Sunhouse: Inventing a Different Drum

Tlacael Esparza

Tlacael Esparza

"We set out to create a system for electronic percussion that would change what people think is possible with drums."

Musical innovation often happens when instrument designers collaborate with musicians to help them achieve the sounds they’re hearing in their heads. Sometimes, that designer and musician are the same person.

As a drummer playing with boundary-pushing electronic musicians like Nicolas Jaar, Tlacael Esparza realized that existing digital drum controllers didn’t offer the nuanced response he enjoyed with acoustic kits. He also realized that his studies in music technology had equipped him to build something better.

Esparza teamed up with his brother, Tenoch, and sister, Tonantzin, to found Sunhouse, a music tech company drawing its name from the Aztec myth explaining the origins of music.

“We had a conviction that drummers needed better tools for creative expression with electronics,” they say. “So we set out to create a system for electronic percussion that would change what people think is possible with drums.”

The result, Sensory Percussion, uses vibration sensors and machine learning algorithms to precisely track drummers’ stick work, translating it into digital signals that control samples, synths, and other electronic sounds.

They brought the invention to Kickstarter in 2015 and found a community of musicians who were excited about its creative potential. Sometimes they even got support from familiar names. “When the drummer for the Flaming Lips backed the project, that was pretty awesome,“ the siblings recall. And for their latest project, Sunhouse collaborated with independent drum makers C&C on a kit that pairs a limited-edition sensor with a custom drum. 

"Spiritual Leader" performed live by Ian Chang. The sounds and lights are being controlled with Sensory Percussion.