There’s modules that strike you because they are very original and powerful and there’s modules that stand out because they just look beautiful. In the case of Xaoc Devices I’d dare to say that you get both. For those who don’t know them, they’re a small eurorack maker from Poland who’s only been around for a couple of years, but gained quite a bit of attention lately. The word Xaoc is written in Cyrillic alphabet and means “chaos” (you also pronounce it more or less like “chaos” in English). The fact that Xaoc is based in one of the countries that used to make up the so called “Eastern Bloc”, is also their main theme when it comes to module names and graphics. There’s a very precise and elaborate concept behind their “working class electronics” line of modules. We got in touch with Marcin and Tomek, the founders of Xaoc, to know more about this concept and their approach to designing electronic instruments.
This interview is the third instalment in our “Eastern Bloc” series. Ok we didn’t know that we were making this series, but it just turned out to be one. Previous interviews include: Czech-Republic-based Bastl Instruments and Lithuania-based Erica Synths. In case you missed those, you can find them here: Interview with Bastl Instruments | Interview with Erica Synths
Now I guess we should also get in touch with Sputnik Modular, which would also fit in very nicely with our West Coast series.
But now, without further ado, on to the interview!
Horizontalpitch: Let’s for a second focus on the one thing that really struck me when I saw my first Xaoc module (it was Karl Marx Stadt): how come you are so good at graphic design? What’s your professional background?
Marcin: For Tomek it was the arts degree. For me it was architecture studies (that I didn’t bother to graduate actually). Then, for way too many years, I used to work as a graphic designer and art director for numerous B2B companies, media corpos and what not. Which I hated as I had the feeling of wasting my energy to support not much more but that useless business drivelling. Thank you for the compliment but it’s all a matter of how much attention and effort you put in the UI design – I think you know very well what I mean.
Tomek: When we started Xaoc, graphic design was our day job. We’ve made heaps of artworks and designs to make a living, so things like panels were not much of a problem. At least after we finally agreed about the final revision.
HP: It seems that you’ve expanded the team now, who is working in Xaoc as of now? Do you have a workshop where you all design modules, build prototypes and come up with new ideas or how does it work?
Marcin: Let me introduce Maciek, the nerd royale, our head engineer now. The only obstacle is that we’re spanned across several cities now and there’s not much sense in renting an office. We all have our own mancaves and studios where we work on Xaoc stuff, then meet up quite often. I hope we’ll establish some proper office/workshop space next year though, as I am quite fed up with all those damn boxes piled up in my bedroom, raided by two stupid cats.
HP: In the modular world there is very different, sometimes even incompatible, approaches to panel design, what’s your approach like?
Marcin: For each his own. I actually really like what most of the companies do, even if I won’t choose that way myself. Still, I rarely have a problem with even the wildest look and I avoid criticizing manufacturer’s decisions on the subject (who am I to criticize their hard work anyway?). We have chosen some kind of pseudo-vintage look but I truly admire the futuristic or hippie looking modules in my rig as well. Let’s be honest, panel graphics are the least important thing, as usability and ergonomics come first. Plus the aesthetic fetishization of music gear is probably kind of stupid, but well, it’s also a part of the pleasure, isn’t it?
Tomek: I love the homogeneous look of 5u, Buchla or Serge but let’s be honest, Euro is more like a pedalboard now. You can’t expect everything will match the same aesthetic. If you really don’t like the look of something – you can pass on it. Compromises don’t help here, in my opinion. Also, such a diversity is the main strength of euro. I’m not convinced that paying too much attention to the look of your instrument is in any way productive and does good to your music. But on the other hand, an inspiring look can help you go beyond your usual paths and do something new and exciting.
HP: Your visuals seems to borrow from totalitarian iconography (with an obvious dose of healthy irony). I guess that’s because you’re both from Poland… but tell us some more about why you decided to go with this aesthetic.
Marcin: Erm, actually we avoid all that obvious and clichéd Soviet military/totalitarian staffage. It’s way overused plus we don’t even have any emotional relation to that. What we’re trying to grasp is the nostalgia. The illusive feeling of “stabilization era” state propaganda, the prosperity and industrial development, times of optimism. Times of clunky consumer electronics, (hardly) affordable cars, mass production finally making it to the starved market etc. Brands like Vermona, Unitra, Radmor, Lell, Elektronika etc. Our packaging, the new old-stock paper we use to print manuals on, some symbolism, it all hints at it quite evidently, I hope. Although we’re aware that for the Westerns it might be obscure and WTF/meh.
Tomek: There are things we remember from our long-gone childhood, like names of radio receivers or TV sets, and often the electronics and household appliances were named after rivers, cities, flowers etc… It was really cool. Due to the economics of constant shortage, the accompanying graphics and industrial design was often utterly terrible in USSR but very different to Polish stuff for instance. The printed materials were mainly very generic and harsh, but some was really good, despite crappy paper stocks and dun, greyish pigments.
HP: What’s your relationship with the world of Soviet-aera synthesizers and its legacy.
Marcin: Obviously, there are some iconic machines but I think these are way over mythologised now. Sure those sounded very different and interesting, and were full of character. But not so much because of the designer’s intent, really. The technology embargo was constantly forcing engineers to find some desperate get-arounds for the ICs, processors etc., and since the military-oriented Eastern industry was hardly capable of keeping up with the quality or precision, the resulting circuits were often quirky and based on substitutes. Sometimes it did lead to wonderful things like Polivoks, and sometimes just to piles of horrible junk. It’s always adventurous to explore them though, adding something unusual to your sound palette. There’s not much of a “legacy” compared to the West but there was quite a slew of synthesizers and keyboard instruments manufactured in USSR and Germany. In Poland, there were some electronic organs and drum machines but sadly no synths per se.
Tomek: The problem was that many Soviet synths were just a rough copy of Western instruments and some copies were probably made by just staring at the photo of the original stuff. Look at that Junost 21 – it looks like a Juno but is a strings keytar, so heavy like it was made for a Soviet athlete or something. Some of them were just over the top strange – Lell UDS is capable of awesome, dirty subbass kicks. Most of those instruments are sadly very rare today, I always lusted after a Ritm TI3 but never stumbled upon one.
HP: It’s very interesting that you chose to use the very common “Davies” knob, the DIY knob par excellence. Why did you decide to go with this type of model, and not a more fancy one? It it because this is “the people’s knob” in some way?
Tomek: Softtouch ones seem way too luxurious for the working class!
Marcin: I agree that’s not very original of us but these knobs are indeed super-practical and fitting well. The size and proportions are just right, so is the feel. The coolest way would be to order our own, custom-moulded knobs but that’s rather expensive.
HP: What’s the thing with the module names? How do you decide a name for a new module, is there some connection between the places and what the modules do?
Marcin: Module names are derived from the cities and industrial sites located within the former Eastern Bloc, pronounced in Polish. Yes, most of the time there’s a strong relevance between the module and it’s codename, sometimes evident and sometimes kind of “inside joke” that’s only apprehendable by people raised at certain time in certain countries. Plus I really love how non-Slavic people pronounce those names.
Tomek: There is Radom, reserved for some kind of chaotic generator. And Szczebrzeszyn, the next level of pronunciation skills for non-Slavic wigglers.
HP: Designing and producing modules is becoming increasingly complex. Not just because there’s already a lot out there, but because the user is getting more demanding. What are your priorities when designing the circuit/software for a module, when do you know that it is ready for production?
Marcin: That’s just natural, the market keeps expanding so the modular thing attracts lots of people not really getting the boutique-gear specifics. Sure it’s only positive to encourage the manufacturers to design better stuff but sometimes I am tired of overly restitutionary attitudes and the bashing of some wonderful modules made by very capable manufacturers. Our main priorities are a powerful set of features for a reasonable price, ease of use, and ergonomics.
Tomek: User demands are obviously very important to us but, in the first place, we are trying to make modules that would appeal to ourselves. Most interesting to me is to find some unique formula. There was that East vs. West Coast duality thing but now there is the eurorack, where we have so much much more than that. I hope it will remain a tool of the trade for open-minded people, seeking for truly unique sounds, not just a new gadget.
HP: Xaoc modules often offer a lot of functionality, while staying small and compact. How do you decide what has to be on the module and what has to be left out?
Marcin: Actually some of the planned modules won’t be that compact but we are perfectly aware that a moderate hp footprint is a crucial thing to some people, whom I ofter hear bitching about how hard it is to reach a certain plug or a knob burred under the spaghettis in live-show situation. So, we’re trying to balance things just right, moving some less vital features to the jumpers on the back for example. It’s a modular, you can’t expect each module to be completely self-contained.
Tomek: When someone comes up with a new idea, there is a long discussion spawning another set of ideas, usually. We are trying to determine how much space we have for a given module, which functions are crucial and what we can add on top of that to make the module more unique. Sometimes it results in adding more functionality and sometimes the opposite. If there are many Über-VCO’s, maybe it’s time to make a tiny one. Personally I dislike self-contained modules, the beauty of modular is patching small bits together to obtain something complex, it gives you the flexibility. We try to keep the modules compact but all the functions need to make perfect sense in this exact application, to offer you a lot of freedom but also to encourage patching it with other modules extensively.
HP: I’ve read somewhere that you also make music and that you mainly develop the modules to respond to your own need. Do you think that it is possible to develop great modules without actually using them in real life?
Marcin: That’s true, as most of the ideas are emerging during the usual modular recording sessions. We own quite huge systems but there’s always something missing, or that could be designed more efficiently. So if we feel we do need something ourselves and there’s some niche for it – we consider designing it. Personally I think that it’s totally possible to come up with great modules even without being a musician but that it certainly helps. On the other hand, I often feel that there is some over-nerded gear out there, impressive on paper and super interesting from the scientific point of view, but is it really usable? Not so much.
HP: Since our readers will not forgive us if we leave this topic out: what can we expect from Xaoc in the near future? New modules going into production?
Marcin: Things are changing and evolving constantly but there’s some cool analog stuff in development and (I see what you did here) the Praga. Now, that we have a passionate engineer on board, and started cooperation with some talented programmers, the ideas are flying high. Some bad personal decisions made in the past taught us a lot and caused some truly anal problems but I hope it’s all over now and Xaoc will be much less chaotic (pun intended) and much more prolific.
HP: If the Soviets came back and the state decided to relocate you to a different industry (like designing shoes), what would you do?
Marcin: I would sabotage those fuckers and their damn crippled industry. What’s plain to see is that – since recently that Soviet mentality has respawned – maybe it’s capable of manufacturing tanks and missiles, but things like decent shoes, a tampon or a coffee maker are way beyond their abilities.
Tomek: Oh, actually I remember some shoes I used to wear in my childhood. Most likely it was exactly that sabotaged design work made by some dudes like us in your vision. Boots, modules – what’s the difference? We can’t be useful for any serious work anyway.
Cover Photo by A. Zawada