Soft Metals are a multi-disciplinary electropop duo from Portland, Oregon, now based in LA. Ian and coconspirator Patricia were brought together through a common love of 1970s and 80s synthesizer music and began writing and recording songs together in the spring of 2009. Their songs are built from moody, improvised sessions together using exclusively electronic instruments — some of the results remain unpolished and improvised to pay homage to authenticity, spontaneity, the joy of sound and experimentation while others are studio-based exercises, fusing new and old production technologies.
Ian just killed a midterm, so they’re dropping down to the desert to play at TVOD, our live music residency in the Amigo Room at Ace Hotel & Swim Club Friday night. We asked Ian about vintage gear and other inspirations.
Using old gear is an adventure, for better or worse. How much of your music is about tweaking your gear vs. making melody —- frustration, inspiration, pain in the ass, revelation?
I would say that using older gear is much more of an inspiration than a pain in the ass, sometimes sequencing can be more difficult than it would be using everything in a computer but it’s through the limitation and work-arounds that you can break through to something that you probably wouldn’t have discovered had you just drawn out all the MIDI info. It can get a little cumbersome when having to translate between CV or DCB to MIDI and DIN sync to MIDI sync but its very engaging and gratifying to be able to hook everything up in a way your not quite sure will work, and then have it come together perfectly.
To address your question, I think our music has some of the track-y elements of gear tweaking that are present in some of our favorite Chicago house and Detroit techno tracks, but we definitely try to identify strong melodic elements when were picking out jams to flesh out so that we can create more of a song-style narrative.
Is it true that Patricia is more the singer-songwriter of your duo, and Ian the gear geek? And how do you balance each other and keep each other moving forward in terms of building the music?
Patricia writes all of the lyrics and vocal melodies but we pretty much collaborate on every other aspect. I am more knowledgeable about our sequencing and audio production side, but we both jam on the gear to create the starts of songs and then work together in most aspects to develop them further.
Tell us about some equipment you’ve built from scratch or scrap.
The only piece that we use that I’ve built from scratch (well, kit). The x0xb0x is an open source clone of the Roland TB-303, you used to have to get on a mailing list and wait for your number to come up before they would send you a kit, but a few friends and I decided we’d just skip the list and go straight to the Bill Of Materials on the x0x site and order the parts direct from Mouser, Digikey etc. The build was done in about two months (hard to coordinate meeting times) and only one worked — you can see pictures of the build below. I ended up having to troubleshoot the filter resonance on my x0x for a while — it was a great learning experience though and gave me a good amount of confidence in reading schematics and soldering. Lately, I’ve been too busy to take on any electronics projects but I’m interested in building some effects or possibly the MIDIbox SID synth next.
Finding vintage analog gear can be quest that goes beyond typical Ebay and Craigslist searches. Can you tell us some stories about your quests for equipment?
I haven’t really gotten too much gear outside of the CL and Ebay routes, I think people now know to look things up on the internet before they donate them to goodwill! I have come across two rather rare pieces of gear in my gear hunting. The first was a Roland SH-7 at a pawn shop in Vancouver, WA and the second was a Soviet synth called the Polivoks which I found on Craigslist in Olympia. The Polivoks was in pretty rough shape when I got it and all of the schematics and info on the internet are in Cyrillic! I was worried that it would just sort of be a museum piece. Luckily, I’ve found a tech here in LA that was excited to take it on as a project, so hopefully in the next couple months I’ll be getting it back, cant wait to play around with it!
Here’s a video of me fooling around with some synths.
Photograph of Patricia and Ian at the top is by Deneb Catalan