With the proliferation of modules, the phrase “Eurorack bubble” has been floating around for a while. But now it appears to be translating into falling prices.
The basic problem is this: more demand means more interest, which translates into more manufacturers, and more production. So far, so good. Then, more distributors pick up the goods – not just boutique operators like Schneider, but also bigger chains.
Where’s the problem? With too many modules out there in the marketplace, and more big retailers, it’s easier for the big retailers to start to squeeze manufacturers on price. Plus, the more modules out in the world, the greater the supply of used modules.
Andreas Schneider has chosen to weigh in on the issue personally. You can read his statement in German:
There’s actually a lot there – though the banner revelation is seeing the cost of new modules suddenly plummet by 30%:
You asked for it: Due to the increased demand for Eurorack modules in Europe, even the large retailers for musical instruments are now filling the last corners of their warehouses and buying complete production runs from manufacturers and everything else they can get. Some manufacturers might be happy about this, but the flooding of the market already leads to a significant drop in prices here and there, some modules are already available with a 30% discount on the original calculated price and yet were still quite hot the other day!
As SchneidersLaden we have decided to go along with this development and of course offer corresponding products for the same price to our customers, although most of them have already bought them when the goods were still fresh and crisp! We’re almost a little sorry about that, but hopefully the hits are already produced and the music career is up and running? Nevertheless, sorry – but the decision for this way lies with the manufacturer and was not our recommendation!
By the way… we don’t advertise with moneyback-warranty… we’ve always practiced it. But please: get advice first, then buy – like in the good old days. Because it’s better to talk to your specialist retailer – we know what we are selling. And by the way: We do free shipping throughout Europe and there are Thursdays on that we are in the shop until nine o’clock in the evening …and real CHAOS serves creativity.
That had to be said – end of commercial break.
Okay, so some different messages. To manufacturers, with whom Schneider seems to place a lot of the blame, the message is to avoid glutting the market by selling so many units that then they lose their price margin. (That seems good advice.) There’s also a “dance with the one that brung you” attitude here, but that’s probably fair, as well.
To buyers, work with specialists, and please research what you buy so you don’t shoulder retailers and manufacturers with lots of returns. That seems good advice, too.
(Hope I’ve paraphrased that fairly.)
It does seem there’s a looming problem beyond just what’s here, though. For the community to continue to expand, it will have to find more new markets. It does seem some saturation point is inevitable, and that could mean a shakeout of some manufacturers – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The used market should also be a worry, though on the other hand, some people do always seem to buy new.
I’d echo what the two posts here say, which is the synth maker world will likely be healthy if manufacturers and consumers do some research and support one another.
Before anyone predicts the sky is falling, I’ve had a number of conversations with modular makers. Those with some experience seem to be doing just fine, even if some have expressed concern about the larger market and smaller and newer makers. That is, those with some marketing experience and unique products still see growth – but that growth may not translate to greener manufacturers who are trying to cram into what is becoming a crowded field.
Industries like automative (and motorcycles) may be getting the attention, but music gear and even Eurorack could feel the impact of trade restrictions in the United States.
This is CDM, not the Economist, so let’s back up and review the issue but stick to the impact on makers of synthesizers, guitar pedals, and the like.
First, it’s important to note that for now, this is all talk – a threat by the Trump Administration meant to provoke rival China. Specifically, we’re talking about a the Trump Administration threat last week to impose stiff import tariffs on $200 billion in goods produced in China. But even the talk is relevant, as tensions between the superpowers can turn a threat into reality – especially if they cause the negotiations to fail.
Bloomberg immediately speculated that electronics could be hit hard. The result could be higher prices for consumers of those goods in the USA – presumably including some Chinese-made electronic music gear. CDM readers from South America, for instance, can attest to this reality – ask someone from Brazil, for instance, how expensive it is to get a popular music controller or mixer. Those tariffs hit the bottom-line cost of goods, so the penalty is passed on to the consumer, not necessarily the manufacturer (though more on that in a moment).
Then things got more specific – and interesting. The US Trade Representative (USTR) – essentially the office that both develops the President’s trade policy and represents the US on behalf of the Administration – published a list of just which Chinese goods it had in mind.
According to the USTR, this exhaustive list of products is selected based on goods that “benefit from Chinese industrial policies, including Made in China 2025.” (That in itself is a pretty striking statement – even in a western country like the USA, it’s hard to imagine that industries don’t benefit from government policies.) Then, from that list, the USTR claim they’ve removed products that would disrupt the US economy.
And then the whole lot of these products gets a proposed 25% increase in tariffs – on top of what’s already there.
The whole process of identifying this list is based on public hearings and comment. So if you’re a US citizen, you can actually participate in a public comment process if these tariffs would impact you.
And then you get into the list. The way the global trading system works is, you have a set of codes that describe specific categories of goods, to an absurd level of detail. Here, you have pages of particular kinds of steel and aluminum and machinery.
But one thing the list has a whole lot of us is electronics components: motors, batteries, but also LEDs, capacitors, diodes, transistors and the like. There are also a whole lot of machines and components used in the manufacture of electronics, from injection molding to electronics assembly.
There are also weird things, like electrical particle accelerators and nuclear power reactors, but we can forget about those.
The bottom line is, a lot of the ingredients of electronics are included under the tariffs, but then a lot of the assembled goods – including, as near as I can tell from this list, musical instruments and music and sound electronics – are excluded. Assembled TVs and (perversely) tape VCRs are taxed. But most other finished goods aren’t.
So if you thought your made-in-China pocket recorder or keyboard would be slapped with a tariff, that’s not what’s happening – not in the proposed list. In fact, it’s the made-in-the-USA gear that winds up getting more expensive, because American makers use components purchased from China.
This will hurt all electronics manufacturers in the United States. For a quick example, I’m working on a project using half a million LEDs. I bought these LEDs (120 reels) two months ago for a few thousand dollars. This was a fantastic buy; half a million of the cheapest LEDs I could find on Mouser would cost seventeen thousand dollars. Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.
Potentiometers are included. PCB components.
A 25% increase in parts costs is fairly significant. It’s eating directly into profits. And what’s strange to me is, an easy way to avoid the tariffs would be to assemble the product outside the United States, since for most product categories – as ours are in music – the components are impacted but assembled products are not.
Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.
For now, all of this is hypothetical. And I don’t want to overstate the case here. Trade and economic instability would likely threaten boutique music gear makers far more than these kinds of tariffs. That is, those boutique synth makers might be able to work out a way around the increased tariffs, and/or adjust prices. But if a massive trade war between the US and China erupts and crashes the economy, lost demand for synths would hurt more.
I do think this illustrates two important points, however.
One, even as electronic music offers some respite from politics and headlines, the news will inevitably reach electronic music and gear. You can’t escape the news in the end.
Two, it’s more clear than ever that the world is an interconnected place. DIY music and independent boutique music gear makers have exploded thanks to both the Internet and global trade. That’s included cheap access to prototyping, cheap components and machinery – even for those makers producing in the USA. For other engineers, cheap and expanding Chinese manufacture has allowed people to become manufacturers who otherwise never would have done so.
That’s not to get into the deeper questions of how positive these trends have been, or what impacts they may have had along the way – societal, environmental, human.
But the world of 2018 sees musicians and inventors tied together across borders and distance in ways they never were before. And with that world order shifting fast, those connections are likely to change along with them, in unpredictable ways.
Okay, you’re now free to go apply some unpredictable modulation to an oscillator if all of this made your head hurt.
All comments welcome. (I’ve reached out for comment to some manufacturers; I expect an ongoing conversation here around these issues, especially as we get more news.)
Far from the liberated playground the Internet once promised, online connectivity now threatens to give us mainly pre-programmed culture. As we continue reflections on AI from CTM Festival in Berlin, here’s an essay from this year’s program.
If you attended Berlin’s festival this year, you got this essay I wrote – along with a lot of compelling writing from other thinkers – in a printed book in the catalog. I asked for permission from CTM Festival to reprint it here for those who didn’t get to join us earlier this year. I’m going to actually resist the temptation to edit it (apart from bringing it back to CDM-style American English spellings), even though a lot has happened in this field even since I wrote it at the end of December. But I’m curious to get your thoughts.
The complete set of talks from CTM 2018 are now available on SoundCloud. It’s a pleasure to get to work with a festival that not only has a rich and challenging program of music and art, but serves as a platform for ideas, debate, and discourse, too. (Speaking of which, greetings from another European festival that commits to that – SONAR, in Barcelona.)
The image used for this article is an artwork by Memo Akten, used with permission, as suggested by curator and CTM 2018 guest speaker Estela Oliva. It’s called “Inception,” and I think is a perfect example of how artists can make these technologies expressive and transcendent, amplifying their flaws into something uniquely human.
Minds, Machines, and Centralisation: Why Musicians Need to Hack AI Now
IN THIS ARTICLE, CTM HACKLAB DIRECTOR PETER KIRN PROVIDES A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CO-OPTING OF MUSIC AND LISTENING BY CENTRALIZED INDUSTRY AND CORPORATIONS, IDENTIFYING MUZAK AS A PRECURSOR TO THE USE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR “PRE-PROGRAMMED CULTURE.” HE GOES ON TO DISCUSS PRODUCTIVE WAYS FOR THOSE WHO VALUE “CHOICE AND SURPRISE” TO REACT TO AND INTERACT WITH TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THESE THAT GROW MORE INESCAPABLE BY THE DAY.
It’s now a defunct entity, but “Muzak,” the company that provided background music, was once everywhere. Its management saw to it that their sonic product was ubiquitous, intrusive, and even engineered to impact behavior — and so the word Muzak became synonymous with all that was hated and insipid in manufactured culture.
Anachronistic as it may seem now, Muzak was a sign of how tele-communications technology would shape cultural consumption. Muzak may be known for its sound, but its delivery method is telling. Nearly a hundred years before Spotify, founder Major General George Owen Squier originated the idea of sending music over wires — phone wires, to be fair, but still not far off from where we’re at today. The patent he got for electrical signalling doesn’t mention music, or indeed even sound content. But the Major General was the first successful business founder to prove in practice that electronic distribution of music was the future, one that would take power out of the hands of radio broadcasters and give the delivery company additional power over content. (He also came up with the now-loathed Muzak brand name.)
What we now know as the conventional music industry has its roots in pianola rolls, then in jukeboxes, and finally in radio stations and physical media. Muzak was something different, as it sidestepped the whole structure: playlists were selected by an unseen, centralized corporation, then piped everywhere. You’d hear Muzak in your elevator ride in a department store (hence the phrase, elevator music). There were speakers tucked into potted plants. The White House and NASA at some points subscribed. Anywhere there was silence, it might be replaced with pre-programmed music.
Muzak added to its notoriety by marketing the notion of using its product to boost worker productivity, through a pseudo-scientific regimen it called the “stimulus progression.” And in that, we see a notion that presages today’s app behavior loops and motivators, meant to drive consumption and engagement, ad clicks and app swipes.
Muzak for its part didn’t last forever, with stimulus progression long since debunked, customers preferring licensed music to this mix of original sounds, and newer competitors getting further ahead in the marketplace.
But what about the idea of homogenized, pre-programmed culture delivered by wire, designed for behavior modification? That basic concept seems to be making a comeback.
Automation and Power
“AI” or machine intelligence has been tilted in the present moment to focus on one specific area: the use of self-training algorithms to process large amounts of data. This is a necessity of our times, and it has special value to some of the big technical players who just happen to have competencies in the areas machine learning prefers — lots of servers, top mathematical analysts, and big data sets.
That shift in scale is more or less inescapable, though, in its impact. Radio implies limited channels; limited channels implies human selectors — meet the DJ. The nature of the internet as wide-open for any kind of culture means wide open scale. And it will necessarily involve machines doing some of the sifting, because it’s simply too large to operate otherwise.
There’s danger inherent in this shift. One, users may be lazy, willing to let their preferences be tipped for them rather than face the tyranny of choice alone. Two, the entities that select for them may have agendas of their own. Taken as an aggregate, the upshot could be greater normalization and homogenization, plus the marginalization of anyone whose expression is different, unviable commercially, or out of sync with the classes of people with money and influence. If the dream of the internet as global music community seems in practice to lack real diversity, here’s a clue as to why.
At the same time, this should all sound familiar — the advent of recording and broadcast media brought with it some of the same forces, and that led to the worst bubblegum pop and the most egregious cultural appropriation. Now, we have algorithms and corporate channel editors instead of charts and label execs — and the worries about payola and the eradication of anything radical or different are just as well-placed.
What’s new is that there’s now also a real-time feedback loop between user actions and automated cultural selection (or perhaps even soon, production). Squier’s stimulus progression couldn’t monitor metrics representing the listener. Today’s online tools can. That could blow apart past biases, or it could reinforce them — or it could do a combination of the two.
In any case, it definitely has power. At last year’s CTM hacklab, Cambridge University’s Jason Rentfrow looked at how music tastes could be predictive of personality and even political thought. The connection was timely, as the talk came the same week as Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his campaign having employed social media analytics to determine how to target and influence voters.
We can no longer separate musical consumption — or other consumption of information and culture — from the data it generates, or from the way that data can be used. We need to be wary of centralized monopolies on that data and its application, and we need to be aware of how these sorts of algorithms reshape choice and remake media. And we might well look for chances to regain our own personal control.
Even if passive consumption may seem to be valuable to corporate players, those players may discover that passivity suffers diminishing returns. Activities like shopping on Amazon, finding dates on Tinder, watching television on Netflix, and, increasingly, music listening, are all experiences that push algorithmic recommendations. But if users begin to follow only those automated recommendations, the suggestions fold back in on themselves, and those tools lose their value. We’re left with a colorless growing detritus of our own histories and the larger world’s. (Just ask someone who gave up on those Tinder dates or went to friends because they couldn’t work out the next TV show to binge-watch.)
There’s also clearly a social value to human recommendations — expert and friend alike. But there’s a third way: use machines to augment humans, rather than diminish them, and open the tools to creative use, not only automation.
Music is already reaping benefits of data training’s power in new contexts. By applying machine learning to identifying human gestures, Rebecca Fiebrink has found a new way to make gestural interfaces for music smarter and more accessible. Audio software companies are now using machine learning as a new approach to manipulating sound material in cases where traditional DSP tools are limited. What’s significant about this work is that it makes these tools meaningful in active creation rather than passive consumption.
AI, back in user hands
Machine learning techniques will continue to expand as tools by which the companies mining big data make sense of their resources — from ore into product. It’s in turn how they’ll see us, and how we’ll see ourselves.
We can’t simply opt out, because those tools will shape the world around us with or without our personal participation, and because the breadth of available data demands their use. What we can do is to better understand how they work and reassert our own agency.
When people are literate in what these technologies are and how they work, they can make more informed decisions in their own lives and in the larger society. They can also use and abuse these tools themselves, without relying on magical corporate products to do it for them.
Abuse itself has special value. Music and art are fields in which these machine techniques can and do bring new discoveries. There’s a reason Google has invested in these areas — because artists very often can speculate on possibilities and find creative potential. Artists lead.
The public seems to respond to rough edges and flaws, too. In the 60s, when researcher Joseph Weizenbaum attempted to parody a psychotherapist with crude language pattern matching in his program, ELIZA, he was surprised when users started to tell the program their darkest secrets and imagine understanding that wasn’t there. The crudeness of Markov chains as predictive text tool — they were developed for analyzing Pushkin statistics and not generating language, after all — has given rise to breeds of poetry based on their very weirdness. When Google’s style transfer technique was applied using a database of dog images, the bizarre, unnatural images that warped photos into dogs went viral online. Since then, Google has made vastly more sophisticated techniques that apply realistic painterly effects and… well, it seems that’s attracted only a fraction of the interest that the dog images did.
Maybe there’s something even more fundamental at work. Corporate culture dictates predictability and centralized value. The artist does just the opposite, capitalizing on surprise. It’s in the interest of artists if these technologies can be broken. Muzak represents what happens to aesthetics when centralized control and corporate values win out — but it’s as much the widespread public hatred that’s the major cautionary tale. The values of surprise and choice win out, not just as abstract concepts but also as real personal preferences.
We once feared that robotics would eliminate jobs; the very word is derived (by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Joseph) from the word for slave. Yet in the end, robotic technology has extended human capability. It has brought us as far as space and taken us through Logo and its Turtle, even taught generations of kids math, geometry, logic, and creative thinking through code.
We seem to be at a similar fork in the road with machine learning. These tools can serve the interests of corporate control and passive consumption, optimised only for lazy consumption that extracts value from its human users. Or, we can abuse and misuse the tools, take them apart and put them back together again, apply them not in the sense that “everything looks like a nail” when all you have is a hammer, but as a precise set of techniques to solve specific problems. Muzak, in its final days, was nothing more than a pipe dream. What people wanted was music — and choice. Those choices won’t come automatically. We may well have to hack them.
PETER KIRN is an audiovisual artist, composer/musician, technologist, and journalist. He is the editor of CDM and co-creator of the open source MeeBlip hardware synthesizer (meeblip.com). For six consecutive years, he has directed the MusicMaker’s Hacklab at CTM Festival, most recently together with new media artist Ioann Maria.
Patching music and visuals is fun, but it helps to learn from other people. With everything from apps (Audulus) to modulars (Softube, VCV Rack) to code and free software (Pd, SuperCollider, Bela), patchstorage is like a free social network for actually making stuff.
It’s funny that we needed international scandal, political catastrophe, numerous academic studies of depression, and everyone’s data getting given away before figuring it out – Facebook isn’t really solving all our problems. But that opens up a chance for new places to find community, learn from each other, and focus on the things we love, like making live music and visuals.
Enter Patchstorage. Choose a platform you’re using – or maybe discover one you aren’t. (Cabbage, for instance, is a free platform for making music software based on Csound.
If you’re a newcomer, you can attempt to just load this up and make sound. And a lot of these patches are made for free environments, meaning you don’t have to spend money to check them out. If you’re a more advanced user, of course, poking through someone else’s work can help you get outside your own process. And there are those moments of – “oh, I didn’t know this did that,” or “huh, that’s how that works.”
There are also, naturally, a ton of creations for VCV Rack, the free and open source Eurorack modular emulation we’ve been going on about so much lately.
Oh, yeah, and — another thing. This doesn’t use Facebook as its social network. Instead, chats are powered by gamer-friendly, Slack-like chat client Discord. That means a new tool to contend with when you want to talk about patches, but it does mean you get a focused environment for doing so. So you won’t be juggling your ex, your boss, some spammers, and propaganda bots in the middle of an environment that’s constantly sucking up data about you.
ROLI, makers of the Seaboard and Blocks, keep adding to their funding. But new investments by Sony and Onkyo say a lot about betting on a future of music that’s centered on creation, not just consumption.
We entered this century with people thinking mostly about music as a more or less passive thing. But as a business, consumption is just not as bright as it once was. There’s no new recording format – so, sorry Men in Black, no more jokes about buying The White Album again. The iPod eventually was absorbed into commodity smartphones, and high-end smartphone sales are themselves flattening out, as users hold on to their existing phones. (That shift seems even to be reaching Apple.) Spotify and Apple Music and their ilk haven’t delivered big profits, either, obviously. And in sectors like electronic dance music, we’ve watched the vision of brand synergy and an EDM empire at SFX Entertainment meet the reality of flat festival sales. What cured things at Beatport, meanwhile, in the wake of SFX mismanagement? Refocusing on serious DJs and the core business.
What does seem to be a vast horizon, then, is actually making music. You know – the thing the whole world’s population was already doing before the music industry convinced them to listen to round discs of other people doing it for them, or tune in electromagnetic frequencies that could be translated to other people playing.
All this makes the ongoing investment in ROLI really interesting.
The London-based manufacturer of alternative instruments and mobile music making gadgets is now up past US$50 million in investment. That includes a $27m Series B in 2016, and investments from venture capital but also Universal Music Group.
ROLI’s lineup of products has grown from more expensive flagship controller instruments to a modular line of mobile products that matches with software and services.
There are no public numbers shared for Onkyo or Sony, but it’s really the fact of those makers entering the fray that matters. They’re both Japanese giants known for their role in consumer products for listening to music. Onkyo today remains a major audio brand; they’re also the owner of the home entertainment side of Pioneer. (The bits of Pioneer catering to DJs and car owners lie elsewhere, but the home entertainment brand is still significant.) The Onkyo investment has also recently closed, says ROLI.
And then there’s the Sony Innovation Fund (SIF). Focused on the northern world – USA, EU, Israel, and Japan – Sony’s fund was created in 2016 to invest on companies from seed to middle stage development. That ranges everything from biometrics to VR to drones, so it’s not just about music and media by any means.
In addition to funding, SIF says they work with the companies they fund on strategy, that they build relationships with Sony and its partners, and therefore grant access to some of Sony’s global reach and expertise. There are parallels here to the investment we saw recently in Berlin’s Native Instruments. Sony is betting on music creation and could help connect ROLI to a global consumer market. German EMH Partners who funded NI are betting on music creation and could help connect to a global market for services. Get it? (They have to deliver on that promise, of course.)
We’re also getting into bigger financial figures than music creation investment has seen before; NI got a whopping 50 million Euros, in an industry where we still think it’s pretty cool to go to check out something one person has literally made in their bedroom that you solder together and bolt into a rack with a screwdriver.
Okay, so that’s money and strategy – but what’s the actual business here?
Well, ROLI do have a compelling software/hardware play. The Blocks line give users of computers and mobile devices a convenient, expressive, wireless interface to music creation. There’s software to match – ROLI make a mobile app, a desktop synth, and perhaps most significantly the JUCE framework on which a lot of modern music making software is built. ROLI are also pushing ideas like the Songmaker Kit, hoping musicians will take their line of wireless controllers on the go.
The Blocks line – like the Songmaker Kit here – encourages musicians to take their music creation on the go.
But lots of makers have interesting music products. If we’re really imagining a wider population of music consumers buying this gear, it’s going to require both inventing clever new things, and then moving those things through the channel into musicians’ hands. Your smartphone manufacturer or consumer headphones do that already, but musical instruments move through much more antiquated, fragmented retail outlets. (Uh… that’s a fancy way of saying the unfriendly guys hanging in the corner of your local music store picking at a guitar may not necessarily be able to sell new users on the instrument of the future.)
ROLI already made a bold move into getting in front of new customers with a massive Apple Store retail partnership, followed by other channels (including consumer-oriented stores and shops like Guitar Center). Now it’s a question of whether they can keep moving.
ROLI released some statements to CDM on the idea of the investment, and confirm that global sales reach is a big part of the story. “We’re now selling our hardware and software in over 30 countries,” says founder and CEO Roland Lamb. Now they want to go further, he says. “We want to reach a whole world of music makers and provide them the tools they need to be creative, and we’re getting much closer through our investments from SIF, [Chief Creative Officer] Pharrell [Williams], and Onkyo,” he says.
And Lamb compares his products to the iconic Sony Walkman:
I’ve always admired Sony. A Sony Walkman was one of the first music products I ever owned. I took it on my first trip to Japan as a teenager. It was a magical way to bring my musical world with me everywhere that I went. What ROLI is doing with BLOCKS is very similar to what Sony did with the Walkman, but in our case we’ve made a music creation device that you can take with you anywhere. It’s pioneering a new, liberating way of making music, just like Sony pioneered the modern revolution of music listening which hundreds of millions of people benefit from today.
Yes there’s money, but as I described the SIF operation, there’s additional support, Lamb says:
They really engage with startups. They provide an entrée to the Sony world and its networks and expertise. We hope to collaborate with Sony as much as possible in ways that build unique value for our customers. Without going into the details of the deal, this is certainly a significant investment and relationship for us.
But maybe most interesting, the funds themselves may support new products. While I admire the Blocks, and the Seaboard interface is certainly innovative, I think it’s still important to note that these are just controllers. The Walkman was a standalone product; Blocks is useless without a laptop or smartphone or tablet. And that’s assuming you believe this is really the shape of what music making will look like, amidst a lot of competing ideas and untapped possibility.
“We’re developing new music-making tools across hardware and software,” says Lamb. He says the funding will accelerate development and “positions us to continue focusing on innovative research and development as we scale.”
In other words, this gives them room to focus on inventing new stuff even as they try to get their products to a broader audience.
Also interesting: you might doubt the Songmaker Kit, at 600 bucks, would sell well versus just buying one or two of the individual modules to save money. But you’d be wrong. ROLI tells CDM it’s the best-selling product they make.
The Songwriter’s Kit has become ROLI’s best-selling product, the company says.
So there’s a certain business genius to dividing products into modules, then selling the consumers those modules as … a predefined set. Wait, maybe I shouldn’t tell you that, but should find some really complicated name for it, and then sell my services as a highly-paid consultant. (I dub it the “Modular Acquisition Product Consumer Chain.” Call me.)
But whether you personally like the ROLI line or not, consider this: ROLI are both proving the power of the future of electronic musical instruments on a larger scale, and creating a platform for the rest of the electronic music ecosystem in the process. Blocks can easily be a gateway into other mobile apps, desktop software, and other hardware. ROLI also show that some ideas that would have seem like crazy, far-fetched one-off inventions just recently can appeal to everyday consumers if they’re given adequate market support and channel distribution. People seem to like crazy and futuristic things. (Heck, it may be that average consumers like those things more than some of the more conservative folks you’ll see trolling forums and adding wooden endcaps to their synths.)
And investors are taking notice. There are some real, big bets emerging that say the future of music creation will be bright. For those trained on the recent Silicon Valley model, where some venture capital looks for quick, easy returns or fast exits, it’s also safe to say that some of this may be looking further into the future, not just into what’s selling this month.
But if you believe that creation is the essence of music making, if you think everyone should have access to self expression through music, and you see creation as the future, I think there’s real reason to be encouraged by investment in ROLI.
What we’ll need to watch, meanwhile, is whether larger funds and expertise at ROLI and Native Instruments translate into products and services that work for musicians. That’ll take time. But, hey, I was trained as a musicologist, which deals with this on a timeframe of centuries. I’ll wait. Back to making music to fill the time.
It’s a fairly mundane thing – it’s a boom arm for a microphone. But Blue’s latest accessory, aimed at desktop computer users, seems ripe as DIY publishing starts to think audio.
There’s certainly no absence of gear and toys now aimed at streaming and broadcasting, a market that now covers everything from podcasting to game streaming. But most of that has focused on video, and ignored sound.
And strangely enough, while there are all kind of floor booms, boom mics and shocks that sit next to you aren’t as easy to find as you might hope. These have tended to target the old “broadcast” market – and so, if you walk into a radio station, you’ll see all kinds of solutions. In studios, not so much.
Blue Microphones have been really clever about straddling the line between what had been thought of as the “pro” and “consumer” market – distinctions that sound a bit quaint now. But whether or not you buy into their line of mics, this universal boom looks intriguing. It’s called Compass, referring to its 360-degree movement.
It seems various people could benefit from having this mic positioning near a computer at all times, even for solo production – when you might want to sing a line or even do something more experimental like use a mic as an input to control synths. (And then, if you’re doing voiceover on a Pro Tools tutorial for some extra money, all the better.)
The basic idea: make the boom attach to your desk, then have a 360 degree swivel so you can get it in a comfortable position when you need it – without that swiveling making sound.
The boom/stand is $99.99 on its own, and it works with any number of heavy mics – you’ll need to bring your own shockmount. Or there’s the US$199.99 bundle of the Radius III shockmount, the Compass boom, and a Blue Yeti mic.
What’s as American as a Gibson guitar? Well, lately, perhaps iconic brands getting run into the ground by mismanagement at the top.
And that’s one way to read the situation with Gibson Brands. Gibson, the Nashville-based guitar company that also owns names like TEAC Tascam and some Philips consumer audio products, is running out of time to pay back debts.
What’s next? Bankruptcy – if the company isn’t successful in refinancing.
Various music press have in the past days jumped on reporting by the Nashville Post that is critical of current management and suggests that owner/CEO Henry Juszkiewicz doesn’t have much time left. It’s the Post writers guessing that Gibson won’t be able to do enough to calm creditors and bondholders. That is – they’re not making loan payments fast enough, or giving a clear explanation, and the people who loaned them the money are getting fed up.
Gibson, for their part, this month offered up their own strategy. The company said in a press statement that it “has met all current obligations to the bondholders, is in the process of arranging a new credit facility to replace the bonds, and fully expects the bonds to be refinanced in the ordinary course of business.”
They’re also bringing back Benson Woo as Chief Financial Officer.
But that raises both the question of whether they’ll deliver on refinancing promises, and how they got here in the first place.
It’s easy to assume that this is about the demise of the guitar, but that may be mistaken. Indeed, Gibson Brands’ revenue has been down. But guitar sales in the US and worldwide remain fairly stable, looking at larger trends. These are instruments that last you a long time, meaning it’s easy to defer purchases – so the state of the economy is a factor. But while the statistics are hard to get a hold of (these numbers tend to be sold, rather than shared freely), it’s not hard to find evidence that the guitar market remains healthy.
Here’s a good read from 2015, from a marketing blogger:
Guitars certainly face challenges: think cheaper imports and knockoffs, plus a huge used market (that’s also going to become more and more relevant to synth and modular sales). But looking at the larger numbers and music in general, musicians who want guitars remain loyal to the instrument, and they’re willing to pay for a brand.
The question isn’t what’s going on with guitars, but what’s going on at Gibson.
And there, you might look at their electronics business, where Gibson is seeing sales sagging dramatically versus plans. That’s important, because it’s also where Gibson acquired these debts in the first place – as I noted when Gibson sold Cakewalk, the consumer audio push seemed a fools’ errand. Gibson argued at the time they needed to off-load Cakewalk to support that consumer audio push – but that could in turn just dig them deeper, while sacrificing a small part of their business that was insufficient to pay back debts.
So, while the immediate narrative may be: “ah, the demise of the guitar,” maybe it should be more like, “ah, that company loaned a bunch of money to go into consumer audio and now can’t pay it back because they screwed up.” Too much appetite for consumer audio may wreck Gibson the guitar company.
And that’s in fact what the Post argues: that the story at Gibson is mismanagement. Here’s the money quote (so to speak), from Kevin Cassidy, a senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service:
“Some type of restructuring will be necessary,” Cassidy said. “The core business is a very stable business, and a sustainable one. But you have a balance sheet problem and an operational problem.”
It seems that has to fall to the leadership at the top – Henry Juszkiewicz, the company CEO and owner. It’s been Juszkiewicz that led this massive expansion, then failed to connect the consumer audio and technology vision to the core instrument business, then failed to keep up with debts as the strategy sagged. But irrespective of whether the buck should stop there, bankruptcy is likely to mean he’ll be unable to retain his current position.
That is, as either debtors or the bondholders get control of Gibson, it may actually be cause for some fans of the core instrument business to applaud. Normally in America, the credit holders are the villains and the plucky upstart business owner the hero – you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life. But lately, management losing focus in favor of growth suggests sometimes the people looking at the numbers have a point.
Whatever is about to hit the fan will likely do it soon. Gibson are set to report third quarter earnings and answer to concerns from debtors or bondholders. If the Post article is to be believed – and I suspect it is – you’ll see whatever happens next at Gibson shortly.
You want the flexibility of PC software, but the performance of standalone gear? A new music OS is the latest effort to promise the best of both worlds.
Sure, analog gear is enjoying a happy renaissance – and that’s great. But a lot of the experimentation with sound production occurs with software (iOS or Windows or Mac) simply because it’s easier (and cheaper) to try things out on an Intel or ARM chip. (ARM is the architecture found in your iPhone or iPad or Android phone, among others; Intel you know.) Some manufacturers are already making the move to standalone hardware based on these architectures – at AES last year, I saw Eventide’s massive coming flagship, which is totally ARM-based. But they’re typically rolling their own operating system, which provides some serious expertise.
MIND Music Labs this month unveiled what they called ELK – a Linux-based operating system they say is optimized for musical applications and high performance.
That means they’re boldly going where… a lot of players have tried to go before. But this time, it’s different – really. First, there’s more demand on the developer side, as more makers have grown intrigued by off-the-shelf CPUs. And developer tools for these options are better than they’ve been. And hardware is cheaper, lower-power, and more accessible than ever, particularly as mobile devices have driven massive scale. (The whole world, sadly, may not really feel it needs an effects processor or guitar pedal, but a whole lot of the world now has smartphones.)
ELK promises insanely low latencies, so that you can add digital effects without delaying the returning signal (which for anything other than a huge reverb is an important factor). And there are other benefits, too, that make music gadgets made with the OS more connected to the world. According to the developers, you get:
Ultra-low latency (1ms round-trip)
Linux-based, using single Intel & ARM CPUs
Support for JUCE and VsT 2.x and 3.x plugins
Natively connected (USB, WiFi, BT, 4G)
That connectivity opens up possibilities like sharing music, grabbing updates and new sounds, and connecting to wireless instruments like the ROLI line. There’s full MIDI support, too, though – and, well, lots of other things you can do with Linux.
(JUCE is a popular framework for developing cross platforms, meaning you could make one really awesome granular synth and then run it on desktop, mobile, and this platform easily.)
Now, having done this for a while, I’ve seen a lot of claims like this come and go. But at least ELK last week was demonstrated with some actual gear as partners – DVMark, MarkBass, and Overloud (TH-U).
1ms latency claims don’t just involve the OS. Here, ELK delivers a complete hardware platform, so that’s the actual performance including their (high-quality, they say) audio converters and chip. That’s what stops you from just grabbing something like a Raspberry Pi and turning it into a great guitar pedal – you’re constrained by the audio fidelity and real-time performance of the chipset, whether the USB connection or onboard audio. Here, that promises to be solved for you out of the box.
DVMark’s “Smart Multiamp” was the first real product to show off the platform. Plugin Alliance and Brainworx have signed on, too, so don’t be surprised if you’re soon looking at a dedicated box that can replace your laptop – but also run all your plug-ins.
And that’s the larger vision here – eventually ELK has its own plug-in format, and you should be able to move your favorite plug-ins around to connected devices, and access those gadgets from Android and iOS, But unlike using a computer or iPad on its own, you don’t have to sweat software upgrades or poor audio performance or try to imagine a laptop or tablet is a good music interface live.
This leaves of course lots of questions about how they’ll realize this vision and more questions if you’re an interested developer or manufacturer. I’m hopeful that they take the Eurorack market as a model – or even look at independent plug-in and app developers – and embrace a model that supports imaginative one-person developers, too. (A whole lot of the best music software and module ideas alike have come from one- and two-person shops.)
I at least like their vision – and I’m sure they won’t be alone. Best line: “Whether your idea of music is to be shut in a studio that looks like the bridge of a Klingon cruiser or you are a minimalist that wants everything to sound exactly like in 1958, we think you will be surprised at just how much smartness is going to affect us as musicians.”
I’ll throw this out here for now and let you ask away, and then we can do a follow-up soon. Loads more info at their site:
Big industry news last week: Native Instruments, purveyors of Traktor, Maschine, Reaktor, and Komplete, got 50 million Euros. Let’s make sense of that.
NI apparently wanted a reveal here. With Amsterdam Dance Event looking more like Pioneer turf these days – that company is dominant with CDJs and mixers and now even turntables, and had its own sampler on hand – NI got the attention of DJs at the keynote.
But what does it mean that the Berlin-based company got 50 million Euros? Well, some points to consider:
50 million is a lot. This is a lot for a company in the musical instruments sector of the business. Our quiet little corner of stuff for electronic musicians has begun to see some action, it’s true. For instance, Focusrite PLC (parent of Novation) made an initial public offering in 2014, and ROLI saw an unprecedented $27 million Series B funding back in 2016.
But 50 million euros opens up the possibility of significant investment. (Despite all that cash, NI retains its private ownership.)
The money is coming from a firm linked to music and pop stars. Billboard wrote the best piece I’ve seen on this yet:
So who are EMH? Well, they’re led by a bunch of white German guys in matching blue suits, who look like the people at the front of the queue for first class on your Lufthansa flight or an a Capella vocal quartet, or both.
But, apart from that, EMH are fairly interesting. You won’t gather much from their Website. (Example: they say they have “a special focus on consumer, retail, software, technology, financial services, business services, and health care.” That… doesn’t narrow it down much.)
Blue [Suit] Man Group. Why are these men smiling? Well, apparently their funds help digital services to grow – now including whatever NI are planning next.
I can translate, though. They help companies offering digital services grow. And they’ve got money to do it. The clients may shift – one of their previous big investments was in a tire e-service company (those round rubber things on cars), called Tirendo. And there was a search engine for vacation rentals. Plus a company with really futuristic lights.
NI were ahead of the curve on figuring out software would help musicians. They started simple – with things like a Hammond organ emulation and guitar effects. So now, it seems the gamble is what services would extend to larger groups of musicians.
NI will probably hire people. The one concrete piece of information: expect NI to hire new people to support new growth. So this is really about human investment.
NI already are established and successful. It’s also worth saying, NI aren’t a startup. They have not one, but multiple successful product lines. They’re established around the globe, in both software in hardware. They’re not getting investment because they’re burning cash and need to keep the lights on (cough, SoundCloud). This is money that can go directly into growth – without threatening the existing business.
So, about that growth —
What are they going to spend this on? This part is unclear, but you can bet on “services” for musicians, with musicians defined more broadly than the audience NI reaches now. This most important parts of the press release NI sent last week deal with that – and mention “breaking down the barriers to music creation.”
Over the past 12 months the company has made key hires in Berlin and Los Angeles, including the former CEO of Beatport, Matthew Adell. These specialized teams have commenced development of new digital services designed to redefine the landscape of music creation and the surrounding industry over the next year.
Service – for what? Here’s the mystery: what will these services actually do?
It seems that the means of breaking down barriers – and playing on relationships with the likes of “Alicia Keys, Skrillex and Carl Cox” (mentioned in the press release) – is all about letting people remix music.
Of course, this makes yesterday’s news from ROLI seem a little desperate, as their initial remix offering just covers that earworm you finally got out of your head about a year ago, Parrell Williams’ “Happy.” NI have a significant headstart.
But it should also raise some red flags: that is, NI have the contacts, the brains, and the money, but what problem will they solve for music lovers, exactly? Dreams of growth do often hit up against simple realities of what consumers actually do turn out to want and what they want to pay for.
There’s not much in the Magic Eight Ball here now, though, so – let’s see what the actual plan is. (It could also be that this has nothing to do with remixes at all, and the value of Adell is unrelated to his previous gig in remix monetization.)
NI aren’t alone in services, either. Apart from Roland’s somewhat strange Cloud offering (which is mainly a subscription plug-in offering with some twists), Cakewalk now have something called Momentum – a subscription-based service and mobile/desktop combination that promises to take ideas captured on your phone and easily load them into your DAW.
What are these NI executives actually saying with these words?
Daniel Haver, CEO, isn’t helping here – he says the new target is “increasingly diverse market segments.”
Or, to translate, “like, a bunch more different people.” (Fair. There is demand from a bunch more of y’all people folks – and I’m not even kidding.)
Mate Gallic, the CTO/founder – and someone whose past life as an experimental electronic artist will be familiar to CDM readers – also has learned to speak corporate.
“We believe music creation products and services should be integrated in a more appealing, intuitive and cohesive way,” Mate Galic, CTO and President of Native Instruments, said in a statement. “We foresee an easily accessible music creation ecosystem that connects user centric design, with powerful technology and data, to further enable the music creators of today, and welcome the new creators of tomorrow.”
(Don’t worry, Mate and Daniel do talk like normal human beings outside of company press releases!)
Translation: they want to make stuff that works together, and it’ll use data. Also fair, though some concerns, Mate: part of what makes music technology beautiful is that the “ecosystem” doesn’t come from just one vendor, and some of it is intentionally left unintuitive and non-cohesive because people who make music find its anarchy appealing. You could also take the words above and wind up with a remix app that uploads to the cloud, a combination of Facebook and a DAW, or… well, almost anything.
So, they’ll be spending 50 million on a service that does something for people. Music people. Guess we have to wait and see. (Probably the one thing you can say is, “service” implies “subscription.” Everything is Netflix and Amazon Prime now, huh?)
The big challenge for the whole industry right now is: how do we reach more people without screwing up what we’ve already got? With new and emerging audiences, how do you work out what people want? How do you bridge what beginners want and need with what an existing (somewhat weird) specialized audience wants and needs?
For NI, of course, I’m sure all of us will watch to make sure that this supports, rather than distracts from, the tools we use regularly. (It’d certainly be nice to finally see a TRAKTOR overhaul, and I don’t know if there’s any connection of its fate to what we’re seeing here – very possibly not.)
I’ll be sure to share if I learn more, when the time is right. I am this company’s literal next-door neighbor.
The maker of futuristic musical interfaces gets new direction, new co-ownership, and of course a sound pack from the pop star.
UK startup ROLI continues to break from the path of the conventional musical instrument maker. There are the instruments themselves – the spongy spaceship-deck piano that is the Seaboard; the small, touchable, square wireless mobile music interfaces BLOCKS. And then there are the splashy investments, the focus on pushing forward technology, the chic London office and manufacturing, and — well, now this.
Pharrell Williams, the polymath producer and chart-topping popstar, will join ROLI.
The star joins ROLI founder/CEO Roland Lamb.
There are several things happening here at once:
1. He’s becoming Chief Creative Officer.
2. He’s investing – which makes him a co-owner.
3. (Of course) he’s making a sound pack (“studiopack”) for the app, based on his song “Happy.”
#3 – the problem here, and maybe with Williams himself, is the short lifespan of pop. “Happy” would have been huge had it come to ROLI’s platform earlier. Now, it’s fun, and goes nicely with this announcement, but remember that Guitar Hero and their ilk able to incorporate pretty much all major pop music ever and eventually still lost steam. On the other hand, this isn’t Guitar Hero or Rock Band. We’ve seen abortive attempts to create hits with mobile remixing before, but if Williams brings some popstar friends with him – and ROLI play on their ability to make the experience tactile with their hardware accessories – maybe they can make this a success.
More immediately is the impact this appears to offer for ROLI the firm. Adding Williams means connections to the pop music world, and other artists. That was huge for Beats, and has been significant to many other startups. And … it can also backfire, as it did with Tidal. But at least ROLI has a product, and a unique one.
This also means Mr. Williams is bringing ROLI cash. With forward-thinking, research-heavy products, that seems something that could benefit the company. Musical investment – see SoundCloud – can be slow in generating returns. To do things that are genuinely futuristic requires looking pretty far down the runway, in a way that car-hailing apps or chat tools may not.
The company says in a statement they hope the collaboration will “accelerate the arc of innovation.”
Money and connections to popular music may well be essential if ROLI will achieve wider reach. And we haven’t yet seen a pop-instrument collaboration quite like this. It comes the same week as a major investment deal announced by Native Instruments, one which also promises to chase the consumer space and new ways of producing music. (More on that in a separate story.)
The ground around music making is shifting. The question is to what – and whether these sorts of gambles will pay off, or if they’ll go the way of other celebrity-tech dreams in music creation.