Interview: Looptrotter Audio Founder – Andrzej Starzyk

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Looptrotter_laboratory_1200Whilst conducting an interview at Riksmixningsverket in Stockholm, Linn Fijal pointed out one of her favorite pieces of gear, the Looptrotter Monster Compressor. Thus began my research on this relatively unknown audio company, of which I've become a big fan. As such, I was happy to put together a questionnaire to send over to the company's founder in Poland, Andrzej Starzyk, who offered up some great insight into his work.

Hi Andrzej. Can I start by asking how Looptrotter got started, and how long you guys have been in business?

I was fascinated with electronics since my early childhood. My father worked with them and thanks to him I was granted a lot of knowledge concerning such things. My first job involving a professional sound system was as a stage technician and sound engineer at the legendary jazz club, Remont, in Warsaw. That job also afforded me quite a lot of free time to make music, as well as build my own gear. As a result of this, I further developed an interest in sound processing, mainly compression and different kinds of ear-friendly distortion, and at some point even started building my own mastering gear. I soon realized that making gear was far more fascinating for me than my day job, and I'd rather work with this full-time.

Your flagship product seems to be the Monster Compressor. I've heard that it took 10+ years to develop. Can you tell me about the process of creating it?

Working as a live sound engineer provided me with the money to build prototypes of the Monster Compressor. When I finally decided it was time to show the finished prototype to the world, I had 4 complete devices, which all had professional casing and a front panel. I started meeting with professional sound engineers who saw the potential in it and were generous with their remarks and observations. I gathered all of the suggestions and built the final version that I'm selling today. A while later I met Robert Fijalkowski, who offered to help me on the distribution end, which led to me formally creating Looptrotter as a company in 2010. Ever since then, we’ve been developing this company by introducing new products, perfecting the manufacturing process and widening our sales to new countries.

Looptrotter's products all seem to focus on saturation and the adding of color to audio through analogue means, which is great for the digital music world that many people work in. Why do you think digital recordings sound thin and lifeless when compared to analogue ones? Even digital synthesizers like Reaktor sound less powerful than analogue ones. Why?

I’ve long been pondering over this and I’ve come to the following conclusions: Digital technology is pure mathematics, nothing else. Although sound processing within analogue equipment is also based on mathematical equations, the electronic elements used in the process are chemical substances and they involve the movement of electrons. I think it’s the reason why analogue equipment is believed to have a “soul” and digital is considered “dead” or “soulless”. Digital technology perfectly calculates the signal according to the given algorithm, whilst analogue elements contain imperfections that have a significant impact on the sound. You could take identically labelled elements across multiple instances of the same model of gear, and they would sound different. It’s possible to "improve" those flaws by making a digital recreation of that gear, but it takes away this character, which for me is the essential.

Based on what you said above, what has been your focus in terms of building Looptrotter products to achieve the color and imperfections you want from your gear? 

I’ve noticed that adding low order harmonics has a very specific influence on sound. The harmonic frequencies produced along the dominant frequencies create the effect of bringing the sound nearer, draw out hidden details and make the sound more palpable.

I've noticed that you have 3 different rack units that all have the ability to saturate: Emperor, Sa2rate, and Satu8/24. How are they different from one another? Emperor and Sa2rate seem quite similar to the untrained eye.

Emperor and SA2RATE are indeed seemingly alike. Both add harmonic distortion and increase the RMS level of the signal. However the design of each is completely different.

SA2RATE softly smooths the peaks in the signal, adding harmonic distortion. It works a little like a soft clipper, but in a very ear-friendly way, due to the small amount of high-order harmonics and minimal amount of distortion of highest frequencies.

EMPEROR, on the other hand, is a fast compressor/limiter. At it's heart is a JFET transistor, though it operates as a signal amplitude controller. EMPEROR can also introduce harmonic distortion to the signal. To make this possible, I deliberately added fast attack/release times, so that the controlling signal would modulate the compressed signal. It does a great job in case of bass guitar or vocals.

I talked a lot with many sound engineers about introducing distortion to audio. Generally the conclusions are that it’s best to add harmonics to individual tracks before mixing, hence the design of SATUR­8/24. There are 8 channels of saturation in one device. It allows for the creation of a powerful sound while preserving good dynamics, with no audible distortion.

Do your different products specialize in particular sounds? Does EMPEROR perform better on certain things than SA2RATE, for example?

While the Monster Compressor is a quite versatile device, SA2RATE and EMPEROR are much more specific. SA2RATE cuts the transients in the signal, introducing in their place low-order harmonics. It does a wonderful job, especially with drums, allowing you to greatly increase the RMS level. The type of distortion the SA2RATE adds sounds great with bass guitar too, making it sound more feisty and clear in the mix. Even when you distort it heavily, it’s still low and doesn't “bite” the ears.

EMPEROR works best with very dynamic sources, like vocals or a variety of acoustic instruments. You can quite significantly even out the signal and bring the sound closer. And if you need to preserve the original dynamics, you simply mix the clean and processed signal. This offers truly enormous possibilities.

The Monster Compressor seems like a very bold piece of gear that's not meant to be subtle in its purpose. What have you found that it's best used on? All the Youtube tutorials for it show it being used on drums, and nothing else.

I have to admit that most of my devices work best with drums. I’ve played drums for many years and have it in my blood. As for Monster, I know that it works miracles on the mix bus as well. Many sound engineers use it in this manner on a regular basis. However, I've heard that many use it for tracking as well. They've admitted that Monster is at the heart of their studio work.

I plan to record some more tutorials that show other applications of Monster, hopefully in the near future.

Your website says that the Monster Compressor is made of tubes, whilst other products contain semi­conductors. What's the difference in sound between tube and semi­conductor gear? Why did you put tubes into the Monster, but switch to semi­conductors for Satur8/24?

Monster is my first design. The tubes have their specific sound, but they also have some disadvantages, like wearing out, huge power consumption and the demand for a complex adapter. Especially the wearing out part is most inconvenient in the studio, which is why I decided to design a unit that will work in a similar manner, but will be based on semiconductors. After extensive research, I managed to create such a unit. The vision of installing 8 such units in one 2U casing was naturally very tempting, which happened with Satu8/24.

Regarding the differences in the sound, many people who have Monster use have SA2RATE. The tube saturation in Monster is more radical, more harsh, while in case of SA2RATE it is softer. What is curious is that both units are very similar in measurements

When I first read the Looptrotter website, I couldn't understand why you were selling both Satur8ex and Satur8/24. Can you explain how these work together?

The reason is simple. 8 channels of saturation is a bit too few for some. That is why I decided that SATUR­8/24 will be the main device that has the 24-­channel summing unit, and SATUR­8ex will have only 8 channels of saturation and will serve as an extension. What's more, if you already have your favorite summing unit or mixer, you can easily insert SATUR­8ex alongside that as independent saturation channels.

When it comes your 500 series products like Sat 500 and SaturAmp, how is their saturation different from the rack gear like Emperor? Why would someone prefer the 500 gear over the rack gear?

I've endeavored to have both 500 and rack devices sound identical; the main difference is in the casing. Aside from that, the 500 system is cheaper to produce and has some more advantages. Among others, it gives the possibility of packing more devices into a smaller space. The key is to choose a casing with a proper, efficient power supply.

You've mentioned in past interviews that you're interested in building a console. Tell me about that. How long with that take, and what kind of work would have to go into that?

Yes, I recently felt that I was finally ready for a serious project, which ended up being to build a console. This is a big challenge for me, and I’m very excited as each day take me closer to that goal. I already have the block and functional diagrams ready, and I’ve consulted the best sound engineers who have a vast experience with analogue consoles. It's immensely satisfying that I've yet to see a console that has some of the options that I've designed thus far. This console will be based on modules in 500 format and those units will be available on particular channels, subgroups and the summing bus. There will also be saturation units on the subgroups and summing bus that were used in SATUR­8/24. I have already ready­ made printed circuit boards (PCBs) for particular channels and designed the casing. I’m currently in the process of designing the MASTER section.

In terms of the creative process, I thought up the block and functional diagrams first. Then I followed that with a design that determines what kind of switches and knobs would be best, after which I designed the electronic diagram, PCBs and casing. Most PCBs are handmade by me. This is very important, because only with an operating unit can you test different circuit solutions and hear what it actually sounds like.

I have no idea how long it will take to build it. I never set any time frame, but each day is a step forward. I secretly hope that within around 6 months the console that I see in my mind will become a real, full operational unit.

SamInterview: Looptrotter Audio Founder – Andrzej Starzyk

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