All of our SAE instructors are industry professionals drawing from a vast range of diverse professional experiences, so it’s quite entertaining to hear their various stories of past or current projects.
One such story comes from SAE Nashville Instructor Reavis Mitchell (pictured above), who played an integral role in designing, programming and building a mobile production machine called the “Beat Thang.”
Mitchell, also a computer programmer, thought that the available crop of production devices lacked in ways that he knew how to improve upon, and so with the help of his team, BKE Tech, the concept of the Beat Thang was hatched. “We’re humans. We’re tactile creatures,” explains Mitchell, speaking to the market’s need for such devices, even in an era where mostly all aspects of musical production can be done in a DAW, “analogue machines will never be obsolete, because we have an innate human desire to create and express ourselves with our hands.”
Mitchell had prior experience in programming drum machines and had also designed databases for the U.S. Interior Dept. (Army, Navy and Air Force). “We had all done similar work for other companies before,” says Mitchell of his team, “but we felt micromanaged. We didn’t feel that the end results answered all the needs of today’s musician.” Pooling their knowledge together and raising the funds themselves, they were able to build a prototype.
Once built, the team began to make adjustments and loaded the machine with a bevy of unique features, tailoring it for the eventual retail release. While making adjustments, the team focused on accentuating how their machine differed from others.
Besides being fun to type and say aloud, the Beat Thang differs in a few key ways, the most obvious being the device’s compact size. Beat Thang is approximately the width and length of a piece of printer paper, and can run wirelessly on a Lithium-Ion battery for up to 4 hours. At approximately 6 lbs., the device is designed to allow producers to sketch out their ideas while on-the-go.
Doubling as a 24 or 16 bit sampler, Beat Thang also features a chromatic layout to its backlit, velocity-sensitive pads, making it immensely easier to play chord progressions and melodies on than the standard industry model of a square pad bank. The device also boasts tremendous specs for music tech geeks: two slots for 32 GB SD cards, a USB connection, 2 headphone jacks, 256 MB stock RAM, Stereo Mic Line input with Phantom Power, MIDI I/O, Stereo output, loads of FX, a Foot Switch and more. Beat Thang can also Quantize and adjust Swing and Bar Length in real time.
“The user interface is also something we spent a lot of time on,” says Mitchell, “every button is valuable, we’ve ensured that the user experience is very clean and easy. We created something that allows you to be creative and expressive as soon as it’s out of the box.”
Beat Thang also comes with its own software, which allows the user to do everything that the Beat Thang can do in their favorite DAW.
But what is perhaps the machine’s most notable distinction from its competition is its enormous stock library of sounds and filters, all gleaned from live recordings, a feature that should also resonate most deeply with the SAE family, as most of the sounds were recorded by a team comprised of several SAE students and grads. The machine’s 3,000+ sounds are the most vivid, lifelike collection of free stock samples ever offered. Horns, strings, guitars, beat box and drums roar out of the Beat Thang with convincing authority not found in other stock libraries.
Mitchell, an ATP instructor at SAE Nashville since 2008, is appreciative for the Beat Thang’s success thus far, having watched the project go from an ambitious dream to an in-demand piece of music tech. “We won ‘Most Innovative New DJ Tool’ from DJ Zone Magazine,” recalls Reavis, “that was a proud moment.” Beat Thang is also popping up in several DJ and producer setups throughout the industry, including Dallas Austin (who now sponsors the device), DJ Bobby B (from the Kottonmouth Kings) and the legendary production duo, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It also got a recent workout at the A3C Hip-Hop festival, where it was showcased for its performance capabilities.
Online reviews have also been enthusiastic, praising the Beat Thang’s powerful sound library and its intuitive design. One review even praised the Beat Thang’s concise, clear and communicative manual, which is only 20 pages long (a rarity in the audio industry). Saying more with less … the type of thing for which the Beat Thang was specifically designed.
-words, pictures: Jesse Hagen
P.B. (Post-Blog): It’s also a lot of fun to sing the words “Beat Thang” in place of the title on Don Covay’s “Sweet Thang.” (sorry, we had to).