Designing Innovation – Interview With Keith McMillen: K-MIX and Beyond
At ANR, we love innovative companies like Keith McMillen Instruments (KMI), that allow musicians to create music and interface with computers in exciting new ways.
The founder, Keith McMillen, is certainly a unique case in the pro audio industry, an acclaimed music technology innovator of some 30 years standing.
Last year, when we heard about the release of a new KMI product, the K-MIX (a 3-in-1 tool: audio interface, digital mixer, and control surface!), we thought it was the right time to ask Keith some questions about this new adventure, his vision and his career.
The release of the K-MIX was then postponed, so we kept the interview in our ‘digital drawer’ until now. The K-MIX is finally hitting the shelves in the next few days, and we’ll have a first look at it as soon as the first test items become available (UPDATE: check out our KMI K-MIX review!).
I’ve read that most of your tools were born out of personal needs or ‘design challenges’. Did the same happen for the K-MIX?
Yeah. I remember doing a presentation where I had multiple musical instruments and audio sources and I didn’t want to drag a large mixer with me since they’re heavy and bulky. It was at that moment I realized it was time to make a very small, powerful, robust mixer so that I could bring it anywhere as part of my attitude that you should be able to carry everything onboard the plane because you don’t want to give the airlines all your money. So very much a personal need but, hopefully, a universal need.
It’s a rugged, USB-powered 8-input/10-output audio interface and programmable mixer, it features two ultra-accurate, low-noise μPre™ preamps, and a precision opto-tactile control surface that was designed from the ground up to command any DAW.
You can order it now for $499 – £445 – €599
The K-MIX is an intriguing device, and probably also the most complex achievement so far for KMI. What’s been the most difficult step of the project?
Actually two difficult steps – the preamps, mic and line preamps, had to be better or as good as anything out there. There could be no compromises. And the whole thing had to be bus powered so we had to make those preamps operate on a hundredth of what other preamps use in terms of power.
There was no part I could buy off the shelf that would operate as an amplifier / preamplifier, so I had to design one from scratch and this took about eight months! I spent a lot of time on the weekends coming up with a design, brought it in, and Nick (Wang – Hardware Engineer), who is just a fantastic engineer and technician, would spend the week putting it together testing and characterizing it.
We just did that over and over and over again until we hit the audio quality levels that satisfied us. Brought the power consumption down to about 3mA per preamp and just had to keep that signal quality consistent through all the prototyping and into production. So audio quality and low power were very challenging, trying to do both at the same time.
In one of your interviews, you said that you aim at designing products that are ‘extensible for whatever you want to do with it’. These words make me wonder, how do you handle the timeless dilemma ‘flexibility vs. ease of use’?
Well, ease of use is important, but a lot of instruments are not easy to use. Probably the more expressive instruments, the continuous instruments like violin, oboe, et cetera, take years of practice. Part of me feels that there needs to be some commitment from the user to train or learn a product or instrument to get the most out of it.
However, I do like to have a meet-you-more-than-halfway entry point so that people can turn it on and, within a short period of time, be doing something useful. I think a logical consistency in the product allows you to take a little bit of working knowledge and add to it. If you get and iPad, and have never used an iPhone or other “i” product from Apple, it’s not easy to use. You really have to learn how to make the little icons wiggle and what a swipe does and how you install apps and remove apps. Once you learn how it wants to be treated, it’s very consistent.
With musical instruments, you have to get a lot of things right and if you’re talking about new ways to make music you have to get everything right
You can take that knowledge and explore a lot of features and functions. So hopefully, our products are in the same spirit that you have to put a little time into it. Usually, the products are somewhat unique; will have features that people haven’t experienced before, so that does require some learning curve. I think everyone who designs complex systems tries to adhere to the phrase “no threshold, no ceiling” so that it’s easy to get in and you don’t bump your head on something that doesn’t have a lot of features.
There’s a certain amount of consistency, form and function, across your instruments. For example, if you can play a cello you can probably pick up an upright bass and know your way around – you have the roadmap already.
Yeah, you have some ability to make it function. I think as we’ve put out more instruments and even had the ability and luxury to put out second versions, like SoftStep2, we’ve been able to continue to improve consistency and welcome more people to the products. As with SoftStep, which many people considered challenging, we put in a variety of different editors that would meet people at their level of expertise or level of need. I think that’s useful so people can bite off as much as they want and learn how to master that amount.
Your QuNeo fundraising on Kickstarter was a big success and an important experience for KMI. Would you use this kind of platform again? Can I also ask you what you think of the Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1, the biggest Kickstarter success story so far, in terms of musical devices?
Kickstarter was great, and we did do another project on Kickstarter, the QuNexus, which was also quite successful. It not only provided us with money to complete the projects, but gave a lot of awareness which was extremely valuable. Had I taken the money we got from Kickstarter for the QuNeo and tried to buy awareness with it, it would never have even come close to the amount of awareness we got through Kickstarter. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding projects are very valuable to new companies and people launching new products because it gives you both aspects of what you need. I have not played the Artiphon and it looks nicely done and I think it appears to be a great beginner instrument. So I really can’t speak to it beyond that.
Besides the new ‘baby’, what’s the KMI product you feel most proud of, and why?
Well, actually it’s one of the least successful products which is the K-Bow. I built a lot of electric and electronic violins when I started Zeta Music and I wanted to do the other part of the instrument which is the bow. Personally, it was very satisfying to be able to complete a sensor bow. A lot of other agencies, universities, et cetera, tried and were not successful. So it was very satisfying when Kronos Quartet, for example, used it to play a piece written specifically for the K-Bow. I’m proud of all the instruments and all the contributions that our crew puts into these. Everyone dedicates their heart and minds to making the best things possible. I think if you asked anyone here what their favorite KMI product was, everyone would have a different answer.
You’ve often written or talked about the ‘need’ for new music for these modern times. I think that in 50/100 years from now, people will look at (most of ) those static ‘laptop & button-pushing performances’ as an embarrassing relic of a transition period. Imagine you have a crystal ball – do you think we’ll see relevant changes in the next 5-10 years or it will be a longer process?
I think it will be longer, but not by much. I tell people I’m in Year 35 of the 50 Year Plan and I really hope to take the products we’ve made at KMI and add some other products that have yet to be released and software that is sitting waiting to be revived and distributed. So I’m hoping that this all happens in my lifetime. I don’t think it’s going to be too far out but, Yeah – these types of changes don’t happen quickly. Like the electric guitar had been around a long time before Charlie Christian started using it and, much later, people like Jimi Hendrix made it a unique voice. Piano took a hundred years before it behaved properly. I think, with musical instruments, you have to get a lot of things right and if you’re talking about new ways to make music you have to get everything right. It has to be compelling and interesting and appeal to composers, performers, and listeners alike.
While more people are moving into that electronic realm, turning ones and zeros into a more analog interaction is still coming…
Well, it depends specifically on what aspect of music you’re speaking of. I think software synths are remarkable and software signal processors are truly phenomenal in what they can do, how well they can do it, how affordable they are, how portable they are. For synthesis, I think the quality of controllers still has ways to go to catch up with what people have done with software synthesis. Hopefully, we’re providing tools so people can get the most out of synthesizers which have come an amazing way since the early 60s.
As inventor and owner of a tech company, how do you approach the concept of technical obsolescence when designing a product?
That’s a great question and it certainly becomes harder and harder when you design electronic instruments because usually they are made for a specific purpose. Because of that they are ripe for obsolescence. But if you look at other instruments that are well made they do survive. The Violin replaced the Viola da Gamba because it was better. It gave people more range, more loudness, more timbral range and more control. So I think if our instruments provide these unique capabilities to musicians they will survive and be useful, and if they don’t then they deserve to go away.
What’s the musical technology/device you look at every time and can’t help wondering ‘damn, why didn’t I think of that?
….I can’t come up with one… I’m a guitar player, string player, and I enjoy computer music so that may limit the number of things I look at and consider as something I might need. But, I pretty much have been making things that I want since 35 years ago. I needed a programmable mixer back then so I made one, and it was the first programmable mixer ever. I don’t find myself looking at items that exist now. I can certainly go backward and look at products like Moog modular synths and Buchla synths and ribbon controllers and Theremins and marvel at them. But since they exist already and are quite perfect, I don’t have any desire to have made them. It just doesn’t cross my mind.
The things I need that aren’t out there, I make, and I still use lots of things made by other people who are incredible at designing products such as speakers, which I think is a real art, and microphones; these transducers are really hard to do. I just marvel at how good speakers have become, but I don’t feel any desire to be the one who made that. [Laughs] Stick to what you’re good at.
If you enjoyed this interview, you can order the K-MIX using the following links. This will allow us to cover our costs and offer you even better articles.
$499 – £445 – €599