‘I am completely a creature of trial and error’: Talking Tech With Softmax

Softmax’s productions are guided by a desire to express the complex human condition beyond lyrics and notes. After making her first song with nothing but her voice and handclaps, her eyes opened up to the infinite ways sound can be used to explore deeper emotions. Since then she’s drawn inspiration from visual and literary arts to craft a leftfield pop sound with theatrical undertones. 

This intellectual and minimalist approach is mirrored in her studio, where she opts for a less-is-more approach with non-musical touches like chess boards and books so impulsivity can thrive. It’s in this space that she found the solace to explore the nihilism she found herself engulfed in whilst reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise. 

Fresh off channeling this into her debut EP But What If There Isn’t?, Softmax takes us on a tour of her cozy studio and talks us through her creative process and the importance of letting go of self-judgement.

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music? 

It was essentially exactly this but without the synthesizer and with a Shure SM58 microphone instead of my current Blue Spark. Also, I had a different interface that was incredibly finicky and barely functional, but I made it work for a couple years.

What’s your musical education?

I took guitar and piano lessons growing up, taught myself to produce as a teenager, and have been writing things resembling songs for as long as I can remember. All that withstanding, I think my musical education in large part has just been listening. If I can really listen to something with intent and get a thorough enough understanding of what makes it impact me the way it does, then I’ve learned something. Maybe I’ve learned something about the song specifically or something about my own tastes, maybe about writing and production, or maybe about different ways to do things. 

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

I guess that depends on what the definition of “serious,” and what the definition of “kit” is here. I’m not sure any of my kit is super intense in comparison to some of the gear that’s out there, but I know the act of getting certain pieces feels serious. Like, for example, it can mark a time in your life when you officially commit to music or to the belief that something you’re trying to make deserves to have a life outside of your head. I think the piece of kit that would represent that for me would be the first mic I got, the SM58. Just felt like that was a moment as a teenager where I decided I was going to fully commit to learning to produce and to recording my own voice and doing whatever else I needed to do to make music because I felt like I couldn’t live with the idea of not doing so. 

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components? 

Definitely! Since I have a pretty minimal setup as far as gear goes, everything is a main component, really. I have the Novation Bass Station, my Blue Spark mic, and an M-Audio Trigger Finger. My interface is the Focusrite Saffire Pro-14 and I have my two guitars and a keyboard as well. 

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Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

It’s in my apartment here in Chicago and it is not currently shared. I’m really lucky to have a space for this in my apartment, and it’s my favorite place to be. 

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

I would say the predominant purpose for the way it’s been laid out is just comfort and ease-of-use. No matter where I set up, I will set it up this way. I like feeling at home with everything in its right place when I sit down to work. 

Special non-musical touches are that I have multiple chess boards hanging out around here. Lots of books too. I figure if I decorate like an intellectual then perhaps I will become one by osmosis. I have become quite the chess fiend over the past couple years, though. 

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together? 

I would say it was largely an all-at-once situation, although the Bass Station came later and some things have been updated over time or swapped out. The soundproofing panels are newer too – they were purchased for this space specifically when I moved here under a year ago. 

I was inspired by mid-century modern interiors as well as how dark and cave-like the room is. I wanted it to feel like a weird sort of vaguely anachronistic space that is both cozy and mildly nauseating. 

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change? 

To some extent, yes. I would love to expand the studio and getting a new piece of gear is a great joy and a learning experience, but also if there are too many options for anything, really – including, but not limited to making music – I’ll get overwhelmed and won’t even be able to start. Since I’m so affected by choice overload, I tend to think a less-is-more route is right for me. Of course that doesn’t mean I will never add or change gear, I just think very discerning and slow growth with limits has helped and will continue to help deal with some of the paradox of choice.

If money were no object what would you add?

Maybe the Roland Juno-106 or another great 80’s synth. I’d also love to fuck around with a theremin, honestly.

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be? 

I love my Novation Bass Station. It’s really versatile, but not so intense that it stops being fun or that I feel out of my depth using it.  

How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets? 

Figuring that out as we speak. I don’t feel like any of the solutions I’ve had so far have been ideal in terms of live production. Trying to get to the right balance of what’s cool to watch and feels interactive, but is also reasonable to deal with and reliable.

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

I always have a big pot of coffee at the ready. Sometimes even the small ritual of sitting down at the desk and opening a session is enough to get me into a functional headspace, but sometimes it’s not. When it’s not, I guess for me that’s just where some discipline has to take over and hopefully the right headspace can kick in eventually. But also sometimes I’ll just lay on the floor for like ten minutes and that can help temper any issues I’m having with focusing or whatever it might be. 

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

When I’m working on something that would be for a project of mine, I usually go in with a concept tonally and for the writing. If I’m doing a session with someone where we’re making something from scratch or if I want to have a day where I just get to play around and see what happens, then that will very much be an impulsive exercise. It becomes less impulsive when I start to see a direction forming, but even then I love to leave room for impulsivity, particularly when I’m working with other producers. I am completely a creature of trial and error and people have really great and cool ideas that can make songs a lot better, so it’s a shame to not try out the weird, impulsive stuff that comes up.

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

I am absolutely the former. I will work a track into the ground and am very partial to trying everything I can think of to see what it does for the song or at least just to be sure it’s not better than the existing top option. And then sometimes I can get so zoomed-in on something tiny that nobody else hears, but it will stick out like a sore thumb to me every time I listen to the track and it will keep me up at night. On rare occasions I’ve felt like I’ve known exactly what the song is from the jump, but the vast majority of the time it’s this more painstaking workshopping process, the goal being to get to somewhere maybe in the 90th percentile of confidence that the direction I’m choosing is the best of what I could come up with. 

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writer’s block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

I find what works best for me with writer’s block is if I can allow myself to do it badly. It can be so hard – particularly when you’re frustrated with a writer’s block – to turn off self-judgment, so I’ll just put a time limit on it. Like, I’ll give myself 30 minutes and I cannot think twice about or judge myself for anything I make within that time frame, and I will just make something new that is probably shitty, but maybe is not shitty. If it’s not shitty then there you go, writer’s block over. If it is shitty, then who cares because you’ve made something when 30 minutes ago you felt like you’d just be relegated to living in this horrible writer’s block forever or that maybe you have nothing to say anymore or whatever your brain told you.

That being said, sometimes I think it can actually be more harmful to stay there for hours letting your self-confidence get bludgeoned by writer’s block. Sometimes stepping away and trying your best not to beat yourself up about it is the best you can do. You can revisit it tomorrow. Or work on something else until you can try again without the dark cloud of the last experience looming.

What inspires you outside the world of music?

A lot! No surprise here I’m sure, but film and literature are hugely important to me and really all manner and medium of visual arts are inspiring. I love tactile skills as well, like martial arts and boxing. Psychology also fascinates me. 

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your release, and why?

Probably my mic, honestly. There are a lot of vocals that went into this project. I mean, really a lot of vocals everywhere, all the time, on this project and little miss Microphone really pulled her weight. 

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

More music coming out! Soon! Also, I just love the process of doing sessions with other artists – that’s something that gets me excited all the time to be able to do. I’ve even become fond of the zoom session.

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