Mike Butera didn’t set out to make life easier for 8-year-old violin students; he only wanted to make playing music easier. The kids are just getting lucky.
“When you’re learning violin as a child, you spend the first month learning to draw the bow across the strings without making them scream,” says Butera, the CEO and founder of Artiphon.
“Then you learn to put your fingers at precisely the right half-millimeter spot to create the tune. By the time you’re six months in, you might play something with some control. But those first few months are not fun. I wanted something that we could put in a kid’s hands that they would immediately take to.”
And so began the process of building a company to design and create the INSTRUMENT 1.
The project generated a lot of buzz, some high-profile tech interest and a fundraising campaign that became one of the top 10 in Kickstarter’s hardware category. In fact, it was the highest grossing campaign for a musical instrument on a crowdfunding platform to date.
The device, which resembles a wide guitar neck, connects to an iPhone and allows the user to play it in five different positions through a virtual string interface. Four years and many setbacks and shifts later, Artiphon has morphed from a wood-constructed frame to a molded form. That transformative property resembles Butera’s own path in music — and in Music City.
“I grew up in York, Pennsylvania, where my dad was a florist,” Butera says. “I began playing the violin when I was 8-years-old, and then took up the guitar as a teenager.
“I came to Nashville to attend Belmont University, which was great, and studied violin, then music business, then audio engineering, and then philosophy and sociology. I roamed around a bit, and then I went to Virginia Tech to get a master’s degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in Sound Studies.
“I was very interested in the way we organize sound through technology — the way we listen and make the world sound the way we want it to, from speech to music to silence. ”
A period as a touring musician followed (he co-founded the band Humming House, later backing out due to its extensive touring schedule), and then it was back to Nashville in 2010 where he set up a product consultancy with Dr. Dave Gilbert, now the CEO of Evermind.
“We ended up doing some consulting and built some speakers that we had developed, as well as some other work with electronics,” Butera says. “I got the idea for a musical instrument that could be used with a mobile app — something you could play in a lot of different ways, but that would be really simple to use.”
He bounced that idea off his wife, Iliza, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Brain Institute, who’s studying audiovisual integration.
“Iliza is exploring ways that cochlear implant users perceive spatial awareness and timing, and how they use vision and sound together to listen better,” Butera says. “We have a lot of great conversations where what we do overlaps, so I brought that into my thinking as well.”
Thus, Artiphon was born.
Simple concept, complicated execution
For Butera, who also teaches sociology on occasion at Belmont, the goal was to create something that somebody — anybody, really — could operate as easily or with as much complexity as the user chose.
“In my mind, it was something that you could just pick up and use to play a song, or fiddle around with as a hobby,” he explains. “But I also wanted it to be able to scale up and be as complex as a professional musician might need it to be for his or her needs. Getting all that to meet in a single device was going to be a challenge.”
Some things, however, were settled early in the process. The device would bridge hardware and software, for example, rather than be one or the other. And how it would work was clearly laid out as well.
“I was hanging out with some friends after dinner, and nobody had a guitar but we wanted to sing songs,” Butera says. “I took out a phone with a GarageBand-like app on it to strum along. It was fun, but we were singing and looking at the phone and it seemed kind of silly. So our original concept was to create something that could interface with the app, but also be tactile enough to not require looking at it, but rather using muscle memory to play it — things we take for granted with a normal musical instrument.”
On a more philosophical level, he wanted something that would give simple, immediate access to music making, whether the players were musicians or not.
“You turn it on and get whatever sound you want, whatever instrument you want,” Butera says. “It allows for invention, which happens in your brain, not on a page. You have ideas; that’s the easy part. When we started figuring on how this thing would really work, we were faced with a lot of contradictions:
- What would the power requirements be?
- What would the sensitivity levels be?
- What would the materials be?
Execution was hard, and that’s why even four years into development we are still tackling some deep and exciting challenges.”
Such is the life of a startup, and that includes committing thousands upon thousands of dollars to an idea — and then finding out that parts of it are unworkable.
“A hardware startup is more expensive than a software one, and investors had to get used to the idea,” says Butera. “We had some hesitation, but we’ve also had tons of support through the Nashville investing community, which is a great community of supporters. We’ve also gotten a lot of support from our peers in software and hardware development here, which is another solid community.”
Pulling back the curtain
The Artiphon team saw interest rise when Butera began mentoring at Jumpstart Foundry a couple of years ago, and then really ramp up after last year’s Southland conference (now 36|86), put on by Launch Tennessee. The hits kept coming:
- Artiphon won the staff favorite prize from then-cosponsor Pando Daily.
- It found itself in the Rise to the Rest winners group as a wild card.
- A trip to Washington, D.C. with other startups followed, as did a $100,000 investment from AOL Founder and entrepreneur Steve Case.
Since then it’s been a mad rush of tinkering, online promotion and prepping for launch.
“We had to get the working capital, and then build the prototypes,” he says. “Parts came from all over, including local firms like Cumberland Architectural Millwork on the wood version, and 2nd Look Studio on the mechanical design. We’d change one thing, which led to other changes to accommodate the first one…”
Those changes included:
- A new design
- New materials
- Refining the core technology to make the device universal (it connects to iPhones, iPads and computers)
- A lower starting price.
User testing has been going on the whole time. In Artiphon’s case, this means studio bands composed of everyone from friends and family to performing bands who were willing to take the time to play with new technology.
“We have some really good friends in town, like Moon Taxi, Mikky Ekko, The Weeks and Wild Cub, and they have all come in to test for us,” Butera says. “We get to hang out with a lot of great musicians and see what their needs are, and they get to show us how well our product works.
“We learned a lot by watching how musicians respond to doing something they could never do before, and seeing how that fit. We’ve found that there’s some really groundbreaking technology here, because we’re giving people an intuitive way to make digital music for the first time.”
A founder’s job is never done
As Artiphon enters the final stretch before going to market, Butera is thinking about what the next venture will look like. He’s just begun, mind you, but already some ideas are swirling around.
“I’ve played this thing the most, being the developer, and I’ve really tried to keep my music out of it,” he says. “I’m working 12, 13 hours a day, and I know that this product is just the first way to roll out the concept. It’s one instrument that takes a lot of forms.
“We’ve gotten our first patent approved, which covered the multi-instrumental concept as a whole. We’re calling it the ‘INSTRUMENT 1,’ and now we’ll see what people do with it. We’ll see what music they make, and how it changes their processes and style. Once we see that, we’re going to make it better.”