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There are few musical instruments that you can start playing immediately, without making lots of dreadful sounding noises. The first time someone tries to play guitar, you're bound to hear fruitless twangs and sloppy attempts at strumming. The first time someone blows into a horn, they're lucky if they can make any sound at all. Yet, the first time you try to play the Beamz, chances are you'll launch into a blazing guitar solo (which sure beats sounding like a dying cat).
The Beamz is computer-based musical instrument that plays like a futuristic harp with laser beams for strings. You simply wave your hands in the path of its 6 lasers to make music. Even without sound, there's something inherently gratifying about breaking the beam of a laser with your hand. When doing so causes a kettle drum sample to thunder out of your speakers, it's all the more satisfying. If you happen to have a fog machine in your living room (and let's face it - everyone should) then playing the Beamz also makes you the conductor of a full blown laser light show.
Much like the popular video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the basic idea behind the Beamz is to set you up with a rhythmic backing track, and let you trigger sounds to the music. You sense when a musical flourish or melodic solo is supposed to happen, and it's up to you to trigger the sounds. Guitar Hero and Rock Band give you visual cues and score you on accuracy. The Beamz does not. Instead, it offers an open ended, improvisational approach. How good a song comes out relies entirely on your imagination, and you can easily record and share your creations with the included software. And did I mention that the Beamz equips you with six real lasers? Oh yeah, I did.
If you're looking for a pocket-sized device that you can compose music with on your commute, you may want to look elsewhere. The Beamz is an instrument that makes its presence known. It stands over 17 inches in height (44.9 cm), and spreads out with a width of over 25 inches (64 cm). I wrote the product description of the Beamz for the B&H website before I ever saw one in person, and even though I was acquainted with its dimensions, I was surprised at how large it was when I took it out of the box. Its large size may seem like a "con" rather than a "pro", but it actually makes playing the Beamz a more immersive experience. The physical act of having to reach to swipe at a laser gives it a more physical, musical feel.
There are no speakers on the Beamz. The sounds it creates will come out of your computer's audio card and speakers. It comes with software that you must install on your computer (sorry Mac people, the Beamz is only compatible with Windows XP, Vista, and 7). The interface of the software is intuitive and straight forward. You simply click on the "Playlists" button and select which song you want to load. The basic version of the Beamz comes with 30 different songs, with styles ranging from Heavy Metal to Classical. Another version of the Beamz exists that includes the Studio Software. The Studio Software enables you to load your own samples and create your own original improvisations.
Once you work your way through the included 30 songs, you'll likely find some things that you like and others that don't quite do it for you. The possibilities of what can be done with this instrument don't end once you've exhausted the supplied material. If you want more prefabricated songs, you can download them from www.thebeamz.com. Not only will you find original improvisational material like the included songs, but you can also buy well-known hit songs that you can remix on the fly. In an instant you can remix your own version of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean, Coldplay's Clocks, and Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl.
The ability to create live remixes of popular songs is one of the most powerful skills a DJ can have. So it goes without saying that the Beamz has the definite potential to cause quite a stir in the DJ booth. Laser light shows are always welcome in clubs, and the Beamz seems like it would be right at home too. Beyond creating remixes in clubs that are fun to watch, the Beamz can bring the same magic to mobile DJs. It's not hard to imagine kids going nuts over the Beamz at Bar Mitzvahs, and having it as an interesting attraction at wedding ceremonies and corporate events.
There is more to the Beamz than just triggering sequenced sounds. Two of the songs that are included act as "live loopers", which enable you to layer sounds on top of one another. One song called Loop De Loop lets you build up your own composition piece by piece, transforming the Beamz into an instrument that can be used to create totally original sequences that you can perform on the fly.
The Beamz dwarfed the dual monitor setup in my cubicle
A song called Minimaloop lets you trigger melodies and drums that loop on top of one another. As the Minimaloop progresses, the loops you created change pitch to reflect the progression of the song. The sounds eventually refresh themselves so you can build new layers without stopping. You even arrive at a fun drum breakdown section. All of the loaded sounds to get switched to percussion samples so you can unleash a proper drum solo.
There's a neat song called Shadows that has a curious beam called "Conductor". When you first load up the song and wave your hand in the Conductor beam, nothing happens. However, when you press play, waving your hand in front of the Conductor beam launches a note of dramatic sounding strings. Wave through the Conductor a second time and the note changes. You can wave in other instruments, such as a piano, oboe, flute, and French horn, and change the underlying note of the strings anytime you feel like it. It makes you feel like you're creating the soundtrack of a dramatic film with lots of twists and turns. The whole time you're watching this film, you're still not sure what is going to happen at the end.
The theremin, 1920's coolest electronic instrument
It was fun to play the included songs a few times, but I tend to like to get under the hood and strive for originality. I wish the Beamz was more like a theremin. A theremin is one of the first electronic instruments ever built (and also one of the strangest). A theremin has antennas that sense where your hands are, and it adjusts its pitch and volume depending on the proximity of your limbs. With this in mind, I would say that the version of the Beamz that includes Studio Software is a must for musicians and those that strive to create original music. You can't control the pitch by moving your hand horizontally in a beam with the Studio Software, but at least you can add your own samples and make the work completely your own. The stock Beamz unit with the included song/recording software that I tested would better suit casual users and younger people. If you're having some friends over and you get tired of playing Wii bowling, the Beamz would be a fun addition to have to your entertainment system.
At first glance, many people may mistakenly dismiss the Beamz as nothing more than a glorified toy. But to truly understand the potential of this product, you must remember there are lots of people that desire to express themselves musically, but lack the capability to do so. The company that makes the Beamz created a program called Beamz Outreach, which promotes their product by putting these units in hospitals. Through custom installations and live demonstration events, the Beamz has been placed in many long-term care facilities and hospitals throughout Arizona. The Beamz has been a big hit in pediatrics. "The kids get so absorbed in the Beamz, they forget they are in the hospital. And there can be so much music and giggling, it's lively and fun," says Megan Goodman, Senior Educator at the Phoenix Children's Hospital.
So if your bassoon is gathering dust in a closet somewhere, and you were only ever able to make it screech like a creaky door in a horror movie anyway, you should check out the Beamz and discover a fun new approach to music making.
Sam Mallery is a member of the B&H Creative Content Team, a production sound mixer, and musician who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.