Kanye West’s Stem Player is a fun but overpriced musical toy
Despite all the twists and hype it’s generated over the past month, Kanye West’s rod reader is a relatively unassuming-looking device. Smooth, round and weighing only a few ounces, it reminds me of countless other fidget toys that have sparked monoculture crazes in my lifetime. It’s been compared to HitClips, those weird little memory cards Tiger Electronics released in the early 2000s that played a one-minute Top 40 Hits clip, but that would be like comparing Zack Morris’ Motorola DynaTAC 8000x to an iPhone. 13. The Stem Player does a lot more than that — although, in the grand scheme of things, for what it does at its price, you’d be better off with the phone and a mobile digital audio workstation.
Developed by Kano, a tech company specializing in gadgets such as headphones and computer mice, the Rod Reader is a palm-sized puck with only a handful of externally ringing buttons and four grooves criss-crossed on its slightly curved surface. These grooves are touch controls that allow the user to adjust the volume of four audio tracks – or stems – by roughly analyzing the bass, drums, synth and vocals. The appeal of the device lies in its simplicity; you don’t need to have studied Cubase in college or worked with Pro Tools for 10,000 hours to feel relatively comfortable “remixing” music loaded into the device, with a playback provided by a small speaker on the side or headphones that can be plugged in next. .
When activated, each of the four tactile grooves lights up with an array of attractive colors, and when users swipe their fingers or thumbs over them, the response is instantaneous. It allows users to remove the vocal track to highlight the instrumental, rotate tracks without drums, and even play parts of songs backwards using the skip track buttons on the side. This gives the novice producer plenty of options to experiment with the tunes they upload to the device, which automatically selects and separates stems at the appropriate control via artificial intelligence. It’s a fun toy that could possibly provide hours of entertainment and potentially even some really creative remixes of existing songs or the creation of entirely new songs.
Unfortunately, at $200, this toy is way overpriced for what it offers. Over the hours of using it, I found myself both impressed with the innovation and unimpressed with the execution. Although it’s easy to learn to use – unlike Cubase or other full-featured DAWs, which, yes, I studied in college – and even a pleasure to do once you get used to his weird sex toy skin (why does the thing need you feel like he belongs in the naughty drawer?), his limitations are obvious once the novelty wears off. Kano sent me the device for review; I would never pay full price for it, knowing that I could easily download BandLab or FL Studio for a fraction of the price of a device I already spend most of my day staring at – which ironically also fits in the palm of my hand.
And while pulling the roots out of existing songs is probably the biggest draw for most people, the biggest problem I saw with it was that the album that comes preloaded there only too perfectly highlights the downsides of this technology. 2 is apparently designed to work with the stem player, but there were several times during playback where I noticed the inaccurate analysis of tracks. Truth be told, very little music is so easily broken down into just four audio stems — something I learned playing on a four-track cassette tape recorder I won in a high school rap contest. While production on 2 is almost as stripped down as it gets, there have been a few times where I’ve noticed that some songs end with only three tracks or that by isolating each track some sounds get clumped together – i.e. the track would have a subliminal bass buzz, or that the synths would fade out with the drums when I lowered the drum track. (Incidentally, this also highlighted how sparse, dry and uninspired the production was on 2 is in fact.)
The biggest disadvantage of the rod player is its price. At $200, it’s hard to recommend a purchase when I know devices like the Artiphon Orba do more for less, with pretty much the same hook (a portable audio controller), no less. Even though the stem player was a completely original product, it’s kind of like HitClips in that it will probably end up in the drawer after a few months when users start streaming music from their mobile devices again, which have the added benefit of keeping them connected to the world. I’m not the only one put off by the price either; in a few hours of 2via the stem player, fans had pirated both the album and the technology that powers the device. As a legitimately fun toy, however, I like the rod player, but by pricing its target demographic and tying itself to a controversial figure like Kanye, it may have even missed the chance of the kind of fashion that makes other gadgets like these are such fond memories for so many.