Thirty Three. / Contributors Twenty Seven & Twenty Eight: Mike Butera & Jacob Gordon, Artiphon

On Uncovering Everyone's Musical Side, Rolliflexes, and Connecting and Inspiring Each Other.

Hey, everybody. I hope you all have some exciting July 4th plans out there. Nitasha and I are taking a road trip up to Portland, Maine for the weekend, so please send me any recommendations!

(For those understandably concerned, we got our COVID-19 tests this weekend and will wear masks and socially distance once we are there.)

This edition is special, not just because we have two authors today. These guys are incredible founders and now wonderful friends, ever since I first met Jacob in NEW INC Office Hours many years ago when I was a VC mentor for the startups there. Their latest product, Orba, comes out soon and is one of the most incredible products I’ve ever seen, tested, and enjoyed. I cannot wait for you all to get to play with it too.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Mike Butera and Mr. Jacob Gordon.


Mike Butera is the Founder & CEO of Artiphon.

Before starting Artiphon I was a professor of Philosophy and Sociology. At the time I was doing a lot of research in Sound Studies, specifically the way that people experience sounds through technology. Basically, I found that the lines between music, noise, silence, speech, etc. are very fluid, and that in our everyday lives we're always negotiating with the world to make it sound the way we want it to. Most of the time, this means putting on headphones, closing doors and windows, talking on the phone, or taking a walk. As a musician, I was particularly interested in how we could give people more access to musical creation rather than just consumption, to make music itself more interactive. That led me to think a lot about musical instruments, of course, and whether we could redesign them as inherently flexible, smart devices that adapt to how you want to play. And that's all I've been doing for the last decade.

Jacob Gordon is the Co-Founder of Artiphon.

When Mike and I met we were both living in Nashville. A mutual friend basically set us up, suspecting we’d have a lot to talk about. It was the height of Occupy Wall St. and so… yes, we had a lot to talk about. At the time I was building a startup by day and playing steel guitar in the infamous Nashville honky-tonks by night (cowboy hat, boots, and everything). Mike had some early prototypes of what would become Artiphon’s first product. The designs were pretty out there, but I could tell something really interesting was brewing. I officially joined in 2012 and we’ve been building ever since.

Here we go.

What are you currently working on?

Mike: Right now we’re launching our second product, a handheld instrument called Orba. The basic concept was to design a musical instrument with the ergonomics of game controllers and cell phones, where we generally cradle devices in our palms and use micro-gestures to control them. Finger dexterity these days is incredible, and kids can text faster with their thumbs than most adults ever could with ten fingers on keyboards. Orba can sense a range of touch gestures like tapping and sliding, but also motion gestures like tilting, waving, and shaking. We designed a super-responsive embedded synth and looper, and it connects to phones and computers with Bluetooth so people can play any sound they want in GarageBand and other software.

And it's only $99, which was important to us to make sure people could afford to play (and not just think of instruments as sacred collectible objects). So, we leapt forward in a few ways with Orba, and now we're finally going to release it to the world and see what people make with it. Which, of course, is the whole point. 

Jacob: I juggle several Artiphon hats (brand partnerships, business development, media relations, education) but the most pure fun has to be in artist relations. Since launching two products via Kickstarter we’ve always had a very grassroots approach to community-building and we bring that same spirit to our relationships with musicians.

As we’re launching Orba I’m spending a lot of my time with musicians, producers, managers, and labels talking about how Orba can bring something unique to their art. Despite being small and inexpensive, professional artists are loving Orba because it simply does things other tools can’t. They also love it because it’s playful and intuitive, which pros crave after spending their days using gear with too many features.

Recently I got to do the casting for an artist First Impressions video shoot during the Kickstarter. I also recently recruited 50 artists to experiment with some of the first Orbas and post about it (a project we dubbed our “artist rainbow”). Traditional musical instrument brands tend to be male-centric and elitist.

At Artiphon it’s been so fun to break this mold by bringing together really diverse people in a space of collaboration and inclusivity.

What are you currently excited about?

Jacob: It has to be youth education. There’s no doubt that I get a thrill when we send our products to stars – Robert Glasper, Erykah Badu, Anderson .Paak, Diplo, MGMT, T-Pain, and Billie Eilish, to name a few of my recent favorites. But what has me really jazzed right now is the potential of Orba in the hands of youth and students.

In the Kickstarter campaign we offered a Give One, Get One option which let backers donate an Orba to organizations doing music education, music therapy, and music cognition research. I’m really looking forward to working more deeply with our network of nonprofits, schools, therapists, and researchers, especially as so many youth are learning at home and need new ways to create.

Mike: Right now we're seeing a lot of innovation in the music tech space, particularly with AI and ubiquitous access to sounds. It's getting to the point where most people aren't able to distinguish the output of a human vs. AI composer, or whether a movie was scored with a live symphony or samples. A lot of the "signal chain" of making music, from capturing sound to mixing and mastering, are being automated in ways that let more people make more music regardless of their skill or access to expensive gear.

The last ten years has been one of the most profound periods of musical democratization, and yet most people don't really believe they can play music because they didn't enjoy piano or violin lessons as a kid. I'm really excited about how we can finally design musical experiences for people that inspire them to see themselves as creators, not just consumers, and get past the false dichotomy of whether people are musical or not.

Everyone is musical, and technology opens up new ways for us to express ourselves every day.

What’s a story or article that you're currently thinking about?

Mike: This recent Rolling Stone article highlights some unexpectedly good news from 2020: the skyrocketing growth in the home music-making market. Online music retailers are seeing Black Friday-level sales as people pick up new instruments, build out home studios, and bring the music classroom into their living rooms. The music creation market has been rather stable for decades, basically selling the same old guitars and keyboards year after year, so it’s really extraordinary to see it more than double in such a short amount of time as people rethink the way music is made. 

While the shift toward producer-style music production has been rather gradual for the past 20 years, it’s now nearly necessary for anyone who wants to make music to learn how to do it at home. Before, if you were a songwriter or session player you didn’t necessarily have to know anything about how to record or mix sound; you could just go to a studio and engineers would take care of it. But now, anyone who wants to record music has to be able to do it wherever they are, usually on rather limited budgets.

I think it’s also the case that people are generally just getting back in touch with their creative sides, so more people than ever are making music in their spare time.

Super inspiring. 

Jacob: One that hit me recently was a story in The New York Times on how the shift to online schooling during the pandemic is causing disproportionate setbacks for low-income and minority students. It cites a study that found when taking classes from home “student progress in math decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes and not at all in classrooms in high-income ZIP codes.”

This has us thinking a lot about how the hardware and software we make can help enable more equal access to music, technology, and creative learning. Not to mention all the great after school music programs that may never return to normal.

What’s a product you’re currently obsessed with?

Jacob: My quarantine project has been to get back into photography (since my highschool days in the darkroom). I started digital (with a Fujifilm X100F) and even took an online course at the International Center for Photography with photo legend Neal Slavin.

But Mike really threw me in the deep end by sending me an early-1950s Rolleiflex medium format camera for my birthday. It’s a true marvel of mechanical engineering, and really makes you slow down and savor the process of making photographs. 

Mike: Yeah, Jacob and I are both kind of obsessed with photography right now. I’m finding a lot of inspiration in the history of 20th-century cameras, particularly alternative film formats like 127 “pocket” film (which is larger than 35mm but smaller than medium format). In 1912 when Kodak released it, 35mm was still just for movies and “real” photography required larger, expensive gear used only by professionals and aficionados. 127 was one of the smallest films you could get and was designed mainly for consumers, hitting a sweet spot until 35mm took over a few decades later. 

Just like with music creation, the history of photography shows how technology doesn’t automatically democratize access to creativity—it has to be designed to do so. The goal with Artiphon is to take amazing music technologies which were originally designed for pros and make them accessible to anyone who wants to make sound. Just like 127 format film, we can design something that anyone can afford and take with them wherever they go.

Wild Card: What’s an item you can’t shake your mind off of?

Mike: Less of an item, more of a concept. As a sociologist, I’m really fascinated with the idea that social media is inherently changing the way we think about human expression and connection. Where creative expression used to be private vs. public, now it’s the private as public. Where relationships used to be proximate and casual, now they’re distant and intentional. I don’t think we’ll be “going back” to the way we used to live anytime soon, so I’m optimistic that we’re already finding new ways to connect with and inspire each other.

TikTok, for all its ridiculousness, encourages people to think outside the box and use what’s around them to create inspiring content that other people will enjoy. Who knew everyone was a dancer? So, of course, I’m thinking a lot these days about how we can do the same for music—rather than just practicing and playing alone, we can make music immediately social, casual, and fun. 

Jacob: I just want to share a grab bag of things that are shaping my work and play these days: Sonos speakers (two Play 5’s which are actually very fun with Orba), Workflowy (for note-taking and mind-mapping), Instapaper (for saving articles for later), an subscription, good old paper books! (been getting a lot of secondhand books on eBay, mostly art photography and 12th century Buddhism texts), Adobe Lightroom CC (enjoying a cloud-hosted photo editing experience), Duolingo (Spanish), Facebook’s new Collab app (a group music-making and remix app, currently in private beta). And (obviously) Orba. I think all of us at Artiphon keep at least one Orba on our desk at all times and play with it throughout the day.

Move over, fidget spinner!

~ C O L O P H O N ~
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