A couple of weeks ago we posted part 1 of our “Interview with Keith McMillen of KMI Instruments“. Today we return with part 2 in the series.
Without further delay, let’s dig in.
BBTR: So, I know that you’ve had the QuNeo for a while, but then the QuNexus came along. Was it just that you wanted to have a keyboard version, in order to flesh out the line? What prompted the development and addition of the QuNexus to the line?
Keith McMillen: Well, you know I like advancing controllers in general. And I’ve built violins that talk to computers, a long time ago. About six years ago I did a Bluetooth violin bow, which is not, you know, an everyday type of required instrument, but we have hundreds of people using it. It’s nice to make new musical instruments that people can just pick up and start using. If you know how to play a keyboard or play the drums, drum pads, or play a violin, you can take our instruments and just start using them because they’re kind of normal. But then you can go places with them.
So I felt the keyboard hadn’t really been updated. All of the synths out there are mimicking the piano, so we wanted to do something a little different.
BBTR: Okay. Now I know that there’s a trend right now – well, maybe it’s not a trend – I mean I’m just seeing stuff like the Push and the like where tight integration of hardware and software are all the rage. Have you all ever played with the idea of developing your own software to go with your hardware, even if only i-apps, or iOS apps and stuff?
Keith McMillen: Well, you know we do have a little program now – we call it the QuNeo Demo Lab. Connor here, one of the programmers, wrote it with our latest stuff. It’s available on our projects page. It at least shows what can be done, and it’s a lot of fun. I think we need to demonstrate to the world, you know, there’s more than on and off. And hopefully, that will inspire the software makers to incorporate these new modes of expression into their software. So I don’t feel a strong drive to create software products, because there are so many good ones out there already. Yeah, there really are some great things that are available, and at a reasonable price – some of them are free.
But I think they all could do better. I think they all need to be shaken a bit, and people designing these things need a bit of a slap to make it do more. And you know there’s always this dichotomy between convenience and kind of ‘perfection’. And I think we can get more enjoyable, more perfectly controllable, software that can still be convenient to use, if people just start integrating it from the get-go. And it will take a while. It’s the sort of thing that people don’t know they’re missing until they see it.
And that’ll take some time. But our demo lab, is a really great tight little application that does one thing really, really well. And hopefully, that will wake people up to the possibilities.
BBTR: Dope! I’ll have to check that out. So, switching gears just a bit, I noticed that your bio mentions NuRoque. Is it “new rock”, like the style of music?
Keith McMillen: Oh, <nü-‘rōke>.
BBTR: NuRoque, yeah… Tell me a little bit about NuRoque.
Keith McMillen: Yeah, thanks for asking. It’s kind of like 300 years ago, 350 years ago, technology really changed musical instruments. Up to that point, music was singing with some accompaniment. But we got harpsichords that could stay in tune, and church organs. We got flutes that had holes in them that were in the right places so you could play chromatically. So technology, which came from the Renaissance, allowed people to have better control over metal and materials, and better tools for crafting instruments. And we got this incredible period of music, like with Bach representing its high point. And that was called the Baroque.
And I think it’s time for that. I think we have all these great new tools and technologies in the form of computers and sensors and networks, and I think we can look to a new type of music that hasn’t been heard before, when we bring all of these things together and have them behave in a coherent way that people can learn. That’s not going to be something that happens overnight, but I think it’s nice to pick a point out in the future that is possible, and look towards it.
And you know there haven’t been a lot of new instruments, really. So I think we can take the ones we have, which people know how to play, and add to them – add these intelligent sensors and make them talk to computers and affect each other. And that’s like what really interests me. And with my trio, my little group, we had pieces that, depending upon what the violinist was doing, the sound of my guitar would change. And that is possible now, and the score can change based upon what people are playing.
I’m not saying all these things are going to turn into wonderful music, but these are new possibilities, and that’s what I’d like to see explored.
BBTR: That’s actually a real good point. It reminds me of a statement – I think it was George Duke – about made when synthesizers first started to hit. Before then jazz guys were playing, obviously, pianos, right? So, George Duke mentioned how his mind was blown when he finally got his hands on synthesizers and he could bend the notes and do stuff that only guitarists and violinists – the stringed instrument guys – could do.
I mean things advance and that’s when things really become interesting. I guess, even free jazz guys kind of went through that whole thing. Why did they start playing free jazz? Because conventional jazz was boring to them. So you know what I mean? Let’s see what happens… and BOOM! Free Jazz. I see the same thing in beat making, at least from where I stand. The difference in classic hiphop vs experimental music and dub step with its dips and drops and stutters is staggering but exciting to see the music progress.
Keith McMillen: That’s the human condition, you know – whatever we’ve got, we get good at it, and then we want to know what’s next. And we’ve just sort of run out of all the things you can get out of traditional instruments. Like in the ‘50s, I think we got every squeak and squonk and knock and rattle out of traditional instruments, to add to the repertoire of musicians and composers.
And we’ve got a whole bunch of new technology here that just needs to be refined and learned, and some sort of aesthetic that will show the way for it to become music.
BBTR: Indeed. Now, that whole statement and that whole idea of using the new technology and teaching that there’s new stuff that can be done with it kind of leads into my next question. Your site says “KMI partners with after-school programs and educational institutions to bring popular music education to students everywhere.” Tell me a little bit about how you educate kids on this stuff.
Keith McMillen: Yeah. Well, we donate equipment to schools that are working with kids everywhere from grade school level on up. It’s fun to get young children involved with making beats and shaping sounds, and there are a lot of educators out there who are doing some great work. Of course, no one is really getting any money. It’s really hard to follow your passion at that level. And so, we donate quite a few instruments to these people and to schools, to get these things seeded.
And then we have special pricing for universities and people who are teaching. We just think it’s important that there’s an easy and affordable way for educators and students to get at these new things.
BBTR: Beautiful. Beautiful. That’s good work, actually. And you know I’m seeing a lot of that. Having BBoy Tech Report, I’m meeting all kinds of interesting people. And obviously, my whole world and my whole life has always been about the hip-hop music or music in general, and technology, so I meet a lot of people, sound designers, people who make instruments, musicians, beat makers, deejays – there are so many programs nowadays that are teaching the kids. And I think that’s important work, so I love to hear that kind of stuff.
Keith McMillen: It really is, yeah.
BBTR: I’ve got to say I don’t know much about the BEAM Foundation, but I saw on your site that you’re doing work with the BEAM Foundation. What’s that all about?
Keith McMillen: Well, it’s a non-profit. I started it about 10 years ago. And it’s been a little bit on the shelf while I do this company, but I’d like to create a foundation that supports new music and kind of supports the longevity. A lot of electronic and computer music shows up and then goes away because the gear changes so fast and the software changes so fast. And I think there are ways to write music that can survive. I know a lot of composers who have given up writing for modern instruments just because it’s so difficult and so frustrating.
And so the BEAM Foundation is there to create a new normal, a new longevity, so that people can download the environment to create musical pieces that involve computers and sound processing and synthesis, and so that it’ll be archived and available and playable 50 years from now. Because, you know if you want to play a Coltrane solo you can still get charts and get some friends together and solo on top of it. That music has a life beyond the few years that it was performed. And I just don’t think we have that yet; we haven’t gotten our shit together enough that we can make music with these new tools that will last. And I think that’s kind of a first requirement. You know if you’re writing on paper and the ink disappears in five years…the literature is not going to go very far.
BBTR: Yeah, that whole point in history vanishes, exactly.
Keith McMillen: Yeah. I think you need to build on the past, but if the past keeps going away you’re always starting at zero, and things won’t evolve.
Keith McMillen: Yeah. The BEAM is sort of that dream; it’s got a lot of great backers and supporters. I kind of need to do these instruments so that people can input their expressive desires into music and styles that will persist. It’s a big project.
BBTR: It sounds like it. It sounds huge, but it sounds so necessary, though.
Keith McMillen: Well, I’m glad to hear you say that. I think it is a needed thing, and I tell people I’m in year 33 of a 50-year plan.
And it’s moving along. Everything is moving along quickly. And that’s another thing, too, is reaching out to the kids through our academic program. I think it’s going to be young people who are going to embrace these new styles – whether they’re doing it from a string quartet or from a street corner – it’s always the young ones that are open-minded and flexible.
BBTR: I see that there’s quite a bit of a nod to the youth in the work that you do, which is cool. So, what kind of advice would you give to, say, the aspiring inventor or music tech developer coming up that may say, you know, “I want to invent the next controller or drum machine or tech something or another?” What kind of advice would you give to him?
Keith McMillen: Well it’s kind of schizoid advice. I’d say you really do have to learn how things work. Learn to program, learn to bend circuits and, you know, kind of be traditional, because the laws of science are not going to change to make you happy. So you do have to know these things.
But then, don’t do the normal things with them. And don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. And kind of it’s good to be a bit of a rebel or a loner, and make something happen that satisfies you, and that might inspire someone else. But you do have to immerse yourself in it. And it’s not going to happen overnight.
BBTR: Yeah, that’s hugely important, because I think it’s the microwave kind of instant satisfaction type of generation here. And there’s a lot of work that goes into things. I’ve heard kids talk about they want to make stuff, but I don’t think the attention span allows them to take it any further than the idea of I want to make stuff. You know what I mean?
Keith McMillen: Exactly! Exactly.
BBTR: So, it’s important.
Keith McMillen: That’s well said, yeah.
BBTR: So, the last thing – I don’t want to keep you too long, and it’s been great talking to you – but the last thing I’d like to know is what can we expect from KMI in the future?
Keith McMillen: We’re going to have some new controllers coming out, and I’m going to have some new stuff for guitar. I keep returning to guitar because it’s an iconic instrument, and it’s what I learned and play. And I think it needs to be updated. If you have like a Stratocaster and a wah pedal and a Marshall amp, all of which was available 40-plus years ago, you can do pretty much everything you want with a guitar.
I think it’s time to step up the game and give the guitar more control and flexibility. It’s just a great instrument. It’s halfway between a piano and a saxophone – you know, it’s got polyphony, yet you can play solo lines on it – so it’s a really nice quantity of notes you can get out of it. But it’s tough because it’s very formalized, you know, even as a rock instrument or a modern instrument. So, next year we’ll be seeing some fun things for guitar.
BBTR: Nice. I’m looking forward to it. Like I said, I love the work that you’re doing; there’s a lot of deep good work that you’re doing, and your passion for your work is very apparent. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.