Tempo picks up for Zenph Sound

Staff WriterMarch 2, 2011 

Zenph Sound Innovations is accelerating its push into music software with the acquisition of a small Massachusetts company.

Durham-based Zenph, which just released a test version of its first interactive musical software product, is adding several others to its portfolio with the acquisition of Time Warp Technologies. Terms of the deal, which is being announced today, weren't disclosed but Zenph CEO Kip Frey said it was "mostly a stock deal."

Founded in 2002, privately held Zenph is best known for its critically acclaimed albums that recreate historical performances by legendary pianists such as Art Tatum and Glenn Gould on a computer-controlled piano. But the company began developing software products and expanding into stage performances - its one-man show, "Piano Starts Here," was presented in December at the Progress Energy Center in downtown Raleigh - after raising $10.7 million in venture capital.

Those efforts, combined with developing the capability to recreate performances on instruments other than the piano, have led the company to expand to 28 employees. It had just a handful of workers in November 2009, when Durham's Intersouth Partners led a round of investment that Raleigh's Capitol Broadcasting, owner of WRAL-TV, also participated in.

"We're looking to hire another eight to 10 people this year," said Frey, who was a partner at Intersouth who got so psyched about Zenph's potential that he left the venture capital firm. Frey also has recruited notables such as Matthew Szulik, former chairman and CEO of Red Hat, to the board of directors. Jazz star Branford Marsalis heads the artists' advisory board.

TimeWarp, founded in 1997, has relied on its two founding partners supplemented by contractors to develop and sell its products. Its four main software products are aimed at music students, teachers, hobbyists and professional musicians.

"It's a very high-quality set of products that have been carefully crafted, but not a lot of resources have gone into marketing them," Frey said. "We can bring that other piece of pie to the table."

TimeWarp's Home Concert Xtreme software recently was awarded the Music Teachers National Association's Frances Clark Pedagogy Award. Its Classroom Maestro product connects keyboards with Musical Instrument Digital Interface technology over the Internet.

Combine that with video conferencing and you have a private piano teacher in Minnesota who has been using Classroom Maestro to teach two students thousands of miles away in Zambia, said George Litterst, co-founder and president of Time Warp.

"Imagine I press a key on my piano," Litterst said. "I'm pushing the very same key on your piano, with the very same level of expression."

Litterst, who is joining Zenph as director of software product management, had plenty of inside information about the company prior to the sale. His son has been a programmer at Zenph since April.

Zenph's new home-grown software product, which has the working name of RED for Re-Performance Editor, provides what the company touts as unprecedented music-editing capabilities. The beta version for Yamaha Disklavier Pro pianos was released Tuesday; editing software for other instruments is in the works.

Other Zenph developments:

The company anticipates releasing at least five albums this year on several different labels - including its own new label, Zenph Studios. The company's first release this year will feature jazz titan Oscar Peterson.

"This will be the first year when we expect to have meaningful revenue," Frey said. "Last year was devoted to building the team ... and creating the technology foundation."

Zenph has targeted raising another round of funding - $6 million to $10 million - in the first quarter of next year.

Zenph is simultaneously working on the ability to re-create historical performances on the stand-up bass, saxophone and drums. "The goal is to play a jazz quartet by the end of the year," Frey said.

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

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