Hungarian company Gainlab impressed us with their Dictator compressor, so we were looking forward to putting their EQ through its paces.
Gainlab Audio are a Hungarian company, formed fairly recently by the engineers at Budapest’s Gainlab Studio — after years of servicing and modifying the equipment in their own studio, they decided to develop their own designs. I reviewed their Dictator stereo valve compressor back in SOS December 2021 (https://sosm.ag/gainlab-audio-dictator) and found a lot to like — and not only because I considered the price to be very keen for what was on offer. For review this time is another of Gainlab’s early releases: after my positive encounter with the Dictator I was very much looking forward to spending some quality time with the Empress!
The Empress is a dual‑mono valve EQ that attempts to combine the attributes of a passive, Pultec EQP‑1A‑style EQ with some additional features. The headline addition is an extra mid‑band that you wouldn’t traditionally find on this style of EQ, but there are also a few other features that attempt to add more flexibility to a studio classic that has been around in one form or another since the 1950s. Gainlab explain that they were keen to maintain the heart of what people like about passive EQs of this kind — that curious simultaneous cut‑and‑boost of the highs or lows being perhaps the most obvious example — whilst also including a valve amplifier stage that’s intended to allow the user more control over their EQ moves, and over the saturation effect of the electronics. I’ll talk a little more about these features as I explain how I got on with the Empress in my studio.
All three bands offer more frequencies than most EQs of this type. All the controls are stepped (ie. switches), the cut and boost controls operating in 1.5dB increments, and the unit generally feels good to play with. A very small niggle was that, due to the combination of extra control features, the dual‑mono control set and some quite small switches/labelling, I often found recalling settings a little time‑consuming (you have to do everything twice when used on a stereo signal, of course). Electronics‑wise, the Empress features the sort of high‑quality components you’d expect to find on this sort of processor at this sort of price range, such as military‑grade vacuum tubes and nanocrystalline transformers (which, as I understand it, have lower losses and a higher saturation level than conventional transformer cores, as well as being more expensive!). Overall, it exhibits a confidence‑inspiring air of quality.
The three EQ bands gave me a surprising amount of flexibility when experimenting with vocals.
The first thing I wanted to know about the Empress was how well it did ‘that Pultec thing’, so I spent a little time trying to fill out a limp‑sounding kick drum. Adding a generous amount at 60Hz (with the gain set well past the 12 o’clock position) whilst simultaneously cutting the same frequency worked superbly to add all the weight I wanted in a very focused way.
One of the additional features found on both the low and high bands in this design is a Shift option, which allows the mid‑frequencies of the simultaneous cutting and boosting to be shifted relative to each other. Gainlab decided on this option at the expense of any other kind of bandwidth controls, which is an interesting choice and something worth consideration if you’re comparing models in this genre. Playing with this facility on the aforementioned kick drum, I found the difference was quite subtle and perhaps even a little difficult to hear. But the difference was much more pronounced when experimenting with the high band on an acoustic guitar; I was cutting and boosting at 5kHz to add some definition and, while I do rather struggle to put the difference into words, the effect was certainly audible (I preferred the sound when the Shift setting was engaged, which seemed to push the high‑end boost into a nicer area for this instrument). When using the high band, you also have the option of choosing a bell or shelving filter, which adds another useful layer of flexibility.
The mid‑band was a very welcome feature, and on that same kick drum job I described earlier it was great to be able to cut a little around the 300Hz region at the same time. I tried running a few different vocals through the Empress during the review test period, and I found that the three EQ bands gave me a surprising amount of flexibility when experimenting. Adding some high ‘air’ frequencies worked beautifully at opening up the top end, and I was able to remove some troublesome boxy tones around 500Hz, while experimenting with adding a little weight with the low band.
After a period of experimenting with individual elements in a mix, it was time to see how it fared on the mix bus. When used on the stereo bus, I’ve always found Pultec‑style EQs to be very much the kind of tool you have to ‘mix into’ rather than add at the end, as a kind of finishing/mastering tool. This is largely because the EQ bands are quite broad, and so might not suit every mix. The extra controls available on the Empress, however, allowed me more possibilities in this scenario, and the mid band in particular helped me make more obviously beneficial moves, typically involving me boosting in the upper mids at 5‑6 kHz or cutting around the 200‑300 Hz area to remove some muddy build‑up. This combined with the traditional ‘smiley face’ boosting of the lows and highs achieved some great, satisfying results that helped give a mix a much more ‘finished’ sound.
A significant factor that contributes to the enduring popularity of passive valve EQs is the subtle coloration they impart, whether you’re boosting/cutting or not. It’s a difficult thing to articulate in a written review, but the Empress generally seemed to add that little special something when audio was run through its high‑quality components.
To allow you to push this effect a bit further, Gainlab have incorporated a Tube Boost facility, which can introduce more obvious tube ‘saturation’, its nature and audibility depending very much on the signal levels you’re pushing through the Empress: I often found it a little too much applied to a whole stereo mix, but it worked superbly to add weight to individual sources. It imparts that pleasing sense of ‘analogue warmth’ and it’s a great tool to have alongside the core EQ functions. For electronic sources such as drum loops or sterile‑sounding synth parts in particular, it proved to be a very effective means of adding weight and character.
The Empress is another great‑sounding piece of hardware from Gainlab Audio. It has been nicely designed and put together beautifully, using high‑quality components. It performs the functions you’d expect a Pultec‑style EQ to perform very well indeed, as you’d rightly expect at this price. But there are several other high‑quality Pultec‑alikes out there and what might set the Empress apart from the alternatives is that the thoughtful design makes it more versatile. The Mid band makes it substantially more flexible than most, and while I did often find the extra focus controls to be rather too subtle for many applications, they’re still welcome additions. The Tube Boost is a great enhancement, though, and completes a really well‑conceived set of features that will almost certainly mean that the valves in this unit remain warm in your studio on recording, mixing and mastering sessions alike.
- Excellent build quality.
- Extra mid band adds some substantial flexibility.
- Tube Boost facility adds an extra dash of colour.
- Dual‑mono design can make recall a little fiddly when used on stereo sources.
The Empress is another impressive early release from Gainlab Audio. A dual‑mono EQ, it provides the qualities of a classic passive tube EQ whilst adding extra features that successfully provide some meaningful, bonus flexibility.