Meet a new, special creature.

So, you’ve got your own special dream for a musical tool – the instrument or effect or sound machine you want. Traditionally, you’ve had a few options for realizing that – apart from going to the shops and hoping you can buy something that fits.

You could develop in software and run that on a computer (via Max/MSP, Reaktor, Pd, SuperCollider, and so on). You could patch together some hardware rig (as on a Eurorack, for instance). But what if a tiny board could be the computer and the hardware? That’s the third category in which the Axoloti, named for a “walking” salamander from Mexico, fits. And that’s appropriate: this is a small, rare beast that does more than you might expect.

The Axoloti has been around for a while, and I’ve been meaning to write it up. It was one of those things that was indeed so interesting that … I failed to come up with something to say about it. (Just like being really committed to starting a Pilates training program, sometimes the things you want to prioritize fall through the cracks.)

But that delay has an advantage: an impassioned Axoloti community has slowly built up around the board and demonstrated just why the thing could be so useful.

First, what is this little animal?

axoloti

The project is the creation of one person, now with a community behind him – Johannes Taelman, of Belgium. He’s a really nice guy; I finally got to meet him yesterday. And he’s done an insane amount of work for any number of people, let alone one.

The hardware. The board itself is a custom circuit board at a surprisingly low 65€. You get:

  • A brain. (A 168MHz Cortex-M4 ARM is at the center of the design).
  • Audio in and out – 1/4″ stereo in, 1/4″ stereo out, 1/8″ headphone. (24-bit/48kHz already supported).
  • MIDI in and out (DIN)
  • micro SD card slot
  • Micro USB- with USB host – so connect to a computer, or use standalone to host other USB devices.

The software. It’s when you add software to this that things become interesting. The hardware is paired with a graphical modular interface – one that immediately had people thinking of the beloved (but defunct) Nord Modular.

Fire up your Mac, Windows, or Linux machine, and you can work in a friendly modular environment. You get oscillators (from subtractive to FM), filters, modulation, and the like. Plus you can work with analog voltages and PWM outputs and MIDI from the board, plus stream audio files from its SD card.

Also, because it’s a graphical patch, it’s easy to share patches with others and make modifications – so you don’t necessarily have to build something from scratch, but you can modify things when you like.

axolotipatcher

Axoloti isn’t the only way to do this — it just might be a better way. You could, of course, try to run software like Pd and SuperCollider on embedded boards. The problem is, that means contending with an operating system and configuration, for starters. Then, by the time you’re actually running the music tool you want, you may have to contend with unexpected performance issues in the embedded environment. (Pd, for instance, is efficient and designed for older machines, but not necessarily optimized on these platforms – so some stuff works, but not everything.) Now, most people can get at least that far, but then the real deal killer is typically that the hardware sold to mainstream electronics enthusiasts is pretty horrible for audio. There’s no usable audio (it’s not even good enough to listen to for testing in many cases), and if you do add USB devices, you may get poor performance. Not to rant, but seriously – this isn’t for the feint of heart, and the whole point is supposed to be working on music.

You could already use that as-is, but there are also 16 solder points for connecting pots, faders, and so on. (You might be familiar with using something like this on an Arduino, but here, everything is ready to go and it’s a real audio machine.)

Naturally, the other thing you might want to do is build an enclosure, as some in the community have.

axolotienclosure

And look what’s possible. You can build a multi-effects pedal that has any number of effects, made in that modular system. And you can actually put it on the floor underneath your feet, which you probably don’t want to do with your MacBook Pro.

Or as Matthew Tyas did, you can get away from the desk and studio and into the woods. The Axoloti allowed a mobile DIY box that happily fits in a rucksack – and that means making some music out in nature in the sunshine.

Back in the studio, the digital nature of the Axoloti means that it can be an ideal computer stand-in, still flexible enough to produce strange new synthesizers and pair with controllers that send polyphonic expression data. True to the open source quality of the device, Mark Harris has added support for just that, and shows it off with a Madrona Labs Soundplane and an Eigenharp Alpha. (I’d like to give it a go with a ROLI Seaboard RISE, too.)

Because the Axoloti has built-in USB host, you don’t need a USB-MIDI converter, either.

Oh, yeah, and just because it’s pretty, here’s some analog oscilloscope action.

Lest you think this is only about experimental noodling, though, here’s an acid bassline for you.

So, where do you get more information?

Online user guide

A work-in-progress book, independently made by Jan Vantomme

The community

Twitter

YouTube

SoundCloud

Facebook

or the official site

I’ve just now gotten one to test, so hope to have a review and some tips soon. And I better think what I’ll do with it!

http://www.axoloti.com

  • misksound

    oh! poor man’s pacarana! wonder if you could link ’em together to distribute processing power?

    • Mark Harris

      there are two connectors (X3/X4) on board that are designed for digital data and audio, but the firmware still needs to be developed (so many possibilities… going to take time).
      in the meantime, you have midi (via USB device and host, and DIN) for data, and the audio in/out can be ‘mixed’
      a number of us have a few boards, so its going to happen 🙂

  • Very Nice- This is what a lot of folks were hoping to get out the Roland AIRA FX- (which are impressive all by themselves and they have recently added more modules.) But this take synth DIY to another level.

  • Doug Gough

    My immediate thought was “how do I fit this into my eurorack?”. With all the hardware patch points I think there’s a ton of potential.

  • Foosnark

    It strikes me as a (much) more capable Patchblocks. The price is really good.

    Yet, I found myself moving from experimenting/developing for Patchblocks to just writing VST code instead, and haven’t used my Patchblocks in a couple of years. I half suspect I’d do the same if I had an Axoloti.

    • Mark Harris

      VSTs (and Max/Reaktor) are fantastic, and modern computing power is immense.
      Axoloti (for me) serves different needs. e.g. some environments you don’t want to take your valuable/fragile laptop. also in a similar way to pedals, sometimes it nice to just have something that just plugs into your (e.g.) synth without turning on the computer.
      its no computer replacement… but serves a fun and useful role.

  • James Husted

    I have been following this since it’s first kickstarter campaign. I tried to get them to redesign it into a more Eurorack friendly board shape but was too late. They also once designed an interface card called the Axolotl Control that has a LCD screen and a matrix of switches and some pots that would allow adjusting the parameters of a running patch (normally done via MIDI CC messages) but it seems to have stopped. It looked like this. It would make a great desktop box with controls like those. At that price point, a dedicated Eurorack module would be a perfect addition to any modular rig providing effects or sound itself.

    • Nathanaël

      There’s a user that already designed an eurorack interface board:
      http://community.axoloti.com/t/euxoloti-for-axoloti-eurorack-module/100/72

      Another user also designed a nice small shield you can put on top with knobs/joystick:
      http://community.axoloti.com/t/minimal-knob-button-joystick-led-board/889

    • Mark Harris

      Axoloti Control was a prototype, that was planned to be developed after Axoloti Core was released, I don’t think that has changed, rather Johannes is reviewing what shape and form Axoloti Control could take given the experience gained since the Core release and the feedback from a large user base.
      and as Nathenael says, there are quite a few users that having been building their own solutions.
      (and quite a lot of posts on the forum to help you do this too)

  • Ivan Franco

    I totally think that embedded computing platforms is the future of digital music instruments, due to the advantages of self-contained designs. Then the question is how do we program these things be able to take advantage of computing systems, meaning networking, algorithmic behaviors and so on… For that you need flexibility at many complexity levels, which leads us to software. Axoloti is a great product but I’m not sure I want another Max style patching system, where I won’t be able to do too many of the interesting things that computers can do. I’ve built a Beaglebone/Supercollider setup that, although less performant, gives you a great flexibility to design more dynamic instruments.

    • Nathanaël

      Remember that while it’s a patching metaphor, you can code your own DSP objects in C…

    • Jesse Engel

      “Not to rant, but seriously – this isn’t for the feint of heart, and the whole point is supposed to be working on music.” This is the problem. What we really want is something that can run most expressive music software without the OS bloat. That would be a game changer.

      • Ivan Franco

        Agreed about the OS overload. I can’t say too much about Axoloti’s software simply because I haven’t tried it, but it seems that it still follows a model of a fixed pre-defined DSP chain (the patch thing). In my mind Supercollider is a different beast with dynamic just-in-time compiling. Think, for example, an instrument that evolves over time.

        This whole discussion has to do with appropriation and how people use tools. I’m sure many are satisfied with a Max-type model, which is perfectly fine, but others want control and to invent something personal. From my perspective that’s what makes digital instruments interesting.

        • Jesse Engel

          I have no problem with the choice of metaphor, coding or patching, both are flexible. I just want the best of both worlds where I can have functional embedded audio without having to reimplement every pitch shift / time stretch algorithm needed for some more complicated processing.

          • Ivan Franco

            Definitely. Matured languages.

          • Tiago Morais Morgado

            olá ivan. hey peter. my guess is that if you want to dive into embedded systems for music making, the best option right now (at last for me), is using a traditional sound card and midi controller plugged to a barebone computer (something like a mac mini or a pc barebone should do the work). i mean for 200-400€ you can get an amd a6/a8 and or a core i3/core i5/core i7, depending on the luck you might encounter within the process of searching for stuff. and yeah, with that you can build a modular eco-system based on ableton live, max 7, maxforlive, csound supercollider, and pure data. ableton supports maxforlive/max7, meaning with that that you can have internal/external patches running inside ableton, then csound has pretty stable implementations for max, in terms of externals, that run pretty well out of the box. with ableton you can use andre bartetzki’s and another fredrik ollofson (i hope i am saying it properly), open object, which is not pretty stable, but allows you to get cross communication between maxforlive and supercollider, and then you can retrieve the sound back to ableton using ggackrouter. pure data can be a nice option for external low cpu midi control. and yeah, and you can even add vets to the whole thing. and if you do so, and you have like 4 of those machines, and you program the system properly in terms, of synthesis, sound design, sampling, dsp, mappings, resources allocation, etc. you can build very extensive and powerful setups that may allow you to have a kaleydoscope of sounds in your computer. and of course, booting the entire thing with a python or shell script.

    • James Husted

      I am a bit surprised that NI hasn’t made a piece of hardware that could natively run Reaktor programs – they already make some hardware. I know it would probably have to be a PC in a box but with dedicated I/O it would be a pretty nice rig. They would sell a ton. There has been a gap in the landscape ever since Clavia stopped making the NORD Modular. Some small boxes like the Aleph tried to fill it, the Axolotl at least has the software that is friendly enough to do the job. There is something great about designing the patch at home but taking it in a little box to the gig that is VERY appealing to me. You can run Pure Data (and Sound) programs on the Qu-Bit Nebulae in the Eurorack environment, but it still isn’t as nicely music oriented as the Axolotl software.

  • genjutsushi

    Very neat overview, thanks Peter. I have been using, and enjoying the Patchblocks system. They are a similar graphically programmed unit which can be utilised for a number of different purposes. I have two physical units at the moment which gives 4 pots and 4 buttons i/o (stereo), and a neat direct connection. The cost is higher than the AXO, but they have a great userbase.

  • tom

    Would it be possible to add 8 analog dc coupled in/outputs to use it with a modular synth? for example the outputs could be sequencer, LFO´s and whatnot from the axoloti softwareand the inputs could be used to control the patch from a modular, at least if it´s possible to output DC Voltages

  • tom

    i wonder if there are plans for an ipad editor app? seems like a logical progression to me and one wouldn´t be tied to a computer to create patches.

    • vormplus

      Don’t think this will be possible. The patcher software compiles the C code in each object into a binary that can run on the Axoloti Core board. Apple will never allow an app with a compiler into its precious App Store.

  • Krzysztof Cybulski

    Looks great, albeit the editor seems a little limited compared to the “proper” virtual modulars (Pd, Reaktor). Btw, Organelle is shipping for a short while now.

  • Icchan

    Nice, except the high pitched noise from the DC/DC powersupply that’s on the audio… Deal breaker if that’s on the production model too. 🙁
    (I’m electronics design engineer by trade, so I know it’s difficult to do mixed signal circuitboards properly, but he should have been able to do that better)

    • Mark Harris

      there is no evidence of noise on the production boards.
      On prototype boards there was some noise at high gain, and also some ground loop noise… this was revised for production.( thats the point of prototypes, to iron these things out)
      Ive a prototype board, and 4 production boards… I run through my mixer, and even at high gain levels the production boards are surprisingly quiet. ( I was pleasantly surprised, after my initial experience with the photo board)
      so yes Johannes knows what his doing, its not an issue, and there have been no complaints of noise on the community forum.

    • Axoloti

      I’d like to understand the circumstances where you experience high pitched noise on the audio. Could you contact me, perhaps through the contact form on http://www.axoloti.com ?

      • Icchan

        Mark Harris already clarified that in the production models don’t have that so since I don’t own one I can only take his word for it 🙂

  • Will

    What makes this stand out to me is that at less than $100, it’s squarely in the factory made guitar pedal price zone. That means that instead of thinking about constantly using the patching software to transform the guts of the box, you can afford to make it a single purpose piece of hardware and leave it as such until you’re bored with it. Then, instead of getting 50% of what you paid for it on craigslist, you can refresh it with something new. Rinse, repeat.

  • HVX

    The only thing I have to add to this is the etymology of the name. The namesake organism (Ambystoma mexicanum) is an AXOLOTL <– note that the last letter is an "L" not an "i". (I use capitals for clarity, not "yelling".) It's the name the Nahautl (or Aztec, if you prefer [BTW "Nahuatl" ends with an "L" as well]) gave the little guy. That aside, I'm very emphatic about nabbing at least one or two of these later this year: it looks (and sounds) awesome. 😀