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D-Touch Paper Drum Machine - Full Hands-On Review

There I was, minding my own business, when I stumble upon a news item about the D-Touch Drum Machine. The idea appeared to be that you would print off a couple of sheets of paper, make a couple of paper counters and arrange them on a sheet to create drum patterns. Following links to youtube videos it looked every bit like some kind of clever April fool jape - but it's July. Blocks would be put down on the paper and new noises would occur. I thought it was just people off camera making the noises. They would all be giggling to themselves as they got people to build their own drum machines out of paper - what a jolly caper. However, i looked a little deeper and found that maybe there was something else here. The website really doesn't give much away so flying completely blind I downloaded the printouts, downloaded the software (promising) and went off in search of a pair of scissors.

I spent a happy half an hour cutting out the shapes and putting the little boxes together - when was the last time you used scissors? They suggest using cardboard and filling the little boxes with lentils - I'm assuming this is for weight rather than another joke about making a shaker. I found that paper did the job quite well for the purposes of trying it out - I didn't want to invest too much time or effort until I could work out if this was actually going to make a noise or not.

So, yes, I am cutting out these little boxes and sticking them together. Another reason why I was skeptical was the words they were using like "Tangible User Interface", which, if you think about it, actually describes anything you physically interact with. Part of the registration process to download the software asks you if you've ever encountered a Tangible User Interface before, which of course we have, all the time - my spider sense was tingling at this point looking for the punch line.

The next magic ingredient you need is a webcam. Now, this is when the concept starting to gel for me at the same time as reaching a massive amount of frustration in getting an old webcam to work on Vista. After much crashing, driver crunching and messing about I decided to ditch the webcam and pulled out my DV camcorder instead - sorted.

Right, i've got a working camera, i've got my little boxes that i'm very tempted to colour in with crayons and i have my sheet of paper with a grid and names of drum sounds on it - i'm ready to rock! First let's install the software. The install was ok, but the running of it was a bit of a nightmare. It launches a worrying command window and scans various things and then crashes on selecting my screen capture virtual camera thingy. Ok, uninstalled the virtual camera, ran it again but this time it spanners out on scanning the various ASIO drivers i have installed and then comes up with those annoying ASIO Multimedia test windows. Get through all that and I'm finally able to select my M-Audio ASIO driver. Click OK, nothing happens. Turning my attention to the video preview window I align the sheet so that it can see each of the four corner boxes - the preview window flashes a few times and i can see that it's "detecting" the squares - clever. After a bit of shuffling about, adjusting camera height, propping things up I manage to get a flickering image on the screen. Looking for more information on the website I discover that the image needs to be stable ideally, so i bring over a table lamp and that seems to sort it out and i get a nice stable picture with these highlighted corners - still nothing happens. I drop a block onto the paper - the camera picks it up and highlights it but nothing happens. I must be missing something.

I close the program and find a "configuration" option which brings up the audio driver window and also has an "activation" tab. I click on this and it lets you activate the software by sticking in your user name and password. I do this - and it tells me "wrong access" whatever that means. I try again, no, I go online and change my password, no, I disable firewalls and make exceptions but no dice. Visiting the forum I find other people with the same problem and so I drop D-Touch an email. In an hour or two I get a reply with a new password to try and after a little bit of fiddling I get the damn software activated and suddenly my speakers boom to what sounds like a toddler playing drums! Well I never did in all my life! Chucking counters onto the sheet I was able to instantly create some reasonable beats using the supplied samples.

Wherever there's a counter on the sheet it triggers the corresponding sample - simple. How the hell does it do that? I have no idea. I've also no idea what any of the command keys do. I don't know how to change the tempo, change the samples or even stop or start it for that matter. It's just kind of there, doing it's thing and it's remarkably good fun. The timing is a bit freeform - move a counter a tiny bit and you can hear the difference so it's very easy to get it to groove. It's quite fussy where you place things and you can easily find yourself triggering the wrong sample. I've also got some fans on in my steamy studio and so the occassional breeze would move the counters creating beats of its own - that's why you should use the lentils.

I got about 20 minutes of playing out of it before it crashed. I wish there was a load more information about how to use it. I'd love to know if you can change the resolution, if you can make the counters smaller, if a different design could choose and alternative sample, like a flam or trigger a delay effect. I'd like to know if they have any plans to develop a VAT plug-in version that could generate MIDI to route to all sorts of samples. I could ask them about it I suppose :)

If this was supposed to be a commercial product then I'd be moaning about the state of the software and the general flakiness but this is (apparently) a research experiment created by a pair of electronica nuts into how we interact with technology, and for that it's really interesting. It's such a mad idea that I genuinely assumed it was a wind-up, but it works and it's a lot of fun, it's an interactive, multi-touch, multi-player tangible user interface. You can keep your Percussa Cubes and your ReacTable, cut-out bits of paper and a pritt-stick is where it's at. I can't wait for the D-Touch Sequencer.

The whole setup in my terribly untidy studio.