Steven Dourmashkin Interview - Musical Development

We caught up with Steven Dourmashkin from tech, games, and education company Sphero. Steven spoke us through one Sphero’s newest music production and eduction devices, Specdrums. Designed for musical development and MIDI integration, Specdrums are a perfect educational tool for a budding musician, while holding enough versatility for established producers.

Futuremag Music: Hey Steven, how’re you going?

Steven Dourmashkin: Awesome! It's another beautiful day in Boulder, Colorado.

Futuremag Music: I’ve spent some time using the Specdrums and have really enjoyed the experience. What was the underlying mission when creating the product?

Steven Dourmashkin: When I was a kid, I was inspired to learn the drums. I spent years practicing the drums on practice pads and pillows until my parents were finally able to get me a real drum set. But many kids never get the ability to have their own drum set. Or if they do, they can't take it along with them to college or their small apartments afterwards. So I was inspired to create the world's most portable drumming machine. After years of development, Specdrums has expanded beyond just drumming to empower kids of all ages to create and easily play music by turning the world into their instrument regardless of their musical knowledge.

Specdrums can be used to program any sound to any tapped colour, which has inspired our team at Sphero to go beyond music in areas such as math and language arts.  Using art as a channel to teach math, science and technology in the classroom builds important foundational skills, including critical thinking and creativity.

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Futuremag Music: What’s the importance of a tactile experience when learning music?

Steven Dourmashkin: I spoke with Jenna Palensky, the Education Content Manager for Specdrums at Sphero, to get her input on this question. Here’s her response: 

“Music is generally itself a tactile experience. It takes muscle memory and dexterity to play notes on an instrument and you are interpreting notes and counting as you play. The tactile differences between a regular musical instrument and Specdrums is that Specdrums takes tactile playing into a whole new realm of sensory stimulation, not only including the tactile element but combining the forces of colour (visual learning) and musical play (auditory learning) rolled into one form. We are excited to see its tactile and multi-sensory potential not only with music students, but also with disabled individuals who cannot benefit from playing a regular instrument and giving them the chance to learn music for the first time.”

Futuremag Music: What utility do Specdrums have for seasoned artists?

Steven Dourmashkin: The goal of the Specdrums MIX app is to provide the best remixing experience possible regardless of the user’s musical background. More seasoned artists, however, can connect Specdrums over Bluetooth MIDI to more advanced music apps and even desktop DAWs such as Logic Pro and Ableton Live. When Specdrums are used over MIDI as a software instrument, the bottom 8 colours of the Specdrums Play Pad are assigned to a c-major scale while the top 4 pads to a common chord progression (I-vi-IV-V). Or you can map the MIDI notes to trigger sound samples, loops, and other actions within DAWs. These capabilities make Specdrums one of the most portable MIDI controllers that fit in your pocket. 

We’ve also seen artists use Specdrums for interactive exhibits and performances - for example, by making music on art, paintings, and fun objects like fruit, or by hooking up the colour inputs from Specdrums to LED panels. We hope to see artists continue to hack Specdrums for more advanced use cases to inspire younger musicians to get involved with Specdrums and music making in general. 

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Futuremag Music: Can you talk us through the sample creation process? How did you create the intuitive packs?

Steven Dourmashkin: We work with in-house artists at Sphero as well as other (mostly local) artists to build the Sound Packs within the Specdrums MIX app. The goal of each pack is to curate a set of loops and samples that all work well together such that users can mix and create great songs with Specdrums even if they aren’t expert musicians. Typically the top 4 colours of the Play Pad are assigned to loops (e.g., drums, bass, melody, vocals) while the bottom are samples (e.g., notes of a particular instrument in-key or other sounds such as percussion hits, vocals, riffs, and SFX). Users can swap out any of the loops and samples with others offered in the particular Sound Pack, or record and save their own samples using the device’s microphone. We are always looking for more artists who are interested in collaborating on new Specdrums packs and making their content accessible to our audience of young, aspirational musicians.  

Futuremag Music: What’s the future hold for Specdrums? Are there any other products on the horizon that will compliment?

Steven Dourmashkin: We’re excited to launch a Specdrums Education Bundle in the coming months. It will contain 12 Specdrums Rings, a charging hub, and a set of the new Specdrums Activity Cards. The Activity Cards will highlight all of the ways teachers can use Specdrums across a variety of music topics and beyond into other areas of education, including Science, Math, and Language Arts / Storytelling. All of this will launch alongside the new Specdrums Edu app which will enable not only these activities but also further customization and programming of colours and sounds. 

We will also be looking into ways to improve the capabilities of Specdrums for more advanced musicians and live performers. Whenever we make improvements or add new features to the Specdrums ring, existing customers can immediately get access to them by running a firmware update through the Specdrums apps. We have also been prototyping other complementary products to the ring, but all of that is top secret.

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