School of rock
Can tech and apps help us learn to play music without the need to find the time for a real teacher? T3 finds out
Who wouldn’t want to be a rock star? With money, adulation and spandex on tap, job satisfaction is virtually guaranteed. Trouble is, I don’t exactly have the credentials to make the transition from lowly journalist to lofty rock hero. For one, I’m a tired 45-year-old dad who can often be found wearing Tarocash chinos at the weekend. More importantly, I have about as much musicality as a recycling bin being emptied onto a stone floor. Still, I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar… and drums, and keys. As eyepatch-wearing ’90s songstress Gabrielle once said, dreams can come true. Especially if you have some snazzy tech to help you. Before I can sing “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame, you give love a bad name!” (which, admittedly, is quite a long sentence), T3 thrust me onto a makeshift stage with a bunch of cool kit to try and transform me into a bona-fide musical maestro.
FOUR TO THE FLOOR
As anyone (particularly drummers) will tell you, the drums are the most important part of any band – the glue that melds the mayhem together, if you like. Think of any classic song – In The Air Tonight, Smells Like Teen
Spirit, the theme from The A-Team – and drums are the key ingredient. So where better to start my rock odyssey than with Roland’s TD-1KV, a portable electronic drum kit so clever it could transform an over-enthusiastic sea cadet into a full-on Phil Collins.
There are 15 different drum sets to choose from on the digital interface, with a Coach mode for developing my speed, stamina and accuracy skills. The latter challenges me to keep time with a metronome, which is a lot harder than I expected. Even the slightest discrepancy is docked from my final score, and after what I believed to be a decent attempt (if I say so myself), I’m surprised to discover that I’ve only scored 46 per cent. As is the case with most things, though, I’m finding that the best way to learn is by doing it ‘for real’, rather than just completing set exercises.
Choosing a smooth jazz tune from one of the 12 looped backing tracks, I close my eyes and imagine I’m playing at Sydney’s 505, tip-tapping tentatively at first, before gradually building up the confidence to add a crash or two. I’m not going to lie, playing Roland’s kit like this is terrific fun. Although it’s slightly deflating to then open my eyes and find that my ‘audience’ has gone home, with the exception of the cat.
If you’d rather play along to music from your smart device, you can do so via the Mix In jack. Your efforts can be recorded and played back for later scrutiny (if you dare!), while a USBMIDI port enables you to transfer your handiwork to computer software such as Cubase or Reason.
Making my e-drumming experience more authentic is a pair of KEF’s Porsche Lab-designed Space One headphones. These over-ears are so comfy that I barely even notice I’m wearing them. And the sound they produce is even more luxurious than how they feel, capturing the deep resonance of the Roland bass drum and the crisp ‘tiss’ of the cymbals with aplomb. That said, I have to connect the KEF cans to the drums with a cable (instead of using the Space One’s built-in Bluetooth wireless option), but the provided cable isn’t long enough. I’m finding that it keeps draping over the snare, cramping any morsel of style that I might have. But hey, I can’t have everything, right?
AXE TO GRIND
I’ve always wanted to learn the guitar, and with the JamStik+, dubbed ‘the world’s first smart guitar’, I now have my chance. The JamStik+ connects to KEF’s cans via Bluetooth. If you like the idea of strumming songs on the go, but don’t fancy carting an acoustic guitar around like some kind of hippy, this rather neat device is your friend. Linking wirelessly to your smartphone or laptop, the JamStik+ can be hooked up to a variety of apps to help you hone your axe-grinding skills. But how easy is it for a discordant dimwit like
I’M TIP-TAPPING TENTATIVELY AT FIRST, BEFORE BUILDING UP THE CONFIDENCE TO ADD A CYMBAL CRASH OR TWO
myself to master? Very easy, as it turns out. For one thing, this ‘guitar’ never needs tuning, so those days of being hunched over the fretboard, craning your ear to the strings like some kind of nosy neighbour, are over.
As for its teaching ability, sensors in the device detect the placement of my fingers, providing instant feedback, via its myriad companion apps, to help me play with utter harmonic precision. Before I know it I’m strumming along to a Beatles classic, and my wife clearly recognises it as I can see her mouthing the word “Help”.
BOOGIE WOOGIE PIANO
As musical instruments go, the keyboard is often seen as the drum kit and the guitar’s less-cool sibling. Try telling that to Jerry Lee Lewis or, erm, Barry Manilow. I’m just as excited about learning to tickle the ivories as I was about pounding the drums or strumming the strings. Aiding me on my mission to play the piano/keys is the Yamaha EZ-220, a touch-sensitive, 392-voice keyboard that features 100 preset songs for me to play along to.
This task is made somewhat easier by the fact that the keys light up in time with the melody. I’ve also got the option to wirelessly connect the keyboard to my iPad Pro and make use of the Yamaha Page Turner app. This displays the scores for every one of the preset tracks, and even turns the pages for me so that I can just concentrate on hitting the right notes.
I’ve also download the Simply Piano app. This teaches me the basics, then gives me the opportunity to play along to both modern hits and rock classics, providing feedback as I go. Yamaha’s smart keyboard makes me believe that I could (possibly) become the next Elton John with a bit of patience.
I WILL ROCK YOU
It only takes a few enjoyable hours for these techy tune-makers to kick-start my musical ability, which is something I could never have dreamt of achieving in such a short space of time on my own with traditional instruments. I was never going to churn out a 20-minute prog-rock opus, but having spent more time on my newly acquired skills I reckon I could now do a reasonable job entertaining the elderly at my local bingo hall (providing they’re slightly hard of hearing).
THE KEYBOARD LIGHTS UP THE KEYS I NEED TO HIT, AND EVEN TURNS THE PAGES OF THE SCORE FOR ME ON MY iPAD PRO
The iPad Pro makes a great canvas for reading music or taking lessons – the 12.9-inch screen has loads of space
With Roland’s portable TD-1KV you can get the excitement of a proper drum kit without all the noise complaints from your neighbours