Retro Instruments Owner Phil Moore Talks Reviving History And His Start In The Industry

Since 2006, Phil Moore's Retro Instruments has been bringing back icons of the bygone era of the recording studio and updating them for modern engineers. From reimagined pieces like the Sta-Level, 176, OP-6 and Revolver to new 500 Series innovations like the Doublewide, these tools have the look and feel of the classic gear that they are inspired by.

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Phil Moore and talking to him about all things related to Retro Instruments. Read on to learn about Phil's sonic journey from working as an engineer to designing his own gear and find out what he thinks sets Retro Instruments apart from other gear manufacturers.

Tell us a little bit about how you started Retro Instruments back in 2006.
I started my career as a broadcasting engineer. I’ve done a lot of things over the years. I’ve worked in manufacturing, I worked at AKG, I worked on national and international standards committees for technical standards for broadcasting. I actually have a couple patents from that.

I've done radio engineering since I was really young. I discovered the Gates Sta-Level when I was 12 years old because I was looking for some processing equipment for the radio station and a friend turned me on to them. Throughout the years, I've always kept a couple of the Sta-Levels I bought when I was 14. I carried those compressors around with me and collected a few more over the years.

Eventually, I applied for a radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area and it all came together. So, I quit engineering and left to run a radio station. I did that for about three years. The market was good and we wound up selling it and I retired from radio. At that point, I didn’t want to go back to engineering. I was looking for a new path. I reinvented myself a few times so I could experience everything in life.

When I had the station it was really tough for the first year. I put a lot of money into building it from scratch and I had to sell the Sta-Levels that I had since I was a kid to make some money. I was blown away. I bought them from the UC Berkeley for like $50 in 1980 because at the time they were obsolete. When I sold them I got at least $1,200. I couldn’t believe that people were hearing what I always heard in those things.

I ended up selling five of them, and I reached out to one of the buyers, Devin Powers. I said, “I’m retired from radio and looking for the next thing. I sold my Sta-Levels and I really miss them. I want a couple more.” Then I realized, I could build them myself. I should just build a couple. So, I made some drawings and went to a local metal shop and they messed everything up. Then I went to a good metal shop and they did an amazing job! I had them machine the metal for 10 units. I put one together and it worked great! I sent it to Devin and asked him what he thought.

He said it was really close, but there was one thing with the transformer that needed to be tweaked. He actually sent me his Sta-Level to make sure I got the sound dead-on. I sent it back to him and he said, “This is amazing! I’m going to call Mike at Vintage King and set you up!” And the rest is history. Devin was really amazing in helping me get started.

What was Retro Instruments like back in the beginning?
It was just me. I just had an electronics workbench set up in my garage. The orders started coming in from Vintage King and I was building more and more units each month. Then it took off and I was doing batches of 10 at a time by myself, the first 100 units. I was shipping them in bubble wrap! I was so busy building and getting orders out.

So, I went to my engineering protege for some help and he said, “You’re making studio gear? I’m in!” We put a new workbench in and he started building the 176s I designed. That was just one year after I started making the Sta-Level.

I had repaired some original UA 176s and 175s, so I prototyped one. It’s so not the Sta-Level. The Sta-Level has this pillow-y hi-fi goodness, the 176 is hi-fi too, but it has this intense energy that makes anything come to life.

At that point, there were two of us in the garage for a year or so. Then we started working on the 2A3 EQ. I got a warehouse with lots of room and hired a couple guys to work in assembly. The company started growing. I worked with F. Reid Shippen on the 2A3, and now we’re as busy as we want to be!

What’s changed the most over the years?
The company has grown some but we still stick to our core values. We don’t have a CFO in here telling us, “You can’t build stuff like this, it’s cost prohibitive!” We build it like they built it in the 1950s, by hand.

We don’t just slap pre-assembled parts together here. Our PC boards are made in the Bay Area. We stuff them in-house. We even mold our own knobs for the OP-6 preamps. All metal is fabbed in the Bay Area, it’s all local. I can also use all the parts I want and nobody is saying “Hey, can we save a couple cents on these resistors?” It’s great, we don’t have to sacrifice anything.

How would you describe the company culture at Retro
Well, it’s not corporate. We’re people who know our jobs and we get it done. There aren’t many meetings, there are no reports to fill out. Everything is pretty casual. Everyone just knows what they’re doing. We’re pretty independent.

Tell us a little bit about a typical day at the office.
It’s like a tiny factory. All day, we’re filling orders and answering questions. We do a lot of service calls and offer customer support. I encourage people to send their unit in and we always take care of our customers. We want them to have a great experience with our products. We’re really big on customer support.

Your very first product , the Retro Sta-Level was a huge success. Tell us a little bit about what makes it so special.
The circuit itself for the Sta-Level is standard textbook circuitry. There’s nothing particularly special about it. When these guys at Gates designed their version of this compressor they were really good at dialing in the component values. If you change a single component it won’t sound like a Sta-Level. Even changing the value of a single capacitor can throw the whole thing off.

Since then you’ve released a lot of other amazing products, like the Doublewide Tube Compressor. What inspired you to create a 500 series tube compressor?
Some of the designers for the 500 Series were saying, “You can’t run tubes in the 500 series, it’s a starved plate! Oh my gosh, don’t starve my plate!”

It was really clear to me that it was easy to do without a switching power supply in the 500 module. Some guys put tubes in and used a switching power supply and if that’s your thing that’s fine, but my stuff is completely analog. There are no oscillators causing potential noise or interference with the audio in my units.

I did it because people said I couldn’t, same thing with the 2A3. The reason I did it was because F. Reid Shippen was doing reviews of Pultec clones and he was so adamant that no new EQ could ever sound like the original Pultec.

I called him up and asked him to send me his Pultec and told him I would make a box that sounds just like it. He actually sent it to me too! What a great guy. He sent me his cherished Pultec. I did a prototype and got it pretty close, then I tweaked it a bit. I added the high pass filter. When you kick that thing on it really opens up the midrange. That’s what really put the 2A3 over the top.

After we finalized the design I sent him a production prototype and he did a review where he said “Dear RETRO 2A3 Dual Program EQ... I love you to a point of passion that unhinges my soul... The midrange is my favorite part of this box. It’s my personal opinion that the midrange of the RETRO 2A3 is the best I’ve ever heard. It’s a difficult range to do well, and the RETRO nails it.”

Most recently, you released the Revolver Dual-Channel Tube Compressoryour take on the classic Altec 436 compressor. Tell us a little bit about how it came together.
For a long time, I’ve been modding Altec 436s and 438s for my friends. There are four models you can mod and they’re totally amazing. Listen to the vibey-ness of a Beatles record. These comps were all over those records. I was trying variations of the British mods and was getting even more of that great vibe.

The Revolver design is actually the compressor we use in our Powerstrip too. I’m so surprised to hear some of the projects that were tracked with the Powerstrip, it just blows my mind. F. Reid Shippen and Jay Joyce bought five Powerstrips for the Little Big Town record they did. The audio quality on the vocals is exceptional and stands out from any other project that LBT had previously done.

What makes Retro Instruments different from other pro audio companies?
We’re engineering driven. We’re just trying to make great gear, that’s the main thing. We also focus on dependability and if there is a problem, we’re really big on customer service. The one thing I really dislike about some corporations is that they charge just for phone support, we’re not that company.

If you're interested in learning more about Retro Instruments gear, please contact one of our Audio Consultants via email or by phone at 888.653.1184.   

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