A couple of months back I had a chance to speak with Keith McMillen of KMI instruments, the makers of the wildly popular QuNeo, QuNexus and now the Rogue. Keith and I had a great conversation. You’ll probably notice that this interview is a bit more conversational than usual. That’s because Keith is a cool dude. He knows the needs of musicians mostly because is a musician and a forward thinking “maker of things”. This is why his products resonate with so many performers and beta makers.
At the time that Keith and I spoke, the Rogue had yet to be released. It was merely a cool kickstarter campaign. Since then, it has had an official release. So you may notice that we discuss it as if its still a prototype or unreleased product. Still, as we converse about it you’ll kind of get the opportunity to get to know the method behind the madness that created the Rogue.
As the interview was transcribed and edited I realized that is is probably one oft he most enjoyable interviews that I’ve done to date. Not to mention, it is long, yet intriguing. Because of that fact, I’ve decided not to edit the length of the interview as much as I’d initially contemplated. With that in mind, this Keith McMillen interview will be presented in two parts. So without further ado, here is part 1 of our 2 part discussion with Keith McMillen of KMI instruments.
Let’s dig in…
BBoyTechReport (BBTR): For those that don’t know you, tell us a little bit about Keith McMillen’s background.
Keith McMillen: Sure. I started banging on things and listening to them when I was a little kid…until they hollered at me to stop. But I always enjoyed the way things sounded, and started building instruments in high school. I started playing instruments – guitar, bass, and like building my own amps in grade school.
And then, at the university I studied acoustics and got a good foundation in how sound behaves, and a background in computers and mathematics. And I’ve always wanted to do this my whole life, so it’s really great that I can do the things that really get me excited, and other people are able to use them to make music. I’m very, very lucky.
BBTR: That’s interesting what you say about a background of music and being interested in computers. I’ve noticed that a lot of technical people do music, and vice versa. And so, it’s an interesting parallel.
Keith McMillen: Yeah! Oh, yeah, they’ve always found the relationships that people with mathematical or logical minds often tend towards music, because music is logical at one level, and very emotional at another level. So it’s a great thing to enjoy.
BBTR: What inspired you to start making controllers?
Keith McMillen: When I started Zeta Music I wanted to be able to control synthesizers and computers from guitars and violin, i.e., string instruments. And to this day I’m continuing to work on that. It’s remarkably difficult because, you know, you play a violin note or a guitar note, you can change its timbre, and it’s subtle. You know, a good violinist makes it sound like someone, almost like a human voice, there’s so much nuance to it. So, extracting that nuance and being able to model it and transfer it to synthesizers is a real challenge. It’s like, you know, talking to your computer and having it really understand you. It’s a similar type of a problem.
So, even back then I was doing controllers, back in the early ‘80s; and I also did stuff for live stage. I did build some early turntable mixers for people. And I designed like the world’s first programmable mixer, MIDI mixer, because I knew that playing on stage you’d like to be able to affect the sound in a big way, and that’s usually done with a mixer. And so I built different types of foot controllers at that point.
So I’ve always been interested in how to use the gestures, the thing that we learn as musicians, as input devices to computers. And if you’re a keyboard player or a percussionist it’s pretty straight-ahead because you’re hitting something, and then, you know, if it’s a key you strike it and then you let it go. So those instruments have always had the advantage because of their nature, and it’s very easy to figure out what’s going on. So, you know, the whole game has been about how to control, how to get human gesture into the computer in a sensible way.
BBTR: Was it important for you to kind of get away from the simple off-and-on switch and really get into more nuances of all the different hand movements and things? Like you said, I guess maybe more drum programmers don’t really think about that stuff, but a violin player or a guitar player has to really be on-point with that stuff. Was that important for you to bring that to the controller world?
Keith McMillen: Good question. And your analogy is right on, in that if you are playing an instrument like a violin or a clarinet, just getting a note out of it takes work, right?
So that’s a different style of musicianship. And I think, since I was one of those, I always enjoyed the challenge of being able to continuously improve the ability to get expression out of my controllers.
But the same thing, you know if you look at other drums, like a conga or Indian tablas, those drums are a lot more than just, you know, ‘hitting it with a stick’ sort of sound. Yeah, they are continuous, and you hit the drumhead, and you’ve got your palm on the rim, and you push on it. So drums very much cross over into a continuous type of control. So, getting that to work on the QuNeo was really important to me. I just didn’t want to make another pushbutton clip-launcher.
And also, I wanted it to be flexible and rugged, affordable and portable. The portable thing is really, for me, a big deal. I toured a bit in the mid-2000s with a trio, and we’d have so much gear that it was really painful. And I mean, I just remember the moment, saying, “I want to go make all this stuff smaller and more powerful, because it’s no fun.”
BBTR: That makes a lot of sense. I used to have a hip-hop band. And so I wasn’t one of the musicians; I was the lead vocal. But I wasn’t the lead vocalist that wouldn’t help carry in equipment! <laughter> Even if it were just myself and the DJ with a Serato rig… You know, I would get in there…
Keith McMillen: …and share the pain. And you know computers, they just keep getting smaller and faster. And the use of vinyl and turntables kind of peaked a few years ago. [Those are] not catching the eye and ear of new musicians coming into controller and EDM music. And then you’ve got things like the iPad, the iPhone… And I just thought making a kind of a trifecta, was the most powerful controller most portable and most affordable, and because not everyone’s got a thousand dollars to throw at a controller.
So, I enjoyed that challenge, and it did force me and the team here to do new things, and to figure out new ways to sense motion. And that’s where these smart fabrics that we use are really important. You know they get a lot of press, a lot of people talk about them, but they’re really hard to use.
BBTR: Did you say ‘smart fabrics’?
Keith McMillen: Yeah, our sensors that are inside of there. It’s like a fabric, and… But getting it to behave just right is challenging. And I’ve been working with it for years, and we continue to improve the quality of the smart sensor fabric and how we work with it. A lot of controller companies, they’ll just like buy a bunch of switches and sliders and LEDs, and mount them to a front panel, and they’re done. I just thought that the musicians and the musical styles deserve something a little more elegant and integrated, and I really wanted to do that as one of the goals of QuNeo.
BBTR: Okay. Now, what are your thoughts on the direction of mobile musicianship?
Keith McMillen: Well you know, you go back in time a few hundred years and everyone was a mobile musician.
Musicians would wander from town to town with your flute or with your violin they’d play for their supper. And I think in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we started playing bigger places and things got amplified, and then you had to have monitoring and feedback control, and it became ‘big music’, just like ‘big science.’
So yeah, I think it’s good to wrap it around; it’s good to take the technology and turn it on itself and use it to make it small and portable and friendly again.
BBTR: And kind of related to that, I like that your devices are plug and play compatible. For instance, you recently did a firmware upgrade that makes your devices compatible with iOS devices, correct?
Keith McMillen: Correct. Yes.
BBTR: Were they not compatible before?
Keith McMillen: Well, you know Apple – Apple keeps changing things. And so it was compatible up to iOS 4, and then in 5 and 6 it was compatible with iPads but not iPhones, and now with iOS 7 we’re able to make everything behave again.
So, you know Apple is their own universe, and we try to keep up with what they’re doing, and being able to have it work with iPads and iPhones – especially as our devices are available in more and different formats – is really important.
BBTR: Yeah, that makes sense. I can imagine as a developer it’s quite a feat just to keep up with Apple and their changing things every year or so.
Keith McMillen: And you know it’s coming, you just never know exactly when. And you know, we’re developers and we’re on their list, so we get some heads-up. But until they actually call it a release, it’s hard to invest much time and energy in it because they change things even up to the last minute.
BBTR: Okay. As far as the style of the QuNeo – obviously, you all have a very specific style, the tie-dyed LED pads and stuff – what inspired that? Was it just a matter of wanting to make something that kind of stood out in the marketplace?
Keith McMillen: Well, I really wanted it to be capable of giving the performer enough visual feedback that he wouldn’t have to stare at his computer screen. And we pretty much accomplished that. And you know the old joke, when you’re watching a deejay onstage you don’t know if he’s checking his email or playing music, right?
And so, putting enough feedback, color feedback, into the device, that was one of the goals from day one.
And we have this new product coming out, the Rogue, which attaches to a QuNeo, provides power, and makes it wireless. So, you’ll be able to do what singers and others, like guitarists, have been able to do for a long time, which is to engage with the audience. You’re not nailed to one spot. And I think playing music it’s nice to move around, and it’s nice to be a performer.
I think that will help the music as an art, where people can get up there and engage the audience in better ways. So that product is announced, and we’ve already got some videos up on it. People are starting to use it, and it’ll be shipping this year. So that was one more reason, because I knew I was going to cut the cord between the QuNeo and the computer. So if the performer is going to wander off into the audience and perform, he needs to know what’s going on. And then that kind of defined the interface with all those colors.
But as for the new product, it’s called the Rogue and it’s on our site, and yeah, basically it looks like a QuNeo. But it’s got like a battery and power management; and a very high quality two-way radio interface; and you just slap your QuNeo on top of it, and…
BBTR: Ah, I see.
Keith McMillen: Yeah, you got it. And then there’s a little dongle you plug into a USB port, and you can get 40 – 50 yards away and still have it reliable. Yeah.
BBTR: Very cool. As a matter of fact, there were a couple people talking to me about the performance aspect of “beatmaking.” My perspective being hip-hop, in the beginning, the DJ was always stationary but he was the reason that the emcee even existed at the party. Then at some point the emcee became the front man and the center of attention. At that point record companies didn’t even want to sign a deejay with the group or didn’t even see him as a part of the act.
Keith McMillen: Right.
BBTR: And nowadays, it’s like reversed – the beat maker and the DJ are center-stage now, but they are tethered to that spot wherever they are.
Keith McMillen: They deserve the freedom.
BBTR: Exactly. Exactly, because they are center-stage now. When you think about it, there are more people… I mean, in the ‘80s and ‘90s me and all my buddies, we wanted to rap. Nowadays, yeah, everybody raps, but e-v-e-r-y BODY makes beats and deejays. It’s just the thing. So, yeah, that’s good that we can kind of untether the performer from that one spot and they can have a little more freedom. And hopefully a little more creativity comes from that; it’s great.
Keith McMillen: Yeah, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? You know, we make music with our bodies – we dance. I know that when I’m playing I like to feel it, and hopefully this will let people have a little more visceral interaction with what they’re doing and make it more physical.
BBTR: Right, that makes total sense. So, when you go into designing a new device, what are the objectives you that attempt to achieve when designing a new device?
Keith McMillen: Well, I never want to do something that’s been done, because life is too short.
I will look at an instrument and kind of think, where should that instrument go next? What else does it need to advance? And I think on that just…I’m not always right, but I have opinions. And then I’ll talk to people about it.
Like with our little keyboard, like I was saying earlier, like with keyboards ‘turn-a-note-on’ and ‘turn-a-note-off’ – well I really miss those notes in-between, from being a string player and listening to horn players. And so I wanted this keyboard to be able to bend notes. I wanted each key to be able to bend a note a different way. And then I also wanted it to be pressure-sensitive, so that you could – after you started the note you weren’t done – you could still engage it, and change it’s timbre and loudness or position.
I also wanted it to be able to play faster than a traditional keyboard. So, people are telling us that they can play phrases at faster tempos with greater accuracy on our little keyboard than on any other keyboard or piano they’ve experienced. So, in the same way like an electric guitar plays – you can play it faster than an acoustic guitar.
BBTR: Yeah, because the axe handle is different – you’re closer to the fret board. Yeah.
Keith McMillen: Exactly, yeah. It’s basic stuff; it’s physics – it’s how far you’ve got to move the strings. And so, I wanted the keys to not have to travel so far, and yet I wanted them to capture a very large range of dynamics. And so that was the challenge there.
And I like to make things look cool, and be rugged. And our products all get stress-tested, and you know there’s nothing more grueling than life on the road and using equipment onstage. You know you depend on it, so it’s really got to hold up.
BBTR: Right, right. Honestly, whether I’m traveling or not, I want to know that whatever bit of kit or gear that I’ve bought, or whatever’s in my arsenal of things to use, that it can take whatever I put it through. I mean obviously within reason, but you know everybody wants to know that whatever equipment they buy is sturdy and will hold up.
Keith McMillen: Well you know, we kind of are redefining “within reason”. There’s a video up where some of the guys here strapped the QuNeo to a 30-pound watermelon, and dropped it onto a concrete parking lot, and drove a car over it, and everything still worked fine.
BBTR: Wow, well yeah, you are redefining “within reason”! So that can not only survive the basic tour stuff, but it can survive tour pranks. LoL!
Keith McMillen: Yeah! Exactly. Because you know, we’re not “reasonable” – we kind of redefine what that is.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2