Much of the technology built for music creators in the last 30 years hasn’t been made with the musician in mind – unless you’re thinking about DJ’s or producers. If you’re a drummer, guitarist or a flautist, there are limited tools available that speak the unique musical language you may have already learned with the mastery of your instrument. Musicians must learn how to use a new piece of technology or work with a producer or an engineer to make their own music. Why isn’t technology being built with the artist in mind?
Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) do exist in music, however, many are focused on automation, not collaboration. PopGun, a venture-funded startup uses AI to aid in pop music songwriting, while Ampr, another company in the space focuses on music solutions at an enterprise level generating content for film and commercial work.
Approach is everything when creating tools. You must know who and what you’re creating for and why. Magenta, a Google Brain open source research project shows some promise for creatives – exploring the role of machine learning as a tool in the creative process. The project develops “new deep learning and reinforcement learning algorithms for generating songs, images, drawings, and other materials” according to the company’s website. Antescofo, a research and development group based in Paris backed by Facebook’s chief AI scientist is best known for its Metronaut app – a piece of technology that acts as a mobile classical music lesson.
One company started by musicians and technologists is creating AI tools to empower musicians, not replace them – starting with drummers as the entry point. Sunhouse, started by 3 Chicanx siblings from Los Angeles are using their experience as outsiders to welcome musicians into the fold. “In tech, we end up seeing that 80 to 90 percent of founders are white or Asian founders” says Adegoke Olubusi, Managing Partner at Magic Fund, an angel fund focusing on super early investments in a diverse crop of tech startups including Sunhouse. “The founders and the amount of work they’ve put in is incredible, this is the kind of grit you don’t see with lot of founders,” says Adegoke.
The Sunhouse trio, Tlacael, Tenoch and Tonantzin Esparza founded the company in 2015 via Kickstarter. After raising over $94k in less than one month, the team began production of their first product, Sensory Percussion – a machine learning-based system turning drum sets into entire production suites. Players for Maroon 5, Herbie Hancock, Panic at the Disco, Common, and Nas now use Sensory Percussion for touring, composing and jamming.
Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jesse Carmichael, who is part of the Grammy-award winning pop band Maroon 5 has been looking for ways to express his creativity with technology and may have finally found it. “Sensory Percussion has allowed me to transform my traditional acoustic drum set into a modern tool for pop music production,” says Jesse who has integrated Sensory Percussion into his studio setting to write the group’s new album.
Madame Gandhi, a political activist, producer and drummer who uses Sensory Percussion to produce and perform explains the connection to drummers and production during a recent talk at Moogfest in North Carolina. “You kind of hear that as a very common story, drummers tend to be the ones who produce – that transition happens quite easily for drummers because the rhythms are very helpful,” says Gandhi. “I think for me when I finished the MIA tour and my own journey with my activism and my passion for gender liberation and equality started, I knew that I wanted to be producing more.”
Sunhouse has come a long way from Kickstarter, their Sensory Percussion product is now sold directly to consumers in 30+ countries, stocked in U.S. and E.U.’s top music gear retailers, and in addition to raising from Magic Fund, the company pulled in an investment from Arlan Hamilton at Backstage Capital – a venture fund led by women, people of color, and LGBT founders since 2015.
Before Arlan was the top queer black woman in venture capital, she worked as a production coordinator and music tour manager in a past life. Ms. Hamilton immediately asked for a demo of Sensory Percussion when the Sunhouse trio approached her. “I appreciated the skill and the imagination it would have taken to get to the point [Sunhouse] were at,” says Ms. Hamilton. “There is a big push to create synthetic music and to make it so that people sometimes are removed from the equation, and to me, music is one of those things that has been around since the beginning of time – people have always found a way to make beats happen.
Sunhouse’s CEO and lead technologist, Tlacael Esparza, a drummer who has toured with Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington, cares very deeply about creating tools built for musicians. As an NYU Music Tech graduate and former adjunct professor, Mr. Esparza is very hands-on with how the technology is built and in turn feels for musicians. “We don’t build devices like rubber drum pads or midi controllers. We teach computers to understand our natural musical interfaces,” says Tlacael. “Strings, winds, drums — we’ve been playing these instruments for thousands of years. We understand them on almost a subconscious level and so they become powerful bridges to computer control.”
Working with family can be challenging for some but the Esparza family seems to have mastered their individual strengths and communication styles interacting peacefully and respectfully with one another as a cohesive team who is in it for the long run.
Tonantzin Esparza, CMO and one-third of Sunhouse, heads up artist relations and business development. “It’s inspiring to see drummers come to us seeking new ways forward in their music,” says Tonantzin. “They’re starting solo careers using Sensory Percussion. We see them composing, creating entire songs from behind the drum set and going on tour with it – things they’ve told us hadn’t really been possible for them.” Focused on creating unique collaborations with brands, musicians, music producers and DJs, Tonantzin’s sweet spot is people. Rooted in entrepreneurial entertainment, Ms. Esparza comes with a multifaceted background as a distribution executive, producer, and actress working for over 10 years in the film industry.
The company is based in Long Island City, New York with members in Los Angeles and Berlin. Projects at the intersection of music and technology usually come from one side or the other. In the case of Sunhouse, the team is built with equal parts of musical and technical background. A classically trained pianist who went to Stanford and worked with Google for six years is the backbone of Sunhouse. COO Tenoch Esparza, the third sibling in the mix, is passionate about making technology accessible for musicians. “We’re using AI to adapt to musicians and support them. We need a new era of technology that lets musicians use their superhuman skills on instruments along with computers – technology that follows and listens to them, not the other way around.”
While there seems to be a growing opportunity for investment in the music AI space, specifically a hole in powering tools for musicians directly, the venture ecosystem seems bearish on music. “Venture capital doesn’t have a lot of connection to music and music companies wouldn’t know much about tech because they are numbers driven,” says Adegoke.
According to a recent report, the global music production software market is expected to grow to well over $6B by 2022, creating a ripe space for innovation and investment that may finally put musicians in the forefront of creation.