Video: Music Gadgets

This week I take a look at a few different gadgets to get your music pumping. If you want to mix up a storm like a pro DJ, or just work out to your music without losing your headphones, there’s a gadget here for you. Click below for video:

TVNZ Gadgets Music

Item: Vestax Spin DJ USB Controller
Price: $499
Rating: 4 / 5
Info: Fancy yourself as a bit of a DJ, but don’t want to spend thousands on turntables and mixers? The Vestax Spin controller from the guys at Mix Foundation might be your best starting point. Mixing is as easy as dragging a song onto one of the on-screen turntables, then controlling the music with the physical turntables and mixers – you can even scratch and back-spin! The Spin comes with a microphone so you can mix in your vocal stylings with the music.
Item: Logitech Squeezebox Boom
Price: $699 RRP
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: If your situation is anything like mine, you have a computer full of music in one room, and a stereo in another. This is where the Squeezebox fits in: connect it to your network (wired or wireless), and play your music where you want it. But not just your music: you can also access the world of internet radio, with local and international stations spanning the gamut of classical through to heavy metal. The Boom comes with integrated speakers and an alarm function.
Item: Halo Headphones
Price: $AU60
Rating: 3 / 5
Info: I’m not much of a gym bunny, but I’m presuming these Halo Headphones fill a gap. Do your headphones keep falling off, or perhaps they get all sweaty and horrible? The Halo headband has pockets to hold the fitted headphones so you can keep listening to your music while you work out. They are very comfortable, but lets be honest, they make me look like a bit of a plonker. I think they’d look a lot better if I were female and had long hair!

Review: Vestax Spin DJ Controller

Vestax Spin ControllerHave you ever eyed up those guys behind the decks, looking so cool with one headphone tucked against their shoulder? Ok well I have. Stop laughing.

Thing is, I have no vinyl. I think the last record I bought was Queen: Live at Wembley. The one with the big fold-out cover shot of the band in front of a gigantic crowd. I used to imagine being part of the crowd when Freddie did his doo-wop scat thing and the crowd repeated it back to him, until he just went crazy and they all laughed.

Where was I? DJs. And vinyl. Spinning tracks and scratching and all that. With MP3s. I’m not in the scene, but I’m lead to believe that this is fairly standard issue these days. Digital DJs have the choice of anything from the Pioneer CDJ decks with USB ports for MP3 libraries, through to the super-pro Serato gear, with its time-coded vinyl (which, incidentally is designed by a bunch of Kiwis!).

The Vestax Spin sits at the very entry level of this type of technology. The deck and software is only NZ$499, and operates as a basic USB controller using your iTunes music library. The included software is Mac-only, but if you hunt around you’ll notice the Spin is compatible with some alternative Windows software.

The whole thing is amazingly intuitive and responsive. Drag an MP3 file onto one of the on-screen turntables, and it starts playing. From there, you can use the physical decks and mixers to stop, spin, mix and loop the tracks. Each deck has independent controls for tempo, equalizer, gain, and a few other tricks.

A microphone is included in the box, so all you need is a Mac, and some serious looking DJ headphones that you can tuck under your ear. Then you just need to practise that one-handed wave dancing thing that DJs do.

Please don’t take the video below as any more than an example of how easy the device is to use. I’m sure you could do a lot more with it than mix Akon and Willie Nelson like we did:

In summary: bloody good fun, $499 from Mix Foundation.

Piano Wizard Review

This review is unique, simply because of the bizarre path of estimation I took when reviewing Piano Wizard. Like most reviews, I kicked off with a passing glance at the product, garnering a first impression, before putting it aside for a later in-depth analysis. That first-pass at the software revealed a fairly amateur approach – something akin to a $20 shareware knock-off of Guitar Hero, but with a keyboard. A passable piece of software at best. Blurry, scaled graphics, and a somewhat kludgy menu system. Read on to find out how wrong I was.

Piano Wizard Basic ModeIn the basic mode, you use a USB midi keyboard, modified with coloured stickers on each key that match with a coloured keyboard on the screen. Just like Guitar Hero, coloured indicators move up the screen, and you hit the keys in time as they reach the top. “It’s a game”, I thought to myself, teaching nothing more than the fact that different keys make different sounds. With some prompting, I was able to get my 5 year old to transfer some of the simple tunes to our traditional piano, although the lack of colour coding on the piano keyboard confused him.

As a game, it has a lot of settings. Kids can choose from a number of different backgrounds (e.g. space, undersea, dinosaurs). It will also allow you to import any MIDI file you can find online (like from this website) to use as a source of music. Bear in mind that most MIDI files you find online will be incredibly complex and far too difficult for all but the most experienced user to play in this game mode.

The keyboard provided with the review kit is quite a nice M-Audio 49 key model. Importantly it’s velocity-sensitive, meaning that like a true piano, the harder you press the keys the louder the notes sound. You should note that the keyboard is simply a MIDI controller. That is, it does nothing without being plugged into a computer with MIDI software, or other MIDI device. You can’t use this keyboard as a standalone digital piano.

So like I say, I put the software and USB keyboard aside after my 5  year old played the game a number of times, to his great enjoyment. Some time later, I sat down to start writing this review. The first thing I did was review the price of the software, and just about fell off my chair when I saw that the base software was NZ$399. You can get additional packages: software plus a tutorial DVD for $499, and add the keyboard in my review kit for a $799 package.

Stunned by the price, I presumed I must have completely missed something, so I dug further. I popped the tutorial DVD in the PC to watch. The tutorials are very professionally shot (if a bit scarily ‘American’), and broken down into 5 weeks. They show an approach to take to gently introduce kids and first-time players to the software. They also show that the software is capable of a heck of a lot more than I gave it credit for.

PianoWizard Advanced ModeIn the advanced modes, the keyboard is switched sideways to better represent the association of the keys to the staves in musical notation. If I’d had something like this back when I was learning piano as a child, I think it would have made a heck of a lot more sense and I wouldn’t have given up at Grade 3.

As you increase the difficulty settings in the advance mode, the colour-matching is removed, and eventually the keyboard view can be removed altogether, leaving you playing music along with standard notation. The theory being, if you progress through the levels as your ability increases, eventually you should be able to transition to traditional sheet music on a regular piano. I can’t see why this wouldn’t be the case.

So is the software worth the price? After using it for a while, the only real issue I can find is the screen resolution. It defaults to something like 800×600, and will stretch to fit your LCD monitor, which makes it look pretty bad on my 22″ widescreen. If Piano Wizard can fix that issue and implement a proper scaling interface, I’d be hooked.

As it stands, $399 is a wonderful deal if you compare it to the equivalent price of a lifetime of piano lessons. The $799 price including the keyboard is also a good deal compared against the equivalent of an electronic piano and piano lessons. I’m going to be completely unscientific and say that Piano Wizard is never going to make you a concert pianist like one-on-one tuition would. But if what you want is an easy way to learn how to read and play music on a keyboard, Piano Wizard is probably a damn good alternative.

Vodafone MusicStation and DRM-Free Tracks

I’m holding a Nokia 6121 loaded with Vodafone’s MusicStation software, and to be brutally honest, I’m largely disinterested in the music and software. There are, however, two things about Vodafone’s latest musical forays that interest me in a big way.

Firstly, I’m very interested to see what my 13 year old nephew makes of MusicStation. I’m quite happy to admit that I’m not in the target market for MusicStation. I use an iPhone, perfer to listen to my music on a home stereo, and get hold of my music from a mixture of original CD ripping, and DRM-free downloads (more on that later). My nephew on the other hand, treats his Sony-Ericsson phone in the same way that I remember my father using a transistor radio. He carries it everywhere, and it seems to be constantly emitting loud, tinny music (although thankfully not the mix of Radio New Zealand National Programme and Concert Radio that brings back embedded memories of many hours weeding the vegetable patch in Papatoetoe). Continue reading “Vodafone MusicStation and DRM-Free Tracks”