Kanye West has never been one to do things by the book. When he's not running for president, the outspoken rapper/producer is pledging support to controversial politicians or interrupting awards acceptance speeches. So when he launched his own portable-music-player-cum-mixing-desk, the world shrugged and wrote it off as yet more eccentric behaviour.
Now West (or Ye as he prefers to be known) has proclaimed that the Stem Player is the only way to listen to his new album, Donda 2. He has chosen to bypass the big streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify – and even his former home, Tidal – in favour of his own player and platform.
Whether that proves to be a canny business decision remains to be seen (though with a reported $1.8 billion in the bank, he doesn't exactly need a hit album). It's also not clear that it will remain the only way to hear his new album – he previously said its predecessor, Donda, would never be on Apple Music, but two months later it was available to stream.
Whatever you make of the decision from an artistic and business perspective, you can't deny it's intriguing. So what exactly is this piece of hardware you need to play Donda 2? And how do the Stem Player's remixing features work? Read on and we'll explain all. Trust us, it'll be a lot clearer than hearing it from the man himself.
Stem Player: price
The Stem Player launched last summer for £200 ($200). It previously came with Donda preinstalled, and now comes with the sequel, Donda 2, onboard (though some disgruntled punters have complained that theirs didn't). It was developed by West's Yeezy Tech brand in collaboration with London-based electronics company Kano Computing.
It's currently available in the US, UK, EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
What is the Stem Player?
The Stem Player is a pebble-sized MP3 player that doubles as a portable remixer. That means that as well as loading it up with your own tracks, you can play around with them by isolating their various elements.
It originally went on sale in the summer of 2021, but it's back in the headlines thanks to the release of Donda 2. Because the album comes preloaded on the device, the Stem Player is the only way you can listen to Kanye West's new album.
Stem Player: design
As you can see, it's not the sleekest device out there, but then it's not trying to be. Kano Computers – the company that helped make it – specialises in making simple, transparent PCs that come as modular kits. Just like Lego, half the fun is putting the device together, and – also like Lego – they can be enjoyed by all ages.
While the Stem Player isn't modular, and arrives as one piece, the same simplicity is baked right into its design.
It's made of a soft material that gives it a tactility that other portable music players lack. This isn't to everyone's liking: PC Magazine said it has an "unpleasant fleshy texture", adding that "it just feels gross". But the intentions were good: one of its creators has said they wanted to make something a world away from current music devices, taking inspiration from stress balls and arcade machines.
"We wanted it to be soft and circular and multicolored and with lights and they have to appeal to your senses," Alex Klein told GQ. "We wanted to create emotional technology that’s also sensory, almost synesthesiac. So not just these black screens, black boxes, squares that we feed through information on, but something more that feels like an extension of your body. Something more ergonomic."
Ergonomic, gross. Tomayto, tomahto.
Its design might be deceptively simple, but the Stem Player's aims are typically lofty: to democratise the music-making process. And you can't do that without some pretty nifty features.
Stem Player: features
The Stem Player's key selling point – apart from Donda 2, of course – is that it's basically a mixing desk that fits in your pocket. Those light strips are controls that let you isolate and manipulate various parts of the song – the vocals, drums, bass and samples. You can also add effects, change the pitch and create loops on the fly, along with four-channel lossless audio mixing. You can then save, playback and download your mixes.
To see how it works, check out the laughably hand-drawn controls section of the Stem Player website – it won't let us link to it directly, but the link is at the bottom of the FAQ section. (You can see an example above.)
To add effects, press the top button, then either of the volume buttons to enter the effects page. You can then select Echo, Feedback or Gate by sliding up and down. Then slide left to right to increase the intensity of the effect.
It's not just Kanye's tracks you can mess around with, it works with any song you load onto it.
Klein compares it to a video game in terms of its interactivity. "I think it's your music, your way," he told GQ. "There's an optionality. So, you could still listen to the song exactly as it's been presented and prepared, but there's an optionality to just listen to the drum, just listen to the bass, take out the vocals maybe when you're having a conversation, just listen to the vocals when you're in the mood to really soak in the lyrics. That to me is democratic, the notion that the world is made for us to not just live within, but to shape."
In terms of traditional hardware specs, the Stem Player offers Bluetooth (though there's no word on what version), a 97dB speaker and 3.5mm headphone jack for private listening. Storage is a modest 8GB – so you won't be bringing your whole music library with you – and it supports all the file formats you'd expect, including AIFF, FLAC, MP3, WAV, AAC, ALAC and MP4.
Stem Player: initial verdict
Paying £200/$200 is a lot to listen to Kanye West's latest album, and could be a hard sell for even the most devoted West fan. Though he and Klein would have you believe you're getting a lot more for your money.
"Well, remember you're not spending $200 for just an album," Klein said. "You're spending $200 for a revolutionary device that allows you to listen to music in a completely new way through stem separation, and that allows you to mix and make music on the go. You're also spending that $200 to become a part of a community that wants to change technology and music for the better."
According to West, 6000 Stem Players were sold in a 24-hour period last week, earning around £1.2 million in sales revenue. So maybe it's not such a hard sell after all.
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