Zenph conjures more musicians' spirits

But this séance is pure science

Staff WriterNovember 13, 2009 

  • Zenph is considering a smorgasbord of new revenue sources. Among the possibilities:

    Licensing its software to recording studios and sound engineers. They could use it to fix mistakes and otherwise manipulate contemporary recordings, such as making a performance sadder.

    Licensing music for TV shows and movies that previously wasn't feasible because of inferior sound quality. If "The Sting" were being made today, said Frey, instead of hiring Marvin Hamlisch to imitate ragtime piano master Scott Joplin on the soundtrack, the filmmakers could opt for Joplin himself.

    Using Zenph's software to reverse-engineer famous jazz performances and create sheet music. Jazz's improvisational nature hasn't lent itself to sheet music.

    Creating software that would enable piano students to play a piece, then compare their performance to those of the piano greats.

  • Business: Its software and technology re-creates famous piano performances and creates a new way to manipulate music

    Based: Raleigh, but moving to Durham

    Founded: 2002 as Zenph Studios

    Top executives: CEO Kip Frey; chairman and chief technology officer (and founder) John Q. Walker

    Employees: Seven

Zenph Studios is poised to move far beyond what its new CEO jokingly refers to as "dead guys playing piano."

Founded in 2002, the tiny Raleigh company's software turns music into data and re-creates famous piano performances of the past. Now with the help of nearly $11 million in financing and an all-star set of advisers, Zenph has ambitious plans to blaze new musical paths with its technology.

Zenph "has the ability to change the music industry the way that Pixar changed the movie industry," said Kip Frey, whose appointment as CEO is being announced today along with a $10.7 million infusion of venture capital.

The company has already won fans among music lovers. Its software digitizes notes from famous jazz and classical performances and then plays them on a computer-controlled piano. It sounds gimmicky, but the company's albums of performances by jazz legend Art Tatum and classical icons Glenn Gould and Sergei Rachmaninoff capture the nuances of the original performances and have been embraced by critics.

Now Zenph's to-do list includes expanding beyond the piano to re-creating performances involving a full range of instruments, starting with the stand-up bass, via a mixture of virtual and robotics technologies. That requires creating a whole new breed of instruments.

"When you come in and see our string bass, you say, oh, that looks like something from the 'Star Wars' band," said Zenph founder John Q. Walker, who was in New York last week to present a "live" concert of Rachmaninoff at Carnegie Hall. "But then you hear it and say, that sounds like a string bass."

Zenph also envisions collaborations between the musical greats of today and yesterday, something it already has dabbled with. A track it recorded featuring the Tatum of yesteryear with a contemporary big band was nominated for a Grammy award.

Other possibilities include licensing its technology to recording studios for enhancing contemporary recordings and creating educational software for piano students.

Frey doesn't envision a single "killer app" that will enable Zenph to become a substantially larger company. Rather, he sees the sums of many parts adding up rapidly.

"This has the ability to touch so many points in the entire food chain of musical performance," he said.

Frey is one of the Triangle's most successful entrepreneurs. His last software company, OpenSite Technologies, fetched $542 million when it was sold to publicly traded Siebel Systems at the height of the dot-com bubble.

Moreover, Frey has recruited a top-notch cast of directors and advisers. The company's new board of directors includes Matthew Szulik, the chairman and former CEO of Raleigh software company Red Hat, and William Patry, senior copyright counsel at Google and author of a renowned seven-volume treatise on copyright law. Jazz star Branford Marsalis, who lives in Durham, heads Zenph's artists advisory board.

That talent is coalescing around a 7-year-old company with just a handful of employees and revenues that Frey characterizes as "very small." But potential can be a powerful magnet.

Prior to joining Zenph, Frey was a partner at Durham venture capital firm Intersouth Partners, which led today's investment. Raleigh's Capitol Broadcasting, owner of WRAL-TV, also participated in the funding, which marks the first time Zenph has raised money from institutional investors.

Frey is no stranger to the entertainment business. He studied film directing at the University of Southern California and was an executive at Turner Broadcasting.

More important to Zenph is his familiarity with copyright law. He practiced intellectual property law for five years after graduating from Duke University's law school.

That's crucial to Zenph's game plan, said Intersouth's Mitch Mumma, because the company's new performances of classic recordings create new copyrights - even if the source material is in the public domain.

But Zenph isn't exploiting works whose copyright protection has expired. Instead, it works in conjunction with the artists' estates.

"Because we have this ability to create a new species of intellectual property rights, we want to be respectful of the artists and their estates," Frey said.

Zenph is so dedicated to its unique version of historical accuracy that when it came to re-creating a live Tatum performance, it recorded the songs at the same venue - the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles - before a real audience, with the piano at the same spot on the stage.

In another sign of its ambitions, the company has been re-christened Zenph Sound Innovations, although its record label will keep the Zenph Studios name.

Zenph also plans to move into offices at the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham, which is owned by Capitol Broadcasting. That will enable it to accommodate an expanded staff, although it will keep its studio space in Raleigh.

Frey expects Zenph to have more than 20 workers by the end of next year.

Walker, who founded the company in 2002, has degrees in piano, mathematics and software engineering. He also was one of the four co-founders of Ganymede Software, which was sold in 2000 for $171.2 million.

Walker has stepped aside as Zenph's top executive in deference to Frey, but he remains the company's chairman and chief technology officer.

"It puts me back in the technology delivery arena but, man, I love that," Walker said.

Upcoming projects include re-creating performances by the late jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Walker likes to talk about a video clip featuring Peterson, who was slowed by strokes in his last years, experiencing Zenph's technology first-hand months before he died at the end of 2007.

"Oscar wanted to hear all of this," Walker said. "He literally had us shipped up with a piano to Toronto. We spent a whole afternoon playing Art Tatum for Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson for Oscar Peterson."

Walker's favorite part: Peterson listening anew to his mentor, Art Tatum, as he wiped tears from his eyes.

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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