This combination of Pultec-inspired stereo mastering EQ and VCA bus compressor could earn its keep in a wide range of situations.
Berlin-based Tegeler Audio Manufaktur, founded by Michael Krusch, are building a growing reputation for their line-up of high-performance analogue recording hardware. The company’s modest range includes the VTC classic tube compressor and EQP-1 passive tube equaliser, and the VTRC channel strip (reviewed in SOS January 2016), which is a pairing of those two products, along with more original designs such as the Konnektor analogue mastering matrix (SOS December 2016), the Magnetismus 2 transient shaper and the TSM tube summing mixer.
The latest Tegeler product to reach SOS Towers is the Crème. A stereo-only combination of bus compressor and passive equaliser, it arrived in a sturdy wooden crate with a decidedly retro air, art deco-style hasps and probably the best thought-out internal packaging that I’ve seen.
The attention to detail evident in the Crème’s packaging is carried over into the unit itself. Its substantial fascia is almost entirely covered by an attractive, largely blue-tinted, graphic overlay that sits in a recess in order to protect its edges from damage. The front panel is laid out in two rows, both of which are dominated by large, black ‘chicken head’ controls. The upper row carries the hard bypass relay’s toggle switch, the high and low EQ bands’ switched rotary boost and frequency selectors, and a finely detented output level/make-up gain control. The lower row starts out with a pair of toggle switches: the first brings in one of the two available high-pass frequencies in the compressor side-chain, whilst the second controls the relay that places the EQ section before or after the compressor. These are followed by a finely detented 40-position compressor threshold control and switched selectors for attack and release times and ratio. A single VU meter, calibrated in 4dB steps up to 20dB, shows the amount of compression being applied to both channels, and the panel is completed by an on/off switch and a large (and thankfully dim) yellow power indicator. The rear panel is pretty minimalist, with only the balanced XLR left and right inputs and outputs and an IEC power connector in evidence.
Tegeler describe the Crème EQ as an updated version of the filter circuitry of the original Pultec equaliser, with “unnecessary controls” replaced by fixed values, and with “unnecessary frequencies” removed. In practice, this means the Pultec’s high-frequency bandwidth control and the attenuators for both bands have been removed, leaving a boost-only functionality. As befits its stated role as a mastering equaliser, the Crème delivers only a modest boost of up to 5dB at both low and high frequencies. In another departure from its inspiration, the original’s choice of four bass frequencies (20, 30, 60 and 100 Hz) has been expanded to six, with the addition of 140Hz and 200Hz positions, whilst the high-frequency selection now starts at 10kHz rather than the original’s 3kHz, and carries on up through 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 and 24 kHz.
If you’re a Pultec EQP-1A aficionado you’ll know that its high-frequency cut and boost have a variable-bandwidth peaking response, and that its low-frequency equivalents both have a shelving response. In the Crème, both frequency bands have a shelving response that, as I mentioned earlier, is boost-only — which brings me neatly on to how Pultec (and Tegeler and others) have managed to get boost from a nominally ‘passive’ EQ.
Although a purely passive equaliser has sonic benefits, there are down sides: it will introduce signal loss, and the response of its filters can be affected both by the output impedance of the source feeding it, and by the input impedance of the next unit in the signal chain. As a result, you’ll normally find buffer amplifiers surrounding the passive circuitry, which isolate it from the effects of external impedances and compensate for the loss of signal level.
Once amplifiers have been introduced into the circuit, obtaining boost from a passive design is simply a matter of configuring the unit’s collection of passive filters to produce a fixed amount of attenuation across the audio frequency spectrum when at their nominally ‘flat’ positions, and then making up that loss with a buffer amplifier. If the degree of attenuation at a given frequency is reduced, the result is a boost at that frequency, the maximum level of which is determined by the make-up gain required to compensate for overall attenuation at the flat position.
The Crème’s soft-knee VCA compressor offers attack times of 0.1, 0.3, 1, 3, 10 and 30 ms, and release times of 0.1, 0.3, 0.8 and 1.2 seconds plus an auto (programme-dependent) setting. Compression ratios on offer are 1.5:1, 2:1, 4:1 and 10:1, the last effectively acting as a limiter. Unusually, the compressor’s 40-position detented threshold control ranges simply from zero to 10, leaving you to use your ears and/or the gain-reduction meter to set the amount of compression. The other unusual aspect of the compressor’s operation is said meter: its left-to-right 20dB scale visualises the amount of compression being applied, instead of the usual right-to-left scale showing the extent of gain reduction.
As is often the way with present-day, retro-styled studio hardware, there’s plenty of space inside the Crème’s 2U rackmount chassis. A single circuit board carries all the main components, and a separate daughterboard, sitting behind the front panel and connected to its parent by multi-way ribbon cabling, is dedicated to the Crème’s securely bolted front-panel controls, whose positive action contributes significantly to an overall feeling of classy construction.
The majority of internal components are of the surface-mount variety, with several high-quality discrete capacitors sited strategically amongst them. The Crème’s compression comes courtesy of a pair of THAT Corporation’s high-performance, low-distortion 2180C Blackmer Series VCA chips.
The raison d’être of Tegeler’s Crème is mix-bus processing and mastering. These days, many studio engineers create their mixes with a compressor and an EQ sitting across the master stereo bus, whether in their console or DAW software. With the compressor set up to deliver maybe 2-3 dB of low-ratio compression and the EQ adding a gentle boost to the low and high frequencies (and/or slightly scooping the mid-range), the intended result is an enhancement of a mix’s energy and excitement that approximates the effect of that part of the mastering process, and helps them create a more ‘finished’ mix. This combination of compression and EQ can be bypassed when the final mix is being printed, so you might print a version with EQ and compression and one without. This allows you, or your mastering engineer, to have a much more detailed look at EQ and compression as part of the final mastering process.
After running some mixes with the Crème across my console’s stereo bus, I ended up being extremely impressed by its audio performance, by the way that the subtle increase in weight, energy and clarity made my existing, unmastered mixes sound better to me — and by how it made me happier with the new mixes that I was producing. My workflow turned out to be quite simple. Once I had a rough level-only mix set up on the console, I’d set the compression so that it felt good in relation to the track, and then drop the threshold back to leave me with one or two dB of gain reduction. Next, I’d add in a small amount of low-end boost at an appropriate frequency. Doing this always seemed to add a feeling of weight and definition in the bottom end, without muddying things up. I could then add a touch of high-end boost to either bring out an instrument or voice, open the sound up or, at the higher frequencies, add a sense of ‘air’ without introducing harshness. Once I was happy with what I’d achieved, I’d then A/B the result with the unprocessed rough mix to make sure that I wasn’t being overly heavy-handed, my ideal being that I should miss the energy and excitement introduced by the Crème when it was bypassed, but not be overly surprised by its effect when I switched it in. Once everything felt right, I could then start building my final mix.
As a comparison, I inserted a compressor-into-EQ plug-in chain in the master bus of my DAW and, using the same approach, this combination produced a very acceptable result, albeit one without quite the same sense of weight, definition, openness and ‘air’ that I felt I could hear in my monitors from the Crème. To my ears, the difference was small, but discernable, and was definitely more than enough to send me back to mixing through the Crème.
You’d be wrong to restrict to the Crème to the mix bus and mastering, though. Its two-band, boost-only, shelving equaliser section gives the Crème an attractive, subtly distinctive character that, although not designed to deliver surgical correction, makes it an extremely useful tool when you need to beef up a bass drum or a bass guitar, or to increase the definition and presence of a voice or instrument when tracking. The slopes of the Crème’s filters have been designed to give quite a broad overlap between the two bands, which can make the maximum 5dB boost available at both the high and low frequencies a surprisingly potent tool.
The Crème’s VCA compressor is, to my ears, extremely clean and transparent, making it extremely well suited to tracking and parallel compression duties where you want control without coloration. Other than having to adjust the tempo of a track to the compressor’s release time to get the Crème to pump along precisely in time, I didn’t find any drawbacks arising from its somewhat restricted range of attack times, release times and compression ratios. In fact, in some ways these limitations made things simpler, since tracking decisions came faster in the absence of a plethora of options to experiment with. The side-chain high-pass filters did exactly what they were designed to do in preventing low-frequency content triggering compression and, although I normally tend to have an equaliser following a compressor, the option to position it in the signal path before the compressor does produce another set of tonal possibilities and/or compressor responses.
Although the Crème is, for my own mixing needs, almost perfection in a 2U rack, I found myself occasionally missing the ability to bypass the compressor and equaliser on an individual basis. I could work around this by zeroing the EQ boosts or the threshold, and although this can be a little irritating on occasion, it certainly wouldn’t be enough to persuade me to send this particular unit back to Berlin — it’s staying here!
The Tegeler Audio Manufaktur Crème bus compressor and mastering equaliser is a superb piece of equipment that excels at the task that it was deigned for. Its audio performance is of a very high order and its passive, boost-only equaliser gives the Crème a subtly distinct and attractive overall sonic character. Add in the competitive price, and the overall package becomes one that deserves serious consideration.
Although designed primarily for the role of enabling an engineer to hear approximately what the mix being worked on will sound like once it has been mastered, the Crème definitely has applications in tracking and for submix compression and EQ during the recording process. Anyone who is mixing tracks for streaming, demos or short-run CDs for sale at gigs and the like would, I think, find the Crème a very useful in-house mastering tool. I can also see the Crème becoming very popular in live-sound situations, where its ability to tighten up a channel, subgroup or FOH mix, whilst simultaneously lifting the bottom end and adding definition and clarity in the higher frequencies, could prove extremely attractive.
From my own point of view, there’s a tangible benefit in monitoring the mixing process through the Crème’s compressor and EQ rather than via a plug-in chain. You’ll have to make up your own mind about that, of course, but I’d highly recommend auditioning a Tegeler Crème before your next mix comes along.
I couldn’t find an exact equivalent to the Crème at its price point, although the somewhat more expensive tube-based Avalon VT747 does get close in terms of its features. Other than that, the next stop might be the Mäag Audio Magnum-K and Rupert Neve Designs Shelford 5051, both of which are mono units and are significantly more expensive as stereo pairs. Other than that, you’ll be looking for a good stereo VCA compressor and a high-quality stereo Pultec-type EQ in either rackmount or 500-series formats and, as I mentioned in the review, well-designed plug-in equivalents are also well worth consideration.