The metallic-green MadPlayer (6.7 by 3.9 by 1.4 inches; 6.9 ounces with two AA batteries installed) sits comfortably in two hands like a portable video game console. A 2.2-inch, backlit, monochrome LCD occupies the center, surrounded by a ring of buttons. To the left is a directional pad, as well as the volume control, power, and save/edit buttons. On the right are buttons for EQ and pitch. We give the layout high marks; the controls fall right under your fingers.
Figuring out what the buttons do, however, is not easy. For instance, the Stop button can halt a song in some modes, act as a Mute button in others, and--when held down--return you to the previous screen. You'll need to page through the manual just to play an MP3 file or to listen to the radio. Once you decode the interface design, it starts to get easier, but even after studying the manual in-depth, we were occasionally baffled by the MadPlayer's myriad of features.
Other than the player itself, the package includes a 32MB SmartMedia card and headphones that sport an integrated microphone for recording your own rhymes. There's also a mike-in jack if you prefer using your own equipment.
While the MadPlayer can play MP3s, its core feature is the e-DJ mode, which lets you make your own music in any of 21 styles, from hip-hop to house to drum and bass, although rock is strangely absent. Some styles, particularly bossa, new age, and ballad, are unfortunate sonic reminders of cheap '80s-era keyboards, but the more popular genres sound convincing.
Here's how it works: To begin the composition, MadPlayer uses preprogrammed algorithms to compose a unique and appropriate drum loop, bass line, and other musical material. The various components of the song are arranged on a "highway" on the LCD. If the drums aren't to your liking, you can select its "lane" and have the player compose alternate loops. Once you have a preferable drum pattern, you can move on to bass lines, leads, backing riffs, and the rest.
With the elements assembled, you save a snapshot of the song as a MAD file, then arrange the song by turning elements on and off, changing volume and pitch, adding downloaded samples, or recording your own voice with the headphone mike to create vocal samples. Finally, connect the player to your computer (Windows 9x/Me/XP/2000/NT or Mac OS 9/X) with the included USB cable to record the final composition digitally as a WAV file that's suitable for burning to audio CD, encoding to MP3, or uploading to MadWaves.com.
To augment the built-in library of MIDI sounds, you can fill the MadPlayer with downloaded sample files (MadWaves provides 550 instruments and more than 800 samples), homemade stylings, or samples from on-the-fly radio recordings or any MP3/WMA song on the device's included 32MB SmartMedia card.
When you want to just sit back and listen to rather than make music, the MadPlayer provides the aforementioned FM radio and playback of MP3s, WMAs, and newly created MAD files. The radio stores up to 40 presets, and the digital music player is acceptable. But in order to access either feature, you have to press lots of buttons.
The included 32MB SmartMedia card gives you quite a bit of room for MadSongs, MIDI files, samples, and other data needed to make music with the gadget, as they take up only a few kilobytes per song. However, if you plan to use the MadPlayer as an MP3 player, you'll definitely want to upgrade to a higher-capacity card (the maximum supported is 128MB).
Overall, we came away quite impressed with the music we created using the MadPlayer, considering its price and portability. And the quality of the autogenerated loops far surpassed our expectations. But you can have only one bass line playing at one time and are limited to the same eight "lanes" of musical elements. The device is already fairly complex, so perhaps there's wisdom in these restrictions. If you're looking for something more powerful, try Reason, although, as desktop software, it obviously doesn't offer the convenient portability of the MadPlayer.
The audio from the player's headphones is a little noisy, which is fine when composing on the train but more noticeable at home. But when we transferred songs onto a computer, they sounded much cleaner. With our higher-quality test headphones, sound quality also increased considerably. As for the FM tuner, it pulled in fair reception in our tests.
A pair of rechargeable AA batteries provides power, but they don't last long; we got about a day and half of intermittent use on a charge.