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The Ins and Outs: An Interview with Boredbrain

Expanding on the Amazing Xcelon Mixer

Chris Hadley · 05/07/24

Around Knobcon 2023, a number of Eurorack mixer modules were announced, each offering a different take on the format of large and/or expandable mixers with CV control. One of our favorites from this deluge of premium modular mixers is Xcelon, coming to us from the creative routing superstars at Boredbrain Music. With extensive CV control, an intuitive and finger-friendly layout, expandable channels with their module XP3, and numerous performance oriented features, Xcelon offers an effective balance of conveniences for studio and stage, while also inspiring creative mixing approaches through CV control.

Today, Boredbrain Music has announced a new line of direct multi-channel audio modules, adding three new expansion options for their Xcelon performance mixer: DB25, TRS, and IO, the last of which also works independently or with other Boredbrain modules. With flexible configurations depending on the extent of your input and output needs, these modules add compact connectivity to the rest of your studio gear with premium direct inputs and outputs. DB25 gives you three synonymous connectors to directly interface with studio gear, TRS offers balanced inputs and outputs, and IO delivers a wealth of 3.5mm connections to the non-Eurorack world. Designed for both studio and performance applications, these expanders accentuate the reputation Boredbrain has developed for making connectivity between multiple gear pieces more fun and flexible.

To welcome Xcelon’s new friends, we spent some time talking to Adam Harding from Boredbrain Music. We talked about Boredbrain’s origins and goals, Xcelon, and how these new expanders set the stage for Boredbrain’s next moves. Here’s what he had to say.

Interview with Adam Harding of Boredbrain

Perfect Circuit: Thanks so much for taking some time to answer a few questions about Boredbrain Music, the fantastic Xcelon mixer, and the many new solutions and possibilities brought forward by three new expander modules, TRS, IO, and DB25. Before jumping into mixing and routing, I’d love to explore some context around Boredbrain and what led you to pioneering new avenues for Eurorack and Pedal routing solutions. First off, can you introduce us to yourself and the team behind Boredbrain Music?

Adam Harding / Boredbrain Music: Sure! I’m Adam, original co-founder, and principal designer/engineer at Boredbrain. Evan is our all-around technical guru, Damion manages our sales and communications, Mike keeps production flowing, and Ashton assists with just about everything. All of us contribute to production in some way, whether it’s soldering, assembly, testing, or pack-out.

PC: What are some of the experiences, either with music or electronics design, that led to creating musical devices and forming Boredbrain as a company?

AH: After spending nearly a decade living on the west coast, I moved back home to Virginia and started making experimental music with one of my childhood music buddies, Jason. From the get-go, it was all about a shared obsession with music gear, and coming up with ways to get the most out of it. A deeper understanding of electronics only came as a necessity to create more complex music-making tools. We really just wanted to get crazy with routing, mixing and processing, and since I had spent the previous five years developing headphones and speakers for other companies, it seemed like a “no brainer” to make something of our own. And so we created a simple but novel device called Patchulator 8000, and began making them in our spare time.

Boredbrain's First Product, the Patchulator8000 Boredbrain's First Product, the Patchulator8000

PC: From the original Patchulator 8000 desktop patchbay to the smart and expansive Xcelon Eurorack mixer, Boredbrain has mostly focused on routing, mixing, and gain staging solutions that help musicians connect pieces of their studio. Was this always part of Boredbrain’s goals, or did it grow more organically in that direction from the Patchulator?

AH: It’s really just how my brain works, so yes. I’m a highly technical person, and having also worked as both a recording and post-production engineer, I’m always trying to design the optimal studio configuration, whether for myself or others. I love mixing and routing, so that’s probably why Boredbrain continues to focus on these things.

PC: Boredbrain’s many routing and mixing tools seem to offer two contrasting but equally useful approaches to musicians using mixed gear set-ups, often simultaneously - streamlined convenience for connection of a relatively static set-up, and radically open-format patch-friendly experimentalism. Have either of these been specific focuses for Boredbrain or as important tools in your own musical lives?

AH: There just seemed to be a lack of well-thought-out utilities that interface with more modern electronic instruments and effects, as well as traditional studio gear. There are plenty of products that do one thing well, but they can be cumbersome and downright annoying when you want to bend the rules and do something unconventional with them. So the approach with Boredbrain products was to be practical, flexible, and fun all at the same time.

PC: There has been something of a Renaissance of Eurorack mixers recently, with a number of large Eurorack mixers coming to market in the last year. Boredbrain’s Xcelon is a standout in the group, offering flexible routing, lots of CV control, premium construction, and plenty of expandable options for any system. How has the rollout of Xcelon been, and how are you meeting demand?

AH: Yes, it was quite interesting in the lead-up to Knobcon 2023 as we saw several other mixers being announced at the same time. This was just coincidence (at least on our part) as the mixer has been on the design board for a few years. Xcelon has been our quickest growing product in terms of popularity, and we hope that will continue as more people adopt it and others become aware of it. Our plan is to continually produce units each month (it’s a chore to build!) so that anyone who desires a eurorack mixer of this caliber can potentially have one.

PC: Mixing systems in Eurorack seem like a hard recipe to perfect, with lots to consider as to what features to include or exclude in the main module. How did you go about finding the sweet spot for Xcelon in terms of size, function, and form?

AH: The short answer is time. And that involved long periods of just staring at a design, debating it for a while, then making edits… over and over and over again. I would lay in bed for hours at night with my eyes closed, just thinking about features and options, and visualizing the layout in my mind. I’m still surprised we were able to fit so much into a comfortable layout, but after shuffling things around for nearly two years, I guess it was inevitable. In terms of function, because many of our other modules were literally designed alongside Xcelon, we were able to distribute complementary features among companion modules to build a suite of modular mixing tools.

PC: A growing number of mixers and other modules, Xcelon included, feature integrated level control VCAs. Freeing up dedicated VCA modules for CVing modulation rather than simple amplitude control seems to me like a development that resonates with what modular does best. How do you see Xcelon’s VCAs working in different systems, and what are some creative ways you’ve found to take advantage of this powerful Xcelon feature?

AH: Interestingly, we added this feature at the 11th hour. A friend of mine who was testing a final prototype was confused that the volume CV didn’t work this way by default, and so we decided to make the behavior configurable with jumpers. I’m very glad we did. It allows Xcelon to make its way into smaller systems, by potentially eliminating the need for six additional stereo VCAs using other modules. But if you prefer to keep the default volume CV mode, you can still add subtle amplitude modulation for tremolo effects or simply automate the volume control.

PC: Aside from level VCAs, the extensive CV control in Xcelon makes for a highly experimental mixer. What benefits have you found that CV adds to a mixing workflow, either in conventional or experimental ways?

AH: Voltage control is what brings modular synthesizers to life. I think for the volume and balance parameters, most of us know what we can do and what to expect. And those should not be disregarded. But with the FX sends and returns, you can really take it up a notch in terms of experimentation. I have found that these CV inputs can make for an incredibly dynamic mix when modulated with a sequencer. Alternating the sends on different steps, or cutting a return completely on some steps are just a couple of examples.

PC: How have musical artists taken to Xcelon? Any specific anecdotes to share about artists using Xcelon to exciting ends?

AH: Because the mixer’s hands-on design and overall visual feedback are truly made for eurorack performances, working with active performing artists has been our primary marketing focus for Xcelon. Such artists as Satoshi Tomiie, Krista Bourgeois, and Snakes of Russia are all currently using Xcelon during their live performance sets. The exposure is great of course, but receiving feedback from such talented electronic musicians is invaluable.

PC: Xcelon is getting some new friends in expanders DB25, IO, and TRS, adding tons of new ways to configure direct outputs and inputs for the powerful Eurorack mixer. With so many routing possibilities, how do you recommend people decide which set-up works best for their system and musical goals?

AH: The best thing to do would be to look closely at all of the routing diagrams we have created. These will most certainly explain the most common uses for them, whether you have just Xcelon, an expanded system with one or more XP3, or neither! Remember, these three modules can also function together to provide a great deal of balanced outputs, independent of the Xcelon mixer. If you do have the Xcelon mixer and possibly XP3, you can completely customize the configuration and have access to pre or post fader channel signals, or even both simultaneously.

Let’s say you already have Optx or similarly a USB recording interface in your rack, you could simply go with the IO module and selectively patch the channel signals you would like to record. Alternatively for balanced analog connections to a mixer, patchbay, or pro audio interface, one or more TRS can provide what you need. It’s important to note too, you don’t need to connect to all twelve direct outputs all the time. So for example, if you only have eight ¼-inch plugs on a snake, just move them around to record the channels you need. Finally, if you want the most professional solution with the most number of channels in only 8 HP, the DB25 will give you twenty-four balanced outputs to complement a fully expanded Xcelon system.

PC: Connector additions like the DB25 expander make some pretty obvious nods towards studio integration, which Xcelon does wonderfully. It also excels as a performance mixer, in strictly composed performances or improvised sets alike. How do you see these expanders fitting into a performance system, or for folks often moving between both studio and stage?

AH: These three direct output modules were certainly designed with studio in mind. But because of their flexibility and small size, you could keep one in your performance case so you are ready to multi-track at any time. Another really interesting use case for the IO module, which is great for live performance setups, is to use it to access individual channel signals for parallel processing, like patching a specific channel into a looper or granular processor. The IO module, as simple as it is, has a lot of utility other than just for direct recording.

PC: Xcelon combines Eurorack signals, other line level instruments, and more with ease, allowing you to integrate an entire studio of disparate gear. With so many direct ins and outs available on the new expanders, Xcelon is posed to offer a powerful studio centerpiece that rivals larger mixing desks. How do you see Xcelon working in studio contexts, and what are its advantages over a traditional mixer?

AH: That’s a very generous statement! I’m not sure it rivals larger mixing desks, but Xcelon was designed to be an all-in-one mixing solution for artists who consider their eurorack system a primary part of their music-making workflows. On its own it lacks some features and parameters of traditional mixers such as dedicated EQ and a robust master section, but the modular nature of Xcelon actually offers some specific and intentional advantages. With the help of other modules, you can choose what type of channel EQ you may want (EQx5 is a good choice!) or none at all, and you can also place modules/processing in on the mix busses before your output module (I’ll recommend Monitr!). It’s also important to note that all of Xcelon’s channels are stereo, yet can be configured and balanced as dual mono to allow for two sources through one channel. As stated previously, there is direct access to channel signals for recording, both pre and post fader, and the channel meters can also be configured pre or post fader. However, the true advantage over traditional mixers is by far the voltage control of nearly all parameters. A fully expanded Xcelon system (with two XP3) has fifty CV inputs, which encourages a level of experimentation I think not yet seen in hardware audio mixing, albeit some eurorack mixers have tried.

PC: Between the patchbays, mixer, inputs, and outputs, Boredbrain offers a comprehensive line of connectivity tools that work as hassle-free translation points for audio in the studio. While I understand Boredbrain has mostly focused on analog designs, I’m curious if there’s ever been consideration towards the control side of studio routing - MIDI, DC coupled audio interfaces, etc.

AH: There has been consideration into those two things specifically, among others. MIDI is something we plan to dive into a bit more, as I feel Boredbrain is poised to develop something a bit different in the MIDI-CV realm.

PC: Are there other Xcelon expanders or routing specific modules Boredbrain is cooking up?

AH: Yes. If enough Xcelon mixers are sold to justify further expansion modules, we have a few ideas in mind and some in the works already. The first is a CUE expander module which uses the pre-fader direct outputs to offer a PFL bus, where channels may be added to a cue mix and then patched to an output module, most likely with a headphone amplifier. Interestingly, you could instead connect the post-fader direct outputs and use it as an additional mix bus.

The second module is a smaller version of XP3 that adds three stereo inputs, but with less features at a lower price. Lastly, we’ve also kicked around the idea of a drum mix expander, which would accept six mono inputs with features designed around mixing multiple drum sources. In addition to individual levels, It would have its own drum bus volume parameter and an insert point to patch and process the drum mix before tying into the Xcelon mix busses.

PC: Outside of routing utilities, Boredbrain’s EQx5 stands out as a unique and highly useful tool in Eurorack. Similarly, Injectr adds serious sound manipulation of its own aside from its convenient routing and gain management. Should we expect any more strictly audio-mangling tools from Boredbrain?

AH: Like other companies in our space, we have innumerable ideas floating around the office, plus new and old designs that never materialized, and the usual shelf of unfinished circuits on breadboards. Some of these “almost tangible” ideas are most certainly sound creation and/or manipulation tools. The reality is that with the resources on hand, we have to be quite choosy with what we decide to turn into an actual product, and that typically ends up being what we are really good at and what seems to be missing in our market. So although you might see some effects and processing tools from Boredbrain, you’ll most likely see an evolution of the types of things we already make with more attention and ambition than the last, as our team and experiences continue to grow.