Review: Neve 8816 16:2 Summing Mixer
Doing your final mixing out of the ‘box’ can have sonic advantages. For Neve, thinking outside the box has produced a summing mixer with a difference.
Review: William Bowden
Since SAE acquired AMS-Neve last year, there have been changes in the air. Head SAE honcho, Tom Misner, realised that, while Neve was still able to sell its top-of-the-line mixing consoles at prices quite beyond the budget of mere mortals, the music industry’s overwhelming shift towards modest budget and computer-based recording across the board (err, is that a pun?) meant that Neve was growing distant from the majority of audio users, both in terms of sales and relevance. Meanwhile other boutique brands were cleaning up with products, many of which were clearly based on vintage Neve designs. But was it worth simply re-issuing more of these ‘classics’, or had the moment come to produce some genuinely new Neve products, by combining the expertise and experience of AMS-Neve with some innovative ideas and a few classic touches? With this in mind, Tom put together a team comprising himself, Neve veteran Robin Porter and Australia’s own legendary studio technical whiz, Steve Crane, to design a new range of Neve products – the first fruit of their labours is the 8816 summing mixer.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, a summing mixer is a device used to combine audio signals strictly in the analogue domain. In the grand old days this was standard fare, of course, as digital consoles hadn’t been invented. Nowadays, people are often mixing entire songs either on digital consoles or inside their computer, but due to the limitations of processing power and the accuracy of the summing algorithms, it’s long been apparent that this method has some inherent problems. Sonic separation is often compromised as a mix becomes more complicated and the loss of stereo imaging has become an engineer’s nightmare on digital systems. Another common complaint involves a loss of resolution when more instruments are added to a mix, so when you solo a bass, say, it sounds great, but put the rest of the mix in around it and it seems to lose definition. And then there’s a general lack of punch and presence that many people associate with digital mixes anyway. This has presented manufacturers with an opportunity to produce small-scale analogue mixing consoles – or the summing sections thereof – and since Neve is synonymous with mixing, I guess it seemed an obvious direction for them to take. Of course, they didn’t just make any summing mixer…
ENTER THE NEVE
While there are quite a number of summing mixers around (Dangerous, SPL, Tube-Tech, API, Audient and Folcrom etc), it’s fair to say that none of the competition has packed in as many features as the 8816. At the heart of the design, the Neve 8816 uses transformer mixing (good old 10468 transformers, in case you’re wondering) combined with a signal path architecture that replicates Neve’s flagship 88R console. At its simplest, the box is a 16-channel into two-channel summing mixer. At its most complex it’s the centrepiece of an analogue mixing, recording, and mastering chain, which is partly down to the wealth of unique features the basic 8816 unit offers, and also because the 8816 is highly expandable via an array of options that seem set to become available by about the time you’re reading this (which we’ll touch on in a moment). I was given the first 8816 to arrive in Australia before any of these optional extras existed so let’s just start with the basics… the 8816.
Sporting the traditional Neve grey, the 8816 is a 2U-high box crammed with knobs, switches and a classy pair of needle meters. For the purposes of this review, it makes sense to break the unit up (metaphorically) into four main sections: the input channels, the cue/solo section, the master section, and finally the monitor panel. Looking at these separately, here’s a quick rundown.
There are 16 basic input channels on the 8816, each comprising rotary level and pan controls as well as a solo/mute button and a separate cue-send button. The cue-send feature is not something typically found on summing mixers and this is the first example of how Neve has really thought outside the square with the 8816. This facility alone makes the 8816 a realistic proposition in recording situations, rather than being a summing-only device, by allowing an entirely separate mix to be tailored to a recording musician’s headphones, for example.
The cue/solo section features a master cue volume control, a cut/solo master mode button (toggles) and a headphone socket with level control. It also has a couple of nice features like a 2TR-to-cue button which allows a reverb or any stereo source to be easily sent to the cue mix – again another useful feature for recording engineers, saving the need to sacrifice channels for monitoring or re-patching for playback of a mix.
The master section also has a few surprises, not least of which is a built-in talkback mic! From the top down, there’s an alt/speaker select button allowing instant switching between two sets of monitor speakers. A mini jack input socket called iMon, which, believe it or not, is designed to plug an iPod into. (I’m sure this will plague musos everywhere as the producer flicks through his 1000-plus album collection looking for that perfect feel that they ‘just need to hear before hitting record’!) There are also three rotary level controls for: 2TR, IMR and MIX. 2TR is simply another stereo source, the same as mentioned before in the cue section. IMR stands for Insert Mix Return and is basically a wet/dry control, which allows you to mix in varying amounts of an inserted effect (say, reverb or compression) onto the main stereo bus – a great feature, perfect for your side-chain compression duties. And Mix is… well, yer main stereo mix.
Finally, the monitor panel controls what feeds your speakers. It has an output pot for monitor level, and several possible input selections including: the main mix, the iMon (iPod) input, the 2TR input and input channels 1 and 2.
It’s way beyond the scope of this review to go into all the features the 8816 possesses, so for more technical detail I’d suggest downloading the manual at www.ams-neve.com. Before we get into the listening tests however, there are several innovative features that deserve special mention. Firstly, though the unit is effectively an analogue device, it also features a USB port, which allows a PC or Mac to run a free download from Neve called Recall. Yes, you guessed it, the 8816 is fully recallable! Recall allows you to save the entire array of settings on the 8816 for recall, in a similar manner to a large-format analogue console – the routine involves manually setting the pots to the positions indicated on screen (the values are saved as a voltage measurement, which is also the main reason behind the lack of a centre detent in either the gain or pan pots). Given the (im)possible number of variations and/or configurations available on the 8816, Neve has hit on a real winner here, allowing your mixes to be fully recalled in the digital domain and the analogue domain – the Recall file can be saved in a folder right alongside the song file. What’s more, all future products in the range will sport Recall too! A fantastic bonus feature for sure.
Secondly, the addition of the aforementioned talkback mic is a stroke of genius. It might seem like such a trivial thing, but it’ll save you a mic, a channel, a preamp, some patching, as well as spare you the horrors of feedback. In use, the mic is great too… alarmingly sensitive. (You may have to watch those sniggers at the back of the control room, as they’ll easily be picked up.) It’s the kind of feature found on expensive mixing boards and a very worthy addition.
Finally the insert options on the stereo master bus are excellent. Having a wet/dry control for mixing in an insert is a winner. Parallel compression is now very quick and easy to set up, and a good balance can be quickly achieved. The fact that the insert can also be configured for sum and difference processing is a great bonus for mastering types, and the addition of a stereo width control should keep guitarists and backing singers happy for decades to come. And listening to the mono component is just a twist of a pot away to boot. Fantastic.
LISTEN TO THE NEVE SOUND
For the review, I enlisted the help of producer/songwriter TJ Eckleberg who has kindly donated two of his tracks to the AT cause [visit the AT website to download the mixes for the full Neve experience]. We set the mixes up as a stem of four stereo pairs, played out of a ProTools 002 Rack, connected to an eight-way Prism ADA-8 D/A converter. I would have loved to have fed the Neve a full 16-channel stem, but those Prism boxes are expensive, and eight channels was revealing enough for our purposes anyway. The purpose of the test was to mix entirely inside ProTools and contrast the summing aspects of ’Tools with an analogue mix via the 8816.
The first track, Breathe, was a kind of Prince/DeAngelo-inspired track, and TJ had had some difficulty getting enough separation and vitality in the mix. After spending some time setting up EQs and compressor plug-ins inside ProTools things were sounding much better (we couldn’t use outboard, as that would defeat the test remember!). We then output tones on all channels and calibrated both machines. I then recorded a mix summed entirely in ProTools and a stem mix summed on the 8816; no other changes were made.
Comparing the internal ProTools mix with the Neve mix was interesting, to say the least. The mix from ’Tools was rather flat sounding, the vocal seemed to struggle against the rimshot/snare, and the bass seemed inconsistent, noticeably so in the lower registers, where it seemed to jump out at times. The Neve mix, on the other hand, sounded considerably livelier, having more separation, presence and sheen. The vocal sounded a lot healthier and TJ commented on the improvement immediately. In fact, there was a substantial difference between the two mixes overall, but don’t take my word for it, download the files (MP3 format, sorry!) and hear the differences for yourself. What TJ and I heard with the first track, which was quite a busy mix, was pretty much replicated with the second, more spatial ballad. As a control I also mixed both tracks through my Dangerous Mixer, again set up ‘flat’ and aligned with tones. The Dangerous box had a more extended (top and bottom) and dynamic ‘modern’ sound than the 8816, and it was this that got me thinking about that ‘classic’ Neve sound that everyone seems to want, and yet few can afford (until now perhaps?).
NEVE VERSUS NEVE
A few years back I had a custom-built Neve stereo line amp put together, made up of the classic 31267 input transformer, an AM-283 board and a Lo1166 output transformer; all original Neve components, that the classic Neve boards were chock full of – basically a 1272. It was this unit that I pitted against the 8816, again carefully matching the levels (although this was only a stereo track comparison this time around). And did they sound the same? In a word, no. The older Neve path was a bit more mono, softer dynamically, and seemed to have a boost in the midrange around the 800Hz – 1kHz region. It was also much noisier than the 8816, duller overall, and pretty ‘retro’ sounding. Having said that, I did feel that the 8816 embodied some aspects of the sound; sometimes esoterically described as ‘glue’ – the sound of which can be mainly attributed to the ‘voltage mixing’ approach common to the 8816 and vintage Neve consoles – but frankly the new Neve was much cleaner, more defined and spatial. When comparing the unprocessed signal against the 8816 in mono there was an almost imperceptible quality to the 8816, which reminded me of a very mild, fast compressor. Again, this is fairly characteristic of transformer mixing (although Neve is understandably guarded about precisely how this is done due to the number of Neve clones on the market). In reality, I think if Neve had copied the exact sound of the 1272 (or anything from that era) in this day and age then product sales would have been lacklustre; the 8816 is a more modern device for a newer market.
Before I finish off I should mention the extra options. Following hot on the heels of the mixer we’ll see the 8804 fader pack, which bypasses all those little rotary knobs and gives you faders for every channel (and turns what would consequently be redundant gain knobs into aux sends – a nice touch). There’s a proprietary A/D card, which not only features sample rates up to 192k, but also features DSD (that’s right, Direct Stream Digital). Not stopping there though, the other units (rumoured and real) are the 8801 channel strip, the 8802 dual compressor, and the 8803 stereo equaliser. Steve Crane describes all these products as allowing you to “build a console by stealth” and it certainly seems that way. Also all these units feature Recall.
This product has been a much-anticipated release from Neve and it’s no surprise that pre-orders have been through the roof. Curiously, when we first unpacked the unit TJ said to me, “It doesn’t feel like a Neve”, and I knew exactly what he meant. The 8816 doesn’t have the retro chunkiness of older Neve designs. That said, it’s been very thoughtfully designed and built. For instance, all the front panel pots are ALPS series 9, and the entire front panel is easy to remove and replaced. The main audio path is identical to the flagship 88R, i.e., no FETS etc in the audio path, just industrial-grade relays. The separate (analogue regulated) switch mode power supply and clever earthing regimen mean the unit is very, very quiet. Even the unusual ballistics and headroom of the meters mean you don’t get distracted by the tapping sounds when ordinary units would reach their physical limit.
The 8816 embodies a new Neve that we haven’t seen before, a Neve of two worlds that doffs its hat to the company’s past while bravely looking to the future. In many ways this is an amazing piece of kit – yes it does have a distinctive flavour, it’s packed with features, it’s analogue but with Recall, it’s innovative and it will sell, of that I’m sure. With the 8816 Neve has come up with a unique bit of kit that really has no competitor in terms of sheer flexibility and ambition, and I think, finally, mere mortals will be able to say they mixed their record on a Neve. I for one am rather pleased about that.