Wunder Audio PEQ1R

($2,250 MSRP, power supply $300)

I’d been wondering (sorry) about these mic pres for a long time. I’ve read about them on gearhead sites and I’ve seen them at industry shows and in ads. I’ve only read a couple reviews though and I’ve never actually seen one in anyone’s rack or knew anyone who had used one. I guess I got the first one on my block. I had no preconceived notions.

But according to the lore, the guys were refurbishing a couple of 80 Series Neve consoles and came across some modules that were made for one-of-a-kind desk for John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. They thought that these modules sounded amazing and figured out that the beauty of the sound was coming from the transformer. Inspired by these transformers, the Wunder folks spent a lot of time in the lab developing and testing their own custom wound transformers that would end up in the PEQ1 series.

This is a class A discrete 70s style solid-state mic pre/EQ. It has XLR mic and line inputs and output and a 1/4" TRS instrument/line in on the front panel. The line input uses a separate transformer so you can actually use the XLR line input on the back as a separate, different sounding mic input by cranking the input gain knob into the –24dB to –42dB “HiZ” zone. On the front panel moving left to right you have the 1/4" instrument input, mic/line, phase reverse, and EQ engage toggle switches. Next to those are three double-action knobs for the EQ section. All the controls have an outer ring frequency selector that has multiple steps including an off position and a continuously variable +/-20dB boost/cut knob in the center. The low frequency has five steps: 40Hz, 60Hz, 100Hz, 160Hz, and 200Hz. The mid has six steps: .36K, .7K, 1.3K, 2.4K, 3.6K, and 5.8K. The five high frequency bands are: 7K, 10K, 12.5K, 15K, and 20K. The boost/cut knob in the center of each control has no 0 detent and the small white pointer on the knob is difficult to see. This makes it hard to recreate an EQ setting. Also having the frequency choice numbers under the knobs makes them hard to see from angles above the panel. I had to keep the unit racked high so I could easily see the numbers. To bypass a specific EQ control you must turn it to the off position so quick A/B-ing is difficult to manage.

Continuing down the face, the gain switch is also a double duty control: the left side shows mic input gain and the right side shows line input gain. Of course you’ve got your 48v phantom power toggle and, lastly, an output level knob next to the power on LED. The PEQ1R’s input gain is impressive — from 18 to 78dB for mic signals and 60dB for line and instrument inputs.

When I deboxed the PEQ1R, I was surprised by how beefy the power supply was. Then I learned that it’s capable of powering 24 of these units. Okay. I wonder if there could be an option to buy a smaller supply that would power two units? Maybe then it could be included in the price instead of having to shell out an extra $300 if you only plan to buy one or two units.

Enough with the boring details — how does it sound?

The very first time I powered it up was for a vocal session for an English band called Capricorns. They asked a gentleman named Eugene Robinson (why does that name sound so familiar?) from the band Oxbow to guest on one of their tracks, and we were going to record the vocals and upload the files to an FTP site in time for their final mixing crunch in London. Perfect opportunity to put the PEQ1R to the test.

Eugene is probably the most dynamic singer I’ve ever worked with. He goes from barely audible whispers and low growls to bone-splitting howls and lots of heavy stuff in between. I decided to use one of the review mics from EQ’s Giant Mic Issue [Sept. ‘05] — the SE Electronics Titan with a –10dB pad engaged going into the PEQ1R and then into a Summit DCL200 set with a fast attack and about 4dB of compression. We were doing the vocals on a loft over the control room and sometimes there can be some low end mic stand coupling to the floor rumble, so I engaged the EQ and set the frequency selector to 60Hz and rolled off a few dB. It helped enough to get started.

Getting a good, present level was easy, but when Eugene started performing on the track, I had to be quick with the gain knob on the Summit. I rode his takes all the way through and still missed some heavy peaks. Another challenge with recording Eugene is he likes the headphone level to be very hot. So hot that he wears earplugs under the phones. He really wants to be immersed in the sound. This usually creates quite a bleed problem during his quieter moments. I had been using the Sony MDR 7506 headphones and been experiencing some heavy bleeding. It just so happened that Eugene had a pair of Ultrasone HFI 550s to try out for the session. These phones have a tight ear cup that seals a lot better to keep bleed to a minimum and the efficiency of the drivers in the earpieces makes it so they don’t need to be cranked as much to get that level of immersion that Eugene likes.

But how did the PEQ1R sound at the end of the day?

Perfect for this type of vocal. It has a quality that is very pleasantly “rock” and musical. It’s almost a grittiness or a minute fuzziness like a pleasing high-end harmonic distortion that made this rocking vocal track sit so well in the midst of heavy instrumentation. You may think that I’m being led by the sound of the Summits. I compared the same Summit settings and the same mic using the Millennia HV3D mic pre and did not experience the same feel. While the Millennia HV3D is an amazing, clean, transparent preamp, it was too real — too detailed for a vocal track like this. And, I thought, especially for this type of music. But Capricorns really liked the sound — they even liked the spot where I couldn’t ride the level down fast enough and crapped out with some input level distortion. Cool.

While the PEQ1R worked for vocals in the heavy sludge track, it didn’t fare so well in the quiet, sensitive, female vocal area. I used it on a quiet, intimate vocal with a Microtech/Gefell UM92.1S tube mic. The qualities that I liked with Eugene’s vocals I didn’t like with the quieter vocals. I tried to cut some 700Hz or a little 1.3k to get rid of some of the nasal quality that I heard that went away when I switched back to the Millennia mic preamp. It’s just not the right tool for some jobs. But that being said, it excelled in many other applications.

I’d also been recording a lot of cues for a marketing campaign where the producers are constantly changing their minds and where deadlines are ultra tight. The PEQ1R was an excellent and faithful, versatile tool in this arena. The HiZ input on the face got a lot of action. A guitar, bass, or a Rhodes piano was plugged in all the time. The variety of tones that I was able to dial in for electric bass was incredibly useful. I could pretty much find any sound I needed with my old P-bass, yet the sound of the unit was tight, deep, and rich without the EQ engaged. In conjunction with my Summit compressor, it gave me one of the most workable direct bass sounds I’ve gotten. It was the same with the direct guitar. I tend to work very quickly on these types of cues, and plugging the Tele straight in and then processing it later with Amp Farm is what I have to do. But I used the direct sound many times without relying on the virtual amp effect. It’s a clean sound that can be carved up with the EQ to get interesting stuff. For mono percussion tracks I used the PEQ1R with an AEA R92 ribbon and got a fantastic amount of gain.

I’ve tried this pre/EQ with a huge variety of sources, and I have to say that it is truly versatile unit with a big personality. If you are looking for a transparent pre like the Millennia HV3 or a John Hardy M-1, you are looking in the wrong place. The Wunder PEQ1R definitely has a “sound,” but it’s a sound that is very musical and pleasing to the ears.