At one point in development, Kano Computing’s new music creation device was going to have finger holes. “‘God created man; man is God’s greatest technology,’” explained Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, as Kano CEO and co-founder Alex Klein remembers it. “So when we make technology, maybe it needs to be formed in our image.”
The final product, the Stem Player, which Kano made in partnership with Ye, doesn’t have finger holes. But it is unconventional. It’s a weird music gadget that lets you listen to music and manipulate it in real-time — and even though the holes didn’t come to be, it does fit easily in one of your hands.
Kano’s device has no screen, meaning you listen and mess with music using a few buttons and four touch-sensitive “stems” on the device. Together, they can be used to manipulate the “stems” (different aspects of a track like the vocals or the drums) from songs off Ye’s album Donda, which is pre-loaded on the device. Or, thanks to machine learning, it can pull off the same trick with any album you put on it.
The Stem Player came together over a few years. Klein says he and Ye first started working together ahead of the release of Jesus is King, which came out in 2019. They apparently hammered out the idea of “what was then called an album device” in Ye’s Lamborghini one day. (Ye saw Klein on a walk to get falafel and told him to get in the car.) Things coalesced around the release of Donda so that they could launch it alongside the album.
Turn the Stem Player on, and you’re greeted with a gentle vibration and four colored lights appearing on each of the stems. Press the button in the middle to play music — when I did so while writing this, the drum beats on “Hurricane” and The Weeknd’s soaring vocals filled my office. But if I want to hear just The Weeknd, all I have to do is “slide” the lights down three of the stems like I’m pushing sliders on a soundboard to fade out the other aspects of the song.
You’re not limited to manipulating one stem at a time
You’re not limited to manipulating one stem at a time, either. I’ve used four fingers to adjust all of the stems simultaneously, and the Stem Player kept up with everything I did. (Though I definitely made the song sound much worse.) You can also make loops and add effects in real-time.
The device is nice to hold and fun to play with. It’s also soft to the touch, which makes it stand out from the many other metal and plastic gadgets I interact with every day. Klein tells me the exterior is a “unique blend” 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’ve found myself idly playing with it in one hand while at my desk.)
Since everything is in reach of your fingers, it’s easy to mess around with songs as you’re listening to them. Adding effects and making 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 will give you this sense of well being and control, which I think is missing from a lot of screen-based devices today,” Klein said.
That said, I haven’t felt pulled to listen to an entire album with the Stem Player in hand. Music for me is largely a background activity; I’ll often put on music while doing chores or while on a run, which aren’t exactly ideal times to also be messing with the Stem Player. But I would never claim to be a music producer — my music-playing experience consists largely of years of marching band — so for someone who likes to make their own music, the Stem Player could be a mind-blowingly awesome tool.
“At the end of the day, there were so many directions it could go, and one thing that Ye always prizes and almost coaches me on, gives me good direction on, is to get things finished,” Klein said. “Finish things, put them out. There’s always things you can do to tweak and change them. A great work of art is never finished. Really, it’s abandoned.”