Modesto-area inventor creates live music without musicians

05/23/2014 4:38 PM

05/23/2014 5:06 PM

Ken Caulkins believes he has hit the right note with his ragtime castaway band.

The collection of 46 automated instruments – including banjo, piano, guitar, steel drums, glockenspiel and accordion – is capable of playing any of the 30,000 songs stored on the hard drive of the computer that serves as the band’s conductor.

It is real instruments playing real music just as it was written, and far superior to any recording, is how one of Caulkins’ customers described the experience. The beautiful noise is created at Caulkin’s Ragtime Automated Music, which has been based in a warehouse just south of Modesto off Highway 99 for the past quarter century.

Caulkins, 62, is a Modesto native who grew up in Hughson and Denair. He started his business in 1971 with piano tuning and repair but quickly transitioned to making player pianos, nickelodeons and later automated instruments and automated musical cabinets. Computer signals activate the instruments mounted inside the cabinets.

Caulkins modified a computer protocol called musical instrument digital interface to create his musicianless bands. MIDI typically is used to record the musical notes of a live instrument and turn them into computer-generated synthetic music. Caulkins switched that around. He uses MIDI to have a computer send signals to the instruments. So with the aid of mechanical devices, a drum is beaten, a guitar string plucked and a piano key struck based on the computer signals.

Over the decades, his customers have included Michael Jackson, the “Cheers” TV show, jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny, Hollywood director Richard Donner and amusement parks, museums and casinos throughout the world. Caulkins estimates he has sold about 10,000 nickelodeons, player pianos and automated musical instruments.

Berghold Vineyards in Lodi has one of Caulkins’ musical cabinets in its barrel room. The device consists of a steel drum, accordion, banjo, guitars, piano and other instruments mounted inside an armoire.

“They will stand there and watch it for several songs,” General Manager Julia Berghold said about customers’ reaction. She said that on repeat visits, customers bring family and friends, and one of the first things they do after getting a glass of wine is ask winery staff to turn on the cabinet.

Prices range from about $8,500 for a player piano to about $200,000 for a ragtime castaway band. Caulkins said the name came from an early automated-band customer, a tropical-themed hotel in Louisiana that bought one about 15 years ago.

Caulkins said his business is focused on the ragtime castaway bands and other large products because of a changing market. Nickelodeons that he sold to restaurants, private collectors and others once accounted for most of his business. But now most of his business is with casinos and amusement parks in the developing world.

“It’s simple,” he said. “The developing economies, they want amusement parks. The people in China have leisure time. They are putting their money in movie theaters and amusement parks.”

Caulkins estimates Ragtime will have revenue of more than $1 million this year, and he’s optimistic that coming years will be better.

But he has seen better days. Caulkins said revenue topped $2.5 million before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which derailed the U.S. economy. Caulkins also took a financial hit during the recent economic downturn and from a divorce. He once had about 50 employees but now has one full-time worker and a few part-timers since he automated his production line.

Caulkins said from the time he started playing with blocks as a toddler, he knew in his bones he would be an inventor. That desire never abated. It doesn’t hurt that he loves music, from the classic rock ’n’ roll of Chuck Berry to the tango of South America and the folk music of Russia. He has traveled to dozens of countries on business.

“I love the music of whatever country I’m in,” he said. “It’s just fascinating to mix mechanics with musical instruments. ... I live to invent and solve problems.”

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