Let’s say you invented a new musical instrument. What would you call it?
Adolphe Sax went for personal grandiosity — he invented the saxophone in 1846 (and also the less successful saxotromba and saxtuba).
Fernando Trias, a Newton entrepreneur who has been developing a new digital wind instrument since 2013, tried out a few candidates before settling on a name for his electronic saxophone. A prototype made of wood, a circuit board, and some push pins was dubbed “the trashophone.” Trias also considered Fiatino — “fiato” is breath in Italian, he explains — before settling on Vindor, “which sounds more like wind,” he says. “It was something with a little more oomph.”
But picking a name might be the easiest thing about popularizing a new musical instrument. Ask venture capitalists what they think about the prospect of putting money into such a venture and you get a pretty succinct response: “Not something we’re interested in due to [the small] market size,” writes Ben Einstein, the founder of Bolt, a Boston venture capital firm that invests in tangible products, rather than software or apps. “They’re tough businesses.”
Trias says the initial idea for the Vindor came to him as he listened to one of his children learn to play the clarinet. “It was quite painful,” he recalls. “There was lots of squeaking. With [an electronic] piano, you can put on a pair of headphones to practice, but that isn’t an option with a woodwind.” He put an ad on Craigslist looking for a saxophone player to provide some input on the concept, and met Joel Edinberg, a bandleader and recording engineer with a master’s degree in physics and a background in the telecommunications industry. (Only in Boston.)
Edinberg knew about electronic wind instruments from companies like Yamaha, Roland, and Akai that blend the infinite sounds of a synthesizer with something compact that you can blow into, like a sax or clarinet. But at $500 and up, they always felt too expensive. “The question was always, do I buy this cool thing, or do I pay my rent?” says Edinberg. “It always seemed like a lot of money for something that’s just for fun,” or which a musician might play for just one or two songs in a concert.
Trias aims to offer the Vindor for $200. Potential buyers are “younger people who are learning, and adults who want to get back into playing music,” Edinberg says. “Maybe they used to play recorder or clarinet or saxophone. They quit, but they miss it.” The Vindor can plug into an iPhone or iPad and start making music with an inexpensive app and a pair of headphones. It can also be used with a laptop and more sophisticated recording software. Blow into a Vindor, and you can sound like a muted trumpet, a piccolo, a vibraphone, or a beefy electric bass. “I showed it to Dana Colley from Morphine, and he started playing this dubstep bass line with it,” Edinberg says. “That’s just something you can’t get on a saxophone.”
Last month, the company launched an online fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter, hoping to raise at least $15,000 to build a first batch of Vindors. (Today, there are just five prototypes.) As of last week, it had surpassed that goal by about $4,000.
That’s enough to get about 100 early instruments into the hands of musicians. But the company will need to raise more money for marketing and to build future products, Edinberg says.
Trias observes that over the past three decades or so, musicians have gotten more comfortable playing electronic pianos. “That is a trend for all musical instruments,” he says. “I believe that all beginner, low-level instruments are going to be electronic.”
Eran Egozy a music professor at MIT and classical clarinetist, has had a chance to play the Vindor. “Ergonomically, it doesn’t feel awesome,” he says. But using a real woodwind mouthpiece, complete with reed, is “genius,” Egozy says, making it feel more like an acoustic clarinet or sax. And while manufacturing the thing will be fraught with challenges — especially working to get the price below $200 — Egozy says it could be cool for a clarinet player to be able to plug into an amplifier and “jam out with your friends on music that isn’t classical music. You could substitute for a guitar and play in a rock band.” (Egozy, incidentally, helped create the video games “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.”)
Another local startup building musical instruments, PianoArc, has already made it to the big time. If you watched closely during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, y ou would have seen Lady Gaga’s keyboard player using the company’s lone product. It’s a keyboard that surrounds the performer like a giant hula hoop, offering 288 keys as well as an array of LED lights that are synced to the music.
“Our pitch is that keyboardists tend to look like data entry professionals on stage,” says PianoArc cofounder Chuck Johnson, who lives in Ipswich. “They’re not really getting the spotlight.”
The free Super Bowl publicity crashed PianoArc’s website. But it didn’t result in a flood of orders. The 360-degree instrument costs $60,000, and so far the company has sold only six. (One is at a children’s theater in Toronto, another in an Atlanta arena.)
Johnson says he still believes in the product’s potential. “It’s just not yet,” he says. This fall, he took a job as a sales manager with M. Steinert & Sons, the piano dealer. Its biggest-selling product: traditional Steinway grand pianos, priced between $30,000 and $170,000.
Michael Hawley is a conference organizer, former MIT professor, and pianist. (In 2002, Hawley won the Van Cliburn competition for amateur pianists.) He says that he can think of a only few new instruments that have found an enduring niche in the last century, like the theremin and the Chapman stick, a kind of guitar-bass hybrid.
“There’s a whole field called organology that looks at the evolution of musical instruments,” Hawley writes via e-mail. “Looking back on the myriad forms is like looking back at a fossil record of wonderful and sometimes bizarre critters that emerged and mostly went extinct.”
Avoiding that fate is one of the toughest entrepreneurial trials you could imagine — perhaps tougher even than learning how to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on a Vindor.