Review: Follow-me LED learning with the Populele smart uke
After a successful run on Indiegogo earlier this year, PopuBand Music's smart ukulele is now on general sale. Combining app-based smarts with follow-me LED lighting, the company is promising students of the uke that they'll be strumming their first song within 15 minutes. New Atlas has spent the last few weeks getting our four-string groove on.
Out of the box, the Populele looks sturdy and well made, rocking maple construction with a spruce top and Aquila nylon strings. It's been designed to make learning to play just like playing a console game – a sort of Guitar Hero for the ukulele, so to speak. Though this system makes use of a real instrument and not some plastic button-packed imitation.
Unlike the FretX LED learning sleeve for guitar, the 72 single color LEDs on the Populele are embedded in the ABS plastic fingerboard of the neck, which means the area between the frets is completely flat. The integrated lighting strip is wired (inside the hollow body) to a Bluetooth and battery module. The battery is reported to last around 10 hours per charge, which we found to be about right.
Off to a rocky start
The Polulele learning system is made up of two parts, the smart ukulele and a mobile app for iOS and Android. According to the company's website, the Populele Android app is compatible with any smartphone or tablet running version 4.3 of the operating system or above. But this didn't prove to be the case for us.
We tried to download the app from the Play Store on two tablets and one smartphone, between them running Android 4.4, 7 and 6. Each time we were prevented from downloading and installing by incompatibility messages. PopuBand told us that the app is, in fact, compatible with "most, but not all, Android devices" and is dependent on the smartphone or tablet meeting its (unpublished) minimum hardware specs.
We were sent an installation package by email, which we side-loaded onto our devices and all worked fine from that point on. Our advice – before you commit to buying a Populele, contact the company and ask if your Android smart device will definitely work with the app. Otherwise you may have to buy a higher spec smartphone or tablet before you can start learning as the Populele needs the companion app for its smarts, essentially becoming a normal, "dumb" uke without it.
One downside to being sent an installation package, though, was that when app updates became available – which happens quite frequently – our "low spec devices" were still shown as not compatible and the updates were not be applied.
Once up and running, the app does have a few quirks of note. The Populele player will need to be online to use the app, which can restrict where you are able to play and learn. Unless you want to eat up your mobile data when visiting a friend's house to show off your new-found strumming skills, for example, then you'll need to bug them for home network IDs and passwords. The app also requires login every time it's used, which is a bit annoying. And it requires access to and control of a whole bunch of services and features, including location, contacts, phone and media.
The app registers populele strum sounds via the integrated microphone of the paired smartphone or tablet, which means that playing in a quiet room is pretty much essential. That said, the accuracy and lack of latency did impress. The app will even suggest a retune if the system picks up some out of pitch playing.
Let the games begin
Once logged in and paired, the app runs a video introduction and invites players to launch into gaming mode. These games seem to be aimed at younger players, with a bouncing, happy, playful anime-like bird acting as a guide. Each game has one or two video lessons to walk players through new finger positions, actually showing which fingers to use for a chord, or covering music theory and strumming techniques. Like Guitar Hero, players need to hit a target at the appropriate point, in this case by strumming the correct chord when a balloon carrying a chord shape above a scrolling line hits a target.
Hits and misses are captured for a summary total at the end. Students can learn at their own pace and games can be replayed as many times as needed to achieve a percentage score great enough to unlock the next game. There are 11 games in all, which teach chord shapes and strumming techniques and provide the necessary skillset to move into the full song arsenal.
Students needing to brush up on particular chords can head to the Chords Library at any time to practice 11 individual chords away from the game environment. Clicking on the chord icon onscreen will result in the appropriate LED pattern appearing on the neck.
Despite the child-oriented vibe, as someone who isn't new to stringed instruments but is new to the ukulele, I found the game section and video tutorial combination very useful, and was able to hit the targets, play along in tempo and move through the first few games within half an hour of pairing up for the first time.
Getting more serious
Once the basics are under the belt, students can move to the song library for more serious follow-the-lights fun. The available song library seems pretty well stocked, covering everything from classic soul to modern pop. And the layout is less child-focused. The bubbly animated helpers are replaced with a "let's get down to business" layout.
The start screen for each song shows the chords to be used and the strumming action needed for the song. Learners get the chance to practice before attempting real-time play along and, as with the games, the LEDs show chord shapes and changes on the neck as the backing track plays through the tablet's speakers. This time around, the app doesn't register strum sounds while playing along, but it will recognize chord sounds when in practice mode. As such, there are no minimum skill level to be reached and no locked songs – any song can be accessed from the get go.
Once the live jam session has started, the player just follows the prompts onscreen for chord shapes and strumming patterns, or can watch the neck for chord pattern changes while trying to remember whether it's an up/down/up strum or down/down/up and so on. After a few dry runs, and numerous strum fluffs we managed to nail Stand By Me within about 10 minutes, and have been playing it unaided ever since.
The more songs we learned, the more we wanted to learn. A testament to the system's success? Well, learning a new instrument can be tough going at the beginning, so much so that many fall at the first hurdle. The games here inched through what we needed to know to get by, and gently built up the skills needed to play actual songs. It's been a rewarding experience and we're improving all the time, encouraged by early success and later cemented by recognizable renditions of songs we knew.
None of the chords learned ventured beyond the fourth fret, so why did PopuBand integrate LEDs at every fret position along the neck? The answer becomes clear when entering the Dazzle mode, which allows a player to activate neck-long sound responsive light shows. There's a choice of two effect types built in, or custom patterns can be created.
The bottom line
Mobile device compatibility issues aside (and again, we advise readers to check with the company for Android smartphone/tablet compatibility before buying), we found the Populele experience to be pretty useful and, most importantly, enjoyable.
The games are set out to walk beginners through playing and music theory basics, and by the time a student has nailed the eleventh, and final, game, tackling the 80 or so songs from the library should be relatively straightforward and present no fresh challenges.
The pitch detection was spot on in a quiet room, but not so hot when there was a lot of background noise. The songs in the library cover a number of genres and there should be at least a few that you know and want to play along with.
The combination of app-led learning and neck-based follow-me lighting got us playing a new instrument in minutes, and helped us along to a level where we could play a few tunes in a couple of hours.
PopuBand Music says that the Populele is aimed at folks without a lot of time or money, but we feel the price of entry into the smart learning space is rather steep, even bordering on luxury. It carries a recommended retail of US$249, though is available for a discounted price of $169 at the time of writing.
By comparison, a passable acoustic uke can be had for less than $30 and an electric model could be yours for a few dollars more. Other than internet charges, which you'd need to pay for with the Populele anyway, learning from YouTube videos is free. But you won't get the feedback, gamified encouragement or follow-me LED action on the neck.
The Populele box includes the uke itself, two picks (though the video encourages players to use an index finger for strumming), a capo, a fresh set of strings, a USB charging cable and an odd open-topped soft carry case.