Meet Joyst: The Dublin engineers reimagining the MIDI controller

19 Oct 2020683 Views

From left: Joyst founders Ed Byrne, Dr Paul Cuffe, Philip Snell and William Langrell. Image: Vincent Hoban, UCD

Our Start-up of the Week is Joyst, a UCD spin-out developing an instrument that enables musicians to bend notes with gaming-style joysticks.

Joyst’s JV-1 MIDI controller began life as the final-year project of electronic and computer engineering student Philip Snell.

Wanting to take his project further, Snell joined forces with Dr Paul Cuffe, assistant professor at the University College Dublin (UCD) School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, who supervised the original project and helped invent the device’s core intellectual property.

Snell also brought in his cousin Will Langrell and their friend Ed Byrne – who have both recently graduated from the UCD School of Engineering.

“We holed up for the locked-down summer with soldering irons and screwdrivers in hand, and were very glad to emerge with a beautiful design for the Joyst JV-1, which we launched on Kickstarter at the start of October,” Snell told Siliconrepublic.com.

What exactly is Joyst?

Joyst is based on Snell’s final-year project, which he described as “a totally new type of electronic music instrument that allows you to individually bend each of the notes you play by using gamer-style thumb joysticks”.

“This opens up a whole new palette of expression – subtle intonation, vibrato, or little flourishes on high notes,” he explained. “I was hooked from the first prototype.”

The team has since refined the design and created the first commercial model of the device – a ‘next-generation MIDI controller’ that they have named the Joyst JV-1.

“Ultimately, this is a technology company,” Snell added. “We’re better at engineering than at music, if we’re being honest. I’ve been known to strum a guitar on occasion and Will can make a good racket behind a drum kit, but we’re certainly not at the musical talent level of the serious creators we’ve been engaging with to demo the Joyst JV-1.”

He explained that the most important part of Joyst’s technology is mapping the movement of each joystick to the actual MIDI signals that musicians get.

“It’s about creating that tactile, responsive and natural feel, where the pitch-bend you get just sounds organic and the dynamic volume of the notes just fits,” Snell said. “That’s our secret sauce – electronic music creation in full colour, nothing sterile or artificial feeling. It’s an overlooked factor in what makes acoustic instruments sound so good.”

Transitioning from engineering to business

In a start-up led by four engineers, Joyst has been faced with a learning curve or two when it comes to managing areas of the business such as digital marketing.

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Snell admitted that getting the product out of the lab in a photogenic format and getting it in front of target customers has been one of the biggest challenges that the founding team has come up against.

At the moment, the company’s biggest motivation is to get the Joyst JV-1 into the hands of as many musicians as possible. It has received support from NovaUCD to bring the idea from a final-year project to something much bigger.

“We’ve had a great experience coming through the NovaUCD pipeline,” Snell said.

“We were on two programmes over the summer, including the NovaUCD Student Enterprise Competition, and that really helped us hone in on our core customer profile. We’re now looking forward to participating in the annual UCD VentureLaunch Accelerator programme, which is also run by NovaUCD.”

Joyst’s vision

In the medium term, the start-up aims to grow its product portfolio with other instruments that harness the possibilities of modern electronics and the new MIDI polyphonic expression standard.

According to Snell, the team has a “busy inventors’ notebook” with a couple ideas for other “oddball instruments”.

“Our attitude would be ‘radical or redundant’ when it comes to our tech,” he added. “We want to bring new and different instruments to particular niches, we have no ambition to ape the main players in the conventional MIDI controller space.

A person playing the Joyst MIDI controller.

The Joyst JV-1. Image: Joyst

Snell said the start-up is initially targeting what he described as hardcore “gearhead” musicians with large collections of instruments.

“They typically have a collection of vintage synthesisers, maybe a few conventional MIDI controllers already,” he said. “These are the people we can see coming in as early adopters of the JV-1 to hear the very different sounds it can help them get out of their existing gear.”

“Like any hobby, there’s all kinds of separate little tribes amongst these gearheads. Some are excited to see how the JV-1 can get fresh new sounds out of their synthesisers, while others are looking it as a tool for sound design and special effects. We’ve gotten a lot of nice comments on the note layout, which we’ve borrowed from a chromatic button accordion.

“We were happy that we managed to get past our initial target quite rapidly. The team is working well and we’ve got our tech to a nice mature level now as we’ve designed for manufacturability in a way that lets us do a lot of the assembly ourselves here in Ireland. So, in general, we’re all mighty busy but things are going well!”

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Kelly Earley was a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com