Is the world ready for a smart dulcimer?
This blog summarizes my initial impressions of the installation and use of the HyVibe System in a special version of my 3D printed/wood hybrid dulcimers. As far as I know this is the first application of “smart” technology in a mountain dulcimer. While there are many YouTube videos of guitars with the HyVibe System, most are at the Quick Use Guide level and don’t reveal the system’s full capabilities. I will attempt to dive a bit deeper to give a more comprehensive look at how this amazing system can transform a musician’s relationship with their dulcimer. The depth and complexity of the system makes it impractical to provide an all encompassing review, but this should give you a basic understanding of how it functions.
Per the user manual “The HyVibe System is a sound amplifying device that uses a vibration control system composed of actuators, a high-speed processor, and a Bluetooth module to turn acoustic instruments into their own amplifiers, connected speakers, recorders, loopers, and multi-effect processors”. The HyVibe System is controlled by an OLED screen, three buttons, a volume knob and an effects slider. After a few minutes of use they become pretty intuitive to use and they provide all the control necessary, especially since the complicated adjustments are performed on the mobil app that syncs with the system via Bluetooth.
An important concept to grasp is that there are no speakers involved. Typically, the system uses two actuators (essentially speakers without the cone), which attach to the soundboard and turn it into a speaker. In the case of my dulcimers, I attached one to the free floating soundboard and the other to the inner of the double backs. The fact that there are two free floating surfaces available makes my instruments uniquely suited to this application. Since the system was developed for use in guitars, I had some concerns about how well it would adapt for use in a dulcimer, which has much less volume and a much smaller soundboard. These concerns turned out to be unfounded. The designers built in numerous features that accommodate any differences. When you first use the device, you perform a sweep of the frequency spectrum that calibrates the instrument to to the system by simply pushing a button. In addition, you can adjust the gain of the pickup to set an overall level. As you progress to setting up various effects, these also have the capability of having the overall gain set to the user’s desired level. If unwanted feedback is encountered after adjusting these levels you can create a notch filter to eliminate harmonics that a are specific to your instrument. As if all that wasn’t enough control, each effect has a “Sustain Killer” that can be activated through the mobil app. I found that I didn’t need to resort to the notch filter to keep the system from overdriving.
The ability to set the gain on the pickup came in useful when I swapped out the supplied under saddle piezo pickup for a custom magnetic one on the steel string version of my dulcimers. For the nylon string dulcimers, the standard pickup worked fine. Not all preamps work this seamlessly going between the two types of pickups.
After the initial setup, when you turn the system on you will be at “tuner” function, which is easy to use and very accurate. From this point, you progress to the other major functions like the “effects”.
Most of the online reviews of the HyVibe System do not stress that what makes the effects so powerful. They demonstrate adding sustain or distortion and pretty much leave it there. To get the real value out of the system you need to use the mobile app to shape and layer the effects to achieve your desired sound. To start, you can use the equalizer screen to establish the desired base sound for your dulcimer. The beauty of the HyVibe is that you can build layers of effects starting with your equalized base point, then adding additional effects on top. The result of this approach is that you have infinite possibilities to explore. In all, there are a dozen effects that can be combined in this fashion. Still want more control? Well with the app you can delve into each effect and play with up to six additional parameters that affect the sound. You even get to select which of the parameters is controlled by the slider on the dulcimer’s control panel. Suffice it to say, the musician has a very high degree of control over their sound.
Now on to the really fun part- recording and looping. The system can record whatever you play from controls on either the control panel or the app. Want to hear what you really sound like? Record your performance and play it back so you can analyze it. The sound you hear will be an exact duplication of your performance. It’s your dulcimer playing without you. A little spooky really. To really up your game, set up the metronome for the time signature and BPM you want to play and see if you can keep up. Now that you have the metronome set up, you are ready to engage the looper and lay down a track. If that went went well, you have three more tracks you can overdub on top of it. There so many ways to use the overdubbing: play a duet with yourself, lay down a bass line or add a harmony part. And just a reminder here, you are doing all of this with no additional gear - not even a cable! If you have the stamina, you have enough rechargeable battery life to keep you going for around 10 hours.
You can also use your dulcimer as a Bluetooth speaker. Send it a music file from your phone, select the speaker function on the dulcimer's control and you have music on he go. If you want, you can play along. I haven't tried recording in this mode so I am not sure what the result would be.
You have several ways to connect to the world via cable. There is a USB C port for charging and file transfer. In addition, there is a 1/4” jack output to connect to an amp and an input jack that can be used with the output jack to run an fx pedal or sound card. If you want to remain wireless, the system will sync with a Bluetooth MIDI controller so that you can control loops and effects with your feet. Both two switch and four switch controllers are available.
An interesting side note is the fact that through the use of the HyVibe System I was able to close the gap on the sound difference between my 3D printed/wood hybrid dulcimer and my all wood one. That is not to say that one is superior to the other, just that they are slightly different and that that difference could be significantly reduced through the sound shaping abilities of the HyVibe.
In summary, after a few days with the new Stephens Lutherie Smart Dulcimer I am convinced that it is more than just a gimmick. If a luthier’s job is to put tools into the hands of musicians, this is the Swiss Army Knife of dulcimers. Some will have no practical use for the technology. Others have already arrived at the functionality through the use of a collection of gear and that is fine. But for some, the smart dulcimer will open up a new path to creativity and that was my goal when I started this project four months ago.