Gamechanger Audio’s full-time crew. Photo by Dmitrijs Sulžics/F64
We crowdfunded the Plus and it was a big success. We showed up at the 2017 Summer NAMM and were really worried, because we put in so much work and our own money into it. But everybody loved it—all these journalists and big musicians. Two members of Roger Waters’ band e-mailed us on the second day of NAMM.
What about the Plasma—how did that idea come about?
After NAMM we started thinking, Okay, what are we going to launch for Winter NAMM ? We felt this second-album[-like] pressure: Shit, we made this one thing, and it’s selling thousands and is a big success—but now people are expecting something else! As our name implies, we’re not interested in doing a booster pedal, a delay, a tremolo, a reverb, a flanger or phaser, blah blah blah. In terms of engineering, that’s not a big challenge for us. We’re not pedal freaks—I don’t know the differences between all the flangers that have ever been released. There are other companies that do that. The way we want to move forward is, let’s let the experts in pedals do the perfect bucket-brigade circuit or whatever. We don’t have experience in that world—and it has a lot to do with growing up in Latvia: Literally 10 years ago, when we were playing as kids, all we had in the stores here was Boss pedals.
So after NAMM we ended up driving through Buckhorn, Kentucky, on our way to New York. We stayed at this ridiculous redneck Airbnb in the middle of nowhere that used to be an old bluegrass recording studio. There were guys with a bit of straw in their teeth like, “Hey, how’s it going?” There was no mobile-phone reception, and there were snakes and shitloads of mosquitoes everywhere. So we’re sitting there, cooking ribs and drinking beer, and we became fascinated by this thing called the Bug Zapper on the front porch. It was going nuts. The darker it got, the more bugs appeared, and this Bug Zapper was going full-time. For some reason, that became kind of an inside joke. Later on, we realized, Hey, let’s do something with that Bug Zapper-type technology!
Hopefully you didn’t have any R&D electrocution accidents.
No, but we learned to control the pitch of a Taser.
All jokes aside, we approached it in a serious, scientific way. We were discussing fuzz circuits and I thought, What if we could control the pitch of the Bug Zapper and mike that up? It evolved differently, though. We don’t use any mics.
It ended up not being related to Bug Zapper technology at all, right?
No, but the first experiments definitely were. We also bought—you know the glass plasma-ball toys?—I think we bought all there were in the whole country, 27 of them, to find out what transformers they’re using and how everything works. It started out in a very primitive way, but we actually redesigned everything. It’s a very efficient system right now.
[Holds pedal up to camera.] Here’s a Plasma pedal. It is at least 10 times more complicated than a standard release by whatever company. It has a transformer in it, which is like a completely stupid thing to put in a guitar pedal. It has a special discharge tube. We want to do more ambitious and crazy ideas. Just kind of break the rules and come up with something different.
We relived the whole process again recently, because we needed to come up with our third product, the Motor Synthesizer. It’s going to be out very soon for Superbooth [May 9–11] in Berlin. It’s going to be really awesome.
What inspired the Motor Synth?
One day Mārtiņš, the head engineer, showed up at work and was like, “I had this crazy dream about drills.” We realized there’s this Nick Cave song—“Stagger Lee” off of Murder Ballads—where, instead of a guitar solo, it’s just a drill solo. So we thought okay, let’s do something like that. The Motor Synth is going to be released in a small desktop format. It’s going to be under $800, it’s going to have eight motors, and you will be able to connect your own MIDI controller.
Would you say there are certain criteria for new Gamechanger products?
First of all, it has to be something innovative—like, it’s never been done before. It has to be challenging from an engineering standpoint, and stimulating from a psychological standpoint. And it has to have practical value. With the Plasma, there’s no objective way to say it’s a better fuzz sound than a different fuzz. I have an old Fender Blender, and it sounds crazy—I love it. The Plasma sounds crazy, too—but it also stimulates your imagination. You get excited. “What the fuck? These actual little sparks are flying, and that’s the guitar signal!” It makes you fall in love with the sound and gives a special vibe to playing it. It’s fascinating to think you’re plucking the string and 5,000 volts [in the rack version of Plasma] are discharging between these electrodes. I like the sound, and I like the psychological aspect that inspires you to think about what’s going on.
So the psychological aspect is a huge part of the equation.
It’s very important. It’s fascinating to think that I’m pressing keys and these strange electromagnetic motors are creating magnetic static that’s being transformed into something else.
Take us through how you went from the drill stuff to the motors.
We liked the idea of using motors as a source of sound, and we realized that we thought about it as a guitar thing just by default—because we are guitarists. But if you take a step back, the potential is much bigger and better if it’s a keyboard. We don’t have a problem with that, because we don’t want to just stick to guitar pedals.
The company’s second offering, the Plasma Pedal, sends the guitar’s signal through a xenon-gas-filled tube with electrodes at each end, then converts the shocked-into-oblivion fuzz signal back to analog for output to your amp.
At Winter NAMM you brought a larger Motor Synth prototype, but you also brought a prototype Motor Pedal. Are you still planning to release that?
The Motor Synth is going to be the main release for now, and later on we’ll see if there’s a market for a guitar pedal. I’m pretty sure we will, because we got a lot of requests for it.
It sounds like you’ve learned a lot since we spoke at NAMM.
We went to the guys at Moog and basically bombarded them with questions. They were super nice and helpful—and super enthusiastic. They loved the motors and how it sounds. They gave us advice about how to launch everything, and what we should change and think about. We got this big master class from their engineers. Also we had a big discussion with this legendary engineer, Tatsuya Takahashi, who created Korg’s Monologue, Minilogue, Prologue, Volca Keys, and Monotron lines. He’s coaching us. It’s pretty cool. Also, here in Latvia we have another guru. One of the biggest modular synth manufacturers right now is a Latvian company named EricaSynths, and they’re literally our neighbors. They have over 150 modules, and they have been an excellent example of how to build a business from Latvia.
What are the pros and cons of being based in Latvia?
In our case, there are very few downsides. It’s the perfect place to start something—but only because we are from here. Your hometown is always the best place to start something. You know people there. You went to school there and know a guy who knows a guy. You know how everything works and how to get stuff. I’m happy that it’s happening here in our hometown, not somewhere else, just because somewhere else is “cooler.” Now we are a legit company. We’re good for this local scene, and we are employing people. That feels great.
Is every product made there in Riga?
It’s all being made in a factory in Latvia. We don’t like solder—we don’t believe in handmade electronics. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s some kind of romantic image of the handmade, boutique pedal guy with his soldering iron and, like, his girlfriend helping him. I think food and beer should be handmade, with love. Electronics should be made with precision, by German robots. All of our soldering is done by a pick-and-place robot at a consumer-electronics factory where they make everything from gadgets to Internet routers and appliances.
Another cool thing about Latvia is that we have a really strong, old-school educational system that puts a lot of emphasis on physics, electronics, and mathematics, that kind of stuff. In the Soviet times, this place was the central manufacturer of electronics devices for the whole Soviet system. We have a lot of old-school professors who really take this stuff seriously. The level of education in these exact sciences is really high here. Building a booster … come on. Are you serious?