Sampling, or the reuse of snippets of a sound recordings, is a major component of popular music. Since the birth of musique concrète in the 1940s (a style of music based on the splicing and manipulation of tape), musicians have borrowed from each other to create entirely new works.
The process of sampling can be rather difficult, though. Whether you’re taking an old school approach and hacking at your cassettes with a pair of scissors, or using a top of the range drum machine, programming and playing your samples can require an awful lot of background knowledge, both of the software and the techniques you’re using.
So, what if you want to have a go at sampling without the hassle? That’s where Specdrums come in.
What are Specdrums?
Specdrums are a pair of app-enabled rings that let kids create music by tapping their fingertips on different colored surfaces. Created by Sphero (the company behind the BB8 Star Wars bot and the Bolt educational toy), Specdrums debuted at CES 2019 in Las Vegas.
The rings work in conjunction with the Specdrums Mix app, which features an in-app color-coded keyboard, with each key corresponding to a different musical loop or note – tap the key, and a sound is generated.
While Specdrums come with a multicolored mat that matches the in-app keyboard, and can be tapped to create sounds, you can actually generate sound by tapping the rings on any colored object.
Although Specdrums were designed with children in mind, they can be used by anyone to make music, and while they were initially made for the classroom, they’re are affordable enough for home music-making too. A single ring costs $64.99 (£64.99 / around AU$109.99), but you can buy a set of two for $99 (£99 / around AU$185).
How can I make music with Specdrums?
First you’ll need to download the Specdrums Mix app to your mobile device, and connect the rings via Bluetooth. Once you’ve done this, open up the ‘Library’ section of the app. This is where you’ll find a range of different sound packages, with everything from ‘drum and bass’ to ‘acapella’.
Selecting one of these packs will bring up the on-screen keyboard, which you can either play by tapping your screen, or by tapping the Specdrum rings on your keyboard mat. Hitting a specific key of the keyboard will trigger different sounds and loops, allowing you to layer beats, chord progressions, and sound effects with a simple tap.
As the rings work by identifying the colors of the different keys, you can tap them on any colored surface to produce a sound; for example, if you want to make the sound corresponding to the yellow key, you could tap the ring on a banana or any other yellow object.
If you like the sound of a beat you’ve created, you can record your creations in the app and save them as an MP4 file.
Moving on from the library
While the sound library offers a range of different musical genres, you may want to record your own samples, and it’s possible to do this through the Specdrums Mix app. You’ll need to open one of the sound packages, and select the ‘Editor’ tab at the bottom of your screen. Then, you can select a key and record your own sound to replace what’s there already.
You can also mix up the pre-recorded loops and notes that already exist as part of the sound library, and create new combinations via the editing section.
You can, of course, record directly into your phone or tablets built in microphone, but if you’re after a clearer recording you can buy external microphones that slot into your phone’s headphone jack (or Lightning port, if you have an iPhone 7 or later).
The recording functionality on the Specdrums Mix app is fairly limited; there’s no metronome to keep you in time, so it’s difficult to create snappy, accurate rhythms.
This means Specdrums probably won’t be able to replace the accuracy of a MIDI or analogue instrument recorded through production software like Logic Pro or Abelton, but it can act as an easy to way to record musical ideas, and have a go at sampling as a beginner.
As they’re aimed at children, Specdrums are also really good fun to play with, no matter your musical ability – and if you’re just starting out in sampling then using a fun, intuitive interface based on color could make the difference between a lifelong hobby or another discarded pastime.
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Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.