In the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that I began my review of the Zivix Jamstik harboring a great deal of trepidation. A lot of that sprang from what I projected that the limitations of the device would be; Jamstik is a MIDI-driven (that’s Musical Instrument Digital Interface, for those who are completely clueless) platform and, having grown up in the eighties, I was perfectly familiar with the synthetic, 8-bit sound that early incarnations of MIDI technology featured. In fact, the early examples of MIDI technology were precisely what inspired me to learn to play guitar and bass by negative example; I loved the sounds that the instruments made, but reviled the “copycat” forms which were launched by MIDI instruments, because they always sounded so mawkish and sterile.
Even with those preconceived notions deeply ingrained though, as I read through the Zivix website [note: having ready access to the internet is necessary to understand how Jamstik works because many of the tutorials and drivers required for the instrument are available for download via iTunes] and became acquainted with the technology, my hardline, MIDI-critical view began to soften and, when I heard the quality of the sound that the Jamstik offered, I found myself right into the spirit of the instrument and revelling in the possibilities it offers.
In the way of evaluating the unit and technology, it is true that Jamstik flaunts its “Version 1.0” stature in most every aspect of its design. Featuring just five frets, the instrument is clearly intended to be a learning device for young guitarists who are still learning how to play first position major chords, minor chords and suspended seventh chords; bar chords are possible but, with the shortness of the neck space in mind, trying to use the unit in such a capacity is fairly fruitless.
Even with that in mind, however, Jamstik is very functional as a learning tool; with the unit synched up to an iPhone via wifi, users have a very portable device which could theoretically be stored almost anywhere and be used easily at home, at school between classes, or at music lessons – the device is great in that regard. The catch in this particular case is that portability comes with the cost of a phone; users require an iPhone 5 at least (on which it’s possible to download GarageBand) because Jamstik is still a synthesizer and the strings are there only to offer a physical presence and impression of form – it’s impossible to tune them and, without the software platform, Jamstik sounds like nothing.
While the first and most obvious outlet for Jamstik is as a learning apparatus, those who are already able to play will find that the device does have aspects about it that they may find useful as well, like the unit’s faculty for composing demo tracks. It has already been well-established that the user-friendly nature of GarageBand makes the program particularly appealing (Tiny Masters Of Today is just one of the bands who have composed entire albums with it), but Jamstik’s compatibility with GarageBand on a Mac makes for a winning combination; Jamstik is programmed with shockingly believable (not at all like the synthetic sounds of yore) MIDI replicas of both electric and acoustic guitars as well as piano and keyboard sounds (including Wurltizer), bass (both standup and electric) and drums.
Now, while the drumming possibilities on Jamstik are very limited (the loops included in GarageBand are far more useful because they’re more metronomic and, let’s be honest, while playing with the beat is easy on a guitar, trying to play a beat on guitar isn’t), the piano, keyboard and bass sounds brim with possibilities and actually make creating such sounds easier.
First, with bass, Jamstik mimics the sound of many different types of instruments but requires only the amount of reach required to play guitar (anyone who learned to play both guitar and bass understands that reaching around the neck can be very difficult when one is first learning), and the sound is remarkably good (except on an iPhone – the bass on GarageBand sounds gooey and kind of formless when playing on a JamStik to an iPhone); this writer in particular was thrilled to hear how excellent the standup bass tone was.
Likewise, the piano sounds really good and true – armed with a few different piano sounds (grand, standup and several different electronic options) and believable tones to go with them (the reverb of the grand sounds staggeringly good), composers will find that, other than the obvious limitations (it sounds as good as a grand piano, but you’re still basically working with a small guitar’s worth of notes so trying to apply concert training is pointless), the piano option on Jamstik exceeds expectation and is a great way to both fill out a mix and add a bit of soul to a recording.
Taking all of the different points listed above into account (how easy the Jamstik is to play, the number of sounds it has at its disposal, its connectivity to a recording platform that is very, very user-friendly), there’s no question that the Zivix Jamstik is a solid and economical implement both for new players who are just learning to play and for home composers who are trying to put together demos but do not have a tremendous amount of money to drop on equipment or a lot of extra space in their homes to fill with musical instruments, but want to be able to create solid, full-band sounding music, either just for themselves or as sketches to show bandmates. That desire is well-filled by JamStik; Zivix definitely has a winner here.