A scant four years ago, music titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band were a dominant force in gaming. And while musicians the world over derided the games and their players for somehow cheapening the sacred rite of the guitar solo, they managed to teach an entire generation of gamers that music could (and likely should) be a multi-sensory experience. The hum of an amp, the shifting polygons of an on-screen avatar and even the glossy feel of the fret buttons added something to the traditional aesthetic of the songs themselves that could be experienced by fans with no traditional musical training. But these games disappeared just as quickly as they came to prominence, an unfortunate casualty of sequel-itis.
My children were a bit too young to get into the whole rhythm game phenomenon, and, though there is still a pile of plastic guitars and turntables in the corner of the den, they just don’t seem to have the drawing power they did back in their heyday. For my kids, music play has taken a new name, and we call it Paper Jamz.
Last Christmas some well-meaning relative gave my son an ultra-thin sliver of cardboard and plastic styled to look like a classic Flying V. I didn’t think much of the device at first, until I caught my boy singing along with The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Though he didn’t know the song-proper – the original hit by the original artist, as those of us of a certain age might say – he knew lyrics. He knew the melody. He knew the hook. Moreover, he knew he liked it.
Even more amazingly, he associated this song, along with hits from Van Halen and Blue Oyster Cult, not with solitary hours spent listening to an iPod or the occasional rush hour classic rock radio block, but with active play. I still catch him sometimes, windmilling in his room to a captive audience of stuffed animals and Transformers, rocking the hell out on a digital toy guitar for his own amusement.
This is apparently not an unusual occurrence, as WowWee’s Paper Jamz series continues to carve out impressive shelf space at my local big-box. They’ve even expanded the line with a new offering they call Paper Jamz Pro. There are two main differences between this new Pro series and the older line. The first is that the toys are no longer limited to the three pre-loaded songs that defined the early products. The second is that WowWee has now added an additional option for aspiring vocalists.
Like the guitars that are the brand’s namesake, the Paper Jamz Pro microphone is actually made primarily out of plastic. The handheld mic itself plugs into a provided mini speaker box (with an oh-so handy belt clip) via a traditional 3.5 mm input, and it also includes a similar headphone jack that doubles as a line-out for Paper Jamz amplifiers.
Each unit comes with a pair of preprogrammed tracks that showcase the toys functionality. A trio of buttons allow for easy song selection – yes, you can load three songs on the device thanks to drag-and-drop USB functionality using a dedicated Paper Jamz application – and additional effects buttons help kick performance/play up another notch.
The Paper Jamz mic lets singers add vibrato and chorus to vocals, as well as auto-tune their output using the branded “Perfect Pitch” correction. This is by far the device’s most impressive feature, and I honestly can’t recall a single time that my children have played with the mic and not extensively used this function. When accompanied with the system’s “Melody Match” feature the microphone also tweaks vocals to match the musical rhythm of the song in question.
There’s even an option to add auto-harmony. When coupled with the auto-tune this gives a richer tone to the processed vocals, and when combined with additional effects it can lead to some humorously modulated results. Imagine if Decepticon mainstay Soundwave was actually a robotic chipmunk… Yeah, like that. Auto mode adjusts vocal effects on-the-fly to match those of the original track, but much of the fun comes from noodling with the settings to create your own over-the-top sound.
Due to what I imagine were licensing concerns, the microphone’s pre-loaded songs aren’t exactly platinum hits, so you’ll likely want to dump those first thing in favor of importing your own music. The Paper Jamz Pro site includes a fairly robust list of “Certified Compatible” tracks for use with these new generation toys, but the kids and I have noticed little difference between the way the device handles these songs and other fare from the family’s extensive music collection. It’s worth noting, however, that said list is packed with both some pleasant surprises (like Blur’s “Girls and Boys” and U2′s “New Year’s Day”) and some truly confounding choices (Rihanna’s “S&M” and Pink’s “F**kin’ Perfect” come instantly to mind.)
This leads me to wonder who exactly the target audience is for this new line. Perhaps, though Paper Jamz is already an established tween brand, the folks at WowWee are hoping to draw in an older crowd due to the device’s outright novelty.
The one thing I’m sure of, however, is that the toy is a blast! The clip-on mini amplifier is tinny and prone to extravagant feedback if the mic’s too close, and no one’s going to mistake the on-board auto-tune for Pro Tools studio magic, but it truly represents an enjoyable intersection of play and performance.
The Paper Jamz Pro Series microphone should be available at Walmart stores in early July, with a roll-out to additional retailers shortly thereafter. At under $30 it’s a music toy for the whole family that won’t break the bank. Though it may make the concept of singing along with the radio into a hairbrush seem positively antiquated.
WIRED: solid build quality, nice selection of vocal effects, robust MP3 and M4A support, free and intuitive application for loading custom tracks
TIRED: only holds three songs at a time, list of Certified Compatible tracks is slightly surreal, feedback issues
Review materials provided by: WowWee