By Markkus Rovito
At a time when every unremarkable vintage analog synth and 500-series dynamics module has been emulated in plugin form, it's truly rare to encounter a plugin that emulates not only a sought-after piece of hardware for the first time, but also a piece of hardware so scarce that many of the top names in the industry have never had the pleasure of using it, let alone owning it.
In 1961, Klein & Hummel released the UE-100 Universal Equalizer® all-tube minimum phase EQ with 14 vacuum tubes, as well as eight musical bands of equalization from the classic Rundfunk broadcasting EQ. The gargantuan 55 lb. rack unit delivered smooth and warm saturation with the ability for pronounced lows without distortion, crisp highs and a tight response. Its brawny band-pass filters had the special ability to both boost and cut at coincident frequencies, creating dynamic Pultec-style curves. An unusual pushbutton interface made punching in quick and accurate setting strangely intuitive.
After its discontinuation in 1971, the UE-100 became something of a cult classic. Its legendary sound made true believers of the fortunate ones who had the opportunity to use one, as well as legions of envious engineers and producers who heard the stories and the tracks, but never got the chance to try one themselves.
Producer/composer/programmer Simon Franglen, who's worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and the late, great James Horner on scores such as Avatar, said of the UE-100, "In my youth, if you were very, very lucky, you could strap two of these across your master buss and smile as 4 billion valves worked on bringing joy to your mix."
Producer/engineer Michael Zimmerling has worked with hundreds of artists, including luminaries such as David Bowie, George Clinton, Depeche Mode and Maceo Parker. Zimmerling has used a pair of the mono UE-100 units in London's Westpoint Studios extensively for artists like Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Freemasons and dance music projects for the Ministry Of Sound label. "Without a doubt, the Klein & Hummel UE-100 is the best-sounding EQ ever made in Germany," he said. "It is unrivaled in punch and sweet-sounding high frequencies. It has 2 or 3dB increments, which was drastic, but therefore fast to get a great sound. The more you dialed in the EQ the bigger everything sounded."
Zimmerling added that when he lived in Tokyo for seven years, he never came across a studio that had more than one of the UE-100 units, driving home how rare they really are.
So we felt that we should talk to "the guy" when it comes to the original UE-100. Native Spaniard and Los Angeles based producer/mixer/engineer Rafa Sardina has a combined 44 Grammy & Latin Grammy nominations for projects he's worked on, the most recent being a 2016 Best R&B Album Grammy win for D'Angelo and the Vanguard's Black Messiah. Sardina originally encountered the UE-100 while working at a studio where one of the clients brought in one of the Universal Equalizers for a project. Rafa liked it so much he offered to buy it, but the client wasn't selling.
"It’s a unit that covers the whole spectrum as an equalizer," Sardina said. "It has so many bands that overlap with each other. The high end is like silk. The low end is really deep. It goes super low. The frequency response of the unit is simply amazing."
He was still in Europe at the time, where the German UE-100 units were more plentiful, but still hard to find. He joined online forums looking for units to buy and over the years acquired them one by one to the point where he now has 10 UE-100s in his After Hours Studio in L.A. "I simply love them," Sardina said. "I think it’s one of the coolest pieces ever made. I don’t think anybody else has as many units, or even close. I dare anybody who has more than me to reach out to me. I might buy them!"
It does happen to be a sellers market for the UE-100 hardware, because their rarity and esteem have driven prices up to $7,000-10,000 per unit, depending on the condition. So the time has really never been better to lift the UE-100 out of mythical obscurity with Lindell Audio's exacting new emulation, the TE-100 EQ, now available exclusively from Plugin Alliance for the jaw-dropping price of $149.
Living Up To a Living Legend
Sardina says he uses the UE-100 hardware on basically everything he does, from R&B to classical, pop to opera and from the recording stages to mastering. "The low end is so massive for any kind of hip-hop or R&B project," he says. "The top end is super silky for any jazz project or an orchestra recording. It even has a feature where you can boost the top end, and at the same time cut the tilt of the top end—something that most EQs don’t do. I even use it for the room microphones. It can be very transparent. In a few steps everything can be set in a way that you can be as subtle as you want, or as hard as you want."
From Rafa's perspective the new Lindell TE-100 plugin has big shoes to fill, but after using it for about a week, he was already sold on it. He works a lot both inside the box and out of the box, but always applies the hardware EQ before the signal hits the digital workstation. Once the audio is in the digital domain, that's where he loves having the TE-100 plugin. He has been using it for individual tracks, stereo applications like mastering, on sub-groups, drum busses, etc.
"The hardware EQs are the most fantastic ever made, and the plugin is a very close representation of the original," Sardina said. "The beauty of having a plugin comes in applying as many channels as you want, and the fact that you can daisy-chain some of these plugins and achieve results that will be unimaginable with a hardware unit." He also loved that the TE-100 still generates the same kind of distortion that the hardware units do when you take them to extreme settings. "You can even over power them with a plugin in front of it, which changes the way the TE-100 plugin reacts," he said. "Or put EQ pre-compression and have another EQ post-compression. The plugins have a special extra something."
Both Sardina and Zimmerling remarked that the ability to make fine EQ level adjustments with the TE-100 plugin, as opposed to the big steps of the hardware, made the plugin more versatile. Zimmerling said that the day after trying the Lindell TE-100, he went back to re-master recent album and live concert projects using the plugin. "I never thought it would be possible to model this iconic EQ, with its 14 tubes and 25kg of weight," Zimmerling said, "but Lindell cracked Pandora's Box. If you’re after that vintage sound like me, then this is it. The TE-100 is my new go-to EQ!”
Franglen called the TE-100 "tube heaven in a plugin," and James Wiltshire of the Grammy-nominated remix/production team the Freemasons and the soundware label F9 Audio also highly recommended it. "I’m lucky enough to have used the valve powered monolith that was the original UE-100, and not only has the TE-100 plugin captured the immensely solid and future-retro sound, but also by copying the operational quirks, it makes you think completely differently about your EQ moves."
Even early testers of the TE-100 who weren't that familiar with the original hardware are also singing its praises.
"What impressed me most about the TE-100 is how aggressively I could push the EQ and radically sculpt sounds without the nasty artifacts that I hear in so many other digital EQs," said Ronan Chris Murphy, the producer/artist working out of Veneto West in Santa Monica, California on his own projects, as well as King Crimson, Nels Cline, Terry Bozzio and many others.
From Murphy's rock music base to the bassy music of progressive house producer/DJ Thomas Gold, the TE-100 has stood up against the most extreme abuse. "I'm absolutely loving this bad boy," Gold exclaimed. "You can crank the levels, and there is no bad sound at all. It sounds incredibly warm and fat—great for sound shaping, drum busses or even the master channel. I love that you can cut and boost the lows and the highs at the same time—kind of like an über-Pultec!"
Software Saves the Day
Now that the word is out that Lindell nailed the hardware emulation for the TE-100 EQ plugin, producers everywhere can revel in the other big breakthrough that allows them to access the UE-100 hardware's unique character and abilities in as many instances as they want for $149. Because even if the massive rack unit sat in every studio in the land, time would eventually win the battle over this model that was discontinued 45 years ago.
All vintage hardware is vulnerable to disrepair, but with its 14 vacuum tubes and numerous other components, the UE-100 represents a special maintenance challenge, a fact that perhaps the most prolific collector of the Universal Equalizer in the world, Rafa Sardina, knows all too well. Besides costing up to $20,000 for a stereo pair of UE-100s, Sardina also spends a lot of time, effort and money in keeping up his treasured hardware EQs. "I'm lucky that friends help me in sorting out the tubes," he said. "If I didn’t have such friends, it would be crazy!"
The difficulty of keeping any vintage hardware up to spec affects the quality of all kinds of studio gear, Sardina said. "Very often you go to studios, see very special pieces of gear, and you expect them to be super special, but they are not," he said. "The same thing happens with the vintage microphones, and any tube technology. I have access to great maintenance engineers, but not that many people can work on these units."
Sardina said his UE-100 units often "save the day," when he applies them to difficult mix situations, whether they are bass frequencies, acoustic instruments, sub groups or full mixes. "When they’re too harsh, I can EQ them and still apply top end, but get rid of the harshness," he said. "I’m pretty sure the plugin is going to start substituting the hardware in many situations, especially being in the box. I mix in a hybrid system where I have a big console too. I mix some of the stuff outside the box, and then everything sums together."
Putting new emulations in the hands of more and more producers lets them learn with the elite tools that used to be in the hands of the few. It levels the playing field while also raising expectations. "It puts a lot of pressure on people’s skills," Sardina said. "Now people have to step up and really learn to use them and do special things with them. That’s the beauty of it because the music is in our brains, in our hearts. It’s not in the tools, but having the access to the tools gives us so many more possibilities. It makes us better at what we do. It makes us better mixers, better producers, even better musicians because if the artists are inspired, they're going to play differently. Everything affects everybody all the way down the chain. I think it’s very important that plugins are equalizing the field; you all have the same crayons, now draw. It’s not like we’re only giving you yellow and blue, while the pro has yellow, blue, orange, pink, green, and red. Plugins are giving access to everybody."
Legal Disclaimer: Klein & Hummel and UE-100 are registered trademarks of Sennheiser, GMBH. The TE-100 was developed by Lindell Audio and LSR Audio based on their own modeling techniques. Sennheiser has neither endorsed nor sponsored the TE-100 in any manner, nor licensed any intellectual property for use in this product.