For a generation that grew up on the internet downloading mp3s, listening to electronic music, and watching our favorite artists on stage hunched over digital instruments, it’s easy to forget just how much computers have transformed the way humans make and listen to music. To us, the story of the digital music revolution has been usually framed as one of empowerment; it’s the reason kids on laptops can make new, groundbreaking genres from anywhere in the world, using software that is cheap to download and relatively easy to learn. Put it this way: in 2015, no one blinks an eye when a musician spends more time mastering guitar reverb plug-ins than they do practicing finger-picking techniques.
But although music tech has been incredibly freeing in some ways, it’s limiting in others. Take drummers as a case study. With software like Ableton and Fruity Loops, not only can beatmakers compose beats in a studio without the need for any actual drums, they’re also making sounds that acoustic drummers can’t really recreate live – at least, not without backing tracks or complicated interfaces. 808s, for example – the unmistakable bass kick drum sound that dominates hip-hop and dance music today – have a low frequency that real drum kits can’t achieve. But it’s the sound we’re all itching to hear in the club.
As audiences grow increasingly accustomed to sounds that acoustic drums can’t produce, live drummers are getting left out of the equation. Meanwhile, the nuance of acoustic drums, which, in the hands of trained musicians have an expressive range that electronic drums lack, is also getting lost.
The name Sunhouse comes from an Aztec myth about how music came to the world.
Tech entrepreneurs Tlacael and Tenoch Esparza are on a mission to bridge the divide between the digital and the acoustic. Under the auspices of their new music tech company Sunhouse, the brothers have developed Sensory Percussion, a new system that will finally merge acoustic and electronic drums into a single instrument.
Sensory Percussion works using highly specialized sensors that listen to the vibrations coming out of acoustic drums as a drummer plays them. It feeds these sounds into software that translates them into digital signals, in effect letting the computer learn how the drum sounds when you play it – i.e. how the timbre changes when you hit a snare in its center versus on its rim, for instance.
Once you’ve “trained” the software, you can assign specific electronic samples to different regions of your drum, and even blend these sounds depending on what part of the drum you play.
The end result is that drummers can control a full range of electronic sounds with the same nuance and expressivity that acoustic drums provide, using the same drumming techniques they’ve trained in for years.
In sum, Sensory Percussion makes the virtual physical – it’s like the Oculus Rift of drumming. It has the potential to completely revolutionize drumming as we know it. But then again, the Esparza brothers come from a family where trailblazing is the norm.
Tlacael and Tenoch grew up in Los Angeles. Their father is award-winning movie producer and activist Moctesuma Esparza, a man who established himself as a force in Hollywood by pushing forward empowering Chicano stories, including the Selena biopic that made both the late Tejana singer and Jennifer Lopez household names. Their sister Tonantzin – who works with Sunhouse too – was also instrumental in getting that film made (you can read our feature for the full story here).
In an industry where the lack of racial and ethnic diversity is a well-established problem, the Esparza brothers are something of a rarity. Both began as musicians – Tenoch, a classically trained pianist who went to conservatory, and Tlacael a jazz drummer who also played in indie rock bands – before they shifted into the tech world. Tenoch went on to do a stint at Google in Silicon Valley, (a company whose workforce is only 3% Hispanic, according to data it released last year), before landing in NYC at business school. Meanwhile, Tlacael spent time touring as a musician with Nicolas Jaar, heading to NYC to get a Master’s in computer programming and signal processing.
As Chicano tech entrepreneurs in a landscape where Latinos are few and far between, the Esparza brothers’ cultural identity is woven into every aspect of their project, including their name. “[The] name Sunhouse comes from an Aztec myth, it’s about the story of how music came to the world. We wanted that to be part of our identity, representing our heritage was important to us,” Tenoch told us.
For Tlacael, the idea to develop Sensory Percussion was born out of his own frustrations as a drummer. “In the studio, there are no limits – you can put sounds on top of sounds, add layers and tracks. But I couldn’t do that live without a backing track, which is not very satisfying in my opinion.” He began developing an acoustic-electronic hybrid approach, using triggers and sample pads to enhance his sets, but found the experience limiting. “It kind of changed the way I was playing the drums. It became like controlling machinery, like flying a plane or something.” In particular, he missed his ability to control musical phrasing. “Hitting a rubber pad and hitting a drum is very different in terms of a tactile feel. If you put a trigger on a drum it turns the drum into a button – you hit it, you get one sound. So you can’t play it like a drum anymore because you lose the nuance – you just get this one sound.”
As he began to study machine learning and music information retrieval (the science of studying audio signals) he realized he might be able to integrate electronics into acoustic playing, by teaching computers to hear and understand music via audio signals the way humans do. With Tenoch on board, he set out to develop a product that would put the power back in the hands of drummers. “I’m an ok engineer, that’s not who I am. I’m a drummer. So I think that perspective really informed my goals in creating this system,” he said. “A lot of [software] companies talk to drummers but they don’t really understand what it means to be a drummer today and what their creative goals are.”
Judging from the reaction to Sensory Percussion so far, he’s right. “I don’t have to play a little fucking pad anymore! That’s my biggest arch nemesis as a drummer,” Kiran Gandhi, drummer on M.I.A.’s Matangi tour, told Mic about the system. Ghandi is just one of many drummers who have endorsed Sensory Percussion. Drummers like Sterling Campbell (who has played for David Bowie and David Byrne), and Ian Chang, the drummer for Son Lux, are also singing its praises. Jaar, whose blend of digital and analog audio effects helped inspire Tlacael’s idea, also came on board with a special project called “Other People’s Imaginary Feast,” – a sound collage that demoed the concept of Sensory Percussion.
With the drumming world champing at the bit, the Esparza brothers are in the last hours of fundraising and getting the word out before they retreat back into development mode. “There are a lot of people who want to attach this to their congas, their tablas, their hand drums. This version doesn’t work on those drums but that’s definitely something we want to extend it to,” said Tenoch.
“We’re trying to build the community as big as we can.”