I've had the pleasure of reviewing some pretty cool tech over the years, but this might be the first time I've ever made music with any of it.
Question is... is this an instrument, an educational tool or just a toy?...
Now there are a few different things in the picture above - any idea what I'm actually reviewing here? The product is called Specdrums from Sphero, the company that sells those little round robots you can control with your phone.
Let's take a closer look...
See? Now you know exactly what we're dealing with. Right?
Believe it or not, that's a ring. Like, put it on your finger. And that is Specdrums.
There's a hell of a lot of technology bundled into that wee chunk of medical-grade silicon; a microUSB charging port, a Li-Ion battery, an accelerometer, a bluetooth transmitter and most importantly, a magical light sensor that can differentiate between thousands of colours.
It's hard to explain.
By using the Specdrums MIX app on your iOS or Android device, you can pair your Specdrums ring and start tapping it on things. Depending on the colour of that thing, you'll start playing music out of your phone or tablet.
Told you it was hard to explain.
The Specdrums MIX app gives you access to a library of sound packs featuring loops, samples, beats and tones that all fit together when fired off from the multi-coloured keyboard on screen. But the fun really begins when you use your Specdrums ring to play those same sounds.
You can do this by tapping it against the included Play Pad, which conveniently rolls up into a little bag. Or you can just go crazy and start tapping any colourful thing around you.
Don't worry if you're not a musician. Specdrums is kind of a gateway instrument. It doesn't really take any special technique to use, but in a short time you can find yourself recording and playing back your own dance groove or hip-hop jam.
If you can't find the right colours around to match up with the sounds you want to play, don't worry, everything can be customised. If you have a particularly stripey cat for instance, you could conceivably play Happy Birthday by tapping it with your Specdrums ring. I'm not saying you should do that. I'm just saying you could. (Good luck getting it to stay still long enough... it'd make a good YouTube vid though)
Speaking of YouTube, Sphero has created a suite of helpful instructional snippets to coach you to get the most out of your Specdrums - and the results are really only limited by you're imagination... and your patience.
Not only can you customise which colours you can use, you're not restricted by the sound packs provided either - although there's quite a selection with the promise of more to come. Instead you can record your own samples. Feel free to sing, shout, play... whatever. The app works much like a simple soundboard or drum machine, but like I say, the fun part is controlling it all with the ring on your finger.
Or fingers. Specdrums comes in single or double packs, but depending on your device you can actually pair up to six rings at once. This means you can play simple chords or have multiple people using Specdrums simultaneously.
The developers have even told me of kids creating their own colourful instruments to be played with rings on several fingers at once. The combination of colour, sound and tactile cause-and-effect definitely brings out your creative side which is why Sphero sees Specdrums as a valuable educational tool - the ideal first step towards learning to read music or playing an instrument - a more traditional instrument that is.
The Specdrums MIX app is simple and user-friendly and charging and pairing the rings couldn't be more straight-forward.
You'll get about two hours of playing on a full charge but there is one technical drawback. Because it's a bluetooth connection, there's a slight lag. A lag which becomes dramatically more pronounced on some lower-spec Android devices. The more zoopy-doopy flagship phones and recent Apple products have the latest generation bluetooth brains, but I've found keeping exact time is certainly a challenge. The Sphero people tell me they're working hard to get this latency down all the time but of course, if you then monitor your musical masterpieces via bluetooth-connected speakers or headphones, you're adding yet another potential pause into the process, so I'm not sure we'll be seeing Specdrums being played in concert halls or arenas any time soon.
There's no denying how fun and addictive this is though. In fact, it's been reported to me one teenage wannabe D.J. recently described Specdrums as "sick as". You can't ask for a more glowing endorsement than that.
All I know is music most definitely soothes the savage beast and if we all spent more time making it, playing it and listening to it, the world would be a better place. Specdrums makes all that easy to do for anyone. Hats off.