Review: Heritage Audio Preamp & Compressor Modules
Heritage Audio has trodden the path of Neve recreation with careful footsteps, then taken a few custom liberties to mash-up some modules of its own. Sacrilege or progress?
Review: Michael Carpenter
Neve. It’s just a word, but among audio engineering types across the world it means so much. Our creative minds recall a generation of classic hits, while we look at our Neve-less racks and somehow perceive ourselves as ‘less worthy’. We wonder if these iconic pieces of audio magic hold the secret — the key to us understanding something that will raise our work to a higher plane. But the rarified air of the Neve owner hasn’t been an easily affordable path for the semi pro, or even the pro user. In the meantime, audio catalogues and forums are littered with discussions about bonafide ‘Neve clones’, and how you can truly experience this magic for only a fraction of what either a new or classic Neve module can be fetched for. Unfortunately, magic isn’t easy to manufacture, and the search through these various clones continues to reveal mixed results.
There’s a new player having a run at this clone market, and they’re serious. Heritage Audio, based in Spain, has entered the market with an incredibly simple, yet well thought out concept. It appears to be twofold. Firstly; make recreations of the original units as closely as possible to how they were originally made, with as many of the original parts as can be sourced, and the same build quality and aesthetic, resulting in a product which should operate in an authentic way. And secondly; to take the knowledge behind these designs and re-imagine hybrids and newly formatted versions of some of the iconic components from Neve history. Both of these concepts have been attempted before with a variety of success, so when first presented with some review units, and as I started my research, I learned a lot about how serious Heritage Audio are about making their brand the predominant name in Neve recreations.
STRETCHING ON THE RACK
The first thing to really strike me in my research was that Heritage Audio were uncompromisingly respectful of the need for all modules to maintain the integrity of their internal design. This isn’t a stretch for the classic 80 series module form — regularly seen with modules re-racked in new custom enclosures, as well as in the classic 80 series console form. This was a great concept, and smart marketing, as it means that these modules can slot easily into repair situations for existing Neve consoles, or act as potential upgrades — more on that later. But the real revelation was the 500 series module. People have been trying to cram the Neve mojo into a 500 series frame for ages, with the universal consensus being, while good and certainly usable, they are missing something. Heritage Audio’s 500 series modules span three whole slots in a frame. It’s a serious commitment to one preamp, but it’s the only way Heritage could fit the necessary internal components without compromise. As well as being a convincing stamp of integrity, it also opened up the viability of these modules to those sold on, or already using the 500 series ‘lunchbox’ style and size. Clever thinking Heritage.
For this review however, I was sent a lovely 80 series, Frame 8, complete with a hefty power supply, ‘fader’ knobs, phantom power, and rear patching. I was sent two of the 1073 modules, one of the 8173 modules and one of the 2264E compressor modules. They were simple to install in the rack and get to work on.
CALLING NUMBERS 1073, 6673 & 8173
Numbers. As a novice, I was always mesmerised by these numbers. Experienced engineers uttered these and many other numbers with such authority — like the language only working in the field could teach you. As we learn our craft, every once in a while — once our ears and brains have become discerning enough — we unlock the secrets of these numbers, like a sonic rite of passage. And for years the 1073 has been hanging over my head. When I first used one, I felt I got an insight into this magic. Subsequently, using a few clones confused me, as they felt good — great even. But not amazing. So I was particularly keen to compare and contrast both the preamp and EQ sections of the Heritage Audio 1073. Over a period of a few weeks, I tested these modules on a wide variety of source material. It universally felt and sounded great on everything from kick drum, snare and acoustic guitar, through to DI’d electric bass, piano and lead vocals. While initially running blind with no VU meter (which I’ve become used to), I soon found it easy to find the gain’s sweet spot. On the snare — once the gain was set — I was reminded of how powerful the 1073 EQ is. It was easy to dial in or out exactly what I needed to remove some boxy low mids, add some snap to the high mids and some air to the tops. And it felt like I was applying significantly less of each — powerful stuff. I had similar results on all subsequent trials. The sound is big and full, but somehow leaner, particularly around the low mids, than anything they were compared to. Even with the EQ bypassed, the sound of the preamp was lovely and open, gutsy and flattering. As you pushed the gain it got as muscular as you would hope, whilst still sounding full and even. It was an appealing and exciting sound that lived up to the legend.
The 8173 module is a new hybrid conceived by the Heritage team. According to them the original 1081 “became the most flexible equaliser ever in a mixing console.” But it was generally considered a poor cousin to the 1073 because of the Class AB output stage. This module is the best of both worlds — the 1073 preamp and high and low shelving, with the 1081’s dual band midrange EQ. It also adds three high shelving frequencies, introducing even more flexibility. In practice, this did become my favourite module for overdubs, mainly because the EQ was so good. On a mono kit mic it was easy to enhance the low-end weight and midrange detail of the kit. As with the 1081’s design, the 8173 still has a second mid-band left to make a cut at any nasty spots along the frequency spectrum. I loved this on acoustic guitars too, and found it easy to get rid of a variety of boxy frequencies in different guitars while adding the right amount of sparkle depending on your production aesthetic. And the preamp acted just as the 1073 above — open, lean and gutsy, depending on how it was pushed.
Though we didn’t receive one for review, the same concept applies for the 6673 module, which combines the 1073 preamp and EQ with an extra mid band as found in the iconic yet somewhat mythical 1066 module. If that’s not enough, the 1073 mid band frequency has been expanded to have three extra frequency choices, further widening its versatility.
NEED TO KNOW
MAKING UP GAINS IN A 2264
This module is based on the original 2264A Compressor/Limiter, but with “shorter recovery times and more precise control.” It is also designed with a Class A amplifier, as opposed to the AB of the original, making it an ‘enhanced’ 2264. It contains both a compressor and limiter circuit, all packed into a design that, while a little fiddly to adjust initially, proved itself to be extremely effective and versatile. For those of us used to the simplified operation of some of the more famous compressors, the 2264E will take a little getting used to. However, it didn’t take too long to get used to the range of recovery time options on both the compressor and limiter. It sounded beautifully musical on acoustic guitars, providing plenty of punch and oomph to some quite lumpy performances. On bass it coloured the instruments favourably and levelled out the signal effectively. Pushed hard on lead vocals, it really shone, sitting a particularly dynamic vocalist into the track well. The vocalist commented that it felt, “great to sing into.” But I had the most fun sculpting the sound of our ‘fun mic’ on the drums, which in this case was a Shure 55 ‘Elvis Mic’ in front of the snare side of the kit, employing both the compressor and limiter to the signal. I found it really easy to get the track pumping and grinding with the groove of the performance, and the limiter was extremely effective in stylising the grit applied. It was a truly beautiful, versatile tool in this situation, and after the initial learning curve, became simple to operate.
GETTING THE REAL DEAL
It was a great experience to have these units in my studio for the time I did, and I was sad to see them go. But did it make me consider what would be a major investment in equipment for our studio? Well, Heritage Audio is trying hard to make the transition as cost effective and simple as possible. While the modules are a bit cheaper than the ‘real deal’ or some of the other more celebrated copies, they’re still a big investment — so Heritage has been clever in offering the 500 and 80 series frames and module sizes, as well as offering the dual rack space options (their Rack 2 frame). So if you did want to dip your toe in, you could stuff a pre and a compressor into the Rack 2 and have a pretty formidable, relatively portable channel strip. Or for those looking more long term, you can dive into the beautifully made Frame 8, and collect modules as you go.
I’m not sure I really have any criticisms that are valid. I guess if I was to build up a Frame 8, I’d probably integrate some switchable VU meters, as getting your head around the gain structure of the units was a little tricky. And the compressor wasn’t as immediately intuitive as some would be used to. But these are small quibbles, more than compensated by the great direct communication I had with Peter Rodriguez, the company’s head engineer (see interview above) and the local distributor, Soundtown. Plus the company has plans to further expand their line, further enhancing the traditional Neve-esque product line into new and exciting territory. It’s a very exciting range of gear, and one that I’m looking forward to investigating and investing in further.