“For a well-educated, small country in the middle of nowhere, IP is a really good export. I personally think it’s is a better export than milk powder.”
It’s a Friday afternoon when I turn up at the new Melodics HQ in Kingsland. I’m here to visit co-founder Sam Gribben and his team, recent graduates of The BizDojo Auckland. Gribben, ex-CEO of DJ software giant Serato, began incubating his startup idea at the Dojo in August 2014. By November, he’d formed the company, and in December was raising investment rounds. This January, roughly ten months after his initial idea, he began developing the product that is launching this week.
Melodics is an app that helps you learn pad drumming - also known as cue-point drumming. If you’re a fan of electronically-flavoured music, you’ll likely be familiar with the concept; drum pads are used by everyone from indie-electro band CHVRCHES to pad-drum protege AraabMuzik, and are an increasingly ubiquitous piece of hardware in the equipment suite of acts using any kind of sampling or synthesized music in their live sets. As Gribben points out, there are a plethora of hardware and software options out there for pad drumming… but nowhere, other than YouTube tutorials, that will show you how to be better at it in a structured way.
As a recent graduate of The BizDojo Auckland, I wanted to pick Gribben’s brain about how he came up with the idea of a responsive platform to help you learn an electronic instrument, what he’d gained from being in our coworking space, and keeping a tech company in New Zealand.
What was the gap in the market that you’d identified?
We make software to help people learn pad-drumming. The gap in the market is that pad drumming is this thing that not many people really know how to do, and yet lots and lots and lots of these products are sold. It’s like MIDI-controllers with pads… in the layman’s terms, it’s a musical instrument for electronic music. Kinda like a drum machine. And hundreds of thousands of these things are sold every year, but there’s only a handful of people that really really know how to do it.
The other gap is that I knew lots of these companies from working at Serato - companies that make this gear. They have lots of software for making music, and they have lots of software for performing music - so if you want to make some stuff or perform it live, that’s all really well-covered by companies like Serato and Ableton - but there was very little that actually helps you to learn how to do it.
There was no consumer offering, basically.
No. For me it started with learning off YouTube. There’s millions of lessons on YouTube, and the top ten searches on YouTube with the word “lesson” in them are all music lessons. But it’s really low tech; you can pause it, rewind it, and that’s pretty much all you can do. So it got me thinking… wouldn’t it be cool if you could plug your instrument into a piece of software, it would listen to what you’re doing and it would slow down for you if you’re struggling, and respond based on how well you’re doing?
And the other thing that I was looking at was things like health and fitness apps and hardware, as examples of gamifying the process of achieving a goal - a personal goal that you want to achieve, like get fit or learn a language, getting points and rewards and really emphasizing daily practice and all these things. It got me thinking: why is no-one applying this to learning instruments?
The software that we make, you get feedback from it when you’re sitting in front of it. And when you’re not sitting in front of it, hopefully you’re encouraged to come back and do your practice - because maybe you’re on a five-day streak and if you get up to ten days then you unlock all these extra lessons, so it’s motivating you to keep going. So while the message is “this is software to help you learn”, it’s actually more about helping you to practice.
Was there any awkwardness approaching contacts that you’d made during your tenure at Serato?
No. The parting conversation with Serato was, “I really hope to find something that I can work on next that fits alongside what you’re doing.” By going to, say, Ableton - which was a partner of Serato - a company heavy in the world of music creation software and music performance software, we were finding this thing that went alongside what they were doing. It’s a nice fit. And in fact, there is a product that Serato makes called Serato Flip. It’s a way of cutting up a song and playing it using pads, and then recording that. That’s a really cool product, and what we’re making is a way for people to learn how to actually do it, so it’s quite complementary.
So the Melodics app is really the first step that enables anyone to get onto that pathway of music creation and then performance.
Yeah. And working with some of the DJs I worked with at Serato to make the lessons. There’s this competition in the world of DJing called the Red Bull Thre3style which is really big, and we’re working with some of the previous years’ winners. Last years world champion is a guy from Germany called DJ Eskei… we’re working with him to figure out these cue-point drumming routines and turning them into lessons.
Which artists were you most excited about working with?
Jazzy Jeff is a big one, I’ve worked with him for years. There’s a guy called Jeremy Ellis, who is one of the world’s best at this thing of pad drumming. He’s amazing. He’s from a long line of music teachers, so he’s going to make a full course. Gaslamp Killer because he makes really cool stuff and it’s fun to play. Tall Black Guy, who… is a tall black guy who does great work. And there are a few more, but I can’t say just yet.
When you were starting this journey and looking around at spaces, what convinced you that the Dojo was going to be the right place for you?
It was really the vibe. It was a place where I could be focused and productive and… being surrounded by people doing things is as much of it as any one individual whose brains I was able to pick or networks I was able to tap into. Being in that space where there’s stuff going down, there’s people doing interesting things, was quite motivating and helpful. Especially when you’re chipping away at an idea and there was nothing really concrete, and I was just putting pieces together and having interesting people to talk to was good.
How did you know when to leave?
When the sound of [taps on table] got too much for the other residents. The two things were wanting to put things up on walls, and make noise. Because we’re a company that makes noise, it was kind of obvious when it was time to move on.
The way things are set up in general in Auckland is that there are stepping stones, so I’m not too worried about [what happens when we need to move again]. It’s not like it was 10 years ago where you had to go out to a real estate agents and find offices… there are quite a few options now.
Where is Melodics five years from now?
We’ll have created a method for learning to play an instrument that has changed the way people think about learning to play instruments. When I’ve been talking to people about this idea over the last year or so, the general reaction is “that sounds great, I’d love that because I’d like to play an instrument but it’s too hard.” Almost everyone says that! Who doesn’t want to learn to play an instrument? Everyone’s like, “It’s too hard.” The dream is to make that not hard. To make it easy to start, and to make it fun.
It’s what people struggle with when it comes to fitness goals, or learning languages, without a sense of accountability - without knowing that someone or something is there recording your progress - it’s all too easy to stop.
The other word that’s important is “progress” - a feeling of progress. So many of these things are about an end goal, like “be able to speak french” or “be able to play the guitar”. [But] there’s no end point. It’s more “I play it better than I used to, I speak it better than I used to, I’m fitter than I was,” whatever. So as long as you feel like you’re making progress and you’re enjoying it, then you’re good.
I was surprised to read a headline in Idealog recently calling Serato “the biggest Kiwi tech company you’ve never heard of”. Is Serato really that unknown outside of the music industry?
Five years ago, even people in the music business here didn’t know what it was, even though it was big at the time in the States. Over the last few years the profile’s grown quite a lot, but I think it’s still pretty under the radar. Everyone knows about Xero and Vend and Trademe. In New Zealand there are a lot of people that don’t know about Serato that know about similar-sized tech companies. So it has a low profile; it always has. They’re doing a little bit around raising that local profile, now that they’re a certain size it makes sense. It’s not just about New Zealand customers, it’s also about the employees and finding new people and giving the people there a sense of working for a significant New Zealand company.
What I always found compelling about Serato - knowing that ScratchLive was the standard for DJ software world wide - is that they stayed in New Zealand. They had this massive global influence but they remained here and hired here and a lot of the people who worked for them were from here. As the former CEO, can you speak to what was behind that choice? Was that strictly an economic decision or was it because there was something about being here?
It was something special about being here, and it was also a lifestyle choice. It was because, for me at the time - and I think for them now still - that’s where we’re from. And that’s where we wanted to make our money from and grow up from. It wasn’t really an economic choice. Purely on numbers, it would have made sense to move to the US, even though costs would have been higher, it would have made sense. We never really seriously talked about upping and moving the whole thing. We wanted to be from here. And that’s the same for Melodics.
Are there ever any concerns about finding the right kind of talent?
Oh yeah, always. Always. But it’s worth it. It’s doable. Part of it is that it can be done, and showing that it can be done, and I think it’s a really good thing for New Zealand to have companies doing what we’re doing. Because I personally think it’s a better export than milk powder. For a well-educated, small country in the middle of nowhere, IP is a really good export. A big part of the message I had when I was CEO at Serato was that I would like to see New Zealand known for exporting amazing technology. Amazing technology is the tangible thing; the less tangible is exporting IP. Get a whole bunch of smart people and you think up ideas and turn them into products and then you send them out into the world… it makes a lot of sense for us as people who are three hours flying away from the nearest major city. I think it’s got more future than growing grass and turning it into milk.
Head to melodics.com to download the app for free (no hardware required - you can use your keyboard) and take a peek at what they’ve got in store.
Sarin Moddle is the Community Manager at BizDojo Auckland. Follow her on Twitter.