ note. The rings work on a variety of surfaces, and even clothing. Starting to see how much fun this could be?
“This is the first product of Sphero that’s branching into music,” says Steven. “So they’re musical rings that you can tap on colours, and each colour you can get a different sound. And the point is kids can make music by tapping on any colours. You have your samples and your loops on our app. And in our app there’s all these different sound packs, so there’s different genres, all these sounds and loops so that it’s easy for people to get started.”
In a way, says Steven, it’s like a much simplified take on Apple’s on-board music app Garageband, and it can in fact link to either Garageband or professional music-making system Ableton with the help of a Midi interface for adults who want to have fun with colours. The idea with Specdrums, however, is that no matter what kids tap in, it always sounds ‘right’.
“Sometimes they’re loops, sometimes they’re samples. Hip-hop, scratching. And you can play it on anything, any colour. It’s always in sync, and you can turn them on and off. It always sounds pretty good.
“The whole point is that (normally) finding loops and samples is pretty hard, especially for kids. Like you need to get Ableton and sound packs and set it up and map the notes to Midi notes, and the point is we just make it really easy. We’re adding new ones all the time.”
Because it’s so portable, the way it’s listened to is also completely up to the user. It can be taken on a train and listened to on earphones, or plugged into a sound system. “When we had our launch party, the guy who made all these sound packs, he was using Specdrums to DJ the party.
“It’s really cool for a live performance, making a performance interactive, because you can play on a mural or on your clothes. At (technology show) CES when we launched, our guy hooked it up to LEDs so that when he hit the colours the LEDs pulsed that colour. So you can do cool things like that. It’s not really designed for pro musicians but you can still use it like that.”
Obviously, Specdrums are a fun activity for kids, but it turns out that Sphero is working with educators to get them into classrooms as well.
So, what do you get in the box? You can either buy the roll-out keyboard with one or two rings, although the ‘room’ can actually be played by multiple rings at a time.
“It’s virtually indestructible,” says Steven. “The rings are made of medical grade silicon so that no one will get an allergic reaction. It’s anti-dust and you can write on it and wipe it right off.”
I ask Steven what he sees as the fundamental difference between Specdrums and all the musical apps available.
“The biggest part is that you’re not on the screen. An iPad’s a nice sized screen but like an iPhone, you’re pretty limited, and instead of kids staring at a screen they’re actually reading sheet music or tapping on real objects. It’s just so tactile. It’s just nice to be able to hit a real thing.”
It turns out that Steven started out as a drummer and had a penchant for tapping surfaces wherever he went, hence the Specdrums idea. “I was in my high school jazz band, just playing for fun. I have a big electronic drum kit in my apartment because acoustic drums are too loud.
* Specdrums launched in New Zealand last week and are currently available online only from a range of stores. They will be available to buy in-store from September. The packs cost $109.99 (one ring) or $169.99 (two rings). www.sphero.com