Though the USB Roll-Up Drum & Piano Kit are inexpensive enough to make cheap novelty gifts. Be warned: they're not worth the money, thanks to numerous broken features and incomplete documentation.
If you're a musician, Dream Cheeky is probably not a name that comes to mind when you're thinking of instrument manufacturers; in fact, unless you're a connoisseur of USB gag gadgets, you've probably never heard of Dream Cheeky at all. However, I guess everyone has to start somewhere, and Dream Cheeky's starting with two USB instruments: a USB Roll-Up Drum Kit, and a USB Roll-Up Piano. Will these two devices prove themselves to be good starter instruments for the aspiring musician, or even a good substitution of the real thing? Or will they be musical versions of the USB Missile Launcher, providing fun with an emphasis on diversion? Let's find out in my full review.
Setting Up the Kit
Because Dream Cheeky designed the piano and the drum kit to be space saving portable devices, both instruments combine rubberized mats with pressure-sensitive pads for their playing surfaces. Each instrument also includes processing hardware built into black plastic housing on one end of the instrument - right side on the piano, left side on the drum kit - in arrangement that makes me think the designers wanted to give you the option of setting up both instruments at the same time. Both mats appear to be durable and seemed like they might resist any wear and tear - including the accidental spilled drink - well enough to make them an option for a child. As an added bonus, both mats roll up into small diameter bundles that you can wrap up using the attached USB cables, making the two mats very portable and easy to store.
The piano mat rolls out to forty-eight key instrument.
The drum kit mat includes pads for a snare, two toms, a bass drum and two cymbals.
The drum and piano mats both roll up and tie up for easy storage or portability.
Installing the instruments onto your Windows-based computer is simple: pop in the CD or download the file from Dream Cheeky's website, install the control program, then plug in the instrument for an instant connection. Both of the instruments are entirely USB powered, and with the exception of the pressure pads you'll be playing on, there are no controls - everything runs through the host computer for a more centralized playing experience.
A close up of the black plastic that houses the piano pad's key processor.
Playing the Piano & Drums
While I haven't played on mat-based instruments before, I have used full-sized electronic drum kits in the past, and found that their pressure-sensitive pads all have the same problem: they don't react to the same relative amounts of pressure, which can make them really frustrating to use. Unfortunately, both of Dream Cheeky's instruments suffer from the same problem, but on a scale that's about a hundred times worse: The drum kit comes with a shortened pair of black plastic drum sticks, whose presence seems to be a case of sheer optimism on the part of the manufacturer, as the drum kit's pads require the much greater pressure of a sharply-stabbed finger or a pounding palm to get any effect. Meanwhile, the piano's keys are so lacking in sensitivity that any playing beyond the slowest, most deliberate stab at the key was a waste of time. In addition, the piano's keys are narrow enough to make chords - especially chords of more than two notes - virtually impossible for my fingers. I guess if you were to work long and hard enough, you could probably master both of Dream Cheeky's instrument pads (and develop fingers of steel along the way), but you'd probably learn some very poor playing technique in the process.
These short plastic drum sticks might as well be for show - they won't help you play the instrument.
Using the Dream Cheeky Software
As I mentioned above, both USB instruments give you control over your available options using a piece of installed software. Both pieces of software (which can run at the same time) include a diagram of the instrument, access to different pre-saved samples, a system for playing back either the installed rhythms or loops or .wav files that you can load yourself, a recording option for saving patterns or rhythms to .wav files, and a learning mode where the software shows you the patterns as it plays them so you can play along. The layout of both pieces of software is pretty clean, but some of the options (like the difference between rhythm patterns and music library in the drum software) don't make sense as individual features, even after you read the documentation. I do like the feedback system that shows you the drum pad or key you've just hit on the instrument diagram, and how you can use the software without plugging in the instrument just by clicking with your mouse.
The drum software, playing a song in learning mode.
The piano software in its ready position.
However, that's about where my enjoyment ends, because the software for these two products has about as many problems as the pads. I've arranged these problems categorically, to show you the exact extent of this laundry list of flaws:
Broken Links: The Help button in the drum software goes to a non-existent page on Dream Cheeky's site, while clicking on the Mode Select, Program, Record, Save or Open buttons in the piano software brings up a message that asks you to click on it to install and activate the recording and learning functions. Clicking on that link also brings you to a non-existent page on Dream Cheeky's site.
Missing or Useless Features: You can adjust the tempo of any sound loop in the piano software, but unlike the drum software there's no actual metronome. The piano software also has no additional music libraries.
Useless Features: The piano software also has a percussion feature, which turns out to be a separate overlay where you can click on one of eight buttons with your mouse to make a different percussion noise, but for some reason, you can't use this feature with the keyboard. The drum software has an option called "S. Drum Pad Effect" where you can select different drum pad effects - but choosing one of these effects doesn't seem to alter the sound at all. There's an option to save both patterns and recording in both pieces of software, but there's nothing in the interface or the documentation to indicate the difference between patterns and recordings.
Malfunctioning Features: The drum software saves patterns and recordings as empty .wav files. The bottom center drum does not register a pattern in the feedback display when you play it or click on it. Vibrato and portamento do not work at the same time in the piano software. In the drum software's learning mode, the software plays "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" instead of the drum pattern.
Additional Issues: One of the rhythm patterns in the piano software has a curse word in the title. In the drum software's learning mode, the software plays patterns that use three notes at one time, which is impossible to play on pad where you can only use your hands.
The error message that appears in the piano software asking you to update before continuing. There is no update available.
The percussion overlay, whose function seems like a design afterthought.
Instruments roll up into small, portable packages
You can play on the software using the mouse instead of the instruments
Sensitivity on both instruments is so poor that they're almost unplayable
Documentation is badly organized with broken links
A number of broken, malfunctioning, or useless features
Software recording doesn't work
One of the piano rhythm patterns contains a curse word in the title
I get the impression that Dream Cheeky either released these two instruments without any quality testing, or figured that the low price and the company's reputation as a maker of fun USB gadgets would cover any of the drum kit and piano's major flaws. From the difficulties with the instrument pads, to the problems with documentation links, to still in-development recording links, the USB Roll-Up Drum Kit and USB Roll-Up Piano are clearly products that need some major work to make them worth your while.