A heads-up for set lists

Tuesday, 13 November 2018 11:12 am

Gigging drummers have a lot on their plate – set lists, song notes or even sheet music. And unlike other musicians who can hide notes at their feet on the floor, the options to date have been limited to pages on a music stand or, for the more tech-savvy, a tablet device attached to a cymbal stand.

Niche drum technology company Helensson, the team behind the ITM2 internal drum trigger, has come up with an innovative solution – projecting information through drums, onto the batter head.


What’s in the box

The HEADCASTER is an Android-powered mini data projector built into a custom rail system designed to clamp onto the reso head of any drum between 11” and 14”.

The kit is sold with a carry case and basic remote control.


Setting up

The HEADCASTER has two parallel rails ending in hooks. Installation is a simple matter of pulling the two ends apart and slipping the unit onto the bottom hoop and tightening a rubber band for tensioning.

The projector unit is battery-powered and needs to be charged using the supplied power adaptor.

The unit projects through the reso head (it can be also be used with concert toms without bottom heads) and onto the batter head, so it requires a clear bottom head and a translucent white head on top.The HEADCASTER does not work with mesh heads, as I found by testing it with arange of heads of different weaves and densities. With some heads, you can see vague shapes, but the projections are not clear enough for text legibility.

Despite its compact size, the projector is a fully functional Android device, so it’s like having another computer or tablet device.

There are a few controls on the device which allow you to sharpen the focus, adjust the brightness and make some other visual changes. The device is also wifi-enabled, so you can connect it to the Internet to download or stream content and install apps.


In action

The HEADCASTER is an Android device, so you’ll need some familiarity with the operating system and apps.

The developer recommends what I would call a passive approach to data. He suggests converting lyrics and set lists to PowerPoint, PDF or Word documents and using compatible apps to display them. Another suggested approach is converting text files to images and using one of the Android photo viewers.

Personally, I’m a big fan of OnSong, the powerful iOS music app which, according to its developers, “replaces the messof paper and binders with interactive chord charts and sheet music on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch”. Alas, there is no Android version – and I have not been able to find an equivalent app on the PlayStore.

I would describe OnSong as an “active solution” because it keeps the text alive and allows you to set and adjust tempos on the fly and make other changes in real time. It also connects to third-party devices like AirTurn controllers which allow you to advance to the next song with a tap of your drumstick or your foot.

While I wasn’t able to find an OnSong substitute (more about this later), I was able to project the Metronome app fromSoundbrenner with the HEADCASTER, creating a useful visible beat indicator connected to a set list and song library. 

The HEADCASTER has an estimated battery life of five hours, but it can run indefinitely on external power.


Getting the most out of the device

Before getting into software tweaks, it’s important to optimise the images projected. This can be done, firstly, by choosing the largest possible drum as the host. Obviously, the projected image is larger on bigger drums and I got a good, clear image on a 14”x14” floor tom.

Secondly, it’s a good idea to try different batter heads. You need something translucent enough to let through enough light to be able to read text, but something opaque enough to stop the glare. I had to rule out a thin single-ply white head because it was like looking into headlights, but at the other extreme, managed to get a fair image with an off-white coated Aquarian Modern Vintage II head (but only in a very darkroom).

You also need to be careful with your reso head: if there are any marks or scratches on the clear head, these can also affect the projector, leaving you with unsightly shadows or distortions.

Once you’re happy that you can see clearly, you can start thinking about content.

As mentioned, the recommended method for displaying lyrics and set lists is with Word, PPT, Acrobat or image apps. The data is easily loaded onto the removable SD card or can be downloaded and stored on the unit which has 8 GB of internal memory.

The developer points out that the HEADCASTER can be used to mirror iOS devices, but he advises against this: “It is not recommended to do this in a live situation because of the wifi requirements and the various untested combinations of available apps.” Of course, I ignored that advice and used the HEADCASTER’s Eshare app in conjunction with my iPad’s Screen Mirroring function to project OnSong successfully.

Unless you plan to project a static image like a set list for the whole gig, you may also want to explore options for “turning pages”. As the manual explains, by default, the HEADCASTER is controlled with the included hand-held remote. It’s not the easiest thing to use, especially when your hands are occupied with sticks. The manual notes that typically, after a music app is started, you would use an alternate way to “flip pages". This would normally be Bluetooth foot pedals such as those made by AirTurn. “Another really good way to control the HEADCASTER is to use a wireless track pad... These are inexpensive and work well.”


Bottom line

The concept is brilliant – using the valuable real estate on the drum heads for notes and information. It’s certainly a far cry from writing notes on the head or sticking pieces of paper to the kick drumand hoping you’ll be able to read them when the lights are on the lead singer!

The execution is also impressive. The developer has taken an off-the-shelf device and designed a custom rail attachment and mirror system that is effective and easy to use.

Well, easy to use if you’re familiar with Android! As a Mac/iOS user (like most people in the music business, I would suggest), it is a pity that I had to learn a new device and can’t easily access some of the apps which I commonly use. That said, it is possible to use screen mirroring to bypass the operating system and effectively use the HEADCASTER as a remote monitor for iOS apps.

Either way – if you’re adept at Android or manage to sidestep it by mirroring an iOS device, there’s a lot you can do with it. Not only can you use it as a substitute for your music scores and set notes, but you can also use it as a learning tool. For example, bring up a YouTube video and watch while you play. The HEADCASTER has onboard sound which you could monitor with headphones as you won’t be able to hear the audio above your acoustic drums.

Better still, try using this with drum tabs on Songsterr.com, where you can follow the notation in real time as the song plays through – and you don’t have to take your eyes off your kit!

Are there downsides? Sure, you can’t use it with all heads and this may require some compromise of visibility versus head performance. You may find yourself limited to thinner heads than you’re used to and, of course, clear heads are out of the question.

You can’t use this with electronic drums – because you can’t project onto mesh and also many e-drum designs require a large trigger assembly which would obscure the image anyway.

So, if you’re looking for a stealthy 21st century take on the old notes-scribbled-on-the-head, have some flexibility in your head selection and use a drum large enough to give you a decent-sized projection (I’d say 14” minimum), then this may be of interest.

And the cost: around US$500 including a case and remote. If you’re going to rely on the Android processor, you may also want to add a compact keyboard or trackpad. And you’ll probably also find yourself wanting better control, which can be achieved with something like an AirTurn device. You’ll also need a bit of patience as the HEADCASTER is currently only available as a custom build and that can take up to six weeks (plus shipping from the US).