I never really set out to "review" gear, per se; it just sits around the studio until it fights its way into the workflow. I'm sure that wears out the guys who send me the stuff, but it's really my only way to give them a fair shake. Otherwise, I do this... Bring in a piece of gear. Stop working. Plug it in to whatever track I'm working on. Diddle with the knobs for 20 seconds. Is it hot or is it not? Review over... Which may be fine for certain one-trick ponies (I've never felt I needed to spend a few weeks with a gate, for example), but it's a complete disservice to a pro-level unit like the Amtec, which is why it sat around for a while in my studio.
Also, my studio has several different flavors of vintage Pultec, and the comparison is inevitable, given the obvious similarities in the names. So for the duration of the review period, the PEQ-1A was sharing rackspace with a tube EQP-1A3 and a pair of solid-state-modified EQP-1A3s. Guess what-it's not a Pultec. It's not an old, temperamental time bomb of obsolete parts and dried-out caps with this cult-fetish pushing the prices into orbit. It's not pissed off when you feed it impedances that didn't exist in 1962. Its knobs don't break and send you into therapy. It doesn't occasionally decide to stop working at 5 kHz, and then cost untold hours and hundreds of dollars to fix-never mind convincing FedEx to insure a small box for $8000.
The Amtec PEQ-1A is a great, perhaps even fantastic, broadband tube equalizer. (Ready for a string of subjective, nearly useless descriptivism?) The low end is especially nice-full but not flabby. The top end is extended, clean, and clear, with two "hidden" switch positions that give you a 20 kHz peak and a 10 kHz shelf. Why these aren't labeled is beyond me; they're the most useful part of the HF section. The high-band attenuator adds a 40 kHz setting to its pseudo-namesake's 5/10/20 kHz, and the whole, heavy unit is a deep, emo black with white lettering that's easy to see. It feels, looks, and sounds solid. The geek details are all online, but I did take the top off and found clean-looking circuits, a few commonly-available tubes, a large output transformer, and a massive toroidal power transformer. The literature says that the circuit is based on inductors, so I'm sure they're in there somewhere, but I don't see the massive potted pain-in-the-ass vintage ones. I also see a lot less transformers on the Amtec-no input or interstage-and thankfully, all the breakable stuff is inside the unit, not hanging off the back. There is XLR I/O, thank God.
The Amtec's low end is awesome. It sounds great on kick, bass, and especially electric guitars. I loved it on the mix bus for that nice low-end bump down around 60 Hz and the top-end boost of the 10 kHz shelf. The boost/cut trick works really well. (Boost and cut simultaneously on this type of passive EQ, and you get a really cool curve out of it.) The midrange sounds good-nicely defined. I think that I could cut just about anything with a good preamp and this box-especially guitars. The top end is nice and extended, and the 10 kHz shelf is awesome for stuff like percussion and overheads and acoustic. I wish the HF shelf were selectable boost/cut instead of cut only, and it would be seriously sweet to have a 40 kHz shelf-I love that shit. I also wish-and this applies to all you gear manufacturers out there-that someone would invent pots with detents that are also useable in-between the clicks. Then everyone will love you, and recalls will be a breeze, and Heidi Klum will leave Seal for you. Please do this. (But I digress.) The Amtec's high end is also where I run into my sole reservation with this box, and it's not really an issue as much as it is a byproduct of that inevitable aforementioned comparison.
It's missing that... Thing. The euphonic legerdemain that is the hallmark of the Pultec EQ inhabits a stratosphere that is reserved for scant few of its rack brethren, including the (well-maintained) Fairchilds, 2254s, U 67s, and (insert your favorite here). NOW WAIT. Before the flame war begins, let me expand. Most of the people reading this review are recording engineers, which means, presumably, that we are geeked out on good sound to some extent. Within that geekage, we're looking for that killer... Thing. That Thing is different to different people. And yes, it's all about the song, and yes, the prosumer stuff is good (and occasionally great), and yes, you can perhaps make a masterpiece in your bedroom; but for the purposes of this argument, let's assume that you're at a place in your life where you're going to drop $5000+ on a pair of tube EQs, and let's can the (arguably valid) argument that such-and-such cheapo compressor sounds exactly like a 33609. I'm talking about that Thing, the aural infatuation-e.g., whenever I hear the first few bars of Death Cab's "Cath..." and I mutter, "Bloody hell, Walla, that guitar tone is just perfect." That is the Thing, the Thing that the Pultecs have... and the Amtec, alas, is missing. I don't know what it is-distortion, transformer saturation, whatever-I don't know. Here's how I came to that conclusion.
I was mixing a Jonny Lang track with him singing into an SM7. Or, to be more accurate, singing near an SM7. He was so far off-mic that the vocal was dull and presence-free. So I cranked 12 kHz or 16 kHz on my tube EQP-1A3, and suddenly it was money. Bright yet smooth, sparkly, expensive-just great. Problem solved. Since I had the Amtec right there, I tried to duplicate the trick. It sounded great, certainly better than good, but the magic was gone somehow. The high end was there, all right-maybe even too much there, a little edgy-but what was missing was that... Thing. Hell if I know what it is.
On the mix bus. We took a pop/rock mix, toned out the Amtecs and the Pultecs, recording about a minute of each, made sure the levels were matched, and did a blind A/B test. Picked one, consistently. The Amtec sounded great-really, really great-totally-happy-to-use-it-and-buy-two-just-for-that great. Yet the Pultec had that... Thing, and everyone in the room picked it as the favorite.
But here's the (other) thing. Was it $10,000 better? You make the call. I'm a lucky bastard to even have access to a Pultec in my studio. As Ferris Bueller might say, "It is so choice." If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. If you don't, but you have the bread for the Amtec, and you're looking for a stellar broadband tube equalizer, snag it. I wouldn't hesitate to use it on just about everything, really. If I didn't have my Pultecs, or had I lost my damn mind and sold them to a friend in Seattle for half what they were worth, I'd buy a pair of Amtecs the next day. I've used this and that Pultec clone over the years, and the Amtec is the first one I've found that really "feels" good to me. I recommend it without hesitation, and honestly, if I had the extra dough right now (building personal studio = money all gone), I'd add these to my mix rig for guitars and to the tracking rack for just about everything-and I'd use them everyday. Especially if they had detented pots. Maybe Santa will drop a pair off anyway.
($2500 street; www.amtecaudio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.