At some point during development, Kano Computing’s new music-making device would have finger holes. “’God created man; man is God’s greatest technology,” explains Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, as Kano CEO and co-founder Alex Klein recalls. “So if we’re making technology, maybe it needs to be molded in our image.”
The final product, the Stem Player, which Kano created in collaboration with Ye, has no finger holes. But it’s unconventional. It’s a weird music gadget that allows you to listen to music and manipulate it in real time – and while the holes haven’t formed, it easily fits in one of your hands.
Kano’s device has no screen, which means that with a few buttons and four touch-sensitive “stems” on the device, you listen to music and mess around with music. Together they can be used to manipulate the “stems” (different aspects of a track such as the vocals or the drums) of songs from Ye’s album donda, preloaded on the device. Or, thanks to machine learning, it can do the same trick with every album you put on it.
The Stem Player has come together in a few years. Klein says he and Ye first started working together for the release of Jesus is King, which came out in 2019. Apparently they hammered on the idea of ”what was then called an album device” in Ye’s Lamborghini one day. (You saw Klein on a walk to get falafel and told him to get in the car.) Things came together around the release of Thursday so they could launch it alongside the album.
Turn on the Stem Player and you will be greeted with a gentle vibration and four colored lights will appear on each of the stems. Press the center button to play music – when I did as I wrote this, the drum beats to “Hurricane” and The Weeknd’s soaring vocals filled my office. But if I want to hear it only The Weeknd, all I have to do is “slide” the lights along three of the stems, as if pushing sliders on a soundboard to fade out the other aspects of the song.
You’re also not limited to manipulating one stem at a time. I used four fingers to adjust all stems at once, and the Stem Player kept track of everything I did. (Although I certainly made the song sound a lot worse.) You can also create loops and add effects in real time.
The device fits comfortably in the hand and is fun to play with. It also has a soft feel, which sets it apart from the many other metal and plastic gadgets I deal with on a daily basis. Klein tells me the exterior is a “unique mix” made of “many different polymers,” and I believe him — the Stem Player doesn’t feel like anything I’ve ever held. (More than once I found myself fiddling with it aimlessly in one hand while sitting at my desk.)
With everything at your fingertips, it’s easy to mess around with songs while listening to them. Adding effects and creating loops is less intuitive – I had to look up a tutorial on how. But messing with the stems is entertaining enough on its own.
“We wanted it to be a device that you pick up, you feel it, you see the lights, you feel the vibrations, and it gives you this sense of well-being and control that I think is missing from many screen-based devices from today,” said Klein.
That said, I wasn’t attracted to listening to an entire album with the Stem Player in hand. Music is largely a background activity for me; I often put on music while doing chores or while running, which aren’t exactly ideal times to mess around with the Stem Player as well. But I would never claim to be a music producer – my music experience consists largely of years of fanfare – so for someone who likes to make their own music, the Stem Player could be a stunningly wonderful tool.
“Ultimately, there were so many directions it could go, and one thing that Ye always praises and almost coaches me on gives me a good direction to wrap things up,” Klein said. “Finish things, put them outside. There are always things you can do to adjust and change them. A great work of art is never finished. Really, it’s deserted.”