Kyub Interview: Manufacturing Musical Instruments

Keith over at kyubmusic  recently took some time out of his day to answer my questions. He has been cooking up some interesting musical inventions, and recently had success with the Kyub kit.  I am grateful for his insight, and had to share it with you.

First off, who are you? And how did you get started making these delightful boxes?

I guess I am a musical instrument designer! I’m not trying to dodge the question, but it just made me realize that maybe I passed a threshold in some sense of having sold musical instruments I designed. So if you stick with something you like may be it does work out. I studied electronics in college but was always interested in music and constructing things. I am mostly self-taught in these latter categories, something possible, I think, because these are things that interest me. I live in Milwaukee with my wife and my dog who sings to the violin if it is played just right :).

My first working design was for a servoelectric guitar in which the strings are tuned by changing their tension at high speed over about an octave – so it’s different than an auto tuning guitar. There are a handful of videos on the web of the various iterations of this and I have a website www.servoelectric which has build instructions. It’s something that got a lot of views but didn’t go much beyond that.

After building the guitar, I was at the Guthman musical instrument competition at Georgia Tech and met Keith McMillian who was there with his K-Bow hyper-instrumented violin bow. He was inspirational and gave me some helpful pointers about tuning the servos. A bit later he ran a very successful Kickstarter on the QueNeo MIDI control and I bought one of the original QueNeos.

One feature of the QueNeo and a lot of controller like this is that you have to strike the rubber pads pretty hard – nothing a percussionist wouldn’t mind, but harder than I have to tap my fingers when I’m doing drum solos on the edge of my desk. The Kyub accommodates my desire for light action –the actuation force is essentially zero (capacitive sensing) but you still get the expressive volume control of a pad device by measuring the movement of the entire housing under the force of the tapping.

Unlike the servo electric guitar, first few prototypes of the Kyub were better than I expected.

I’m working toward my dream to make a small batch of musical
instruments. Getting something like this out in the world – around the world – and finding an audience is quite an accomplishment. Tons of work. Very impressive. My journey is still starting, but so far, I’ve also gotten some help from luthiers (in person and via google helpouts), and a nearby hackerspace (artisans asylum) where there are tools & lots of creative madness happening. What kind of support did you get for your project?

I think this inspires me too, the idea of a business making and selling something that people enjoy in small quantities. It’s a variation on the theme of those people you see who seem to make a living building beautiful guitars from a cabin in the Adirondacks. I’m not a natural craftsman although I think I was able to inch my way toward a high-quality product with the Kyub.

As far as support, the local hacker space (“Maker Space”) in Milwaukee had a “Maker Fest” last summer where I got a table and showed off a prototype of the Kyub. It was pretty popular (it seemed to me) and I met a couple of people including Petyr Stretz was a local musician/programmer who gave me some useful tips and help and ultimately teamed up with me on the Kickstarter. It was his idea to move from the laser cut wooden box to the Plexiglas and a three color LED. That worked much better than I expected. I also worked with Peggy Brown who has an industrial design background and boundless creativity. Working with a couple of people really helps keep you going when self-doubt creeps in. Usually, one other person will not to have self-doubt at any given instant in time.

As far as manufacturing support, I pretty much had the circuit figured out and relied on Internet linked companies like Ponoko and Advanced Circuits and AdaFruit for laser cutting, printed circuit boards, and parts. A cool quality of the Kyub is that all the hard manufacturing can be outsourced so I didn’t need much more than a kitchen table to fabricate these–although I have a few carpentry tools. The Internet has all the answers if you can figure out the questions, and you can pretty much figure out the questions by trying to move forward on design until you hit a wall. At least that’s my modus operendi.


Getting this out into the world is the interesting story. I think we’re at a moment (hopefully not a brief moment) when you can connect to people with fairly specialized interests who are separated all over world. About a third of the sales of the Kyub went other countries; that seems amazing to me. Kickstarter itself was a source of a lot of publicity. We got 11,000 plays of our video and about a third of our pledges strictly from Kickstarter. The other thing working in our favor was the existence of a lot of good experimental music/hacker blogs that pretty generous about giving us press.

It is surprisingly a lot of work after you have the product complete to take it to the next step and order all the parts, assemble things, and ship them. I think we sent out about 60 kits and I had no idea what I was in for from having done three kits. We worked a couple of weekends to get everything shipped and out.

I’ve been going back & forth between Made-to-order/Just-In-Time Manufacturing vs bulk processing. For some projects like Mogees, they benefit from mass production and injection molding and making things in large batches. While others put a lot of personalized craft into their work, and each instrument is unique. What has worked well for your manufacturing, and what will you change for the next project?

I haven’t figured this one out fully. The Kyub was pretty down-scalable, it’s just about the same price to do 100 as to do 1000. You get good electronic component breaks at 100 and services like laser cutting don’t get much cheaper after 100 either. So it fit comfortably in the made-to-order category or just-in-time.

Bulk processing is a less scary risky thing with crowd sourcing where you can know the marked up front. Of course, you have to talk to manufacturers, for example about costs for injection molding or the like, in advance so you know what you’re in for. Pricing the end produce is tricky, there is some theory that you need to multiply your costs by four. That’s probably right but it’s not what we did with the Kyub because we wanted more people to be able to buy one. We pretty much sold at cost for the kits but made some money on the fully assembled units. That could be a reasonable business if there was enough demand for complete units.

You’ve gotten a fair amount of press on your website. Where have
people been receptive, and what places didn’t work well? I’ve demo’ed some projects at small conferences, but found that people don’t respond to ideas that aren’t polished. Visiting people in their shop has been the source of some great tips though.

I think you’re spot on about people not responding to ideas that aren’t polished. I didn’t realize this for a long time but it is good to assume people can’t imagine even a different color. It’s the risk of designing new things and the difficulty of communicating complexity of the experience that comes with something that’s never existed. So, the closer you can demo the final product the better. There are a handful of visionary types who can get excited about a string and sealing wax version, and maybe you want to work with them, but there aren’t enough of those people make a market.

In retrospect, I think the Maker Fest was a good venue for testing the idea (not necessarily publicity) because it brought in a lot of ordinary people hoping to see interesting things. So was a very open-minded, positive environment. It may be harder to get that vibe when you’re just with other developers at a conference. I had two complete prototypes (although made out of wood with epoxy attached brass plates) which still had some eye appeal. People would pick them up and try and get the surprise of these sounds that come from tapping an object that shouldn’t ring like a bell but does.

I had some small girls, sisters, I think picked up a couple and started jamming together. I had a guitar player who kept coming back to try it again and again. It put it into my head that there is the space for intuitive instruments that you get good sound out of right away. The program I shipped the Kyub with (the Kyubelele) makes it easy to get good harmonies and chord progressions and you can get great rhythms if you are the type who can from your fingers on the table

On the publicity side, however, it was almost entirely from people who blog who were pretty supportive during our Kickstarter campaign. A few bloggers start the ball rolling and others pick it up. If you pick an unusual name like Kyub you can watch it ripple through the web on successive Google searches. If you type in “Kyub Midi” you get hundreds of hits, or at least you did at the end of our campaign.

Finally, what’s in the future. Where is the kyub going & is your book related to that project?

I’m hoping that when the first group of people finish constructing the Kyub kits or learning how to use the Kyubs we shipped that we might start seeing some virtuoso players developing and maybe see a regular but low level business. I purchased some extra units just in case. Otherwise it’s just a cool thing that we did.

The book pretty different – it’s a children’s book where someone ostensibly wrote in the margins in sort of a running commentary and then through the magical action of the written word gets drawn into the story itself. The writing in the margin can only be viewed with a blue LED flashlight, so it has a bit of a gimmick. Crowd-sourcing this is going to be a real challenge because there are far fewer receptive book blogs and lots of authors chasing publicity. But it’s another type of product where you can scale pretty easily (in this case using print on demand).

I’m real excited about my new musical instrument. I don’t have the details worked out but the idea is to be able to effortlessly do soaring guitar solos/shredding. I think I have a good market but it’s all in the implementation and these projects go good for a while then you hit a wall, and then maybe you get around it. So I have to see.



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