Creating a vibrant sonic boom on the Irish start-up scene


29 Oct 2009

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Sonic Academy has rapidly grown from being a niche service to providing online video tutorials to an international audience, while it’s on the cusp of adding these tutorials to several Northern Ireland school curricula at both second and third level.

Launched a little over a year ago, Sonic Academy’s subscription-based professional video-training service is already getting 40pc of its online traffic from the US alone, with Ireland and the UK combined making up 25pc, pointing to a successful international market.

Meanwhile, managing director Kevin Traynor is channeling the same time and energy into bringing music-editing and creation skills to Irish teens at a time when Guitar Hero and Rock Band have unleashed a creative opportunity made more accessible than ever through technology and the internet.

In a quirk of fate, the career of Traynor, former drummer and founding member of Irish rock band The Divine Comedy, who is now the firepower behind a Belfast-based technology start-up, could be traced through Dante’s original work of the same name.

Shades of Dante

Beginning with the "Inferno" of the touring band lifestyle, followed by the "Purgatorio" of life as a management consultant while fitting in DJ-ing at night, and finally "Paradiso" as managing director of burgeoning technology start-up Sonic Academy, Traynor has lived through his own divine comedy.

Sonic Academy is a music-training website with professional video tutorials covering beginner to advanced levels for those learning to use software to create and mix music, from DJ-ing to professional music production.

This is not the niche market it once was, as Traynor points out: “Ten years ago, this business could not have existed because the equipment needed to be a musician was simply too expensive, but these days it is totally democratised.

“It’s a bit like digital photography or digital media before it. As technology advances and becomes cheaper to produce, we now live in an era where anyone can be a photographer, a film maker or indeed a music maker.”

Interactive music creation

With the explosive success of immersive music video games such as the Guitar Hero series, the growing appetite for interactive music creation means big business for the technology sector.

This has progressed even further recently with the launch of DJ Hero, fuelling an appetite for spinning decks and scratching records, and ultimately arousing curiosity in the manipulation of music and sounds.

Whether it is using Pro Tools software to polish a piece of recorded music or working with a DJ-ing kit, Traynor says that for Sonic Academy there are a lot of different strands to the business – one of the most important being education.

“As an approved centre, we run Department of Education-funded training programmes with 16 to 18-year-olds in Belfast, so they can obtain a day release from school and get their qualification to go towards an academic or vocational career.

“In 2010, we will be launching a whole range of video tutorials that will be sold and accessible by schools to use as part of their qualification and support what they do.

“There is a latent demand because young people are quite eager to learn these skills and very often the stumbling block is that the teachers in the schools don’t have this training,” explains Traynor.

Aiming higher

With the success of its secondary-school training that often reaches out to underprivileged students, Sonic Academy is now setting its sights on third-level training: “We’re currently piloting a couple of programmes with Belfast Metropolitan College, one of the largest metropolitan colleges in the UK with 20,000 full and part-time students.”

Sonic Academy is also doing some work with Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster.

Second- and third-level educational institutes are a sweet spot for the online music tutorial site because, as Traynor points out, while changes to curricula can take some time due to the approval process, Sonic Academy can provide current and constantly updated content that is always fresh.

Added to this, Sonic Academy has well-established relationships with the key audio hardware and software manufacturers, while the tutorials remain brand-agnostic and independent.

Innovation at work

Looking towards the future, he says that following a successful funding round totalling £500,000 sterling, Sonic Academy is busy innovating through the recession, something Traynor talked about recently at BizCamp Dublin 2009.

He says he always keeps in mind advice given by Diane Roberts, national director at the Halo Business Network, which is why the site will be relaunching soon with a brand refresh after feedback from its users invoked a new catchphrase: "Ready, fire, aim."

By Marie Boran

Photo: Sonic Academy is bringing music production and DJ training to a new level via the web.

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