Designer Talk: Interview with Looptrotter
Looptrotter is a young Polish manufacturer of pro audio equipment with a portfolio of very original designs all centred on how harmonic distortion can be used to improve modern recording systems. With products ranging from 500-series preamps and saturator, Compressors and summing mixers, Looptrotter’s focus on harmonic distortion sets it truly apart from the rest. We talk to Andrzej Starzyk, the man behind the company to learn more about its origin and philosophy.
Tell us about your background and what prompted you to start Looptrotter?
I’ve been interested in electronics ever since I was a child. It began with me disassembling old, broken, electronic devices and then later, thinking it would be nice to “reanimate” them. So I tried repairing them – successfully, as it turned out. All this happened in the early years of elementary school. In those years I would listen to a lot of music, mainly Pink Floyd, Dire Straits etc. which is what got me most interested in magnetic tape recorders and later reel tape recorders. (reminiscing) Ah, such a magnificent sound…! This was the beginning of my affection for real, analogue sound.
Next, I wanted to understand why and how it all worked. It wasn’t easy. It proved to be very difficult to find proper books, which were written in a simple and clear way and would explain what all those transistors and capacitors did. The engineering and scientific language did not appeal to me at that time so I experimented a lot, checking what would happen if I connected the circuits in a different way. I discovered that electronics is what really fascinates me. I tried to apply to schools in electronics but failed since I was never good enough in mathematics. Now I think it was for the best. Eventually, I managed to source properly written books and slowly began to understand the phenomena occurring in electronic systems.
At the same time, I wanted to become a drummer. I began my drumming lessons and it was a wonderful time. Thanks to this I found my way to the legendary jazz club “Remont” in Warsaw. In there I discovered another huge passion of mine, which was sound engineering and production. Simultaneously I was intensely experimenting with sound. I was combining different guitar effects. At first, I simply plugged the cable and touched the tip, I called it “cable music”. I remember receiving a delay effect as a gift from my uncle. It was a real breakthrough; I began to create my first stereo recordings (Laughs). Somewhere around the mid-nineties together with few friends, we began playing with electronic music, we even established a touring musical band “Qriozum”.
For many years I would experiment with sound, mainly analogue. Eventually, I decided to combine the fascination for sound with a solid knowledge of electronics. I began building VCF and VCA filters, ring modulators, envelope generators – simply the elements of a larger synthesizer. I stopped with a VCO. I quickly realised I wanted a different sound from the ordinary analogue synthesizers so I started to build electronic instruments out of hard drives connected to bass guitar strings and added metal tubes combined together. I also picked the magnetic field of different computer components with a guitar pickup. All these “instruments” were coupled with drum machines and processed with filters and effect of my own design. The next step was to go outside with microphones and a portable recorder. I’m still most excited about the sounds of heavy industry (steelworks, rolling mill) and railway, especially freight trains slowly trailing along the railway siding… this unlimited abundance of wonderful and incredible sounds that can be processed in thousands of different ways.
At that time I’d already been recording in a studio and playing concerts under the artistic nameLooptrotter.I have quite a few recordings, and I’ve been collecting them for a few years now with an intention of finally publishing them.
Another rather important moment in my life was when I began getting familiar with the software “Reaktor” by Native Instruments. I sunk in it for many months. I would build a complete virtual workspace from scratch: synthesizers, samplers, sequencers… All of this was magnificent, offered huge possibilities and at last removed the need to slog away with a soldering iron. (Laugh) Unfortunately, after a while, I noticed it just sounded bad. The sound was lifeless, artificial, and thin with no “spirit”. This was a breakthrough in my life! I closed the laptop and decided I would build an analogue device that would animate and strengthen this weak and soulless digital sound!
Looptrotter is relatively new in the Pro Audio market. What is your goal and what are you trying to achieve with your products?
I’ve always done things my own way. For many years I’ve been thinking intensely about my own vision of sound; I was growing up surrounded by analogue sounds but now we live in an age of digital technology. Digital technology extorts a new view of the sound and the role of analogue units in an audio path. From the very beginning I focused on devices that complement digital audio, not compete with it. That is why I concentrate on designs that feature their own individual analogue character and bring more life into digital sound.
Harmonic Distortion is at the very centre of all your products, what’s the philosophy behind Looptrotter and the products you design?
I’ve experimented a lot with electron tubes. It was during those experiments that I came to the conclusion that the distortion of low harmonics has the biggest and the most beneficial influence on digital audio. This distortion, added in a proper way, brings forward the details, which would otherwise get lost in the digital calculations; the sound becomes more palpable, significantly closer and simultaneously friendlier to the ear. I very much enjoy such close, solid and rich sound. It allows you to really feel with music. It’s more than just listening – it’s experiencing music…
You have quite a few products released in a fairly short amount of time… Are you always thinking about new designs?
In everything, I do the process of creation is the most fascinating for me. Inventing, constructing, seeking solutions for different systems, selection of components and deciding on the appearance. During the designing process, I really feel alive! (laughs.) Right now I have few more devices designed in my mind and more ideas are flowing in… Why on Earth does a day have to be so short??? (Laughs.)
Let’s talk about your products; starting with the Monster which was your first product and the only design using tubes.
The process of building Monster was long and fascinating. My vision of sound was only shaping back then. It took about 10 years from the first trials to the construction of the final unit. I intuitively began searching solutions with electron tubes; I felt they would most effectively influence the lack of soul of digital sound. I quickly realised that it would be good to even the signal dynamics before tube saturation so intuitively I went for a compressor based on FET transistors.
Around the same time, I heard for the first time what a Distressor can do to drums. It was a shock to me! Almost as if you throw a match into a huge pool of petrol! I would have never thought that a compressor could do such things! I swiftly build a clone of Urei 1178, just to listen to that legendary sound in my studio. It was a very interesting experience, but I felt that my philosophy on sound differed slightly. At that point, my vision for the Monster Compressor really started to take shape. With the sixth prototype, I thought it was high time to put it in a professional casing and set it off to the world. I met with many professional sound engineers who saw the big potential in the device and were kind enough to share their observations, suggestions and ideas. I gathered all the priceless information based on their many years of experience and built another final version of Monster (15th prototype).
Then you have the Satur-8 and Sa2Rate… Can you tell us more about these units?
After finishing the project of Monster I felt that there must be a way to replace the electron tubes with semiconductor elements. My original tube system used in Monster was a reference point. It wasn’t easy. After many weeks of trials and research, I managed to design a system very similar in its characteristics and sound to the tube in the Monster but based on transistors. It was a huge thing for me! I instantly decided on using the wonderful properties of this new structure and packed 8 channels of saturation in 2U casing! (Laughs.) There was also some space left for the summing unit.
Having Monster and SATUR-8 finished I thought it was time to build a simpler device, which would be a piece of bigger and more complex designs. That was the beginning of SA2RATE, the unit very easy to operate and at the same time very efficient.
Within few years of designing the SATUR-8, I became richer with new experiences, more knowledge and considerations; I went on to design SATUR-8/24, with a stronger focus on the summing circuit. There is an abundance of myths concerning analogue summing units. The most controversial are the designs that are rather neutral in sound. For me it was obvious, I needed to build a system that would magically influence the sound, make it better, more interesting and first of all more vivid. The combination of active and passive summing circuit and amplification of the sound by a preamp based on transistors operating in class A proved to be closest to my vision. With the addition of the “Magic” circuit and 8 channels of saturation, with the option of extension up to 24 (SATUR-8ex), it has become ferocious and really thick. (Laughs…)
You have also released the Emperor rack and 500 Series module. It took me a while to understand the logic behind, it uses distortion and compression but it isn’t really either… Could you tell us more a bit more about it?
The Emperor was an interesting case and there was much commotion. Firstly I worked on the device for about a year and then spent the following year describing in detail what it is about (Laughs). Truthfully I planned on designing a limiter with very solid, analogue characteristics. The one that would very ruthlessly, but in an ear-friendly way, influence the sound. And in fact, the Emperor is a limiter. However, the user experience proved that it’s far better to describe the Emperor with a wider term of dynamics processor, since depending on the settings and the source it can operate as a saturator, limiter or compressor. Many people associate limiter with a very particular application, and I wanted to present the users with a tool, that would help to unleash creativity and allow to create totally new, original sound.
So you’ve designed mic preamps, compressors, harmonic distortion units, summing mixers… what next?
I have lots of ideas… I finally finished and thoroughly tested the SAT 500, which has recently gone into full production. At its core there is a saturation unit, but the device is additionally equipped with few original options which significantly widen the array of sounds available. There is for instance the possibility to harmonically saturate only the low frequencies, the high frequencies remain intact. Generally, I pay a great deal of attention to distortion of high frequencies. It’s crucial so that, even with extreme settings, my devices remain friendly to the ear, and this greatly depends on high frequencies.
Also, a Channel Strip is in production. It is actually quite an old design, but recently I’ve come up with few original options and solutions which finally made me decide on releasing the product.
Now I feel ready to build an analogue console. It’s going to be a huge project and I’m very excited about it. I have many ideas about which I consult experienced sound engineers. Currently I’m working on a flowchart and options used in everyday studio work. The console will, first of all, allow installation of different lunchbox modules. Thus it will be an open and pretty universal design. However, it will naturally not lack in built-in saturation… (laughs)
Your products have been embraced by leading producers and sound engineers around the world, I’m thinking of Flood, Mike Fraser but there are many more… Who else would you love to see use your designs?
Honestly speaking when I was working on the Monster my greatest dream was to have the most eminent engineers around the world use my devices. This kind of thinking had a decisive influence on the solutions I used and still does to this day. It means no compromise, the sound must be of the highest quality and the devices must be original. I never considered cloning. I raise the bar higher and higher perfecting my designs. I would very much like my yellow units join the esteemed circle of “classics”, and become a standard in all the best studios in the world and used by best hands (and ears). However, I’m very happy about each and every satisfied user we have. The feedback we receive from all over the world, words of commendation and user’s opinions give me much joy and energy, which in turn gives me the motivation and strength to invent better and original designs.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
Thank you very much for the conversation.