Transcription: 0356 - Alejo Yael

Released: May 23, 2021

Darwin: Okay today, I have the great pleasure of getting to meet somebody, the contact just came out of the blue, about a little company running out of Argentina. I looked into it and I was pretty shocked with what I saw. I started conversation, and the next thing I know, we set up an interview and I am very glad to introduce you all to Alejo Fernandez Yael - he and his brother run a company called Yaeltex. And what they do is actually quite amazing. They have a factory where they develop MIDI controllers, but it's not the typical preset MIDI controller with a lot of functionality stuff. They actually have gone way out of their way to make a whole environment in essence, that allows you to design, manufacture, and get your own custom MIDI controller. And it's amazing. So rather than try and ramble about it myself, first of all, I'm going to have you look over at where you can actually see their stuff at work, but also we're going to talk to Alejo. So with no further ado, let's talk to him.

Alejo Yael: Hello Darwin, and thank you for having me. It's an honor to be on your podcast, which I heard many times and which I learn a lot from.

Darwin: Thank you! So it's good to know that I have some listeners in Buenos Aires. That's very exciting to me. I was really kinda knocked out with what you guys are doing. Why don't you talk a little bit about the way that you tell people about your company?

Alejo: So we built a system for creating custom interfaces. What we actually tried to do is to remove all the complexity of creating our word and mask it behind a simple interface, which is a web app where you can easily design your controller or interface without all the hassle that comes with it, which we learned from experience. It's a lot and it's very hard. So yeah, we built this system, which has different parts. We can talk later about them. On the front end it's a web app. It's a very easy design app where we actually embed all our framework, the hardware framework, and everything you can design there, we can build. So in a sense it's like a service and a product at the same time. And so this application is called The Factory and there's where you can design and build your controller. And we try to do the customization as extensively as we could. I would like to keep in mind that this is the first version and we were really eager to put it on the streets. So we've been developing it for maybe two years. And when we felt that we have a viable product, we put it out there because we wanted actually to build with the input from the community. So built publicly, let's say so it's more or less around those lines.

Darwin: I think in a way we're almost doing it a disservice by calling it a MIDI controller too. When I look at the range of things that you can actually build with this, it's pretty amazing because you have the typical sliders and knobs and buttons, but you also have like grid arrays, you have arcade buttons, it looks like you even have joysticks. All of these things can be arbitrarily placed anywhere on a control surface, right?

Alejo: Yeah, that's right. I also don't like it to call it only a MIDI controller, which is completely fine. But, we are actually also implementing keystrokes. So it's not really a MIDI controller and we are also aiming for Twitchers and video streamers and video editors and also maybe gaming and at some point, but yeah, as I said, it's like the first version and we have plans to put more elements into it, but right now, yes, you can put joysticks, and arcade buttons, and also rubber buttons with RGB feedback and yeah. And encoders and stuff like that.

We are based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. So we mount the things here and there are some providers that we have here in Argentina, for example, the faceplates like the front panels and all this work and the cases, the cases are built by a very good friend Tomás Pertile, who is a amazing carpenter. And they are done by hand in Patagonia and Bariloche where we all come from. Actually, we are four main founders and we are all from Bariloche, friends since we were kids. And Tomás is still in Bariloche that it's making the wood boxes and then all the industrial design and coding and stuff is done in a Bruno Aries, Argentina. And we manufacture the elements, the electronics, in China.

Darwin: Right. It's really interesting because I think one of the things that surprised me initially is that you just don't simply hear an awful lot about manufacturing in South America, especially something that's single shot custom development. I mean, this is really pretty amazing. How hard was it for you to get the infrastructure going to even make this happen?

Alejo: You don't hear it much because if you think about it, it's a really bad idea. I mean, we started because we were passionate about it. If we have started as a business, making a spreadsheet with numbers, we will never start. I mean it's really a bad idea, and this is why we don't see much from South America. But that doesn't mean there is none. I mean, there are quite a few really interesting projects in Argentina and also some in Peru and Brazil and Chile. But it's not a good idea because, yeah, developing a business in, well, I can speak for my experience in Argentina. Starting a project anywhere in the world, it's a major challenge. And I have the most respect for the people that get to take the ideas out of their head and make something real. That's an amazing challenge. And it's already a lot of work, but if you add to that to make it in a place like Argentina, it's a really, really tough. But anyway as I said, we started without thinking about the business we started because we like it. And here we are, actually, the thing is that you have to be really flexible, the rules and the game are changing by the day here in many ways. So it's a real challenge, but it's possible. I mean, we are here and we'll live through the pandemic, which was also hard. So we are an example that it's possible.

Darwin: Well, not only is it possible, it's kind of amazing. I mean, again, this kind of one-off development stuff is really cool. The idea of using web tooling, both for designing the device itself, as well as for configuring it, is really kind of bleeding edge as well, and so congratulations on that. That's amazing.

Alejo: May I add something to that? There is something that it's not so evident that is that this model allows us to have a product on the market - you know, making hardware is really expensive and to get into the business, it's really expensive if you have to send to a manufacturer in China, I don't know, a thousand or 5,000 or 10,000 units. So this which it's stuff that we are discovering as we go, but this for us was an amazing finding somehow that we can make short batch of the things that we have to bring from China. And this allows us to, on the first hand to do not have things that are standing in a bench that we are not selling, that we don't build anything that it's not wished for already by someone, so we don't have this fight for prices or B-stock that we have to sell cheaper. And on the ecological point of view, this is also very interesting because what we manufacture, it's not defined what it's going to be. It's still something that someone wanted. And so that is also an interesting part of how we came into hardware.

Darwin: That's a really great point. And especially I like the ecology angle of it, the fact that you're not wasting development because you only build the things that actually people want to have in their studios. So that's fantastic. So I am curious you dropped a little note about the business having been started by a bunch of you that grew up in Patagonia. And, I am curious about your background. Frankly, I think of Patagonia primarily as a place where people go for interesting outdoor tourism. I don't think of it as a place where people are sitting around designing ideas for a MIDI controller-based business. So I became curious about where does this passion come from? How did you know growing up, how were you interacting with electronic music? What got you interested in working on electronics and design and these other things, how did you get to the place where you are putting something like this together?

Alejo: We are from Bariloche, I mean, the music part in my case and in the case of Mateo, my brother comes from my mother. She was very into music. She was into Frank Zappa and Beatles and Pink Floyd and Janis Joplin and all these things that were popular in the sixties and the seventies. So we grew up listening to all this music. And to me the experience of listening to Pink Floyd as a kid it was bliss and it's something that stays with me forever actually. And on the other hand, our uncle is a physicist and he works in a place called The Atomic Center where he was experimenting with electrons and stuff like that in a lab called Atomic Collisions.

And they were studying crushing particles to see what happened there. And as a kid, I remember being fascinated and asked and asked my uncle many many times to take me there because I was fascinated by the machines they were using. And they were building everything there to make the experiments. And there were all kinds of crazy interfaces to drive their reactor and to make all these experiments with the electrons and stuff. And that's also stays with me. I remember making visuals go in there to take pictures and to use it as a content because it blew my mind. I think a part of the fascination with the machines come from that iteration. And later with my brother, we got into music and visuals and interaction and installations. So at the time I was living in Germany for a while, in the early 2000's, and I came back to Argentina and I have some tools with me.

And one of them was a little box from a company called Electrotap, which I think it's gone by now. And they have a box called the Teabox. And we loved it at the time. It was a little box where you can connect easily with cables that you can build yourself some sensors. And the first interface that we did with my brother was using the Teabox and building something we call La Sensible, which was an interface with a gyroscope, and accelerometers, and distance sensors, and flexors force sensors - that you can interact with it. And we got fascinated by the process of building this thing. And from there really shortly after Franco Rossano, which is an electronic engineer, joined us to build more complex stuff. And we start using Doepfer boards and then The Brain form from Livid Instruments. And at the time we find Arduino and this opens a lot of possibilities for us and was very cheap - at that time in Argentina, it was not very easy to import stuff. So we ask anyone like the grandmother of a friend that was flying abroad to bring us components and things to work with, and also repurposing stuff that we find here, like PlayStation joysticks and pull them apart and using the PCBs to make something else with it. Because again, we didn't have access to buy new stuff.

We had a little company where we did installations for brands and also for other artists. So we helped them put systems together where you need to synchronize light and video and audio. And we were using at the time, Pure Data and Max/MSP and, Isadora, which I still love today and Max for Live. And then I don't remember the year, but when Ableton Live 4 came out with MIDI implementation, we start to use it extensively also to sequence stuff. And so we were building these interfaces for pieces, for brands, or for other artists that were doing installations and interactivity, but they didn't know exactly how to put the system together and needed some kind of technical assistance, if you will.

Darwin: Sure, sure. Now you talk about there being four people involved in this business. Do each of you have like one role, like is one person the software designer and one person the hardware designer, or does everybody kind of work on everything?

Alejo: We are four, but there is actually more people involved now. Some of them are not working full time, but they are engaged in the project for a long time. But actually each of us has an area which is responsible, but we are really mixed because we need to do a lot of stuff. So it's a lot of work. So we ended up doing different things, but Franco is responsible for the electronic design and the firmware mostly, but then we all design features together. We don't have a vertical organization.

Darwin: That makes a lot of sense. Now, when I look at the range of devices, I mean, if nothing else, when you pop open your website, like the image at the top is like a circus of different kinds of controllers. It's really pretty amazing... When you're developing these things do these components come in like little mini sets and they're kind of assembled together? Or do you have to build up the component boards from scratch for each one?

Alejo: No, we send it to a manufacture in China, we get the board already populated. We used to do the soldiering here, but we don't add value doing that anymore, so we outsource it. What we are seeing now is what we call Version Two. And we have, Version One, which was a primitive version of this based on Arduino and based on a shield we developed for Arduino. We did like a hundred different units and between 2017 and 2019. With this first version, it was much more of a going and coming with the artist and by mail. And so it was really work intensive and it didn't make a lot of sense on the financial side, because it's impossible to charge for that work. So for Version Two, we try to automate all this process and also to give the freedom to the artists to design it by themselves, which we didn't have before. But coming back to your question, yes, they can populate the PCBs and what we do here is mount it.

Darwin: Okay. One of the things that kind of jumps off the page, when you scroll through it, is that the cases are still made back in Patagonia by your friend, right?

Alejo: Yes. I mean, this has to do with how we think of beauty as a feature, not as a destiny. It's a very simple thing: beautiful things makes people happy. And it's a very basic, but it's very powerful idea. So there are some parts of our product that we want to keep as beautiful as we can when it makes economic sense. So yeah, we still do the boxes with Tomás in Patagonia.

Darwin: Yeah. I think that that's actually really an important point. I know some of the favorite things that I have in my studio, like the Monome Grid or the Manta from Jeff Snyder, a big part of it is that physically they're beautiful and that physical beauty makes me appreciate them as an instrument. And I treat them in kind of a different way. So I think that's really important, I think that's really smart. In putting together a a custom thing, I imagine already you've seen like some pretty crazy designs come through. Right?

Alejo: Yeah. I mean when building an open system there is a lot of work imagining in your head, all the different possibilities that can come out with this set of rules that we are putting out. But it's impossible to predict everything that will be made there. And it's amazing. It's a really fascinating part of the process watching what the people come out with. We saw like a set composed of 10 pieces, 10 different units to make a massive, interface or some people just choosing joysticks and making a massive plate of joysticks and stuff like that. I think now we are preparing a new set of hardware elements that we will bring into the framework. And we are breaking a little bit of the symmetry of the system right now you can fill it some kind of primitive because we have this very fixed grid. But now we are breaking this symmetry, bringing more components on the same area. So I think we will start to see more diversity of the controllers being made on The Factory.

Darwin: Sure. Now, although there are MIDI controllers, different kinds of software have different kind of interface requirements. So like with Ableton Live, for example, a lot of preset controllers will have a Python script that gets embedded so that it is automatically assigned. Have you done any work to sort of like standardize that connection with software or how do you help people get this integrated into the software that it's connected to?

Alejo: Well, it's a complicated subject because every software has a different implementation. So it's a thing that going one by one with the software. Right now we are working with James Westfall, which is a guy from the States who is building remote scripts and we are finishing, I don't want to be too optimistic, but maybe in two or three weeks, we're gonna release a remote script that is as modular as our controller. So we will let people interface with Ableton easier than now. But to be honest, there are already options on the market to overcome this like Remotify, for example. There are some tools already on the market that will help you building your own Python remote script for Ableton, and then Cubase has some more friendly configurations.

Alejo: Inside of Cubase you can do your own script somehow and also save it. So every time you open Cubase, you will have your controller behave as you want. And then, there is also in Bitwig, for example, there's also some kind of a generic remote script, it's really powerful you can control anything. It's something we are working on and on our side, we have Kilowhat, which is the tool that lets you reconfigure your controller the way you want anytime you want, it's also a web app and it's quite powerful in the sense that you can configure the component the way you want in the sense that you can send it to one port, or to another port, to a specific MIDI channel with a specific MIDI message and so on. So I think with the new universal script that we are releasing very soon, and with the other software that already have these capabilities built in, there is a kind of support for that.

Darwin: What are the limits of what you can build? I mean, obviously you can't build something that's the size of a ship. So like, what is, what is the limit of the interface size that people can design?

Alejo: We have three different sizes now that you can use horizontally or vertically. So there are actually like 6 different form factors if you will. And the biggest one is something like 45 cm by 33 cm. That's the biggest controller we can build now, but when we built a system we thought, we would build it to be expandable in the future. So the main board that we have inside of the controllers, what that we call Kilomux it's being used not so extensively. So there is a lot to add to the Kilomux. So we will add in the future screens and an SDK and different sensors, and motorized faders and so on. We are limited by our resources, that's really the point. I mean, the ability for us to develop new elements and also the financial ability to produce a bigger system because we have to produce batches of the electronics. So when we have more elements it's more expensive and we have to be clever about it.

Darwin: That makes a lot of sense. Maybe I have just a misunderstanding, but my understanding about Argentina in particular was that import duty is actually a real difficult thing to deal with for businesses or even for musicians that want to get instruments from the outside world and stuff, doesn't that have a significant effect effect on your ability to produce these things.

Alejo: Right now it's working. And I mean, I don't think it's understandable for someone that it's not from Argentina, what we go through here. I don't want to say it too loud, but right now it's working, we can bring stuff in and we can export our stuff out. And most of the things, because we are going through a complicated economic situation here in Argentina, most of our clients are outside of Argentina, and this is somewhat sad for us, but it is what it is. But right now we can pretty easily bring the things that we need in, and then to export the things that we do out. But that wasn't the case four years ago. And we will see what will happen two years from now.

Alejo: It's by the day. It's not the only thing, really building a company or a project in Argentina has many of those uncertainties and difficulties. I can name like 20 that you have in the States, or in Germany, or in England, or in Spain that you have there, and we don't, for example, a coin that we can use. I mean, we have a coin that we cannot hold it for more than 10 days because it's devalued all the time. Stuff like that. It's really a challenge. Also, let me add that, I'm not proud of this, but this situation it's, for entrepreneurs like us, it makes us very flexible and adaptable. And I'm not proud of it, I don't want to be flexible and adaptable, but yeah, it's what we have to do. And, if you don't, you can't do stuff here.

Darwin: It seems to me, like not only your background, but your environment really led to the kind of company you have. I mean you know, you started off by playing with all these different systems, whether it was the Teabox or, the thing from Livid, or Arduinos, you kind of played around with a lot of things and got a comfortable, but also kind of like repurposing things and working in a modular way. It seems like you had all kind of set you up for making a business that has sort of like this modular development to it. So I think maybe it's a kind of valuable, too, what you went through.

Alejo: Sure. I mean, we are molded by our environment and the things that we can imagine and do also model our environment. So, I'm sure all this background of getting things done no matter what, maybe it's something important to drive your idea forward. I would love to be doing this in Finland, but it didn't happen that way. So, as I said this makes you a gymnast, maybe for a pandemic it's a good thing. I mean, we didn't panic, we just have a new reality, the inner market in Argentina it's completely gone because 40% of the people are poor. Now they cannot afford the things that we are doing. So now we have to sell outside. What we need to sell outside is really complicated, the financial part and exporting and all the things that we have to do, communication stuff and we take it as a given that we have to keep going and be creative. We believe in what we are doing. I mean we aren't here for the money but we feel that we have something to say in the creative hardware world and we want to keep doing it. As long as we have good feedback from the users and the community, and it's sustainable economically, we will keep going, no matter what.

Darwin: That's fantastic. Let me ask this. Since you kind of started off by doing a lot of creative stuff, have you been able to keep that up as well? Do you still do music and visuals and performance and stuff like that? I mean, I know the pandemic kind of got in a way but, have you maintained your activities in art making?

Alejo: Not really, to be honest. We interact with a lot of equipment on a regular basis because of the company. But I had to learn so much stuff to pull this off. I'm not sad about it, interests shift in our life and I'm happy where I am now. I was completely focused on that, like 10 or 15 years ago, and now my interests shift to other things. And I'm not sad about it. But the short answer is, no. We are now working with the art with other artists, helping them to be creative and to do their work. And it's fine like this.

You know, creativity, which is something that I like it can be expressed in many different ways and it doesn't have to be something that you do in a public space in front of people. I mean, as an artist we can be creative in many other ways, and this is what we do. The next step for us is to build railways for artists to not only design the controllers, but we want to build an ecosystem where artists can also sell their creations on our platform. So for example, I'm really interested now in cryptocurrencies and all this, not because of the cryptocurrencies per se, but any everything that is going on with ways to organize communities in a way that the community has the main voice, where the framework or the space that they are involved in go forward. I think it's gonna bring a lot of interesting new types of organization into companies and to communities and therefore, I think there's a lot to be done there. You can be creative, not only playing music, but designing even how a company is structured or how you interact with users of a framework and stuff like this.

Darwin: That's fantastic. That's really interesting. And boy, I didn't even, I didn't even really think about cryptocurrency. Because it's community driven, it actually has a place in the communities of artists that bridge international borders. That's actually a really powerful statement. Thanks for opening that door for me.

Alejo: You know, in the future I think we'll like to see Yaeltex being a transparent and an open organization in the sense that we will like to have some kind of a voting system. Where users of the framework can vote where we can allocate resources, what are the new features that are needed, and also to create like an alternative revenue stream for them, if they create something interesting, for example, and they add value to the community or to the framework - for example, designing some implementation with some software or doing a special, a unique graphic design or making video, or documentation that they can extract value from the framework. And also I foresee more of an open company, if you will. Where users have really an influence of where we go and they are not only someone watching what their clever guy on that company is doing.

I think collective intelligence is the future. I mean it's how science is structured. And I think community intelligence is something that we have to build in into companies for the future. It's something that we have in software, I dream that you can have that in hardware too. I mean, in software, there are many examples and there are a lot of beautiful things that are developed by the community in Max For Live and Reactor and all those environments where users are really the driving force for creativity. And most of the tools that I like are done by the community. I think that is something that we have to empower and tap into.

Darwin: Right on. Well, Alejo, I want to thank you so much for the time - we blew through that. That was really great, but it was really fascinating to hear not only how you grew the company and how you imagined this stuff coming together, but what your vision is for the future. I think that you have both a powerful vision, but also one that's actually attainable because like you said, I think a lot of the things you talk about are things we see in software, but we desire that in hardware. And I think that you're really onto something there.

Alejo: Thank you, Darwin. It was a pleasure.

Copyright 2021 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.