Music for the MySpace generation

OpenLabs has created a music studio-in-a-box that could unleash even more amateur music and videos, says Fortune's Stephanie Mehta.

By Stephanie Mehta, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Thanks to social networking sites such as MySpace and video-sharing company YouTube, we now know that there are thousands of amateur auteurs yearning to express themselves in song and film. Indeed, sometimes it seems there's an entire cohort of young people who are natural born performance artists.

At least that's what Victor Wong is betting on. Wong is chairman and CEO of OpenLabs, a four-year-old, privately held company that designs gear for performing and recording music. OpenLabs' NeKo production stations are big hits with music professionals. (Producer Timbaland, nee Tim Mosley, of "SexyBack" and "Promiscuous Girl" fame, is a fan, as is Reba McEntire's keyboardist, who played a NeKo machine on her tour.)

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This fall OpenLabs started shipping a miniature version of the NeKo - dubbed "the MiKo" - aimed squarely at the MySpace generation. "The original design goal was to get it into the hands of people who are professionals," Wong says. "But what we realized is that a lot of people want to do multimedia work. They may want to create music, make films, surf the Internet. And they want it all in one box."

The MiKo is like a musical Swiss Army knife: In a device that's about twice the size of your typical synthesizer, OpenLabs packs a fully-loaded Windows computer, a 37-note keyboard, a 15-inch touch screen, a video mixer, DJ controls, ports for MP3 players and camcorders and a Wi-Fi chip for broadband connections to the Internet. The system retails for about $2,500 - about a thousand bucks more than a new Macbook.

So what can an artistically minded kid do with a MiKo? He can, with little to no experience, start composing music using some of the 5,000 preset sounds that come with the MiKo. He can load his MP3 files into the machine and start doing DJ-style music mixes. He can create some beats and rap on top of them. Or, he can download video he's shot on his camcorder, edit it on the MiKo's screen, add a soundtrack and using the Wi-Fi connections, post his masterpiece on YouTube or his video blog.

This machine isn't just kid's play, though: OpenLabs says Jonathan Davis, lead singer of the band Korn, has been using the MiKo on the band's tour bus to write new songs. (We wanted to talk to Davis about all this, but like a true rocker, he doesn't exactly keep normal business hours.)

Though it boasts a roster of pop musicians and producers as clients, OpenLabs is at its heart a technology company. Its machines incorporate 64-bit computer processing. (That means it can process twice the data as a 32-bit chip.) The company also develops software, such as a new keyboard cloning application, that lets users sample any MIDI (short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) keyboard sound into a NeKo or MiKo device, without loss of sound quality; a big deal to music professionals.

That OpenLabs has cred in both the music and computing industries is a big plus as those worlds increasingly collide, says Niyi Adelekan, a top salesman at national instrument retailer Guitar Center. "They've successfully combined the PC and the keyboard," says Adelekan, who works in Manhattan. He says many of his clients are trying to streamline their keyboards and other music-making gear; OpenLabs puts all the software and hardware into a relatively portable package.

Still, the fact that such a sophisticated instrument is targeting teens and young people whose online contributions generally fall far short of art, speaks volumes about today's youth - and their parents, who would most likely be the ones to shell out the $2,500 needed to buy a MiKo.

It would be easy to argue that the Internet has made it easier than ever for kids to distribute their wares, but reality contests such as "American Idol" and "Rock Star" certainly have fueled the fantasy that the kid next door (or the teen tinkering on a keyboard upstairs) might just be the next musical phenomenon.

So what if you buy a MiKo for your musician-wannabe kid, who next month decides she really wants to focus on her fledgling tennis career? "If you don't want to create content, you might still want to view video content or access music from iTunes or somewhere else, and this machine does this better than anything else out there," Wong says. "Worst case, if you buy our products, you're buying one of the most sophisticated computer products out there."

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