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

Australian T3 - - MAN VS TECH - Words: Paul Dimery Pho­tog­ra­phy: Neil God­win

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.


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?


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


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”.


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.


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 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

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