8 minute read
Startup Story

Sunhouse: Artificial intelligence's new groove

Sunhouse team picture 00:00

The music-tech startup making AI work for artists

While people around the world are learning to coexist with artificial intelligence—in our jobs, our art, and our daily lives—drummers have been familiar with this trajectory for decades. “Drummers went through this way before AI. They were replaced by drum machines back in the '80s. They were the first members of the bands to be replaced,” says Tenoch Esparza, co-founder of Sunhouse, a music-tech startup with an ML-enabled hardware/software electronic drumming product called Sensory Percussion.

Tenoch and his brother Tlacael co-founded Sunhouse to create music-making tools that understand musicians and allow them to work creatively with tech in a way that organically preserves the integrity of their craft. To do this, they have put musicians at the front-and-center of their product design and built a machine learning software that responds to human nuance and touch.

Tenoch and Tlacael are both musicians; Tenoch is a classical pianist who went to conservatory and business school, and Tlacael was a drummer in an indie rock band who went on to study music tech. Their experiences converged naturally towards building Sunhouse, and they launched with a drum-focused product for a simple reason: “Rhythm is so fundamental to music,” Tenoch tells us. He explains that even though so much of music is built around a drum track, drummers themselves have felt marginalized by technology: “Drummers were really hungry for this kind of product because they had been cut out of the equation 30-plus years ago. So it was really important for us to create a product that empowers them.”

Tenoch describes the existing industry offering as “either like you stick with your instrument but have really primitive tools, or you ditch your instrument and have the powerful tools. But then it's not an instrument anymore, you're programming.” Their solution is to combine both—using technology as it was intended, to take human skill further. “What we're doing is really creating a bridge between the acoustic world and the digital world using machine learning.”

Tenoch and Tlacael want musicians to be able to collaborate with technology and make it work for them, and they have achieved this with Sensory Percussion. Whereas traditional drum machines render drummers themselves obsolete, Sunhouse harnesses the possibilities that technology brings for drummers to amplify their own instrument. Tenoch explains, “With electronic music, there's two paths: You could get triggers and electronic drums, which basically turn your drums into dumb buttons; it removes all of the expressive qualities of the instrument. The other approach is ditching your instrument and using a tool like a digital audio workstation, to program beats on your computer. And that's how a lot of producers work.” Tlacael had tried the industry-standard tool and found that, as a drummer, he was far more comfortable creating beats with an actual drumset than he was programming a beat with a mouse. “And so he thought, ‘Well, why can't I play the drums and use all of the same tools that the producers have?’ Because that's never really been possible.”

The instrument itself is a drum with a built-in sensor, and software that analyzes the signal generated by the vibration of a drumbeat. “We're detecting when you hit the drum, and then we're passing that signal through our models to figure out how you're interacting with the drums and detecting the timbre of the sound.” Tlacael explains that a drum is capable of producing “an infinite number of sounds” depending on the material and contact. He says, “When you strike the drum, our ears can hear and recognize different nuances of the sound of the drum and our sensor picks up on that actual audio. We're training the computer to recognize sound in a way that we can hear it, and recognize different types of sounds from a single drum.”

Tenoch and Tlacael pride themselves on translating music to technology in a way that makes their software almost natively accessible to musicians. Once the sensor picks up the signal from the drum, it is converted to a usable, symbolic language that can be formatted by Sunhouse’s proprietary audio software which includes samplers, audio effects, and sequencers.

As well as drumbeat, the device can track the drummer's movements across the instrument: “That's how we turn the drum into a high-dimensional, continuous controller, like moving in your hands in 3D space—so suddenly, the drum becomes this virtual control surface. But you're controlling it by playing the drums, and so it's a really high-dimensional, complex controller, but that is fundamentally intuitive for drummers, because they already know how to play the instrument, and they're natural actions for them.” Tlacael describes the software as being so intuitive for drummers that “you could be a drummer who's never opened a laptop, sit down at our system, and suddenly, you're making beats like a producer, because your interface for the computer is this instrument that you know intimately well.”

Sunhouse’s team has observed an extensive range of creative use cases, and Tenoch tells us that Sensory Percussion has allowed drummers to reclaim their independence. “Essentially what we're doing is telling people, ‘You can put this sensor on your drum and it turns into a really powerful controller. And now what do you want to control with that?’” This degree of control has allowed drummers to extend their musical collaboration to other instruments. Tenoch continues, “You're taking a drum, which can have a certain amount of dimensional control, and stuffing a keyboard into it, or putting chord changes and formal movements into it.”

Building a company is about far more than developing a product, as founders know too well. “Deciding to start a company is a scary thing, and it is a big leap,” Tenoch tells us. The Latino Founders Fund offered support that they hadn’t anticipated: “This funding from Google means a lot more than just the money because we're being given a direct line to [Googlers’] expertise,” Tlacael tells us, and continues that the collaborations “inspired new creative directions with AI in music.”

The co-founders also experienced the benefit of belonging. Tenoch tells us,

Being Latino in tech, the structural barriers are real. Latinos have less access to capital, so there just aren't a lot of role models out there. That's why we're so happy to participate in the Latino Founders Fund. Having someone really help to create a community is a huge service for the ecosystem.

Sunhouse’s team relies on Cloud-based tools for storing and processing the data that makes their transformative music technology possible. Onboarding and API management are run via Firebase, and their website and the server for their user database are hosted on Google Cloud. Google Analytics has helped them to track app usage and music creation and understand their users better. The “many, many terabytes of data” collected from Sensory Percussion’s sensors is stored in the Cloud; once downloaded and parsed into datasets, the Sunhouse team uses TensorFlow to train their timbre recognition models.

Tenoch describes industry-standard music tech as “really complicated stuff that if you're a musician, kind of sucks that you have to learn.” Sunhouse’s approach is to restart at the beginning, where the music starts—with the artist–and reverse engineer the technology. Their goal is to “rethink music technology from the perspective of the musician and actively decolonize music software from the engineering perspective to be more user-centric.”

Tenoch believes that tech and music can coexist for the benefit of the artist, but with a human-focused sense of responsibility. He tells us, “Technology is not inevitable—no, it all comes down to the decisions you make and how that affects the people around you. And so, our mission really is musician-first—built for musicians by musicians.”

Learn more about Sunhouse