Freedrum Meets - Robin Stephenson

Freedrum Meets - Robin Stephenson

Robin Stephenson has been a part of Freedrum since the early days.
As an avid member of our forum, Robin has picked up most of the tips and tricks that there are on how to play Freedrum.

Over the years he has also emphasised Freedrums portability, traveling all over the world and playing Freedrum at the most interesting places. We called up the man from down under to hear how he got started playing Freedrum. 

You’re living in Melbourne?

I grew up in Melbourne and then spent 10 years in Sydney and moved back just before COVID. So I’ve been back a couple of years just to be close to the family with the kids. My partner is from Germany, so it's been unfortunate that her family hasn’t been able to get over here because of all the restrictions.

What do you do for a living?

I’m a Projects Delivery Manager for Australian owned electrical supply company called NHP, selling a similar product to big multi-nationals like Siemens or Schneider. We give the global players a run for their money in the local Australian market. I’ve been with them for 15 years, my first main job out of university.

How did you get to know about Freedrum?

One of my colleagues at work, didn't recommend it but he always had packages arriving at work. I was trying to figure out what he was buying and where was he getting it from? Surprisingly, at that time I didn't know about Kickstarter, I had heard of it, but never really had a look myself. So I started browsing around and I thought, actually some of these things are quite interesting, especially the tech section got me hooked.

Throughout high school I always enjoyed music, played different instruments, I did lots of different things. For me, technology combined with music was always a key area of interest. So when I stumbled across Freedrum on Kickstarter, I thought that this was an awesome idea.

Having done mechatronics at Melbourne University as well, this was along the same path. A combination of sensors and programming combined into a really cool product. It got me really interested, I just hoped that it was as good as the initial campaign video was promoting it to be.

The original Freedrum had already launched and I think it was maybe a week or two after it just kicked off. So it was in the very early stages. I found your website and just bought it online through there.

So this was early 2018?

Yes, so I got it early, not too long after the initial backers. But I didn't have to wait as long as they did. And the product had actually already launched so I didn't have the risk of investing and then see the product failing and never coming out. That is probably a good thing about Freedrum 2, that you have actually done it before. Especially having a few of the key guys still there from the start developing your new product.

What were your initial thoughts when you first got it? 

I was very surprised with how, um realistic is probably a good word, yeah, how realistic they were. I was surprised how you can trick your mind into thinking that you're actually hitting something. I believe it came down to the accurate dynamics that you’d programmed into the algorithms, combined with using a good set of headphones. So initially, I was just playing it on the phone through the phone speakers, but thought “hang on” let me try plugging in the headphones, and then quickly tried the GarageBand interface for some more realistic drum kit sounds.   

I hadn't played with GarageBand in a while, but that sort of stuff I can pick up quickly or find a tutorial online. So as soon as I found a good drum kit sound, and then the dynamics that they built in with the acceleration and so on, I felt, with a good set of headphones, this is actually better than I thought it would be. I felt right from the start that Freedrum was a really good product in my opinion and with a bit of practice I knew I was going to love playing with Freedrum.

That's sort of where I went into the forum on Freedrums website, thinking I have learned a few things along the way, It got to a point where I was actually quite comfortable playing and most of the time I didn't have the same issues that others might have been having. I thought maybe they just don't understand the angular concept.

How do I learn to play it so that I don't have some of the issues like drift and playing the wrong drums? I wanted to learn from others, what were they doing? That's when I think Freedrum also put out a few more instructional videos on the website that was discussed on the forums around how the angles are actually working. And then my mind started to think of these features. So I wanted to suggest: how can you improve this or give us some customisation features, like adjusting the angle set points and so on.

So that’s how your involvement in the forum started?

Yes, I think it started with me wondering how I can learn a bit more about the product, but then it turned into wanting to connect with Freedrum, wanting to provide genuine feedback for you to make the best product you can.

For me, it was that I actually started to believe in the product. I really thought was a great idea. How can I be part of that journey? And so I've always been providing feedback to Seyran and the guys. Hopefully, some of my feedback and ideas have actually helped. I feel like if a company doesn’t get genuine feedback, they'll never be able to grow the business properly.

At some point, I thought Freedrum could potentially be a place that I would enjoy working at. So I reached out to Philip early on. And I thought that's probably never going to work. It's one of those small dreams. Well, especially having worked at the same company for so long, moving to a startup would take a lot of courage. Regardless, my connection with Freedrum, and helping on the forum gave me satisfaction and kept me interested in the product.

When you started, with the people that were active on the forum, what were the discussions revolving around?

Like any forum, there are people who are haters and haters are always gonna be haters. So it was a little bit frustrating for me at times because I was fairly active on the forum, trying to make my best effort to defend the product. "what do you mean drift?", I'm able to practice and figure it out, I can understand how the angles work. I know what I need to do to make it work.

I soon realised maybe once or twice that some people just get really defensive, on those platforms, like any written media, it's not the same as a face-to-face conversation. A few times, I would just leave the forum for a while and come back and check in occasionally. If someone had a question I thought I could help with, I’d put my suggestions forward or ask them to provide more detail so I or others could help.

Once Freedum launched its new v9 firmware, then the application was fairly stable for most users including myself. Then, I think most of the early complaints died down. The forum was still of interest to me, and I'd always tried to post in such a way that showed from experience how I got something to work, or here are a few ideas you could try.

If the problem was too complicated, or something to do with the backend error messages, etc, then I would usually point them towards checking with Freedrum support email, and I made it clear that I'm not staff. I'm just another user trying to help. Im sure there were a few people that might have read and got some benefit from my input.

I think the beauty about the original Freedrum and I'm guessing the same for Freedrum 2 is that once you've got a solid platform, then you can just build on that with firmware updates. Therefore although I was already happy with the product as it was, there was endless potential simply by upgrading the software. Or if I didn’t get what I was initially expected at the start, then I can wirelessly update the product myself when a new feature is released. Brilliant! That sort of tech detail made it very interesting for me.

For me, I am mostly interested in the hardware development of Freedrum 2, because I predominately use it just to play along to Spotify songs, using GarageBand for different drum sounds. Neo Soul or Slow Jam kits are my favourite.

What bands or artists do you mostly play along to?

I’ve always had an appreciation for many genres of music, but tend to enjoy and like to drum along to “easy listening” music. Whether that be soul, funk, pop, or a good ballad, something that is relatively easy for a moderate drummer to play along to. A few favourites are Ben Rector, Jordy Searcy, Cody Fry, Cory Wong, Scary Pockets, but probably my favourite band at the moment is one out of New York called Lawrence. I like to find new songs by exploring Suggested Artists on Spotify. Or listening to that artist's Radio playlist. I’ll save a song I like and look up the new artist to hear other songs of theirs, often to find I enjoy their entire album.

Where do you find your musical inspiration?

I follow some very talented musicians on Instagram and am often in awe at their dedication to hone their skills and always continue to learn and improve. Drumming wise Anike Nilles comes to mind, always pushing the boundaries when it comes to exploring rhythmic patterns. Another particular artist I’ve followed for a while and seen live across Sydney many times is Ray Thistlethwayte.

He’s probably best known for his band Thirsty Merc and songs like the BONDI Rescue theme song In The Summertime. His mother was a classical pianist and his father played bass, which helps explain his extraordinary talent on the piano and keyboard, not to mention his very catchy songwriting skills. 

I’ll never have the dedication or raw talent like these people do, but am inspired by them, even it is simply playing along to their songs with my Freedrum.

Software-wise, you said you use GarageBand?

Not beforehand. Back in high school, I used MIDI program but not too much since. I learned trumpet back in high school, before that I played piano at Yamaha music school when I was fairly young. So I learned the basics of music and then continued that through high school playing the trumpet. I was in school choirs and things, I think it was for my 21st birthday that, I bought a nice electric acoustic guitar, a Maton EW80C, and tried to self-teach on that. When we moved back to Melbourne, I wanted to make sure we got a nice old acoustic piano. I found one secondhand for $200, a really nice piano that was made in Melbourne, not far from my office. 

There's always been music around in the family and home. But I never really committed to becoming really good at one thing, like everything in my life, I’m an all-rounder and like to try lots of different things. So that's, as I said before, one of the key reasons why Freedrum was so interesting to me. With that music background, if I ever heard music going, I probably do a lot of the knee drumming, or in the car, a lot of steering wheel drumming. So as soon as I saw Freedrum, my first thought was "why didn’t I think of that?!".

Playing Freedrum is probably the one thing that I’ve quite regularly kept up with the last few years.

It’s so portable and easy to just put on the shelf and then connect to your phone. That's been the best part, I’ve also traveled with it a lot. In some of my early videos on instagram I was on a road trip from Sydney to Melbourne playing Freedrum in the car. I’ve played on rooftops in Amsterdam, on top of a big rock in Berlin. I’ve created some really good memories through Freedrum. Some of our friends that have seen me playing might think I’m a bit obsessed with this thing (laughs) but I don’t care because I just really enjoy it.

Any playing tricks you might wanna share?

I found that if I hold the stick with a loose grip, which I’ve seen some professional drummer do, when I hit down, the tip of the base of the drumstick hits the inside of my hand slightly. That just gives some extra feedback and a subtle sense that I’ve hit an actual drum. Not replacing actual drum-rebound, which obviously doesn’t exist with air-drumming, but simply adding another subtle dimension to the playing experience of Freedrum. So, a good sound, plus the dynamics, plus hitting the inside of my hand with the stick, it all contributes to creating a more realistic drumming experience. 

Similarly, to make playing the rim shot more realistic, I twist the stick in my left hand, then I lean my little finger and the base of the stick on my left leg, and pivot the stick down, letting my other fingers hit my knee to provide some subtle feedback. Wherever possible I would try to replicate what it would be like on the real drums.

You can even experiment with the calibration and starting angle of the sticks. I would see some people who would keep the sticks completely straight, just like the recommendation on the website. However, I thought it looked and felt really awkward that way. Instead, I thought let me try on an angle that feels more comfortable, and it worked well for me.

I could still understand it's all relative from that initial angle. So why does it matter what angle I start with? To help convince people how good Freedrum can look and sound, I would often provide a couple of links to a few really good YouTube clips that are around.

It's important for people who do play an instrument or do play drums, seeing some of the videos on YouTube of professionals playing Freedrum. As well as the videos from the NAMM festival, you just need to show a couple of those or guys that are drummers that have picked it up and made it work, you can say, "Hey, just because it doesn't rebound doesn't mean you can't enjoy it, or actually get something out of it".

My nephew plays drums at a pretty high level for a young kid. He’s at the Victorian College of the Arts, on a scholarship for playing drums. He’s a jazz drummer.

I actually got him a set of Freedrum too, but he doesn't tend to use them, because he's more about the actual technique, and maybe doesn't want to distract from that, which is fair enough. I've found that the few times that I’ve jumped on his drum kit, that the three years of learning Freedrum have enabled me to play fairly consistently on a traditional drum kit.

I really think Freedrum can help you learn the drums in a fun way, and not just rely on a rubber pad. You can be learning a paradiddle or a fill. A couple of times I tried to just watch a video clip and learn a drum fill, and then I was able to replicate that with the proper sounds. If it's the actual technique of moving around and hitting the stick and getting the rebound then of course If you want that, buy a traditional drum kit.

What’s next for you?

My family and two young daughters are my focus for the moment and, as many people keep telling me, for at least the next 18 years! Work is keeping me busy also, but I’m thankful to be one of the lucky ones to maintain a job and see my daughters grow up whilst being able to work from home during the pandemic. Hopefully, we will get to see my partners family in Germany next year, and can’t wait for borders to eventually open and have her parents visit and see their youngest granddaughter for the first time. There must be so many people in a similar situation that are caught on opposite sides of the world, relying on virtual daily video calls. 

Music-wise I try to sit down at the piano in our lounge room whenever I get a few spare minutes. I aim to find some sheet music and learn a few new songs this year. I also can’t wait for when the kids are older, as I’ll definitely enjoy teaching them at least the basics of reading and playing music. 

Playing the original Freedrum will continue to provide a chill out time for me at least every week or so, until the excitement builds again towards the end of the year in anticipation for Freedrum 2 and what it will bring. Can’t wait!

Keep up with Robin here and here.

Are you interested in joining our community? Robin will be a moderator for our newly launched Facebook Group

The Freedrum Facebook Community if the platform where you can find, connect and share ideas about all things Freedrum. Welcome! 

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