It all started with a family vacation. On a summer afternoon a few years ago, Richard Upchurch was surrounded by nieces and nephews and a whole lot of noisy toys.
“They were all making this racket,” the 39-year-old recalls, “but the racket was pre-programmed.”
A musician himself, a simple idea occurred to him: What if there was a toy that allowed the player to make the sounds?
So, in 2010, he used the electronics from a $2 toy and some wood scraps to build a simple voice recorder. His 4-year-old nephew took the recorder to school for show-and-tell, and the device was a hit with the teachers. Upchurch’s sister-in-law suggested he launch an Etsy store.
“She and my friends were my only customers for a few months,” says Upchurch. “Then it started picking up.”
A few years and 10,000 units later, Brand New Noise recording devices are sold at around 50 retailers all over the world, from Chicago to Spain, as well as online on Etsy and at the Brand New Noise website. “It’s hard to believe my hands have made anything of that number,” says Upchurch.
A Simple Magic
Each wooden, battery-operated box features two push-button eyes (one that records, and one that plays back), a voice recorder “nose,” and a speed/pitch knob in the place of a mouth. Upon playback, turning the knob allows the player to adjust the sound, resulting in quirky effects. Each small unit is made to fit in the palm of one hand. “I wanted it to be small enough that any size hand could control it,” says Upchurch.
It sounds simple, and it is. Purposefully so. In a time when we all carry powerful computers in our pockets, Upchurch is interested in what happens when we use technology in a simpler way.
“You can do this with your iPhone all day,” he says. “But people love these because they’re not their iPhone. You don’t want to have to spend more time on your phone or computer. People want to move away from that even if it’s only for 30 seconds.”
He points out that each unit is completely self-contained, without any inputs or outputs. “I like the idea of making it disconnected,” Upchurch adds. “Everything we have is connected, so I wanted to make something just for the purpose of exploring sound.”
Gaia DiLoreto, owner of By Brooklyn, a gift shop that sells the Brand New Noise recording devices, says her customers are strongly attracted to that simplicity. “The squeals of joy that come out of people of all ages are pretty amazing,” she says. “People are surprised that something so simple can be so entertaining.”
Jessy Greene, a singer and musician who has worked with bands like the Foo Fighters and Wilco, agrees. “It’s just a little thing that brings you joy,” she says.
But when she first heard about the devices, Greene was skeptical. “My friend was talking about a little box that records, and it just didn’t sound like that big of a deal,” she recalls. Then that friend gave her one for her birthday, complete with a recording of the “Happy Birthday” song. “It was the sweetest thing ever,” says Greene. “I played that birthday song a lot.”
Greene now appreciates the special audio quality the box produces, which she describes as a “vintage sound.” She’s not alone. Some folks in the music industry are even bringing the toys into the recording studio, including Swedish pop band Peter Bjorn and John and music producer Roger Moutenot.
Upchurch also has collaborated directly with musicians and artists, most recently developing a limited-edition recorder with Patrick Carney of The Black Keys. Carney’s autograph graces the back of each box, the recorder “face” bespectacled in homage to the drummer.
“I’ll never turn down a collaboration,” says Upchurch. “It’s just a great way to work.”
From Sawdust to Small Business
Originally from Tupelo, Miss., Upchurch toured with a band for nearly a decade before moving to New York City nine years ago. After doing some sound engineering work, he found a job in the dean’s office at NYU, enabling him to work toward his master’s in music technology.
Upchurch built the first devices in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—cutting and sanding the wood on the roof, assembling the pieces in his bedroom, and soldering the electronics in his kitchen.
“There were parts and dust everywhere,” he says. As orders increased, he moved to Brooklyn and rented a 400-sq.-ft. wood shop in Red Hook, where all the production is done today.
Last fall, his business had become so successful that Upchurch quit his day job to focus on Brand New Noise full time. Now he has two employees who assist with everything from concepting and design to screen printing and shipping.
“Most of the students are coming from a school system that’s not the best learning environment for them,” explains Upchurch. “They’ve been told ‘no’ a lot... that they’re doing things wrong. But there is no right and wrong here. We’re all working together.”
For Upchurch, the most fulfilling aspect of his products is the way their disconnected nature actually helps people connect with one another. He mentions a couple in Hawaii who use their recorder to leave messages for each other every day; and a night-shift worker in London whose daughter leaves a message for her every night before she goes to bed.
Even today, as the orders increase, the Brand New Noise team makes sure to leave a personal message on each unit they send out.
For Upchurch, that’s what it’s all about: “I love sharing sounds with other people.”