Artiphon is a digital musical instrument that goes well beyond being a toy

By James Robinson , written on June 11, 2014

From The News Desk

Artiphon is a musical instrument powered by mobile apps. But, as founder and CEO Mike Butera explains to me, it goes far, far past the dinky little programs that let you play electronic drums or meekly strum a few strings on a virtual guitar with your iPhone.

First of all, it’s actually a physical instrument. The phone plugs into a curved device with a vaguely futuristic fretboard. It doesn’t look like a cello, a guitar, a piano, or any instrument you’ve seen before -- but it can be played as any of them, thanks to its adaptable fretboard and unique design.

Butera didn’t plan on being an entrepreneur and building a business. He’s an adjunct sociology professor with a PhD in sound studies from Virginia Tech looking at the philosophy and sociology of how we listen to music. He made a left-hand turn as an electronics consultant for a speaker company and the rest is history.

The problem with digital music apps, Butera says, is that the skills don’t translate to other instruments. When he was a child he learned how to play the violin. Those skills translated roughly into playing the guitar. If you master a digital instrument or app, manipulating it into producing music of some nuance and skill, that knowledge is siloed and can't be used to make music in other ways.

But Artiphon’s instrument is adaptable. As Butera says, if you know how to play the guitar, you could play the Artiphon. If you learn on the digital instrument, you could then pick up the actual instrument. As an instrument, it grows in possibility as the user’s skills expand. This adaptability has led Butera to think that Artiphon it has the possibility to be huge in classrooms with educators.

“What’re the intimidation factors in making music? Millions of people are making their first sounds on an iPhone,” Butera told the crowd at Southland.

Butera’s Artiphon prototype has a natural wow factor. The company has spent three years building its own now-patented sensors on only $400,000 in investment. As he switches on stage between pounding the keys, to playing guitar licks, to strumming a harp, a murmur rises out in the crowd and bursts into a round of applause.

“Our mission is to inspire everyone to make music,” Butera says.

The musical instrument market is worth $17 billion globally. Butera thinks that if you increase that by just 8 or 9 percent globally it could be a billion-dollar market on its own. The Artiphon device will retail at two price points between the $400 and $800 range aimed at entry-level tinkerers and professional musicians alike.

As Butera tells me, the musical instrument market is very stable. It hasn’t been upended by digital developments like its recorded music equivalent. He hopes to launch the Artiphon for sale by next year. The company has taken its time to get it right. As he says, with professional musicians, you have to be perfect. If you want someone to play something on stage there can be no room for a bum note.

The Artiphon quickly captured the attention of the crowd, hosts and judges. Tige Savage pushes them past relying on being a cool device into explaining their real innovation, but as Butera talks about building it from the ground up, its patented sensors and multi-instrument capability, he has the line of cynicism covered.

In the words of the inimitable startup competition host and Pando Editorial Director Paul Carr, "That was cool."

A late dark horse? We'll soon see.