It began on Twitter, with a tweet sent last September by Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee to about 300,000 followers: “Dude!! look!”
Lee posted a link to a YouTube video featuring the young Massachusetts rock band Pinn Panelle using an audio effects gadget called the Hot Hand, made by the little-known Woburn tech company Source Audio LLC. The video went viral, drawing one million views in three weeks, and Source Audio, a seven-year-old company that had been struggling to attract customers, hit pay dirt.
The Hot Hand, a $149 wireless ring that musicians wear to control guitar effects, was sold out by March — the first time that happened since the original, wired version was launched in 2006. Source Audio scrambled to order more from its manufacturer in China.
“This injected a lot of fuel into the fire,” said Roger K. Smith, Source Audio’s president. “We thought we had a two- or three-year supply, and they were gone in four months.”
Smith would not disclose revenue or sales figures for the Hot Hand other than to say that the Pinn Panelle video, which has now been viewed about seven million times, sparked a tenfold spike in demand. The company expects this to be its first profitable year, he said, with sales anticipated to increase 160 percent over 2011’s.
Source Audio’s good fortune is a classic case of Internet serendipity. It turns out that Hot Hand is an ideal accessory for bass guitarists looking to create the popular sound associated with dubstep, a genre of electronic music that grew out of the London club scene in the early 2000s. Its signature heavy, oscillating tones, known as bass wobble, have influenced popular musicians such as British singer Ellie Goulding, whose song “Lights” is number three on the Billboard Hot 100 charts this week.
Bass guitarist Nathan Navarro wanted that sound for Pinn Panelle, a rock band formed by Berklee College of Music students that he joined last year. After seeing a guitarist use Hot Hand, he ordered his own ring over the Web.
“It took two months of sitting down and using it and experimenting” to get proficient at using the Hot Hand to generate the bass wobble he heard from dubstep DJs, who create the effect with audio software on a computer, he said. The band then recorded the video, in which it performs a cover version of a song by Skrillex, one of the dubstep genre’s most influential DJs, and posted it online. “I don’t think that anyone had been using [Hot Hand] for dubstep,” Navarro said. “I think I might have pioneered it.”
After Motley Crue’s Lee tweeted the video, the Hot Hand attracted almost as much attention as the band. One commenter on YouTube asked, “What is that thing the bass player is using?”
The video gave Source Audio a new customer base of dubstep aficionados. It’s next Hot Hand product is designed for club DJs, so they can use Source Audio wireless technology to create sound effects. It’s expected to be available later this year.
The secret of the Hot Hand is a built-in accelerometer, a tiny gizmo that measures motion precisely; in fact, it’s built-in accelerometers that can “read” when devices like Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad are tilted, so they can, for example, rotate the screen to keep images vertical.
Before cofounding Source Audio, Smith, an engineer and a musician, spent 19 years with Analog Devices Inc., the Norwood semiconductor maker that pioneered development of the acclerometer.
Hot Hand was always meant for guitar players, and some influential guitarists, including heavy metal musician Herman Li of the British band DragonForce, were early adopters. “As an artist you always want to be different,” Li said. “For me, it was really great, because I like to perform on stage and Hot Hand gave me a reason to do more things.”
Even after Li showed off Hot Hand during live performances and demonstrated it at guitar clinics around the world, sales were still sluggish. “We had hopes and dreams for Hot Hand that were just too high,” said Source Audio cofounder and chief operating officer C. Hunter Boll, a 20-year veteran of the Boston private equity firm Thomas H. Lee Partners. The company now has six full-time employees.
But even with the success on the Web, Hot Hand remains a niche product, said Brian Fox, editor of Bass Player magazine. Many musicians are stubbornly “precious about the sound that was created in the late ‘50s,” he said, and are wary of new digital technology.
The other challenge Source Audio faces, said Boll, is getting the company’s Hot Hand and other audio effects products, which are sold mostly online and at some independent music stores, onto the shelves of national chains such as Guitar Center. That might take a few more viral hits.