Name Behind The Name: Rupert Neve
Rupert Neve’s name is arguably the most famous and most recognised in pro audio… more often for his classic designs of the ’60 and ’70s. But Mr Neve continues to design and innovate, once again with a company that bears his name.
No name is more familiar to people in the audio industry than that of Rupert Neve. ‘Neve’ is everywhere: in studios throughout the world, on the floors of every trade show, in the halls of every audio school, and on the lips of anyone who’s ever taken their job in this industry seriously. From the youngest, most inexperienced engineer to the most famous producer on the planet, Rupert Neve is seen by all as one of the founding fathers of the modern-day industry. His original designs are the stuff of legend, his name embedded into the audio lexicon like a CNN news reporter. Some of his older console designs, like the BCM10 for example, are so highly prized that they’re pursued by gear junkies like knights in search of the Holy Grail. And I should know, I’m just putting my sword and suit of armour away now… (Clang!)
Countless companies have tried to copy Rupert Neve’s designs. Many small-time operators have made good livings restoring and trading in second-hand Neve gear, while others have just out-and-out ripped him off. Owners of old Neve equipment walk around with a certain arrogance, as if to say; “I own a Neve, what does your setup consist of?” In the same way that the head bully at my school once caused an hysterical crowd to form around a small pinch of ‘herbs’ in a silver foil wrapper, people will gather around even the tiniest Neve circuit and get all excited: “…apparently it’s out of a Neve talkback amp!”
But regardless of all of this, one thing’s for sure, Rupert Neve’s designs have resonated through the audio world for decades, setting the benchmark for other designers and profoundly affecting the tone and fidelity of every piece of audio that has passed through their circuitry. Rupert’s legacy is perhaps more keenly felt today than ever before, and the reason for this is simply attributable to the irrefutable sonic qualities of his designs.
At 80, Rupert has been designing transformers, consoles, tape recorders and outboard equipment for well over 50 years. His credentials and depth of experience are formidable indeed, and yet he remains as inspired by the pursuit of excellence today as he has ever been. With the birth of his new company, Rupert Neve Designs, and the release of its new Portico range of outboard processors, Rupert shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down…
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Andy Stewart: I am amazed, Rupert, that your desire to produce new and innovative audio products seems as healthy as it’s ever been…
Rupert Neve: Well Andy, I try to be an innovator…
AS: Some years ago you moved to the Lone Star State and now your company is based there. Is the Portico range entirely made in Texas?
RN: Yes it is. I live on a two-acre property in Wimberley and I have an office and lab on it where I employ 12 people. The actual production occurs in two places. There’s a fantastic sub-contractor in San Marcos, about 15 miles on down the road, which does brilliant work for us, and there’s a second manufacturer in San Antonio, which also does an extraordinary job. We have our own testers on their premises and they go absolutely over-the-top to make sure the quality is superb. They’ve been fantastic for us.
AS: Has the new range of Portico outboard been born out of a new-found freedom and independence then, or simply a passion to continually improve on your designs?
RN: It’s a progression, really. I started many years ago now with ideas built on from the old valve circuits that I’d grown up with and designed myself in the early days. Then, when transistors came along, nobody really knew what to make of them and the first attempts to use them in audio amplifiers were really disappointing. They were noisy and possessed unacceptable levels of high-order harmonic distortion, but their advantages were that they were small, cheap and didn’t produce a lot of heat. When I started putting together some circuits that other people had published, however, I didn’t like their sound at all and couldn’t figure out why people were so excited about them.
AS: What were the key motivators behind your designs at that stage, given your dislike for transistors?
RN: My main focus – which I s’pose is what started this whole journey for me – was the issue of reliability. In those early days of broadcast, public address, and recording, you didn’t get a second chance, so reliability was crucial. As an engineer, if you messed up the recording of a public performance, that was it – you were given your marching orders the next day! There was no ‘take two’ – and certainly no editing possible – so the equipment had to be reliable above all other considerations, even beyond quality. But when people began to produce transistor consoles and other audio equipment, they tried to go too far with the technology, and the new designs were unreliable. Transistors had heat-related problems and their performance figures changed with temperature. So when I started out I said to myself, ‘right, whatever I do here has to be absolutely reliable’.
What this meant in practise was that I over-designed everything, and competitors of the day were laughing at me, saying ‘Rupert Neve is mad for not taking advantage of these wonderful little transistors. He uses really big ones and he over-designs everything!’ But the point was my designs never failed and, in fact, many of them are still in use today.
AS: Can you explain what some of this ‘over engineering’ entailed, and would you say that this is still an aspect of your design philosophy today?
RN: I hope so, yes. The Portico range is still designed and manufactured applying the original principles of reliability and perhaps some over-designing, making sure the circuitry is single-sided* and doesn’t produce high-order harmonics – or if I’m using integrated circuits I make sure they’re used in such a fashion that they’re not producing those harmonics.
Over-designing is simply making sure that the components you’re using are the right components for the job. It’s not so much that they’re better components, more that they’re the right ones. But typically we’re using resistors and capacitors in the new equipment that are a lot more expensive than, let’s say, a transistor radio manufacturer would use, because he or she is designing with a limited lifespan in mind and they need to get the price right down. Our audio circuits, on the other hand, are made with thru-hole components (which look just like they used to in the old days, albeit a little smaller) that are soldered into place, meticulously tested, selected and quality controlled in a way that no volume manufacturer could ever afford to do. And of course the real key is, I’ve been a transformer designer all my life, so I use transformers… which are expensive.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
AS: Is it odd for you to be releasing the new Portico range into a marketplace where many of your competitors use the Neve brand name, either directly or by association? That must be frustrating, surely?
RN: Well it is frustrating, and I can’t understand any designer wanting to do that, frankly. There are people who try and copy an old design but it’s never going to be as good as the original, and in any case the original is itself now a thing of the past. What we’re producing now is far ahead in terms of actual sonic performance. Nevertheless, people still insist on asking the question: “Is your new design as good as one of your old modules?” But the fact is, it’s just totally different. If you go out and buy a 1950s sports car and then ask the question: “Is it as good as the latest Maserati released last week?” – it’s impossible to say. I mean, how do you define ‘good’?
AS: Well it’s obviously a subjective realm of discussion. It’s as much about sonic preferences as empirical facts, wouldn’t you say?
RN: Well, you have to combine the two aspects into any design and to do that you have to start right back at the microphone front end. Microphones themselves have improved enormously in recent years, but users don’t very often understand that to get the best out of a microphone it has to feed into a circuit that would meet the approval of the designer of that microphone. A microphone is not a power generator; it’s a voltage generator. It has to feed into a high impedance to get the maximum possible level and therefore keep your signal-to-noise ratio high. You also have to bear in mind that if you’ve got a length of cable – which is inevitable – between your microphone and your microphone preamp, that cable will also influence the behaviour of the microphone to some extent.
This is where my team and I do a lot of our work these days, on the measurement side: trying a number of different microphones and talking to the microphone designers and manufacturers to make sure that what the microphone is feeding into is going to give it the best possible chance of sounding good.
That’s why in the new Portico range we give the mic preamplifier a very high input impedance, so the microphone doesn’t have to do a lot of hard work. This makes sure the microphone always gives of its best. The preamps also have a lower noise floor than ever before and the frequency response is tailored to produce the kind of sound that I think people like… a lot of it is subjective, of course, more so than ever perhaps.
AS: I can only assume you’re convinced that there’s still a market for good quality equipment that is primarily focused on superb design then…
RN: ‘There’s always room at the top’, is one of my favourite sayings, and I think we’re now seeing a swing back to high quality. So yes, if you focus on the top and aspire to superlative design, I think you’re always going to strike a chord with someone who wants it. Marketing is a pyramid with a rarefied peak at the top where a few of the high-end people are struggling to provide really beautiful equipment at a price that’s affordable, but is necessarily quite expensive. It’s a very small industry, we have to remember, and it’s very hard work to get a successful design to market, sell it and make a profit.
There are people who try and copy an old design but it’s never going to be as good as the original
THE TAPE EMULATOR
AS: If we can focus on the new Portico 5042 ‘Tape Emulator’ for a moment, was there one machine in particular that you were trying to emulate during the design phase of that device? The fact is, there have been so many machines over the years, so many different tape stocks, levels of maintenance etc…
RN: We based our measurements on a two-track Studer. And as you say, we could have spent a hell of a long time measuring many different tape machines but I avoided that idea and just took one as a point of reference. Rather than testing endless machines and their different characteristics, I mainly drew from my own experiences of designing and manufacturing tape machines – that played a big part in the design process. What we eventually came up with was a design that is effectively the circuit that you would find inside a tape recorder.
By simply putting a small ‘tape head’ into the 5042 – you have to bear in mind that a tape head is just a transformer, but without the gap in it or moving tape passing over it, obviously – you can drive that with the same circuit that’s been around for many years and then pick off the response as you would from a replay head. You then EQ it and raise its level so that it’s going through exactly the same processes as it would have done in the old tape recorders.
AS: But presumably the transformer doesn’t emulate the dynamic effects of the tape itself…
RN: No, but the signal is compressed because it goes into this tiny tape head and it has exactly the same effect as you’d get on an actual tape recorder. The unit itself will produce different frequency responses and different harmonic content depending on the tape’s speed and the type of tape – as you say, there are many different types of tape – and how you’ve got the machine adjusted and so on. That compression characteristic is not all there, but there’s a limit to what you can do without actually having moving tape. But I’d say it does about 85 percent of what I would expect a tape machine to sound like. It has a limited dynamic range; you’ve still got to be careful not to overload it. The dynamic range of any of the Portico line amplifiers is much higher than on the tape emulator’s ‘head’ (I think I’m right in saying that we’ve kept that to not more than about 50dB), whereas you’ve got 100dB of dynamic range on the Portico line amplifier. Consequently, you’ve got to use the emulator carefully, as you would an actual tape machine…
But as to all the variants, as I say, there’s a limit to what you can do with a unit of this size. But next year we’ll be bringing out a much more elaborate piece of equipment with a lot more switches and adjustments on it to simulate a number of different tape recorders, although it will be more expensive.
AS: Most engineers, particularly young engineers, employ the services of a tape machine to do ‘radical’ things to the sound these days, rather than merely store information. Were these ‘failures’ and ‘shortcomings’ – if you like – of linear analogue tape something you considered incorporating into the 5042’s design?
RN: In the days of tape recorders the designers were doing their best to make a really accurate means of storing sound and reproducing it. The strange thing today is that the ‘failures’ are what people seem to celebrate in the designs. It’s part nostalgia and part well-considered desire for these ‘shortcomings’. But I don’t think they don’t want too many failures; people want a tape recorder that really works well and sounds good. An awful lot of listening went into this to make it sound desirable and, as you alluded to earlier, there are a lot of tape recorders of different vintages that didn’t sound good at all and people would not want to use them for this kind of musical effect. So having disposed of those machines, you try and design a piece of gear that’s going to embody the desirable features of a tape machine’s sound, if you like, minus the cost of the actual tape and the moving parts. It comes back to subject opinion again – I didn’t set out to make a bad tape recorder, I set out to try and make something that was going to sound like what I thought people were hearing when they were nostalgically wishing they had an old tape recorder.
when we find something that’s beautiful to listen to then I want to analyse that and find out why. That’s my all-consuming interest
AS: Has being your own boss again made realising your new ideas easier?
RN: Well, I’ve worked with Amek and others and am very pleased to have done so, but it’s not quite the same as being your own boss. I’ve brought some of my new ideas to the table in the past and everyone has looked as me as if I’m mad! But being my own boss now, I can do what I like, which is nice. The fun of it is that I can go back to finding out why, for instance, a CD recording doesn’t sound all that satisfactory. So I get involved in frequent day-long discussions about that. The fact of the matter is, the sound will never be as good as when you’re using single-sided amplifiers. What we’re designing now is some single-sided circuitry that’s very similar to my old designs, but cleaned up and brought into the 21st century. They sound sweet and clean and devoid of all the problems of the old days.
It still amazes me that just putting a CD through the Portico line amplifiers makes it sound better straight away. There are psycho-acoustic reasons why this is so, that’s why I want to enable people to have a pair of these line amplifiers, because things sound a darn sight better than without them!
AS: So how is the sound ‘improved’? I’ve always thought that perhaps the horse had bolted once the sound was converted into the digital domain. Once you have a digital signal, how does going back through single-sided analogue circuitry somehow restore integrity to the signal?
RN: That’s a very hard question to answer, really. The fact is it does clean up and there are things in the analogue circuit that fill in the cracks, as it were, and make it sound sweeter and smoother. Some of the new designs on the bench, that are coming up in the near future, will really start to make people sit up and take notice.
AS: When you say that you’ve fixed the problems of the past and made the new designs ‘21st century’, is there debate, either with yourself or your new company, about whether or not you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when you ‘clean things up’?
RN: No, because what you’re cleaning up are some of the undesirable things like noise, and then if you look at some of the old modules and do some careful measuring you’d find that there were a number of artefacts that you really would not want. When you take those out it sounds even better, and that’s what we’ve done.
SLAVE TO SPECS
AS: Given the amount of gear out there boasting similar specifications – even though it all sounds quite different – do you ever feel enslaved by specifications, or throw your hands in the air and wish that you didn’t have to even publish your specs any more?
RN: Well, Andy, that’s a very important point, and specifications today really don’t mean a great deal. We all talk subjectively when we review a piece of equipment and you can publish all the minute figures you like and it doesn’t mean anything to most people. That’s not entirely anyone’s fault, we’ve just never really found a satisfactory way of defining, on paper, the performance of a piece of equipment that is going to tell you what something really sounds like. But even so, the specs have to be there, you’ve got to understand what something’s limits are, what it’s capable of doing before you can even venture to listen to it… at least that’s my opinion.
A few years ago, when I was working for Amek, we were designing new transformers and some new circuitry, and during the process we got the distortion figures down to almost unmeasurable levels. It was really astonishingly good, if I do say so myself. It was fairly expensive to do because we had to make sure that none of the IC or transistors were under any kind of stress. There was no high-order distortion in the signal; it was squeaky clean in every way that I could think of. Some of my engineering friends were very complimentary about it too, saying things like: “How on earth did you do it Rupert?” But the fact was that stuff actually didn’t sound that wonderful. Those enviable specifications were not reflected in a better sound at all.
AS: That’s what I was alluding to earlier, when I asked about ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. Specifications don’t tell the whole story, and these supposedly ‘better’ specifications that so many designers publish aren’t necessarily related to superior sound quality.
RN: Well, I think that’s right. And I think we’ve got to go back to psychoacoustics and what it is that we’re actually listening to. The ear itself – your hearing mechanism – is full of non-linear processing, if you like, and it’s an extremely interesting area of study. You’d think that if you reproduced a sound through a distortion-less channel it ought to sound absolutely superb. But it’s not always the case. You can take that distortion-less channel and a first-class microphone and all the rest of it, and it still won’t sound like the original.
If you were to make two recordings of an artist, one in a wonderful concert location that you love, and another in a location where the acoustics are pretty terrible, the singer won’t sound the same or give the same performance. You can try and combat this, but you will never succeed because it will never be – and can never be – the same. But when we find something that’s beautiful to listen to then I want to analyse that and find out why. That’s my all-consuming interest.
AS: Is this interest going to lead to designs and equipment that we’ve never seen before?
RN: I hope so. I’m letting the cat out of the bag here a bit, but certainly the Portico range is just the start of things. There are four pieces out there at the moment and we’re planning on another four or five over the course of the next few months; each one is going to have a different slant on traditional equipment and hopefully will be very useful in filling in the gaps in the market and making sounds that are already recorded sound sweeter. Then we go onto the next range, which is still a year or so away, and there I can really have fun. I’m working on new circuitry now, which we couldn’t fit into the Portico range. It will be more expensive so it won’t be for everyone, unfortunately.
One of the new designs is a stereo field editor (which is coming out shortly) which is something that’s very dear to my heart because it enables us to manipulate, if you like, room acoustics and change the relationship between the direct and the reverberant sound, and the apparent location of a soloist in a mix and so on, all done from acoustic knowledge. What you’ve got with any stereo recording is whatever the engineer believes you want to hear. And many recording engineers have been brought up to think that almost any ambience is bad and you want to get as close as you can to the sound. But it’s all getting a little bit too dry and uninteresting in my opinion. I’ve always felt that not enough of the concert hall is present in these recordings and I’d like to have more. (I like to hear the audience coughing from time to time!)
AS: What has spawned this interest?
RN: Years ago I did some recordings in St John’s College, Cambridge, and it was amazing how that, even in the dead of night through these massive stone walls, there’s low frequency ambient sound coming through – I know I shouldn’t carry on about this – but it all contributes to a very small degree to what you hear in the recording. You couldn’t record the choir in any other location and use artificial ambience to make it sound the same. You can come close but you can’t get it like the real thing. So I got those old recordings that I made in the ’70s and with the Stereo Field Editor I can give you more of St John’s college chapel or less of it, I can change the relative position of the choir and the organ and so on and so forth. I think it’s a very fun thing and it’s very powerful as well.
AS: Is this new device a simulator; by that I mean, is it loaded with samples of these places or not?
RN: No, we don’t sample them (apart from my memory). It’s built around differentiating between the ambient sound, which is non-coherent, and the direct sound, which is coherent. You can play with these using directional microphones, sum and difference techniques and so on, which is what we’ve done. It’s a very powerful unit that’s very hard to describe! I’ll just have to get one to you to have a look at!
AS: I’ll look forward to it. When is it due to come out?
RN: We’ve just released it to production, so it should be out within a month or two.
AS: Thanks for your time Rupert.
RN: My pleasure!