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Zya brings out the inner mash-up artist in PC users

March 12, 2012|By Jon Healey
(Music Mastermind )

The Internet and digital technology have made it far easier than ever before for musicians to create and distribute their tunes.

Now, Music Mastermind is making it easier for non-musicians to do the same.

On Monday the company made a "first look" version of Zya, a music-recording tool that's built like a game, available to the public as a free download. Zya -- which the company demonstrated in prototype form at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2010 -- lets users blend their own sounds seamlessly with pre-recorded loops and clips from well-known works. It's impressive technology that can turn a fragment of a melody or a drumbeat into a professional sounding song in a matter of minutes.

The Calabasas-based company has hit songs in its pedigree -- it was co-founded by Matt Serletic, a producer and former major-label executive whose credits include Matchbox Twenty and Carlos Santana, and Bo Bazylevsky, a former Wall Street bond trader -- and its software is designed for mass appeal. No musical skills are required; in fact, at this point the software doesn't recognize the standard digital output from musical instruments. All it takes to operate are a microphone attached to a computer, along with the computer's keyboard and mouse. "My goal and my hope," Serletic said, "is that everyone who loves music can and will use Zya."

Nor does the program require any knowledge of music theory. Zya automatically matches the sonic clips chosen by the user to the vocals recorded and the drumbeats programmed. Digital processing magic brings out-of-tune warblers into pitch (with a certain robotic sheen, a la T-Pain), and the company's proprietary "SoundBetter" technology aims to make timid vocals sound radio-ready.

Serletic said professional musicians can use Zya as a scratchpad for jotting down and fleshing out ideas. But the company's business model is built around amateurs wanting to create songs by mashing up hooks from the likes of Lady Gaga and Madonna. 

That's where the software's Unity game engine comes in. Users form bands with Zya's characters -- avatars that supply their own hooks, including guitar riffs and vocal snippets. The free basic version of Zya comes with three characters and a producer, who helps shape the overall sound. The company offers more characters and hooks for a fee, which is how it plans to make money. According to Serletic, Music Mastermind needs only a single-digit percentage of users to become paying customers in order to turn a profit.

Zya is hardly the first music-oriented game, and it's arriving long after the "Rock Band" phenomenon has fizzled out. But unlike the console-based games that were so hot a few years ago, Zya isn't about pretending to be a musician or playing someone else's songs. It's more like Apple's GarageBand, with a critical difference: it encourages people to build songs around snippets of popular tunes, not generic loops.

In a sense, Zya takes the sonic sampling that's so prevalent in hip-hop and turns it into a consumer platform. Its creations won't rival those of a mash-up artist like Girl Talk -- the software limits users to three familiar hooks per song -- but users don't run the risk of a copyright lawsuit, either. That's because Music Mastermind has licensed all the hooks in the program, clearing users to share the derivative works they create from them.

That licensing represents a new revenue stream for labels and artists. They get paid when Zya users buy packs of characters and hooks, and they share in the revenue generated if the Zya songs based on their works get monetized online. Zya seems to have been able to strike revenue-sharing deals with the copyright holders, rather than having to pay potentially crippling advances against future earnings. If so, that's a sign of how far the industry has come in its thinking about the Internet and its willingness to let new entrants build successful businesses around its copyrights. 

Granted, there won't be much revenue to share if Zya falls flat. The company tested the software with buyers of new Hewlett-Packard computers in a closed trial late last year, but it's not releasing any details about how many people used it or became paying customers.

Its chances for success have improved considerably since it demonstrated the software two years ago. Back then, the company planned to bundle the software with a device that users had to buy -- not a trivial barrier to adoption. Now, Zya is largely based in the cloud, and its client software is a free download. The main barrier to users today is that the software is available only for Windows PCs, not Macs, iPhones, iPads or the Android universe of devices. The game seems like a natural for tablet computers, and the longer it takes for Music Mastermind to make a version available for those devices, the more likely someone else will be able to fill that niche.

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