Jazz musician and producer Steve Rose reviews the Soundbrenner Pulse
- What it is: wearable ‘smart’ metronome
- Manufacturer: Soundbrenner
- Available from: wide range of websites and retailers
- Cost: US$99 (c. £80). 10% education discount available
- Almost silent so it doesn’t interfere with the music
- Encourages learning by ‘feeling’ the beat
- Takes getting used to and is not ideal for everyone
- Latency issue with IOS app
Metronomes have come a long way since the old wind-up ‘ticking pyramid’ days, and most musicians now use one of the many relatively cheap phone apps readily available to improve their sense of time, especially when practising.
The Soundbrenner Pulse stands out from the crowd as a wearable metronome that features haptic (vibrational) feedback as well as a visual LED element. It’s possible to sync more than one unit to allow, for example, a whole band to silently feel the tempos of a set of songs on stage (provided every member has one – up to five can be synced to a phone or tablet but even more can be added with a workaround).
Various-sized straps are available which allow the device to be worn on the wrist, ankle, chest or another body part (more about this aspect later). An accompanying free IOS and Android app allows the user to customise tempos, rhythms, time signatures, lighting, the way the device vibrates, etc as well as allowing the user to programme ‘libraries’ of set lists. (Unfortunately, I had trouble syncing the unit to my DAW via MIDI. I get the impression this aspect isn’t always straightforward to set up depending on your particular OS and DAW so I would check before you buy if you particularly want to use this feature with your own setup.)
The Soundbrenner App
The Soundbrenner Pulse connects to the app via Bluetooth very easily and it is here that the device really demonstrates its versatility.
I particularly like the ability to change beat colours, vibration type / strength and to switch on an audible click that is played on your phone or tablet. Odd time signatures can also be accommodated and you can even control things via a Bluetooth foot pedal. The six-hour rechargeable battery life can be monitored from here as well.
I used the IOS version of the app, but discovered a problem when using the sound feature, which I found to be ever so slightly out of sync. The vibration on the Pulse was roughly 5-10 milliseconds ahead of the audible click on my phone, something I checked by recording both and slowing the recording down. Soundbrenner customer services were quick to reply but unfortunately unable to help me with this problem, I understand that latency problems can be fixed on the Android app, unlike the IOS app I was using. However I would say that a lot of musicians or students wouldn’t be bothered by this as the discrepancy is so minimal, but it did bother me, especially when working at slower tempos. The best way I can describe things is when a piece of video has a very slight sound/picture discrepancy which one can get used to or choose to ignore.
Feel the Vibes
What does it feel like to use? This of course is enormously subjective and depends on not only the user, but instrument played, style of music, area of the body worn, device settings and beat settings.
I invited four other musicians of varying abilities to have a go and give feedback, but from my point of view I found it tricky to get used to when I played the double bass (perhaps due to the sheer physicality of the instrument), but easier when playing the piano when I wore the chest strap which is an additional purchase.
I also discovered my preference for using a traditional metronome on beats 2 and 4 in compound time just didn’t work when I was using the Pulse, but using stronger downbeats was easier to feel. Some people just couldn’t get used to vibration alone to work with, preferring to hear the beat on the app as well – which rather negates the point of the device. Others really liked the aural space which allowed them to be guided by a beat whilst not interfering with the music in any significant way.
Slower pulses that were very short seemed to be the overall favourite way of using the Soundbrenner Pulse in my small sample group of users, but I would imagine drummers for instance needing a more powerful set of vibrations to maintain contact with the beat. Wearing the device around the ankle was the least favoured place and generally the wrist was the overall most comfortable place.
The overall quality of the Soundbrenner Pulse is good – the Neoprene straps feel like they will withstand years of use and sweaty bodies wouldn’t have much detrimental effect on the unit. Basic on and off functions and tempo control are achieved directly on the Pulse by a combination of finger taps and turning the outer ring so it can be used alone without the app on an accompanying tablet or phone for basic metronomic duties.
Charging takes place via a supplied USB cable – this I found rather fiddly to use as it is held in place on the Pulse magnetically. Unfortunately, the magnet strength is quite weak so I often found it hard to keep the braided and rather stiff cable in place without a lot of adjustment.
At a current street price of around £80 (April 2020), the basic Soundbrenner Pulse isn’t cheap, and it seems to work for some people but not others. An hour or two of getting used to it are definitely needed, as is experimentation with the best settings and place to wear it.
In my opinion as a teaching aid, its undeniable novelty value and different approach would help students to engage with their musical activities, and in ensemble work it might encourage a more polished performance when used in multiples.
About the author
Steve Rose is a freelance double-bass player, pianist, composer and educator with over thirty years’ professional experience.
He has worked primarily as a jazz performer, both in the UK and at festivals across the world, playing with the Jonathan Gee Trio for over twelve years and as a bass sideman for Joe Lovano, Benny Golson and numerous other musicians.
As a keyboardist, he played regularly with Paul Weller, the Fine Young Cannibals and Samantha Fox while, as a session player, he is to be found on numerous film and TV soundtracks.
He has composed extensively for theatre and dance companies, adverts, films and TV and has been composer-in-residence for theatre companies such as Major Road, Strange Cargo and Emergency Exit Arts.
As an educator, Steve has taught at Middlesex University and toured schools and colleges with Rambert, London Contemporary Dance Theatre and Northern Ballet.