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Motif history: Part 3 of Julian Colbeck’s ruminations on digital life as Keyfax turns twenty-five

Motifating Masses of Motif Owners

Keyfax NewMedia began life as the softest of software companies, creating the effectively open source MIDI loop libraries, Twiddly.Bits.

Adding hardware to our mix of products in the shape of the Phat.Boy MIDI Performance Controller changed everything. Crucially, the logistical and financial impacts of manufacturing hardware in Central London put a different spin and stress on how the company was structured. Eventually Keyfax divided like a mitosisizing amoeba and the UK division re-emerged as Gforce Software, purveyors of fine virtual instruments like the MiniMonster, MTron and ImpOSCar.

Getting Stuck in the Grooves  

In the USA, Keyfax NewMedia set about exploring how our programming and audio skills could be applied to specific individual instruments and one such instrument that caught my eyes and ears was Yamaha’s RM1x.



The RM1x is a groovebox with a Yamaha sample-based tone generator, built-in sequencer and a bunch of grooves whose mix and manifestation you can manipulate in real time. The internal grooves were good. But not that good. I reckoned we could do better so we recorded a groove library that could be inserted into the RM1x via our old friend the 3½ “ floppy disk. Almost instantly, the RM1x Hip Hop And R&B Groove Library was very well received.

And especially by Yamaha.

 

Motif Magic

Yamaha supported both the Hip Hop and R&B and the subsequent FUNK groove libraries and when it came to the company working on a new keyboard workstation code-named “*$%^&3CV” (do you spot a competition question on the horizon?) they got in touch and contracted me as a UI design consultant.

One thing led to another and over time Yamaha licensed some Twiddly.Bits MIDI loops as raw material for what would be called the Motif’s internal ‘arpeggios.’ The flute flutters, those acoustic guitar-fingerpicking patterns, funk electric guitar? They’re Twiddly.Bits.

Motif was brewing up to be an excellent instrument but it had two things not going for it. In spite of my UI input it was pretty darned complicated to operate. Yamaha also had modest expectations of sales. “It’s really the end of the road for workstations” they said.

Undaunted, both I and the senior marketing guy for Yamaha US loved it and together we hatched a plan for a dedicated website to help launch the instrument.

Motif was previewed to the press at 1 Infinite Loop (Apple HQ) late in 2000. For the most part the launch was like a thousand others I’ve attended over the years. “We’re using the latest XYZ technology and this comes with 8476 sounds and a capacity of blah blah blah.” But then the demonstrator played one of the flute arpeggios and, though MIDI, it sounded like a real flute sample. You could hear the room snap-to. “Eh?” “What’s going on? How’s it doing that?” Our ‘magic’ of simply using a real flute player to record a flute motif on a MIDI Wind Controller and for that data to then drive a short burst of MIDI, proved to be the icing on this admittedly already very tasty cake.

 

Social Media before Social Media

Motifator.com was launched before the Motif even appeared, in July 2001, to immediate acclaim and massive viewing figures. The key to Motifator was its ability to motivate a group of people with similar interests: to inform, educate, enable people to inter-communicate, share music, share stories, share pictures of their cats… in two words ‘social media’ before there was a thing called social media. At this time Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school. LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, SoundCloud and more hadn’t been invented.

The forums on Motifator.com got off to a flying start, as much because we wanted them to be open, carefully but non-intrusively moderated, and that a culture of support and friendliness was paramount. And it worked. Only months into its life 9/11 happened and in its own miniscule way, Motifator became a healing force, reiterating the power of music and the power of being good and nurturing to one’s fellow citizens. Over the years, and en route to well over a million posts, Motifator produced many heroes: Motif owners who spent thousands of hours helping others figure stuff out. And it was pro bono. BradWeber, sciuriware, TheDukester, Wellie, Patchcord, DavePolich, philwoodmusic, Meatballfuton, 5pinDIN (who remains to this day) and dozens of other ‘gurus’ represent the best money Yamaha never spent.

Far from being an end-of-line instrument Motif propelled a new era of workstations into life. No, into orbit. Motif, in its subsequent various extensions and diminutions has gone on to sell in excess of 200,000 units worldwide making it one of the best-selling keyboard lines ever.

 

Video Vidi Vici

Keyfax’s role in helping Motif be understood, supported, and loved by millions became pivotal. As the Motifator community ballooned, so too did the demand for third-party sounds, accessories, and more tangible support media like instructional videos. Keyfax has produced the official instructional DVD for every single Motif product in the line. We also produced ‘unofficial’ videos like Sound Advice on programming, Drum Programming Secrets, and Cubase 4 Recording The Band, all of which are alive and on sale to this day. It’s been a personal mantra that if people understand and enjoy a product they’ll come back for more. More stuff, more products.

Explaining a product is like telling a story and it’s not that difficult. Essentially you need to speak in words your intended viewers can understand. For any product’s 'instructional' video it should be fairly obvious not to assume much prior knowledge and to avoid-or if you can’t then properly explain—technical jargon. If a video is dull to watch and contains about as much humor as a restraining order don’t be shocked if your message fails to land. 




In addition to the Motif videos Keyfax went on to write, shoot, edit and distribute many other videos-Exploring Sound Reinforcement, 01Xperience for the ill-fated MLAN project mixer the 01x , the oddball Tenori-on (for which Keyfax was appointed the official US and Canadian distributor) and videos for both the electronic drum and professional audio divisions of Yamaha—as well a videos for Universal Audio, AVID, Arturia and Casio.

 

Steinberg

Just before Christmas 2004, Yamaha acquired Steinberg from its previous owners Pinnacle Systems. Pinnacle, a company who knew as much about the music community as I do about mink farming, was supposed to continue supporting the platform, including its crucially important customer upgrade path. But to everyone’s horror, especially Yamaha’s, Pinnacle just stopped in its tracks and said, as the ink was drying on the contracts, ‘Over to you, boys, we’re outa here.’

Keyfax to the rescue, and in record time a new online upgrade process plus a dedicated support site, was in place. The relationship between a hardware-orientated company like Yamaha and its young software-based acquisition was interesting to observe. At the 2005 NAMM show I attend a priceless meeting-of-the-forces between Yamaha and Steinberg sales teams. Within minutes of the ‘we’re all on the same team now’ spiel and expected hug fest, skirmishes broke out quickly followed by open hostility. It’s always been a source of pleasure to see how quickly a veneer of corporate calm and control can disintegrate. It's good and somewhat assuring to be reminded we're not all drones who stick to the given script-and-spreadsheet like flies on a windshield.

The Motif period of Keyfax was a blur of products, videos, and intense NAMM shows. But it was also a warm and fuzzy time, knowing we were helping people who'd bought music tech products get their money’s worth and be creative with it.

And actually, it was the same driving force that had created the Twiddly.Bits loop MIDI loop libraries.

In Part 4, Alan Parsons and The Art & Science Of Sound Recording.




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