Lean Product Design & Music Tech Manufacturers

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Ever wondered why your hot new controller or synth gets quickly superseded by a new version seemingly only months after purchase? Wondering why Arturia didn’t just make the Beatstep Pro in the first place? Can’t keep up with Native Instruments ever growing army of Traktor controllers?

Lean Product Design

We’re seeing a trend of music technology manufacturers using Lean methodologies to test their products on real users. The Lean model is not new and has been used for many years by software companies, especially in Silicon Valley. In 2011, Eric Ries published a book called The Lean Startup detailing the methods used by startups to “shorten their product development cycles by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and what he calls validated learning.”

Two central concepts of Lean are:

  • The Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
  • The “Build > Measure > Learn” workflow

An MVP is about shipping to the market a functional but stripped back version of your ultimate product.  This enables a company to start getting immediate feedback on what users like and/or hate in that product.

The “Build > Measure > Learn” workflow is an iterative business process loop of adding product features, testing their real-world response, and ultimately incorporating them into subsequent versions of the end product if well received.

Lean methodologies (also known as Agile) are common in startups and software companies, however, we’ve seen a recent surge of established music technology  hardware manufacturers incorporating this workflow into their product development. Rather than spend years developing a super-product, smaller components are being released as standalone products. If sales and sentiment for the stripped back item are positive, the product re-enters a development phase and new features are added.

Let’s look at two successful product line examples; Korg’s Volca series and Novation’s Launchpad series.

Korg Volca Series

In 2010, Korg released the rather toy-like Monotron. Boasting a “real filter from the MS-20” and ribbon keyboard controller evoking memories of the Stylophone from the 1960s, the Monotron was priced to be the perfect stocking stuffer for your DJ friend. Although of limited usefulness except for screaming sirens and dive-bombs, the “all analogue” pocket rocket was a huge success for Korg. Surprisingly they released two new versions of the Monotron the following year with the Monotron Duo (2 oscillators) and Monotron Delay.

Around the same time came the mashup groovebox, the Monotribe, with a 3 voice 8 step drum machine and single VCO with LFO, VCF and a choice of multiple waveform and envelopes.  It inherited the Monotron’s ribbon controller much to many people’s dismay. Note the inclusion of Sync in/out and “Tribe” naming convention as nods to Korg’s past and future intentions.

Enter the Volca range in 2013 (Beats, Bass and Keys), heavily shaped by lessons learned from their predecessors. This time around, Korg really nailed the ribbon controller and fun factor on the Volca range.

Don't Buy The Noise - Lean Product Design - Korg Volca Timeline

At this point we can summarize what Korg validated, with real products, purchased by real, paying customers.

  • Low price point. The Monotron and Volca ranges opened up analogue synths and drum machines to a new generation.
  • Analogue. The sound and nostalgia around all analogue circuitry certainly resonated with the market.
  • Sync. Instead of implementing full MIDI I/O, the simplified sync I/O on the range made it dead easy to hook Volcas together or with a friends’ unit.
  • Size. Portability and battery power proved a winner for both playing on the bus and gigging.
  • Enjoyment factor. Jamming with friends, posting videos on YouTube, all pointed to the range oozing fun.

In 2014, we had the addition of the gritty and digital Volca Sample. This year the Volca FM was released to a hungry audience, ready to expand their personal Volca collection.

Novation Launchpad Series

Novation Launch Pad Series

Another great example of Lean product design is the Novation Launchpad and Launchkey ranges, leading into the recent release of the Circuit groovebox.

In 2009, the original Launchpad “launched”. A smaller and more affordable and portable version of Akai’s APC40 Ableton Live controller, the unit sold very well as both a studio and live controller.

With a hit on their hands, Novation experimented with keyboard versions (Launchkey range), mini versions (Launchpad Mini, Launch Control) and incremental updates with the Launchpad S (2013) and Launchpad RGB (2015). Last year, we also had the well crafted Launchpad Pro which expands horizons with open source firmware and full MIDI, therefore no longer exclusively tied to Ableton Live.

Lean Product Design - Novation Circuit Launchpad Pro

Late 2015, enter the Novation Circuit. A standalone groove box with 2 synths and 4 part drum machine, the Circuit borrows heavily from the Launchpad Pro hardware and workflow. A product MVP in its own right, Novation have continued to build on the initially minimal OS of the Circuit with multiple firmware updates, software editor, cloud backup and the ability to load custom samples.

You can find other Lean product design examples from music tech companies Native Instruments, Pioneer, Roland, Akai and Teenage Engineering to name a few.

Are you buying a test product?

So, how do you avoid buying a soon to be superseded MVP from your favorite hardware maker?

1. Wait.

Wait a year or two before buying a brand new product line. You can guess for many companies the timing of their product release cycles. You’re probably making music today without that hot new synth or controller, so ease into it.

2. Or… don’t wait!

If you simply must be on the bleeding edge, then buy that latest controller the day it is released. However if they iterate versions, quickly sell your current version and buy the new one. You need to sell quickly before the second-hand market turns. One look on eBay and you’ll see the price of version one Beatsteps and Launchpads have dropped considerably.

3. Buy mature products today.

Buy mature and tested products now. If there are a number of product iterations already in existence, go for it. Arturia’s Beatstep Pro, Novation’s Launchpad Pro, and Korg’s Volca range are well-tested product lines ripe for purchase.

Further Reading

The Democratisation Of Synthesis: Korg designers on the making of the Minilogue

The Lean Startup – Eric Ries