[interview] Iron Ether: Taylor Livingston

Here's FXDB's interview with Taylor Livingston of Iron Ether:

How did Iron Ether start?

I have been a musician for about 14 years, and for most of that time I was heavily interested in doing unique things with sound. About 8 years ago I started experimenting with electronics as a way to create tools for my music that I couldn't find elsewhere. I started with analog electronics, and then got into writing software. I found the power of software to be really freeing, but at the same time I felt that the interface was lacking, and this schism lead me to try to combine the best of both worlds. At this point I was still just creating things for my own use, but eventually it became Iron Ether.

I have been inspired/taught/helped by many people in the DIY scene. Unfortunately the list of people from whom I've learned would be impossibly long, but among them are the well-known effects DIY sites and writers like Geofex, DIY Stompboxes, and Tim Escobedo. I do my best to "pay my dues" back into the scene by helping DIYers, answering questions, and designing new circuits to give to the DIY community.

Iron EtherWhere does the name come from?

The name is meant to be evocative more than descriptive, I suppose. Originally I was working on effects which involved transmitting signals through physical media (metal sheets, tanks of water), so to some extent the name had something to do with the way that solid materials transform sound signals. Even now, the pedals have a sort of elemental aesthetic. Another important factor was that the name was not already taken, which most of my other ideas were!

What sets Iron Ether apart from other builders?

I think we've successfully carved out a corner of the effects market for ourselves by designing original effects that can do both great classic sounds, and also take music into new territory. We've never really done any marketing, and I try not to hype the pedals up with meaningless marketing-speak - instead the approach has always been to let the pedals do the talking, and the response from players has been really positive.

How do you start on a new pedal?

Generally I will have an idea of some kind of processing technique that I'd like to be able to do with bass or guitar. Typically this will be something that is more common in synthesizers, but is hard to do well in guitar/bass effects.Iron Ether Nimbus

Once coming up with a concept I will often prototype it in several ways until coming up with a design that we really like - to get to this point it needs to not only be a good idea, and have all the features we want, but (it goes without saying) it has to sound great. Sometimes things that seem like really cool ideas don't actually sound great with a real instrument - these get scrapped. Sometimes the concept is sound, but the techniques we chose to get there aren't right, and the result is an effect that doesn't sound fantastic. In this case, we start all over from the beginning. Some effects end up being developed for a few years, because we simply won't ever put out a pedal that doesn't sound fantastic.

Once a design is ready, we will do a sort of beta testing period, having musicians try out the pedals in their rigs, with their bands, to get feedback. We take their suggestions and tweak the design according to their feedback.

How do you name your pedals?

I see effects design as being a combination of science and art, so much of our aesthetic is based around that idea. So the name of the company, the visual design of the pedals, and the names are all part of that. The pedal names tend to be science terms which in some way describe what the pedal is doing or something to do with the kinds of sounds the pedal creates.

Iron oxide is a type of chemical compound, of which rust is the most well-known example. So Oxide is sort of a play on that, being the "Iron Ether Oxide" since the pedal can create some heavy sounds which might be called "rusty". Nimbus is a type of cloud, which to me makes sense in the context of reverb. Polytope is a geometry term having to do with multi-dimensional shapes. This seemed to fit because of the four-voice nature of the Polytope (the pedal) and the way it can take a "flat" sound and make it seem more multi-dimensional.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Everything is built in-house, by the three of us who make up Iron Ether.

Iron Ether PolytopeAll Iron Ether pedals are built and finished entirely by hand in our workshop. We use double-sided PCBs with a combination of through-hole and surface mount parts, all of which are hand-soldered.

The PCBs are designed to allow for very complex designs in small enclosures, while keeping those parts which are heavily-stressed mechanically (audio and power jacks, and stomp switches) mechanically separate from the main PCB - this ensures that the pedals will stand up to decades of use.

All of the pedals also include relay bypass. This means that they retain true bypass but we can do away with the blue "3PDT" switches used in most true bypass designs. Those switches are (after board-mounted jacks) one of the first things to fail in many pedals, and even when they don't fail, they lead to audio drop-outs, clicks and pops. Besides silent true bypass, another cool thing about the relay bypass we use is that it will automatically put the pedal into bypass mode if power is lost - which has saved me on stage before.

The finishing for each pedal involves a chemical process which etches the graphics/lettering into the face of the pedal. The result is a 3-dimensional depth, sort of like carved stone. Then the pedals are painted and clear-coated. This process is time-consuming, but we like the industrial aesthetic, and the durability.

How important is the look of your pedals?

The visual aesthetic is something we've worked hard to create. It's important that the pedals all look nice together, have a common design style, but that each one maintains its individuality, so they don't all look identical. We often come up with new ways of doing the etching or painting process to create a new look when we have a new pedal design.

Is parts selection important?

I definitely pay special attention to selecting the perfect parts for every part of the circuit. That said, Iron Ether pedals don't incorporate rare, new-old-stock parts like carbon comp resistors, etc. Parts like that are often noisy and would impart no special sound to our circuits. Often with very simply circuits like Fuzz Face clones, these part choices become meaningful since there are so few parts, and because the Fuzz Face is not designed to be "device-independent". But all IE pedals are designed from the start not to require any rare parts to function properly and with extremely low noise.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

They are all much more complex than most pedals, and they pack a lot of tiny parts in a small space, but the PCBs are designed to make the build process more streamlined. We have some secret things being developed right now which will definitely be the most complex production designs Iron Ether has done!Iron Ether Oxide

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

I think that overall, the Oxide has probably been the most popular. Being a fuzz pedal - which is one of the first pedals that many people buy - probably helps. But more than that, what a lot of people tell me they like about it is the fact that it can cover so much ground, both in terms of the sounds it creates (from synthy gated buzz, to fat greasy psychedelic fuzz) but also the variety of musical situations in which it can work.

But the pedal that has been kind of the runaway hit since its release just a few months ago, is the Polytope. I think people have really gravitated towards it because it offers such a new sound palette, to which bassists and guitarists haven't really had access previously. It's easy to focus on the really far-out sounds it can make, but what I think is more interesting to a lot of people, and it's why I wanted to make it in the first place, is the way that static detuning, especially four voices of it, is just a sound we haven't really heard on guitar or bass before.

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

When designing a pedal, I'm not so much thinking about a specific genre, as a type of signal processing that I want to achieve. These ideas often come from contemporary electronic music, but could just as likely come from early 20th century art music, 80s hip hop, or progressive metal. Many of the pedals have come from ideas of things I'd like to do with bass or guitar, but would traditionally be done with synthesizers.

For example, for years people have been trying to get synth-like sounds using fuzz and filters, but something that has been lacking is a way to really achieve the sound of 3 or 4 oscillators, just slightly detuned. That's a sound that's as useful in dubstep or jungle as it is in post-punk, and it's why I designed the Polytope.

One of my biggest gripes with many effects pedals is that the designer has defined a narrow band of sounds that you can create with the pedal, by limiting the maximum and minimum speeds of LFOs, the frequency range of filters, and the gain range of drive controls. This is a totally legitimate design choice in many cases, and some of the best equipment out there follows this "curated" approach, but I go in the other direction. Since I am interested in exploring new textures as well as classic ones, I like to put all the power in the hands of the user. It can be tricky to do that while still making an interface that's intuitive and understandable, but I see that as the major goal of a good design, and it's what we try to do with each new pedal.

Iron Ether XerographWe have made pedals for Justin Meldal-Johnsen (bassist for Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Tori Amos), for John Davis of Nerve, and for Jean Baudin, solo bassist. John Davis has been a beta tester for several of the pedals, going all the way back to the Xerograph, our first pedal, and his feedback helped shape it into what it is today. I would be a little hesitant to quote him on it, but I believe he said that his custom Xerograph has put his Moog filter (a key part of his signature sound) on an "extended vacation." The Moog filter is a brilliant design, as anyone who has used it knows, so that was great to hear!

What does the future of Iron Ether look like?

We plan to continue to create new and unique designs for the foreseeable future. We also have plans to branch off into related fields outside of guitar and bass effects. The focus is on creating things which are unique but also highly usable in a variety of musical contexts, and very powerful and versatile.

Are you working on any new pedals?

We currently have several pedals in development, which in my humble opinion are pretty exciting, but unfortunately I have to keep quiet about them for now. I can say that I am pretty excited about them, and that they are nothing like anything you might expect.

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