Monday, December 10, 2007

What Is Thummer Anyway?

In 2000, Jim Plamondon quit his job at Microsoft and embarked on an obsessive quest to invent a new musical instrument. His brainstorm: an odd keyboard variant with stubby joysticks and a honeycomb of buttons he dubs the Thummer.

Among the last new instruments to be widely adopted were the synthesizer and electric guitar more than a half century ago. But Mr. Plamondon believes his Thummer has a shot. One of the instrument's key features is a smarter keyboard that he says makes playing music more intuitive.

Mr. Plamondon is part of a subculture of musical inventors all vying to be the next Adolphe Sax (he invented the saxophone). They range from composers, such as an MIT professor who built a high-tech "hypercello" for Yo-Yo Ma, to basement tinkerers, including a piano player in Traverse City, Mich., whose "friction harp" resembles a TV aerial.

They demonstrate their instruments at conferences and niche music festivals. They upload videos to YouTube and sites like, which catalogs roughly 10 new instruments a month, including the "symphonic house," a home in Michigan outfitted with walls of resonating strings. Occasionally, their wares are adopted by big stars. Recent concerts by the singer Björk have featured a futuristic device called a "reactable," built by a team in Spain: Players issue eerie electronic tones and rhythms by moving glowing blocks across its table-top surface.

The bulk of new instruments rarely get played outside small circles of loyalists or early adopters. One big obstacle is the high cost of producing experimental instruments, which are usually built one at a time. Seasoned musicians who have spent years mastering an instrument also are reluctant to start over with a new one, while beginners gravitate to what they see on stage or in the orchestra pit. And most of the immense repertoire of Western music, from Bach to the Beatles, was composed for traditional instruments.

"The hardest thing to do is sell something to someone who doesn't perceive the need for it," says Roger Linn, who is credited with inventing the first digital drum machine in 1979. "I've seen the trail of bodies of inventors who have tried and died."

What sets the Thummer apart from other musical inventions, says Mr. Plamondon, isn't the way it sounds but the way it is played. It consists of two keyboards, each about the size of a paperback book. They can be played piano-style on a tabletop or sandwiched together and held aloft.

To play a three-note chord, for example, you press a cluster of three buttons. To play the next three-note chord, you keep your fingers in the same shape and move to a different group of buttons. Mr. Plamondon says this design makes the Thummer easier to learn than instruments like the piano, which require players to learn many more chord fingerings.

The Thummer doesn't make any noise on its own. It must be plugged into a computer or synthesizer, which uses software to mimic other instruments. To adjust volume and pitch, players thumb a pair of joysticks mounted on the side -- hence the instrument's name. Like the Nintendo Wii controller, it has an internal motion sensor, so players can also adjust the sound by moving the instrument around as they play it.

Marc Rossi, a synthesizer specialist and professor of piano and jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, says the Thummer sounds like a good-quality synthesizer. He says the internal motion sensor is what's truly innovative: "That could be a whole new world."

While veteran players would have little use for a new keyboard configuration like the Thummer's, Mr. Rossi says, "it could be very useful for kids and for people learning music who want less technical demands than a keyboard."

Mr. Plamondon, 47 years old, hasn't played an instrument since quitting the tuba after high school. He studied geology and computer science in college and later sold storm windows over the phone. He spent most of his career in the computer industry, taking on a series of software-writing jobs before landing at Microsoft in 1992, just as the company's Windows operating system was becoming ubiquitous.

He spent eight years persuading third-party developers to create software for the Microsoft platform, then left the company to take some time off and later pursue his own projects. He says he exercised his Microsoft options and invested in a portfolio of stocks valued at $2 million. He bought a beachfront home on the southwest tip of Australia and moved there with his wife and two children.

Most people designing new instruments are musicians. For Mr. Plamondon, financial need was the mother of invention: Shortly after moving to Australia in 2000, almost half of his assets were wiped out in the dot-com crash. He saw the Thummer as a way to start making money again.

After years trying to get his project off the ground, his family is strapped for cash. The two kids have put their college plans on hold, hoping that in a couple of years their father will be able to help pay tuition. The family doesn't have health insurance.

Mr. Plamondon says he needs to raise up to $1 million to engineer a final prototype, finalize patents and manufacture a first run of instruments.

The idea for the Thummer began when his wife and daughter both quit piano lessons after only six months. His wife, Patti, complained that learning to play separate lines on each hand "was like reading Spanish with one eye and French with the other," she recalls.

He began reading up on music theory and researching why piano keys are arranged as they are. He wasn't the first to hunt for an alternative. In the 1880s, Hungarian Paul von Janko patented a configuration that made fingerings identical in any key. A similar idea was developed for the concertina with an 1896 patent by a Swiss inventor, Kaspar Wicki.

In the fall of 2003, as Mr. Plamondon was playing the videogame Halo, he says he realized he could use thumb sticks like those on his Xbox controller to shift sound effects. He created a company (Thumtronics), hired an engineer to build prototypes, leased an office above a music shop and brought in nearly $500,000 in a first round of fund raising. In 2005, after outside funding for the Thummer dried up, he mortgaged the family's home for about $1 million.

"Things got really tight," says Ms. Plamondon. For a time, she says the family relied partly on the paychecks her then-18-year-old son brought home from his computer-store job.

For many on the tech-savvy side of the music world, sweeping change seems overdue. One of the last breakthroughs to catch on in a major way was the saxophone -- invented in the 1840s. During the past century, most inventions have only gained cult followings. The Stick, for example, is a bodiless guitar with strings that players tap instead of strum. Inventor Emmett Chapman has sold about 6,000 of them since 1974.

Mr. Linn, the drum-machine designer, calls the Thummer "a very good idea," but stops short of predicting its commercial success. Instead, he groups it into a broader category he calls "new little organisms in the Darwinism of musical instruments."

The music-products industry faces a mixed outlook. Retail sales fell in 2006 to $7.5 billion, down 4.2% from a record high the year before, according to the International Music Products Association, a trade group. And while the category of computer music products fared best last year, growing by about 15%, sales of some more traditional instruments suffered, such as pianos, which dropped more than 18%.

The Plamondons live in Austin, Texas. They moved there in April from Australia, seeking affordable housing and a music- and tech-friendly city. They bought their home online for less than $200,000, using some cash from the sale of their Australian home as a down payment.

In Austin, Mr. Plamondon started over, working up the entrepreneurial food chain at conferences and coffees; networking with think tanks and professors; fishing for endorsement blurbs that he posts on, where he writes a blog to build online buzz. He co-authored a paper on the Thummer that was published in the peer-reviewed Computer Music Journal.

The funding hunt has been more of a challenge. He recently targeted a pair of Austin investors, Fito Kahn and David Peterman. On a Thursday afternoon in October, Mr. Plamondon walked into Mr. Peterman's office eager to make a deal. His geek tendencies were on display: He set the alarm on his wristwatch to beep, prompting him to announce when there were 10, five and two minutes remaining. As the three men sat down around a table in straight-backed chairs, Mr. Plamondon eyed the papers in Mr. Kahn's hand. "What's in the folder? Is that a checkbook?"

It was -- but it wasn't going to be used on that day. The two potential investors had questions about patents and the prospects of manufacturing the Thummer in China. Mr. Kahn said they also want a sleek new look for the Thummer, in part to make it appealing to a younger audience: "We imagine the Thummer as Guitar Hero, only you're learning an instrument as you play," referring to a popular videogame that uses a guitar-shaped controller to simulate the rock-star experience.

Mr. Plamondon left with assurances that a written offer would be ready for their next meeting. Waving as he headed toward the door, Mr. Plamondon said, "I look forward to getting a check from you next time."

Following their October meeting, Mr. Kahn emailed a proposal to Mr. Plamondon. Instead of the lump sum Mr. Plamondon sought, the investors offered him $2,000 a month for six months and a promise to cover expenses involved in securing manufacturing deals in China. In exchange, they asked him to set up an advisory board and submit more business plans and other "benchmarks."

Just after Thanksgiving, Mr. Plamondon turned them down in an email to Mr. Kahn: "I'm going to wait for a better offer," he wrote.

None are currently forthcoming. He recently hit a wall at a local venture-capital firm, Gefinor Ventures. Wes Cole, a principal in the firm, says he was impressed by a video of someone playing "Summertime" on the Thummer, but he has reservations. "This is a market where you've seen no successful investment ventures, that I'm aware of."

With a handful of working prototypes, Mr. Plamondon is continuing to search for investors and gain a consumer audience. Taking stock of his savings, he says he has about six months left before he'll have to find a full-time job. At that point the Thummer will be relegated to an evenings-and-weekends enterprise, he says, "and that's the death of a start-up."

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