Artiphon are the makers of INSTRUMENT 1, a musical device that allows you to play any instrument, style, and sound. After seven different prototypes, INSTRUMENT 1 launched on Kickstarter, raising $1,319,672 to become the most highly funded music campaign on the platform. We sat down with Founder and CEO Mike Butera to discuss the future of music.
What is Artiphon?
We are a technology startup focused on musical creativity and empowering people to make music in their everyday lives. For the past four years we have been developing an instrument, called INSTRUMENT 1, that you can play however you want. It changes the way we think about musical instruments, from being singular to being plural. We take high technology and put it into a streamlined interface that is really intuitive for people, regardless of their skill. Our goal is to grow the number of people who are playing music in their everyday lives.
There are a lot of digital instruments out there that keep all the same features as traditional analogue forms. There are a few companies doing this, and often it’s about learning the analogue instrument. To use gTar as an example: it works from this idea that you’ve tried to learn the guitar fretboard, but that’s hard, so let’s make it easier through technology.
We take a different approach. We think music is crazy and will always be as wild and difficult or as simple as you want it to be. We’re not trying to make music any simpler; we’re trying to take new technologies and make the technology simpler for people but more powerful at the same time. It’s not as much about recreating the experience of any single instrument; it’s about providing a new way of thinking about instruments that allows them to become more universal.
What are the instruments of the future going to be?
Like ours. We’re in a shift right now with music-making. When I was doing my PhD dissertation, I looked at the ways people interact with sound, listen to sound, and make sound in their everyday lives. Most people still think very literally about how sound is made: listening to music, they hear what sounds like a piano, so they think it’s a piano being played. They don’t understand that most of the piano sounds they now hear are actually not pianos anymore, they’re digital.
A smaller portion of people know that almost every single piece of music you listen to now has been either created or modified digitally. The line between producers and musicians is blurring, and this idea that you can refer back to the true, authentic sound of the instrument isn’t as much a part of our music-making as it used to be, because now we can make any sound imaginable.
Once we start taking for granted that you can make any sound possible, we get to ask new questions. How do you want to access and interact with sound? Artiphon’s tagline is “touch sound.” It’s all about that interface between your intention and the sound you want to make. What do you want to hold? How do you want to move? What gestures do you want to make? And what kind of complexity do you want in that process? Do you want full control, or do you want it to be one-touch simple?
That’s part of the reason we’ve created this instrument that lets you scale between all those possibilities. More generally, I think what we’re doing is inevitable. GarageBand is a great example of giving people the ability to make music in a pretty simple way, while also taking folks behind the curtain to see the way that really all music is produced right now. Over the next five years, between changes in musical style and awareness about how music is produced, people will demand new things from instruments.
A lot of kids now aren’t thinking about isolated instruments. They want to make that sound on their favorite song. They’re not thinking of that as a guitar through a fuzz pedal in a certain amp. If they can go into an app and create that sound, it levels the playing field a bit, but they might be limited by the touch screen of their phone or iPad. That’s what we’re trying to address.
Is it about democratizing sound?
Totally. And democratizing access to sound. We aren’t the ones democratizing sound—that’s been going on for a few decades now with digital sound production and sampling. We’re focused on democratizing access to it and letting people choose their own ways of interacting with it that don’t just correspond to traditional forms.
Twenty years ago, the only way to make a really convincing violin sound was to play the violin. Now, with sample libraries and advanced synthesis, you can make a very convincing sound through a keyboard. But you have to go through all these finger gymnastics to try to replicate it, even to produce the most simple violin lines, which is what most producers are doing.
What happens when we make an interface that lets people touch it in a way that’s intuitive and also familiar for them, so that it has the same embodiment and tactility that people expect from making music the hands-on way?
How did you come up with INSTRUMENT 1?
Four-and-a-half years ago I was finishing my PhD. I’d decided I would take a break from being a full-time academic. I’d moved back to Nashville, I was touring around the country with a band and also consulting as a consumer electronics designer. I was in China making speakers and accessories and coming up with all these fun ideas for other people. Then I decided I wanted to build something of my own.
I started thinking about musical instruments because I play a lot of instruments and, to me, the idea of “the musical instrument” is generic. It’s about the sound and the music you make, not the tool you use, especially with apps because apps let you create any sound. But apps are generally tied to the computing device they’re being played on.
I thought, “If an app like GarageBand can let you switch between a bass and a keyboard and a synthesizer with just one swipe, why can’t we make hardware with that same universality? Why can’t you can hold it and play it with your eyes closed so you don’t have to stare at it?”
I was at a friend’s house and we wanted to sing some songs and play some music after dinner, but we didn’t have any instruments. I took out my phone and opened up one of these apps and started strumming on the screen. It was pretty silly, but I had a realization that we could get what we wanted from that app at that time, which was casual music-making. For most people most of the time, they just want to make music. They don’t want the expectations that traditional instruments and the studio build up.
Most people I know who are normal or even amazing musicians don’t think of themselves as musicians. They think they’re not good enough because we’ve built up this idea that becoming a musician takes 10,000 hours of practice. Only then are you good enough to say, “I’m a musician, and yes, I can play music for you.”
I was trying to think through what it would take to break that cultural association of mastery with music. Apps are one way; simplifying and universalizing the interface is another. A third way is to make smarter instruments—instruments you can make your own rather than you conforming to the physics of sound or what someone else determined was the right way to play. You can play it your own way.
That was in very early 2011. I’ve worked with a bunch of people over the years and now we have a team that’s growing quickly who really believe in this vision. We’re seven prototype stages into the process. It’s gone through a lot of testing with musicians on the road and in studios and with everyday people and kids.
What has been your biggest prototyping and design hurdle?
There were two. My original plan was to have an iPhone dock, but then I realized that was going to limit us in terms of form factors, and at that point Apple was also making the switch from 30-pin cable to lightning cable. That’s when I realized the technologies we connect with are going to change all the time, and our development cycle is longer, especially because of this musical requirement.
The bigger issue was pressure sensitivity. We are the first string-like musical instrument that’s fully digital and fully pressure-sensitive that you can play without frets. You can turn the frets on and off. When we were using buttons, which are just binary on/off switches—like a keyboard or a drum pad—we found that people weren’t as expressive. It wasn’t just the pros who felt limited—it was anybody who tried it. We needed it to be more sensitive than any of the technology available to us. To achieve that, we had to design that interface on our own.
That has taken a really long time. It’s great because it’s fully customized to what we need. You can pick this up and play it like an upright bass.
We threw this in the hands of a lot of people who would never pick up a digital instrument, and they closed their eyes and played with all the muscle memory they already had. That was exactly the point. But to get there took years of development. If there had been off-the-shelf components to do that, we could have really cut down on prototyping, but we learned a lot through the process of doing that ourselves.
What advice would you give somebody just starting out as an entrepreneur?
I think you have to make a choice between whether you are going to throw together existing technology and get to market faster—which is wonderful—or if you are really in this for the long haul with custom hardware development.
Like I said, our biggest struggle was developing our proprietary sensor interface. For many smart objects, being “smart” often means throwing a Bluetooth chip into something you would never expect it to be in. The biggest hurdle isn’t manufacturing, it’s the user experience and the software and the cloud-connected nature of it.
To me, that’s sort of “hardware lite.” It’s great because it’s really fast-moving and we’re seeing a lot of it and it’s making our lives better. I wish we could do that. But what we decided to do took years because we decided to full-on develop everything from the ground up. It was a new instrument form factor; it was new interfaces; it was new types of connections with devices; and of course, new firmware, new software and apps on top of that.
That’s quite a lot to tackle. My vision for Artiphon is that all these things are so deeply integrated that it requires that full stack of development. But it’s been five years from idea to market, and five years is far too long for most people’s ideas. They need to get to market faster. Anytime you can collaborate or partner with other companies with skillsets or technologies that would fit well with yours, that would probably be better. I’m glad we did it this way, but it’s about knowing whether you are building a whole new platform and when you have to get to market.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve received?
I like this question, because there are so many good intentions. We have a great group of investors and advisers and thousands of people around the world who have offered their advice, because people are so passionate about music and everyone has their own way of thinking about it.
On the product-development side, we get a lot of feedback, which we love and have definitely taken into account the whole way through. But because some people are gearheads and some people are just in it for the flow of music-making, there are very different ideas about what INSTRUMENT 1 should do. Some people say, “It should have five knobs.” Other people say, “No, I don’t want any knobs. Just make it make sound right now.” If we had listened to those different groups all at once, we would end up with a Frankenstein instrument.
On the business side, the advice we had to resist was to release the product to market too early. We’ve been through seven prototype phases so far, and in each of those, the instruments worked. They were all working prototypes. As soon as we made a new prototype we’d learn what worked and what didn’t. All this time, investors and retailers were saying, “Okay, great, you’ve done it! Just launch that.”
If I had taken that advice and said, “This product is good enough,” looking back, it wouldn’t have been. We would have had to make a lot of compromises and learned from them afterward. It’s true that hardware is never “done”—you still have to launch something. But if you know yourself that it’s not good enough, if the feedback you’re getting is that everyone has this certain struggle, you’ve got to stick with your principles and know your own thresholds.
You worked on this for four-and-a-half years before you launched on Kickstarter. Why was Kickstarter the right move?
We could have done crowdfunding prior to that, but we didn’t feel confident that we could deliver on the promise. We didn’t want to use Kickstarter as development funding, which is a mistake we’ve seen other people do. We had to reach a certain stage of development. We waited until we were confident we could deliver this.
We had been talking with a lot of investors who said, “I want this but I don’t know if other people will, so prove it. Go sell 1,000 on Kickstarter.” We had already been looking at crowdfunding because it’s wonderful, so we said, “Let’s stop doing this just for the VCs or other investors, and let’s get out there with our earliest adopters.” We set our target to the minimum it would have taken to get this in a few hundred people’s hands and see where that led.
The great thing about Kickstarter is you have this trust in the platform because of their track record. And when we talked with them, it was really clear that we were aligned in our principles. We’re making this for people, not for us. Kickstarter calls it being “backer-friendly” and it’s really the same idea. It was great to get right into that conversation.
Right now on Kickstarter we’re the most-funded musical instrument by far, and that was just in 40 days, which is amazing. It’s uncharted territory. We went straight to the people we were making it for, and got that global response. This was all grassroots. Prior to that, we didn’t do a big campaign. Day one of the Kickstarter launch was the first time that really anybody knew we were even going to do this. It was a wild ride. It was really fun.
We set a target delivery date of January 2016 because, especially for musical instruments, the quality is so paramount. There can’t be one day when it doesn’t work, because that one day you might be on stage or in the studio or playing with friends. It has to be rock solid. We didn’t want to risk using Kickstarter as a beta test for the real product launch. This is the real deal.
I’m really glad that we’re now in this conversation with 3,500 backers, all of whom really believe in this vision. The inspirational stories we get are incredible. We’re hearing about so many applications, from music therapy to education, people with disabilities, all the way to major bands saying this will totally change the way they work in the studio and write songs. It shows the full spectrum shift that we’re going for. We want to make this a conversation around music-making that is broader than just a product launch.
What additional challenges do you face?
Right now, there are so many different ways to scale our operations to enable manufacturing, sales, marketing, retail distribution, further product development. So many different business models, and all the pieces—investment; team; traction; product/market fit—all have to fit together at the same time. I think the biggest challenge is to make some decisions in the midst of the other unknowns, to take that risk. Which is also really the best part, when it all works and when you can learn from it.