Return of the Piano Rolls? New Software Reproduces Recorded Performances on 21st-Century Player Pianos
Thursday, March 24, 2005
News and Observer [Raleigh, North Carolina]
By Jonathan B. Cox
RALEIGH, March 23 ó John Q. Walker moves to a table at the side of the recital hall and returns with an LP album cover. The title is "Bach: The Goldberg Variations." It was recorded by Glenn Gould on piano in 1955.
"He's trapped forever in 1950s mono sound," says Walker, 49, as a smile slides across his face. "Well, not forever." He steps forward and presses a button on a small black box connected by computer cable to the black Yamaha grand piano on the stage. It comes to life.
The keys move in the exact way that Gould pressed them. The pedals drop at precisely the right time to sustain the notes. The volume falls, and one can imagine Gould leaning in to the keyboard.
To understand the demonstration is to understand Walker's Raleigh company, Zenph Studios, and his vision for revolutionizing the music industry. Zenph's software converts sound into the mechanical inputs that made it. The technology could be used to create better recordings of old works or to dissect artists' styles.
It's an opportunity where "if you solve this one thing, everything changes," Walker said. His enthusiasm highlights an optimism building in the Research Triangle's technology community. Venture capitalists are investing again. And entrepreneurs are emerging from their bunkers as the economic downturn fades.
Walker is among those who succeeded the first time. He and three partners sold an earlier startup, Ganymede Software of Morrisville [North Carolina], for about $171 million in stock in 2000. At the time, it was the highest price paid for a private software company in the Triangle.
That he and others like him have formed new ventures brings hope for another tech boom. Evidence of the rebound has been growing at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) [in North Carolina], which helps new companies get started. Enrollment in classes and other sessions to help them has increased, said Adam Smith, the vice president for programs.
The ideas that they have are "a lot more thought out than they were," Smith said. People have "started sensing the sun was coming through the clouds a little bit."
Zenph just recently started to come forth from relative obscurity. Walker is beginning to talk with potential customers and he will present Zenph at a CED conference next month attended by venture capitalists. A demonstration of Zenph's technology will occur at Raleigh's BTI Center in May.
To this point, the company, which began in 2002 and whose name is derived from the German word for mustard, has been funded by Walker, a partner and angel investors who back startups.
The headquarters is at Walker's home, which includes a 1,400 square-foot recital hall that he added to facilitate recording. Until a few weeks ago, Zenph's technology wasn't ready for customers, which could include recording studios such as Warner Music Group, Sony Music, Universal Music Group and EMI Group.
The eureka moment came February 18. That's when Walker and his staff ó the company has four employees, including Walker ó reproduced the Gould performance and recorded it with high-tech gear. Walker, who says he couldn't sleep that week, now simultaneously plays the recording and original through separate, high-fidelity speakers for illustration.
The two sound almost identical, except the most recent recording lacks the crackling of the older. And that's the point. The most immediate application for Zenph's software could be for rerecording old works. A company such as Sony could pay Zenph to re-create a performance and record it with new equipment that would produce more channels of sound and fill living rooms equipped with surround sound speakers. Original recordings can't produce the result.
"The way they recorded is the way [Thomas] Edison did it, which wasn't necessarily the best way," Walker said. Zenph's software effectively grabs sounds and figures out how they were made ó exactly how long a key was held or how a finger twitch altered a note. The data is put into a computer file, creating a digital fingerprint of an artist's style.
Over the long term, Walker envisions creating templates of styles. People could get musical scores and overlay an artist's template to achieve a desired result.
So, for example, you might love Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," but wonder how it would sound if Elton John performed it. You could overlay his style to find out. When you're tired of that, you could plug in John Tesh to get a different take.
"Equationally, this can be solved," Walker said. "It's a 100 percent software problem, and we're software guys." Despite the success so far, challenges remain. The only music that can be captured or re-created is that played on piano. Zenph invested six figures in the self-playing Yamaha piano, which is laced with fiber-optic cables. The quality of other robotic instruments isn't yet up to par.
There's no guarantee that customers will want to buy Zenph's service, or that they'll buy from Zenph. Other companies are working to achieve similar results, though Walker said they're not as far along as Zenph.
And even if recording studios show interest, customers might not. Some consumers want the purity of the old recordings, even if they are marred by age or the sound muffled. To replicate performances with computers and technology, some say, is inappropriate.
Such challenges are common to entrepreneurs. They must overcome many obstacles to succeed ó the most basic often includes explaining what they want to do.
"Most people don't get it," Walker said. "Or they nod their head and say, 'OK, John.' " To be successful, the business now needs to expand. Walker wants more self-playing pianos and a bigger facility. He'll have to make his pitch to venture capitalists who remain skittish after the dot-com collapse. Some continue to preach caution.
But Zenph is winning fans in the music world. Thomas J. Otten, an assistant professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recorded a solo album in the Zenph recital hall.
"It's certainly some amazing stuff, absolutely," Otten said. "It will be interesting to see how that catches on." Interesting not only for Zenph, but for the economic fortunes of the Triangle.
Copyright (c) 2005, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.