It’s been nearly 50 years since engineer Fumio Mieda created the Uni-Vibe for Japan’s Shin-Ei corporation. You probably know the story. The pedal pretty much failed at its mission of mimicking the Doppler-shifted sound of a spinning Leslie cabinet. But its distinctive swirling modulation became a classic color in its own right after being embraced by Hendrix, Trower, Gilmour, and countless other guitarists.
Today’s players often conjure this distinctive phasing/chorusing effect with digital devices, or via analog circuits that depart dramatically from the original design. Some of these modernized versions provide truly authentic-sounding Uni-Vibe tones. But the new Austin, Texas-based Shin-Ei line revisits the effect’s roots with the Vibe-Bro, a very close cousin to the original.
E Pluribus Uni-Vibe
Today’s Shin-Ei has no connection to its namesake company: They simply registered the expired trademark, along with “Honey” and “Companion,” two other Shin-Ei monikers. But one glance at the Vibe-Bro is enough to convince you that Vibe-Bro’s creators don’t use the name in exploitation, but as a righteous tribute to the original. This labor-of-love creation employs painstakingly sourced NOS parts, strictly-by-hand construction techniques, and laborious calibration. (But the new Shin-Ei can’t call it a Uni-Vibe because Dunlop—also unconnected to the original Shin-Ei brand—currently holds that trademark.)
Mind you, a completely exact Uni-Vibe clone is probably illegal to build. The original photocells, which contained toxic cadmium, are no longer available. But the replacement cells in Vibe-Bro don’t compromise the effect in the slightest.
Simply put, I’ve never heard a finer sounding Uni-Vibe, vintage or modern. The seductive swirl is lush, tactile, and immersive. I could probably sit around all afternoon strumming a C chord and surrendering to the complex, textured modulation, even without cannabinoid supplements. This nuanced sound, with all its complex, spectral nooks and crannies, can make most latter-day modulation effects seem stiff and one-dimensional. The word “glorious” springs to mind.
So Vibe-Bro is an unequivocal winner, right? Well, that depends on your priorities.
The Cost of Cloning?
Vibe-Bro’s creators exerted enormous effort replicating the original’s cosmetics. It’s a near duplicate, though a slightly scaled-down one. (According to Shin-Ei, the smaller enclosure was inspired by the search for old stock of the original two-color chorus/vibrato switch. They couldn’t procure any, but they found a smaller version from the same manufacturer, so they downsized to 80 percent of the original dimensions accordingly.)
Telling detail: Vibe-Bro employs a 6-pin DIN connector for its rate-controlling foot pedal in lieu of a modern 1/4" jack. (The original used a 5-pin DIN connector.) There’s no sonic advantage to using this retro part. In fact, the connector makes it impossible to use any controller pedal other than Shin-Ei’s $199 model. But it sure looks cool.
Such cosmetic choices are responsible for Vibe-Bro’s lofty $699 price tag (not including the foot pedal). Vibe-Bro includes many pricy parts, from its custom-designed transformer to all those cosmetically correct switches and connectors. The enclosure and exterior parts are old-school hefty, and the hand-wired circuit board is gorgeous—especially with all those colorful carbon-comp resistors. While many will gasp at the price, it’s understandable given the retro parts and laborious build process. (I had a hard time settling on a 3.5 value rating. Mentally add a point if vintage cosmetics are a priority, or subtract one if you’re only concerned with the sonics, because there are cheaper-yet-fine-sounding alternatives.)
Changes for the Better
Like many players, I’ve always considered the Uni-Vibe vibrato setting problematic. The asymmetric “fish hook” waveform that sounds magical while chorusing can have an unpleasant, seasick quality in vibrato mode. (For an example, check out the chromatic chord progression at 1:10 in the demo clip. The bent pitches sound sour to me, and that’s with a modest intensity setting.) But for such a faithful replica, Shin-Ei surely made the right call in duplicating the original love-it-or-hate-it vibrato.
Vibe-Bro sounds and looks beautiful. I doubt you can buy a more accurate Uni-Vibe replica. The pedal’s price tag, while understandable, is as breathtaking as its tones. Still, I highly recommend the Vibe-Bro for players seeking sublime, cost-is-no-object Uni-Vibe sounds, or those who’d derive satisfaction from the pedal’s lovingly recreated vintage looks.