[interview] Mutronics: Steve Crow

Here's FXDB's interview with Steve Crow of Mutronics:

How did Mutronics start?

It was a pretty old school, man-in-a-garden-shed genesis to be honest.

An engineer (Mark Lusardi) at a studio James was doing maintenance at was using lot's of 'live' Hi-Q EQ sweeps in his mixing and James thought that making a box that could do that, amongst other things, might be a fun project.

James knew a chap called Nigel Bradbury who was pretty heavily into electronic music and electronics who played a big role in developing the ideas and so, The Mutator (a few prototypes and tears later) was born.

Nigel Bradbury and James Dunbar did most of the donkey work on the electronics and mechanical design side, Mark Lusardi of Mark Angelo Recording Studios did lots of listening and road-testing. Phil Thompson, an electronic musician also built plenty of the early models. Later on, Andrew Crow and Steve Crow got involved in production.

Where do the name and logo come from?

Heh, well as our first product was named the Mutator, the company name kind of took care of itself!

We affectionately refer to the Mutronics logo as the 'Bat Logo'. Because it looks like a bat... Sort of. Not sure there is really a story behind it, though.

What sets Mutronics apart from other builders?

Sound quality and how that inspires people to create. That has always and will always be the driving force behind what we do.

In tandem with that, we consciously do NOT clone/ re-create other peoples' designs. We want to discover new sounds and interesting, alternative ways of doing things.

How do you start on a new product?

It will be prototyped to some degree - depending on what it is either on vero-board, tanked PCB or first revision of a turret board layout.

Going into production takes longer than it should. I'm not telling how long!

How do you name your products?

The Mutator is a bit of a no-brainer because it mutates sounds!

The names these days often come just because of the need for a handy shorthand with which to refer to a project under development, although I have started to assign individual names to all the Big Chopper and Base Chopper amps and my 4 yr old names them all after her imaginary friends...

Secret Squirrel was named so because it was a secret from Alan Moulder and it stuck because he was working on a secret project at the same time which turned out to be Them Crooked Vultures.

With the Little Chopper, I delivered s/n-002 to Athlete's studio and they asked what the amp was called. Because of the AK logo and the amp's diminutive size, the first thing that popped into my head was 'Little Chopper'.
That was that.

Can you tell us something about the production process?

Mutators were originally made in house but latterly PCB's were populated by a contractor. Final assembly was always done in-house.

All the Mutator enclosures were custom-made. Most were pcb throughout. Legend was silkscreened.

With the amps everything is done in-house. Hand-made, hand-wired turretboards. Custom-made metalwork with legend engraved on anodised aluminium plates.

Is parts selection important?

On the Mutator, not really except for the SSM 2045 IC's obviously (curse them!).

On the amps, oh my yes. I'll 'blind test a/b' components all the way through from the power supply, through all aspects of the audio circuit to the output transformer. The other day I did a triple blind comparison for cathode bypass capacitors on the Big Chopper. The results surprised me and I have changed what I'll use, going forward, as a result of that test!

Which of your products makes you most proud?

Obviously the Mutator is iconic and due to being discontinued has even more of a cache attached to it. Lots of folk from many different musical genres really dug it and there was a pint in the late 90s when you practically could not turn on the radio in the UK without hearing it on a song. That's a pretty good feeling.

On the Audio Kitchen side, the Little Chopper was the first designed and did/ does receive lots of attention from famous users - within the first few months Al Moulder, Flood, Angus and Malcolm Young and more had all bought them. Last few months Steve Albini, Killers, Death Cab For Cutie.

I have to pinch myself regularly.

Which of your products was your toughest build?

Erm, amps again I'm afraid!

The toughest one so far was the Secret Squirrel commissioned by Flood for Alan Moulder's 50th birthday. It was all a secret from Alan and my brief from Flood was basically 'make him something he'll love...'.

When I arrived at his studio to demo it to him for the first time he had never heard it, Flood had never heard it and I was petrified he was not going to like it. Thankfully he did and within 20mins he was re-amping the bass parts from the new Wolfmother record he was mixing.

Plenty of sweat was shed on that amp.

Which of your products is the most popular?

The Mutator hasn't been sold for a few years now, so it's going to have to be about Audio Kitchen Amps here.

Up until this year I'd say the Little Chopper but 2011 has been the year of the Big Chopper. Musicians wanting a really solid studio and touring rig have been buying these faster than I can make them. It does help that Butch Vig gave me a big name drop in SoS with regard to what they used of the recent Foo Fighters record, Wasting Light. That kind of thing always helps.

I guess the amps in general, but The Big Chopper in particular really let the player hear the instrument in a new way. I have seen people come in with a guitar they had planned to sell and walk away with a new found love for it just by plugging into a Big Chopper. That is the whole truth and not just hype - in fact, one in particular was a chap called Fraser MacColl from a band called Born Blonde who took delivery of his Big Chopper last Friday.

Who uses your products and for which genres?

The Mutator was made to fulfill a need, but in those terms it was really in the 'own taste' bracket rather than a gap-in-the-market type thing.

The Mutator is used by Massive Attack, Leftfield, Nellee Hooper, Radiohead, Thrash (The Orb), Youth, Moloko, Edwyn Collins, Andy Weatherall, William Orbit, Marius De Vries, Sasha, Battery Studios, John Smith (Blur engineer), The Rapino Brothers, Dodgy, Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), Charlie Hall, The Creatures, Real World Studios, Lisa Stansfield, Barry K Sharp, Jah Wobble, Tongue & Groove Records, Mute Records, David Toop, Mark McGuire, Ry Cooder, Steven Barkin, The Dust Brothers, Q Engstrom (Depeche Mode engineer), David Arnold, Beck, Pascal Gabriel, Joey Negro, Nine Inch Nails, The Lightning Seeds, Daft Punk and more...

With the Audio Kitchen amps it is totally about my taste. Thankfully, thus far, folk seem to share my tastes to a fair degree.

They're used by Flood, Alan Moulder, Cenzo Townshend, AC/DC, Blur, Bloc Party, Foo Fighters, Razorlite, Cranberries, Steve Albini, Tired Pony, Foals, James Morrison, Yann Tiersen, Young Legionnaire, Arctic Monkeys, Death Cab For Cutie, Kings of Leon, Hurts, Janes Addiction, Snow Patrol... etc.

What does the future of Mutronics look like?

Mutronics is currently developing a series of valve microphones, hand made from the capsule upwards and when Alan Moulder tried one out recently he grudgingly conceded that it sounded nicer than his vintage Neumann U67... More soon!

Also, the Audio Kitchen line of amps Steve Crow designs is ever expanding and receiving praise and orders from an ever expanding troop of the World's top producers and musicians.

Are you working on any new products?

Yes, I'm working on a 'pedal'.

No, I'm not telling - see the answer to 'How long does it take to complete a project' for the reason why.

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