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Introducing | Rupert Neve Designs
For over 50 years, the name Rupert Neve has meant expertise in the field of pro audio, and many of the recording consoles that he built for studios are still in use today. Recently, representatives from Rupert Neve Designs (RND) came to Chicago Music Exchange to train our staff on how to get the best possible sounds from RND’s lineup of products. We sat down with RND's Director of Strategic Operations, Jonathan Pines, to get a better sense of Neve's legacy, and what the brand has to offer the modern studio.
CME: What are the ideologies and design philosophies that guide RND, as caretakers of his work, to preserve Mr. Neve’s legacy? How do you approach advancing and refining these feature sets moving forward?
Jonathan Pines: There are six precepts that make a Rupert Neve product:
Class A - Class A refers to a type of amplification that is always on and delivering full power, regardless of the amount of input signal. Examples in the guitar world include Vox, Tweed Fender champs, the THD Bivalve, and most of the Matchless line, among many, vs. Class A/B amps like later fenders and most Marshalls (not the 18 watt!). So if it’s a 30-watt amplifier, or it’s a mic pre with 72 dB of gain, it’s always delivering that—which eliminates something called crossover distortion.
Transformer Design - The biggest overarching principle of RND would be custom transformer design. Rupert started out as a transformer designer and even worked with some amplifier companies before he started working on microphone preamps. He used to say, "I don't know if my earliest transformer designs were very good, but people really liked them..." And that was because of their fantastic character!
Rupert’s transformer design is geared toward the ability to add a controlled amount of euphoric distortions. When pushed they add second- and third-order harmonic distortion that’s musically pleasing. Things that are perfect are not necessarily as pleasing to the ear as these euphoric distortions.
It’s the same thing that happens in a guitar amp. When tubes are overloading and they’re hitting the output transformer, they’re producing interesting sound from it—and, it’s musically pleasing sound. A lot of people think “distortion” is a bad word, but we wouldn’t have rock music without distortion. Technically any change to the sound is distortion, the key is whether, it's good -sounding, the key is whether it’s a good-sounding distortion or a bad-sounding distortion.
Silk & Texture - Our Silk & Texture circuit gives users the ability to have control over this harmonic structure in the output stage, to enhance harmonics, to make things richer, and to make things fuller. Blue adds harmonics based on the lower frequencies in the source; red adds harmonics generated by the mid- and high-frequencies. No one else has done this.
Wide Bandwidth - The DI goes down to 1 Hz, and it’s bandwidth limited at 80K but it would go up to 200K if we let it, but that’s problematic for radio interference with some other gear! So all RND products have a very wide, flat bandwidth.
High Voltage and High Headroom - Running at higher voltages with well-regulated power supplies creates higher headroom, often several decibels more, and all our gear is built around +26.5 dbm outputs. The extended dynamic range allows your music to sound they way it should! The 5088 console runs on 90 volts with near limitless headroom. All our summing units glue a mix more, and provide that awesome large format console tone, the harder they are pushed, and they almost never fold no matter how hard you hit them.
Rupert Neve’s career started during his adolescence, first in radio technology related to shortages before WWII; then, during the war as a soldier working with PA systems; after WWII, in audio design and manufacturing industries (including as Chief Engineer at a transformer manufacturer); later as the leading innovator of modern studio recording in the 1960s; through his storied career as the founder of ARN Consultants, Focusrite Ltd., and AMEK Systems and Controls Ltd.—all prior to founding RND in 2005.
Rupert Neve’s equipment designs are some of the most revered and sought after, and as a result some of the most emulated, even copied outright, by manufacturers since Mr. Neve left his original company in the ‘70s.
CME: How is the summation of Mr. Neve’s career experience reflected throughout RND’s product catalog? Are there any products we carry at CME you can specifically point to that you can point to as an illustrative example of these multiple career experiences?
JP: The Shelford Channel is a flagship product for us. It was very important for Rupert to not be constantly looking backward, making the 17th version of something he created in 1970. It was very difficult for him, initially, to partially do that for the Shelford Channel. But, we explained how revered some of those products were, and why it was so interesting to do a new spin on them, and he took the past into the future.
With the Shelford Channel, we really got him to make the first transformer-gain preamp from Rupert Neve in well over 40 years. What’s cool about a transformer gain preamp? The first 15 dB of gain comes from the transformer, so it’s going to be more vibey, right off the bat. We wanted an inductor EQ, but instead of putting the 1073 EQ in another product, we really were looking for a cool hybrid.
People who are deep in the weeds will know this, but 1066 and 1064 are revered for a bigger low end than a 1073. So we put those concepts into the low frequency. 1073 which everybody agrees is the answer for mid-range, and then a hybrid EQ on the top, because now people are looking for more airy, open sounds than they were 40 years ago. That and a new faster and quieter spin on the diode bridge compressor. So, the Shelford Channel gave us a chance to take those things that were beloved in the past, bring them into the future, and make them more functional.
Some of these classic products like the 1073 did extremely well—but they weren’t that flexible. You couldn’t get rid of the 1073 sound even if you wanted a more transient sound, like for an acoustic guitar. People want flexibility—they want all the colors on their palette.
We don’t live in a world where everybody buys a full console with 80 modules, anymore. You buy one thing, and you need it to do a lot of things, and you need it to satisfy a lot of needs, and the Shelford Channel gives musicians and producers the ability to have that kind of control.
CME: What makes the RND models stand out from the rest, both from a technical/functional standpoint, and any perceptible sonic differences?
JP: In all of our products, we use custom-designed transformers. We don’t buy them from anyone else. We don’t sell them to anyone else. They’re all designed by Rupert and the team. It provides a lot of the Rupert Neve character and tonality.
Our engineers spend a lot of time in the listening phase. We have regular listening sessions at RND, and I think that’s one of the differentiators for our company.
Our organization is not siloed into the technical, separate from the marketing group—it’s a mixed, collaborative process, and the technical group is very involved in listening to the product, in a way where they’re using the product for the purpose it was originally designed, and like the intended user.
The head of our product team, Dennis Alichwer, came from Electric Lady Studios. He was heavily involved with transformer design, Class A circuitry, and modifying guitar amps –so when he got a chance to sit down and start working with Rupert more than 10 years ago, he was able to just speak the language and talk about how cool these things were. He’s got transformer materials in his house – including a transformer winding machine! – and experiments with this stuff night and day.
One of the things that Rupert did was keep copious notes in notebooks. From his previous companies, when they went bankrupt or got sold, he kept 27 binders full of transformer and audio design information that he worked on coming into RND in 2005, plus about 20 more notebooks designs that he added while at RND. These binders are a major part of Rupert Neve’s legacy. Those didn’t get sold with the companies. They’d buy the tooling, and they’d buy a design, but they didn’t buy any of the philosophies and ideas, and massive intellectual property that Rupert developed over time, or the secret sauce behind it all.
Rupert started working with Dennis and the engineering team over 10 years ago, transferring his legacy in a massive data dump, going over “What is Rupert’s philosophy? How does he approach designing? How does he listen to the equipment he designs? What is his process? How are his ears trained?”
We have many years of products that he’s already signed off on, because we knew that the end was coming. We worked very carefully to prototype designs and have ones he actually heard, himself, even though the products still haven’t come out, yet.
There are things to come. His legacy doesn’t stop with his passing. He was very concerned with trying to make sure new generations could move on with his work. Some of the people on our engineering team are quite young, but they would sit and work hand-in-hand with him and see what he was doing, see why he was doing it, and learn what he was trying to achieve.
CME: How are the 5045 Primary Source Enhancer and RMP-D8 Dante Connected Mic Preamp a continuation of Mr. Neve’s legacy to meet a specific need in live sound?
JP: Live sound has always been a struggle. It’s only within the last decade or two that it’s gotten decent. It was horrible when I was a kid! Going to a concert, you hoped you heard the vocals, and that was it.
Starting in this century it’s gotten a lot better, but one of the pieces that Rupert did is a really unique piece. The 5045 (and the 545) is a “Primary Source Enhancer”, which is confusing because it doesn’t quite represent what it does—it’s a feedback reduction device.
The normal way that that is done is you have something that finds a frequency and puts a narrow band filter and EQs it out. The problem is that feedback occurs at multiple frequencies, simultaneously, and different harmonic frequencies all at the same time—so, you have to have lots of these filters. Doing it once is not so problematic; but doing it to eight to ten frequencies, which you have to do, really eviscerates the sound quality. It’s taking away all these musical frequencies, because a room may happen to have a node there, or the PA is hot in that area, a mic is stronger at some frequencies, and it’s feeding back in a particular zone.
The Primary Source Enhancer is not a noise gate, and it’s not an EQ. It uses phase inversion to cancel out feedback, by always looking at the input signal to determine whether the sound is music or feedback, and then phase-cancels the feedback.
CME: Functionally, how have these consoles stood the test of time? How is the continued relevance and functionality of the originals reflected in RND’s own product lines?
JP: They’re analog, so they may require cleaning, parts, and maintenance at some point – but so does anything that is 50 years old. But every RND 5088 console that’s ever been made is still in service. We expect them to be a 50-year purchase, not a 5-year purchase. We do not believe in obsolescence. As our co-founder Josh Thomas says, “We build forever products, not ‘for now’ products.”
There are features that we could put into consoles that would be very software dependent and à la mode, that we choose not to put in because we know that the basic building blocks of our consoles will still be relevant in whatever form the music business takes in five years, ten years, or 50 years.
We also know our customers are spending their hard-earned cash. We will service anything we ever make. We don’t charge people to get help just because their warranty has expired! Several of our competitors require their customers to join a service club and pay thousands just to speak with them about a console that’s out-of-service and no longer under warranty. We never do that. You can call our service people at any point in time and they’ll help you. They’ll service anything we’ve ever made. That’s the Rupert Neve legacy we’ve come from.
CME: Can you explain the benefit of using a Rupert Neve preamp to a guitar player who might not understand?
JP: So many more guitar players and musicians and content creators are taking control of their own destinies and producing more and more content in-house—in their basement, or their den, or the area of their home that they can dedicate to this. So, providing the best quality tools for them, at an affordable price, allows them to make professional-quality recordings at home.
An RNDI is a better, richer-sounding device than a standard DI box. They’re less problematic, in terms of the fact that they’re bulletproof. They’ll take any amount of level, and you can use them in so many situations. And a lot of RNDI customers say they feel the RNDI adds a whole other octave at the bottom-end – especially nice for metal guitarists, or bass players.
Some things are subtle. When comparing high-end preamp designs, they all sound good and they all have different tonalities to them—in the same way that, say, a PRS sounds different than ‘58 sunburst Les Paul.
We’re always going to need great microphone preamplifiers, because we’re going to have to get sound out of that microphone (which are transducers). So, you’re always going to have a reason to have a good one. Compared to other manufacturers, there’s no way a $5 microchip is ever going to be able to compete with dedicated, purpose-chosen components and amazing design.
That same idea carries through: We wanted a direct box that can be used for anything, that’s never going to fail, and that’s always going to deliver the best quality sound. We just did a demo in CME for the sales staff, with relatively inexpensive speakers, and you could hear it! That’s real value to a customer—and it’s only $50 or $60 more than a DI box that’s a tier under the RNDI. People spend that—sometimes five times that!—on a cable.
In the same way, you can buy a $100 modeling amp, but it’s not the same as an amp that has carefully selected tubes, carefully chosen transformers, speakers that are specifically designed for it, and a cabinet designed for it. You can buy something really cheap that’s functional but doesn’t sound good.
CME: What product would you recommend to someone looking to get their first piece of Rupert Neve gear?
JP: An RNDI is a no brainer. Then I would go to a mic pre. Then I would get a compressor. After that, I would look at some of the color options, like a 542. For the person who’s buying a $50,000 guitar, here, or an amazing vintage drum kit, anyone buy modules from any other manufacturers, but we make one the best 500 series racks and some of the best 500 series preamps ever, and having the ability, wanting the finest channel strip made, I would recommend the Shelford Channel, but, for the average guitar player, bass player, drummer, or high-end home recording hobbyist who’s trying to get into all this stuff—having a 500 rack is a great way to build a quality recording rig.
Of course, you can buy modules from any other manufacturers to put in your 500 rack, but we make one the best 500 series racks, and the best 500 series preamps ever, and having the ability, to mix and match and plug things into it gives you the kind of flexibility that a Eurorack has. You have a universal design, that’ll accept any equipment in that format, and you can try different things out and improve it as you go along.
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