May 7, 2020

Current pedal obsession: ZVex Lofi Junkies

Loop or Instant

The ZVex Lo-Fi Loop Junky and the ZVex Instant Lo-Fi Junky are outrageously priced and sound like crap. And that’s why people love them. This article explains why so many players are passionate about these pedals, how they can be all analog and how to get the most out of them.

VZVex Lofi Loop Junky

We have to start with the original. Though the Lo-Fi Loop Junky costs four times as much as a basic TC Electronic Ditto, this pedal does soooooo much less. The loop is only 20 seconds long. You can’t layer loops overtop. It doesn’t reverse or slow down. And the audio quality is hissy and as lo-fi as a micro-cassette recorder that’s still eating batteries after all these years. And that’s all part of the magic of this pedal that gives it its otherworldly sound.

Built for recording the dead (No, not the band)

To understand the uniqueness, you really need to understand the ISD 1420PY chip at the heart of the Lo-Fi Loop Junky. Zachary Vex says this analog chip was created for soon-to-be deceased to leave recorded messages at their graves for their loved ones to play. Maybe that’s why the sound of the Lo-Fi Loop Junky is so absolutely haunting. It’s like a time machine where what you recorded went back in time 60 years and then came back out your amp today.

Practical points

If you think this pedal would be much less useful than a cheaper, pristine looper, let’s look at the Lo-Fi Loop Junky from a practical point of view: 20 seconds of record time can easily handle a four-chord progression. That’s a really useful length for today’s music and keeps it simple. You can play a full rendition of Maggot Brain with this looper (but might have a hard time getting George Clinton to come to your house to do the intro).

The Lo-Fi Loop Junky also does a lot of corruption to your sound that is best accomplished with analog:

  • The sample rate creates true lo-fi at an abysmal 6.4 kHz. By comparison, the TC Ditto is 44.1 kHz.
  • Since there’s no abrupt digital clipping, when you crank the Record knob you get an “immaculate” compression.
  • The high end cuts off darkly at 2.6 kHz, so the Tone knob sounds more like a hiss control than an EQ. And players seem to love the hiss.
  • The Depth and Speed knobs add warble that mimics vinyl left in the sun and corrupts the sound further. Digital loopers, as yet, haven’t been able to achieve this effect.

All this devastation to your signal means: What comes out—sounds nothing like what you put in. And sounding like an entirely different instrument can be really useful for accompaniment. As a composing tool, there are no frills here to get in the way so you can focus on creativity: laying down a rhythm or progression and experimenting overtop of it.

A few pointers on use

The Lo-Fi Loop Junky has a lot of quirks. Here are the top ones:

  • Though it has separate Record and Start (Playback) switches, here’s a faster workflow: Once you’ve recorded your first loop and hit Start, you don’t need to stop playback again. Just record a second of silence to kill the last loop and hit Record when ready to loop again. When you hit Record to stop recording, the loop will now automatically play.
  • The Safe switch lets you lock the current loop so you can’t accidentally lose it.
  • The first time the loop plays there’s a bit of lag as the electronics finish storing the loop. The second time around, the playback tightens up to normal.
  • Want more hiss? (Strangely, you may, since this is the best hiss you ever heard coming out of a pedal: like a scratchy record and static had a baby.) Set the Record knob low when recording and jack the Volume and Tone knobs when playing back.
  • It may or may not sound good with fuzz, since the low bandwidth clips off the distinctive high end, but the analog circuit can create its own distortion when the Record knob is all the way up.
  • You’ll get more predictable looping if the Record knob isn’t quite maxed and the Depth knob is down. (But then, would you want predictable loops?)
  • Since the Loop Junky has it’s own lo-fi effects, including compression, distortion and vibrato, the corrupted beauty this box will sound best with minimal effects going in and reverb coming out. If using a noise suppression pedal, you’ll probably want it before the Loop Junky in the chain or you’ll remove all that beautiful noise.
  • The pedal is not true bypass. The dry signal goes through an exceptional clarifying preamp. You might even want to keep the pedal on with the playback volume down just to get the sound of this preamp.
  • Strangely the Lo-Fi Loop Junky runs off a 9v battery and has no jack for power. It runs a long time on a battery, but ZVex sells a power plate to convert to a 9v power chord. Or you can cut a small slot in the bottom plate for a power/9v-battery-clip cable.
  • A problem with digital loopers is that they record everything accurately, even the gap when the loop recycles. This often sounds like a dead spot. The Lo-Fi Loop Junky seems to have a much smoother seam.

My take

After trying the ZVex Lo-fi Loop Junky, you may find yourself thinking normal loopers are too hi-fi for their own good. While there are looper pedals that offer lo-fi effects like the Boss RC-30, they’re still digital and the loops don’t have the graceful corruption or darkness that the analog Loop Junky can achieve. The Loop Junky is like you’re playing along with an old record instead of playing with a clone of yourself. If looking for something really simple for stage, there are no layers or footswitch acrobatics to get lost in.

The whole concept of an analog loop from the Lo-Fi Loop Junky brings about possibilities that digital just can’t do. For example, thumping on an acoustic bridge pickup through a digital looper breaks up into a crackle that sounds like you’ve just stepped on your glasses. But when I smack the bridge through the Loop Junky, I get Howlin’ Wolf stomping on his porch in size-13, triple-E shoes. Notable users include J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and John Agnello (producer of Sonic Youth) and Kurt Vile.

Zvex Instant Lofi Junky

So what happens when everyone wants that Lo-Fi Loop Junky sound in real time? Zachary Vex put engineer Joel Korte (now owner of Chase Bliss Audio) on it. As Zack says in the instructions: “Joel Korte, the extraordinary engineer behind this new device, was able to create a combination of THAT chip compression, Belling bucket-brigades, and ultra-low-current National Semiconductor op-amp filters to exquisitely copy the texture and feel of the original Lo-Fi into this new and extraordinary box, adding some new sounds that have never been heard before.”

The Lo-Fi/Compression knob

If you want the true lo-fi sound of the Loop Junky, crank the Comp/Lo-Fi knob to the right and set the switch to the triangle wave. It gets surprisingly close to the original. The Volume, Tone, Depth and Speed knobs are similar to the original, but it’s the Comp/Lo-Fi knob and waveform switch that add the extra dimension to the Instant Lo-Fi Junky.

If you crank the Comp/Lo-Fi knob to the left, you just compression, but not like compression you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t squash, it just flatlines your sound into this smooth—thing—that never stops. It’s even more organ-like than the original. If you love the compression, but find it overbearing, you might try giving the Lo-Fi Instant Junky its own parallel loop so you can blend in your dry signal.

That magical chorus

But here’s the real magic part: When you set the Comp/Lo-Fi knob in the middle, it creates this dark, old-school chorus. It works by mixing the compressed signal into the lo-fi with vibrato. When the wave switch is set to sine wave, the Depth knob is high and the Speed knob is low, it’s completely hypnotizing. Straight up on the Comp/Lo-Fi knob will give you the strongest chorus effect. Crank left for less chorus. Crank right for more vibrato in the mix. When set to square wave, there’s some really-fun, rhythmic pitch-shifting going on as Yvette Young is doing in this video.

My take

In 2008, while the looper world was headed toward exact digital copies with higher bit and sampling rates, Zachary Vex completed the Lo-Fi Loop Junky. It was a project years-in-the-making that took a step back and made something mythical out of the “worst” qualities of analog. The result is two unique pedals that played a key role in bringing pedalboards into the lo-fi movement already happening in hip-hop. What’s more, these pedals ironically set a high-quality standard in lo-fi that other builders have had a tough time following.

Check out all the pedals I’ve been obsessed with.

This article contains my honest opinion of my current pedal obsession. I buy these pedals myself. Makers don’t pay me to do glowing reviews. And I don’t giddily push gear on you through affiliate links. That’s why buying me a coffee below helps to keep these reviews coming.

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