Meet the Member : Foxfield Instruments

By Esther Ellard

Can you tell us a bit about how it all got started?

Foxfield represents the convergence of a number of interests. I’ve been working with electronics for a while now, having built a few installations and objects based around digital microcontrollers, like Arduino. I’ve been a musician for years and years, and I started building a variety of DIY musical tools – electronic instrument kits, guitar pedals, and the like – a few years back.

There’s a long history of synthesizer DIY, and as I got into modular synthesis,  I started building my own modules from other designers’ kits. That led to looking into how such modules were made. There’s a small but strong open-source element to the community, releasing everything from the firmware to the circuit layouts as open-source. I learned a lot from these.

Eventually, I started tinkering with putting some simple designs into an uncommon format, and thought I’d release them as kits – my way of giving something back to a community I learned so much from.

You created a fantastic instrument during your time on the MVworks program – is this a spin off from that work?

The core motivations behind the work are certainly related! Twinklr was definitely another project into the same space – designing tools for other people to use, designing instruments for other musicians to play with, and using modern fabrication technologies to do so.

Much of what I learned during MVWorks has fed into the Foxfield work, either directly or indirectly. Not just how new skills or experience, but also the confidence to keep exploring this space, and the confirmation it’s a terrain I enjoy working in.


How are you retailing your products?

I’m selling my products through a single retailer – Thonk. They’re probably the best known retailer of synth DIY kits in the UK, and they sell all over the world.

For me, at the scale I’m operating it’s a good situation. I ship them products in a bulk batch; they sell them on their site, market them through their mailouts, ship them, and handle things like EU VAT. In return, they take a percentage of the sales.

It’s a bit like the App Store – I give up a percentage of income in return for someone who’s already scaled-up to do certain tasks taking care of things for me.

What are your goals and ambitions for this project / how do you see it evolving?

At the moment, my goals are modest. I’d like to find a way to continue Foxfield, sustainably, alongside my client and project work. I’ve described Foxfield Instruments as being a bit like a record label or imprint – it’s an outlet to make particular kinds of things, with no urgency per se. Also, I don’t necessarily see scarcity as a problem. If a particular product sells well, it means there’ll be a ready audience for its re-stock.

In the short term, I’ve got a second line of prototypes, some of which are moderately interesting, and some of which I think are quite exciting – so I’d like to get them into the world! I’d also like to think about more complex instruments and objects – beyond the simple utilities I’m making. I think those will develop with time and experience.

And I’m also hoping that all this will continue to feed back into my project work. I’m doing a slowly growing number of projects in the sound/music/technology space, and many of the skills I’ve learned by doing this have tangible impact on the rest of my practice.

What was the hardest thing about getting started?

In no particular order:

  • Going from ‘works for me’ to ‘could be built by everybody and made to work’ is a slow process. I had the first 100% working modules in my synthesizer about eight months before I shipped the final kits. In that time, I redesigned some of the kits to make them easier to build, I did a design pass to make the circuit boards easier to read, and I had to design final front panels. On top of which, I had to source all the materials and manufacture the circuit boards and panels.
  • Some things can’t be automated: the final step of all this was packing up lots of kits, clearly and precisely. That just involves a lot of paper cups and time – I spent about two whole days just bagging.
  • Customs and imports are a bit of an adventure the first time you handle them – I’ve learned a bit about the hidden costs of international shipping, for sure!
  • Good documentation is challenging and time-consuming to write. But the effort pays off: a lot of my documentation can be re-used between kits, and clear documentation means more people will build these things right first time. I’ve had really positive feedback on the documentation, and that was rewarding.

What advice would you give to someone starting up?

  • If you’re working on something that has to fit around other work – client projects, or full-time employment – work out how to make it manageable. That means finding a way to keep ambitions and scale manageable, so that you’ll actually have time to work on things and finish them to a standard you’re happy with. A key part of that for me was finding a way to make it easy to pick up wherever you left off. That might be a notebook, or a textfile, or a Trello board. On the Foxfield products, I had a README file for each one that told me what I’d done on it, what the state of it was, and what needed doing next. It meant that whenever I came to a product after time off, I knew exactly where to pick things up from.
  • Time invested in spreadsheets will pay off, especially when it comes to your Bills Of Materials (BOMs). Make sure your BOM is accurate and up-to-date; and make sure it includes everything that goes into the BOM – not just components and hardware but packaging, documentation, etc. All the little things you leave off add up! And use that spreadsheet to help you understand pricing. My BOM spreadsheet feeds into the one that shows me the range of possible prices depending on margin I want to bake in; that helped me understand the gap between target prices and realistic prices.
  • And always be careful when it comes to turning passions into work! You don’t have to monetise your interests if you don’t want to – but if you do, find a way to keep the things that you enjoy about that space enjoyable. You should also remember to value your time – it might be something you love, but it’s easy to distort the real cost of making things if you’re not accounting for your own effort. I’m definitely guilty of this.


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Posted By Esther Ellard