Vince De Franco, The Man Behind The Machine 1

Vince De Franco, The Man Behind The Machine

VDF by Heather McMillen Behind every brilliant musician there is a faultless hardworking PR agent, or a superb producer, or a pitch perfect session musician. None of these get the attention they deserve, and most wouldn’t want to. But what about those even further behind the scenes, who in an ever growing need for innovative sound and lighting gear have to knuckle down and keep constantly ahead of the curve despite their lack of creative fame?

When I was asked to speak to Vince De Franco I didn’t know what to expect, in all honesty, I didn’t know who he even was and it has only dawned on me now that perhaps, in his own right, I was talking to a musical genius…

So first of all for those who don’t know, including myself, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

[Vince:] My name is Vince De Franco and I founded a company called Synesthesia Corporation. We create technologies and products based on my experience as a musician and my background in Physics and Electrical Engineering.

You first invented the Dimension Beam. Can you tell us a little about it?

[Vince:] The Dimension Beam is a patented active sensing zone of infrared light that triggers and controls sound. The one-sided system detects exactly how much IR is being reflected back toward its transmitter and measures the movement of your hand or an object down to the millimeter. You can do things like hit a chord on your electric guitar and as you drop the neck the pitch drops, or your distortion gets heavier. Or, move your hand a few inches through space to play through a couple octaves of a scale on your synth, every mm of space being another note.

A basic licensed version, called the D-Beam, exists now in most Roland keyboard and synth gear.

The D-Beam went on to be used by artists such as U2 and Stevie Wonder as well as many others. Did you ever think that it would become so widespread, popularly used by such huge artists?

[Vince:] The instant the idea for the Dimension Beam popped into my head I knew it was something I really wanted to use in my own setup. I felt that the product would become widespread, but not as quickly as it did. We barely had time to build a few units for an upcoming NAMM show and a couple days after the show I got a call from the U2 office saying The Edge wanted to record with a Dimension Beam.

Things just kept going from there.

You then created the Mandala with Tool drummer Danny Carey. Can you tell us first what the Mandala is, and tell us how you became involved with Tool?

[Vince:] The Mandala is an electric drum with a patented membrane technology for its surface which detects the position of a strike every millimeter from its center to its edge. Other electric drums have about two zones from center to edge, but the Mandala has 128. Instead of acting as a big on/off switch like other pads, the Mandala’s entire surface can be used to the player’s advantage.

I first met the Tool guys at Timothy Leary’s house in the 90’s. Soon after that my band opened for them and then I played synth with them and contributed to their albums for some years before Danny challenged me to make the Mandala Drum system. He has since permanently integrated seven Mandala Drums into his live and studio acoustic drum setup and they’re now a big part of many Tool songs.

How do you feel the work that you do helps musicians?

[Vince:] Imagine if a painter in their studio only had brushes that were 6 inches wide and 3 inches thick. A lot of the nuance of their strokes would be lost or wasted because of the low resolution of that tool which is the bridge to their canvas. Instruments such as the Mandala Drum and the Dimension Beam offer a higher resolution that helps the artist realize their creation or performance to a finer degree based on what they’re feeling. Techniques and nuances previously not able to be captured now become an element of the art.

In terms of helping musicians, The Mandala can allow people to play pitch perfect. Do you think it is important in an electronic sense, to open up music for anyone regardless of skill or talent, or is that potentially quite economically dangerous for the music market?

[Vince:] I think it’s essential in an overall sense to open up music for everyone, and certain operational modes of the Mandala Drum help do that. If you play only the white keys on a keyboard you’ll stay completely in key with no effort, and it’s been that way since before electricity was harnessed as a tool for humanity. Realities like that are the little bonuses which offer beginners a doorway into the world of musical creation and once you’re hooked there’s an infinity of uncharted tonal and rhythmic territory to explore for the rest of your life.

I feel it would be a confident bet to say that the excitement of being able to play a no-mistakes Casiotone solo over a preprogrammed track lured many a child into a lifetime of music, and the music market has benefitted greatly because of it.

Many musicians are more interested in the more organic creation of music and may not be able to get their head around your creations. Do you often come across musicians like this, and how have you encouraged them to try something like the Mandala out?

[Vince:] I’ve never recruited musicians to play any of my creations over the years. Curiosity leads them to these devices, but it’s not necessary for anyone to get their heads around my creations because they’re more heart related than mind related.

Drummers have spent countless hours of their lives beating on a piece of stretched mylar with wooden sticks. If I redirect their sticks to a Mandala Drum an added dimension becomes apparent in their playing which was always present, just not able to be harnessed, but now it can. Musicians are feeling that enhancement and tapping into new places with abilities they already have.

Working behind the scenes in the music business like you do, how do you view current music, as a hot bed of talent, or a dross pool of untalented but well marketed nobodies, and what do you feel of your work in relation to this?

[Vince:] There are hotbeds of musical talent in the world and it would be nice if the mainstream music business helped spread awareness of their offerings a bit more.

Our work with the Mandala is to get more people drumming, keep them drumming, and offer them the most versatile and sensitive drums in the world. One aspect of that versatility is the ability to fine tune the steepness of the learning curve associated with drumming. Drumming is one of the earliest forms of human communication, and music can be a great cultural unifier.

Hopefully the Mandala Drum ignites a spark in a little kid somewhere out there who will become a 21st century Mozart.

Obviously your work is hugely inspired by the more electronic side of music. Is that how you envisage music in the future, and how do you think that will affect the output of music?

[Vince:] I envisage the underpinnings of music in the future to be much like today. In a hit song today you may very well hear instruments which have existed for centuries playing along with electronic instruments which were just invented. Synthesizers and acoustic guitars and pianos and Mandala Drums all coexisting as colors in the palette of the creator. The more the merrier if used in ways which are appealing to the hearts and minds of the beholders.

What will be interesting is the ways these instruments are learned and the techniques used to control them. More people will be playing instruments in more ways and creating more music and the potential for great music creation will be higher.

So finally, the big question. What are you working on next?

[Vince:]That’s a secret!…but the goal is to make instruments as flexible and easy to expand as possible.

You can see and buy Vince’s products via

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.