In two months a pair of unique, innovative instruments will cease being sold.
This is the story of how they did not shake up the musical world, but should have.
Why are they interesting?
A handful of years ago two special musical devices; the AXiS-64 and the AXiS-49 midi controllers came out. These keyboards use small, finger-tip sized keys arrayed-two-dimensionally. While a few simular expensive 2-dimensional keyboards were available from boutique manufacturers, the Axis line had several critical features; good velocity sensitivity, an affordable price and an easily learned (compared to the guitar and piano) interface. I checked out their innards and found a good solid design.
- Every chord and musical progression uses the same fingerings, the same shape, regardless of the musical key being played
- All the common chords are playable with the same simple fingerings: most common chords (major triads, minor triads, 7th, 9th and 11th chords can be played with half or one-third the fingers needed on any other instrument.
- The simple, elegant geometry of the layout lends itself to composing music.
Non-musicians think melody is the important part of music because melody is linked to words. Here's a secret that musicians absorb into their pores as they learn their craft (and don't talk about because it is so obvious to them, anymore than one would say "Yep, all music is founded on rythym."): all popular music is founded on progressions of chords, providing the foundation for the melody notes to dance on.
In other words, instruments incorporating the harmonic table are like exceptionally simple guitars; easy to get started on simple chords, easy to progress to funkier chords, and easy to compose on. This simplicity does not make them any less an instrument at all. Here's a couple of demos:
It's a nice little product line: a simple, affordable bare-bones instrument, the AXiS-49, for musicians to try out, and a fully-featured instrument, the AXiS-64 to progress to if one liked the '49. And if you really like the '64 you can order a unique, hand-crafted Opal version from luthier Peter Davies; I believe Brian May has one.
Cheops law: Nothing ever gets built on schedule or within budget
Now there is just one little hitch: “elegant simplicity” can be a hard new sell, especially online. Sometimes “old-but-works-eventually” or “cheap flash” can sell better, especially in hard times.
Unfortunately, development of the keyboards had taken longer than planned, and they came out precisely at the start of the Great Recession. The Axis’ did not sell as well as expected.
Also, development had cost more than planned, leaving no reserve for firmware fine-tuning and advertising. Critically from my viewpoint, the AXiS-49 initially was not adaptable enough to fully use the instrument for other kinds of alternate-instrument, like the jammers I desperately wanted to make.
I and others worked with C-Thru and encouraged them to upgrade the AXiS-49’s firmware in 2011, allowing the unit to be adapted into versatile alternate-keyboard instruments.
I love my jammer keyboards made from pairs of AXiS-49’s. Serendipitously, our Axis-based jammers turned out were more powerful and versatile than ones I had tried to make by hand.
But unfortunately, C-Thru Music has struggled, and its “virtual storefront” will soon close. I asked Andrew Llewellyn and Jacqueline Kandalaft-Gomez, of C-Thru Music to give us some of their experiences and advice to post for posterity. Perhaps the next brave developer will benefit.
In their words - Andrew Llewellyn and Jacqueline Kandalaft-Gomez, of C-Thru Music
In 2007 C-Thru Music came out with their AXiS-64 MIDI controller, followed by the smaller AXiS-49 in early 2009. These controllers have velocity-sensitive keys arrayed in a 2-dimensional array.
Both Axis’ keys were not large like the standard musical keyboard, almost exactly the size of a standard computer keyboard. By default the pitches on the keys were arranged in the innovative Harmonic Table layout, allowing one or two fingers to play most of the chords used in pop and jazz music.
Andrew Llewellyn (C-Thru Music) developed the AXiS-64 with Peter Davies, the inventor of the Harmonic Table. AXiS-64 technology (keys and rubber switches) was used to develop the smaller AXiS-49.
Peter Davies is a skilled luthier; building and repairing guitars. Andrew Llewellyn has a background as a sound recording engineer and co-producer, and plays the regular piano keyboard. Although not a musician, Jacqueline loves music and is the organizational glue who holds C-Thru Music together.
None has an investment background.
A point to note
Everybody at the time told us how important a patent was.
In hindsight it was a complete waste of money.
Q: What made you invest in this?
Initially, we loved the product once we'd made a decent prototype. Established musical instrument producers weren't interested and thought volumes would be too low.
We also knew that alternative MIDI controllers had a history of failing. We found that when people tried it both beginners and professionals loved it. We also knew that with notable exceptions amongst the pro's it isn't nearly as interesting off paper or a screen as it is when you touch an instrument for yourself and hear what it does. Our aim was to make the first instrument very hard wearing and high quality, and for sales to come primarily from word of mouth.
The rationale for investing in the '49 was different. At the price of the AXiS-64 we were not going to be able to hit a wider audience. Best advice at the time was we needed to hit a price point of $500 to do that. Using R&D from the '64 we could do that, and our market research pointed to our being able to make it into a workable little business.
Q: It is said creating any new personal-interaction device is a nail-bitingly hard, frustrating, Sisyphean process. Do you agree?
It really does seem like it much of the time. R&D is scientific, but there is an art to it. To keep costs down, we of course tried wherever possible to use off-the-shelf parts. The trouble was that so much needed to be custom made. In particular key shape and key travel were vital. Everyone is different, yet you must make the device useable by anyone. You have to manage time and money, and balance perfection with pragmatism.
It's like finishing an album or a painting. Should you just add that final overdub, or just touch up some final areas on the canvas? - when will you be ready to print the final mix-down or put the painting in a frame and sell it? At some point you have to go with what you have and take the plunge. Everything takes longer than you think when developing and producing a new product. Even when you think you have allowed extra time than you think something will take…. it always takes longer, there are always things that you can’t possibly think of simply because you don’t know For example, Chinese New Year - when they down tools for a week…. so if you had ordered plastic parts that are crucial to making your current batch of orders, instead you come to a grinding halt!
Q: Which gremlins in particular did you encounter in creating your instrument?
There were many gremlins in making our pitch bend and mod wheels. At the time there was no source for buying these off the shelf in small quantities.
We had to start from scratch and design our own. Getting the right-shaped and correct-strength springs involved much trial and error. Spring making is a black art. The other notable headache was the switches and how they contact the PCB. There are nanoseconds of bounce and the contacts can easily be ruined by dust and dirt if any gets on the board.
Q: Given hindsight, is there any way to avoid them?
I believe that these days one can buy pitch/mod wheels from stock - although I haven't looked. Ensuring quality carbon contacts on the rubber switches, and using gold-plate on the circuit board sorted out connection problems.
More important than particular gremlins is making sure you have good suppliers. If you have knowledgeable and helpful people on your team then you'll be able to get around problems as they arise.
Q: What did you do right?
My first answer would be that we concentrated on quality. We didn't need to produce an all-singing all-dancing product from day one, but we did want to make sure that what we produced worked and worked well, and was upgradable.
I think the key shape and travel worked out well. There are so many things that could have been a little different E.g. longer key travel makes for better velocity control but makes it much harder to glide between notes, and larger keys are better for larger hands. We put a lot of time into the key shape and how they work and I think we got a really good balance.
The second notable decision was to get Kevin Lamb to re-design the firmware for the '64. I can't praise Kevin highly enough. He has an encyclopedic musical knowledge and he used it to transform the capabilities of the AXiS-64. The latest version has been stable for ages and is light-years ahead of our original offering. The '64 is now an incredibly versatile tool.
Q: It looks like you miss-timed the market, and if your musical instrument had hit the market before the crisis you would have done well/better.
Re the timing for the AXiS-49. It couldn't have been worse. In the summer of 2008 we were putting final design touches to the AXiS-49 and thought it wise to do some pre-marketing. By late summer we had around 500 people who wanted a '49 at a price of $500.
We thought we could rely on a significant portion of these sales since we specified a price. So at that time it seemed quite reasonable to organize for a stock of 1,000 units. Buying less than a thousand would make them too expensive, and 2,000 would have been better for unit cost, but we thought we should be cautious. By the end of the year the so-called "credit crunch" hit, and we launched in January. We didn't imagine that of 500 people who wanted to buy at $500 only 30 would buy at launch time.
If we had launched earlier I think we would have done better initially, however products such as the '49 rely on a healthy middle class who have disposable income. This is exactly the sort of people who have been most affected by the current economic environment.
Also, from the time we did our market research and actually having product to sell, the $500 suddenly seemed too expensive, and people wanted to pay less - there were several other products designed by the big companies like Roland, Casio etc which had sounds, lights, colored keys etc for half the price of ours -if people were going to splash out a couple of hundred dollars, they were going to do it on something that had more functions and features to justify spending during the credit crunch.
Q: You did very little marketing, counting instead on word-of-mouth, click-of-mouse and influential musicians to get the word out. Would more marketing have helped?
Possibly, however budget was a major constraint. Marketing budget and further R&D had to come from sales.
As selling off the page has always seemed more difficult than from a live demo, we also looked at distribution through retailers. However this route to market has its additional costs and didn't prove viable either. Over the last year we've had 152,000 visits according to our web stats,
However we obviously don't sell well off the site as we are still (2014) selling from our original batch of 1,000 units. It may be that more marketing would have driven more people to our site, but this alone would not have made the difference on volume of sales. Perhaps better PR and seeing artists using the instrument front of stage would have helped, but front-of-stage is not necessarily the home of keyboards.
Although we’re closing, we can be proud that we've ended up with so many very happy customers. People have so often written to let us know how great our products are - and after all, that's why we're in business (or would be).
It is also unfortunate that laws rules and regulations make it very difficult for micro companies to survive. There are so many costs associated with red tape especially related to government and banks, that small often isn't viable.
Just so that everybody knows, when we close C-Thru Music Limited we will keep the website going and retain sufficient parts and spares to be able to continue to guarantee all our products for the usual one year. Support ends 31st Jan 2016.