Ask anyone in our industry to name the most important designers of recording equipment and chances are that Mr. Rupert Neve will be at the top of that list.
Rupert started out designing and manufacturing Hi-Fi components in the 1950s before starting his own company in 1961 - the Rupert Neve Company - operating from the family home he shared with his wife Evelyn in the village of Little Shelford, Cambridge. The company grew and moved to a newly built factory in the late 1960s and the following period saw the development of some of the most iconic designs in the history of recording equipment - the 2254 compressor (1968), 1073 channel amplifier/EQ (1970) and 1081 channel amplifier/EQ (1973).
In 1969, Wessex Sound Studios (Rolling Stones, Queen, Talk Talk, Sex Pistols) commissioned Neve to build their A88 console - the first desk to feature the new 1073 pre-amp/EQ module - with King Crimson being the first band to be recorded through this groundbreaking Class A, transformer-balanced transistor-based console. Neve’s reputation as a designer was now firmly established and his success continued to grow with the installation of a series of increasingly highly specified consoles in many of the world’s most famous recording studios.
In the 1980s Rupert founded Focusrite Ltd where he designed the original ISA110 and ISA130 modules before relocating to the USA in 1994 where he developed the Amek 9098i console with Graham Langley.
Finally, in 2005, Rupert founded Rupert Neve Designs with Josh Thomas, which brings us up to date with the introduction of the Portico and Shelford ranges of equipment.
We caught up with Josh Thomas for an insight into what lies behind one of the most respected equipment manufacturers on the planet…
Immediately before Rupert Neve Designs, Rupert was designing for Amek - things like the legendary 9098i console and the Pure Path outboard range. How did you meet and what led you to form RND together?
It was the early 90s and I was a kid from the Midwest at my first AES Show in New York when I heard a familiar voice call me from across the hall. It was the great Lew Frisch, who said that he needed to introduce me to a few people - “Josh Thomas from Chicago, meet Les Paul and Rupert Neve.” In the first two minutes of my first AES Show, I'd managed to meet the two giants of the industry; essentially the fathers of the multitrack and the modern day mixer.
Neve products started to appear back in 1961 and Rupert himself is still designing at the venerable age of 92 years. How does he still come up with new designs?
It’s who he is. Rupert is always chipping away at audio puzzles and thinking of ways to get the gear to sound closer to what he has in his mind. His design philosophies and 'secret recipes' have now been passed down to me and the engineering team here at RND enabling us to continue Rupert's vision and develop new products to serve the music creators in our industry.
Rupert’s designs are solid state - is there a reason he doesn’t work more with valves?
His first couple of consoles were actually valve consoles - and in the last few years he has partnered with sE Electronics to create the RNT valve microphone. Rupert has always sought to use the best materials available for a particular purpose, and much of the harmonic content that is attributed to valves is actually derived from transformers and the output circuitry surrounding them. This is how we produce our ’Silk’ & ’Texture’ effects, and our custom-designed transformers are far more consistent than valves.
Has the shift from traditional analogue tape-based recording to DAW’s affected the criteria for Rupert’s designs?
Some of the things that Rupert has always been a proponent of and instilled in his designs - such as extended frequency response (over 100kHz) and as much dynamic range as possible - complement current DAW work flows and are some of the many things that have kept our designs relevant. In the mid 1970s Rupert was told that the digital future was upon us and there was no longer a need for analogue designs. Here we are in 2019, and there is still plenty to be done!
One example of how we've evolved our products to integrate with the digital world is our Dante-connected mic pre (the RMP-D8) that was designed to provide a true Rupert Neve transformer mic preamp that would go straight to a digital mixer. Another example is the -6dB output on the Shelford Channel and 5211 which allows you to drive into the output circuitry and transformer, but at a level that won’t clip the A/D converter.
Josh discusses the origins of the RMP-D8 8ch Dante Mic Pre-amp
With the RND design team, Rupert is producing arguably some of his best work. Is there a product the company is most proud of?
We are coming up on our 15 year anniversary - or company birthday, as we like to say - and have produced a number of products that have helped in no small way to shape the sound of some of the most important music of our time. It’s our view that this is our charge - to deliver the tools that allow artists and engineers to fulfil their vision. The 5088 mixing console, Shelford Channel, RMP-D8 Dante Mic Pre and the RNDI all accomplish this task - I would say they're all milestones in our catalogue.
There is a recognisable sonic character to Neve designs. Are there any common design features that lie at the heart of this?
One of the things that Rupert has said many times that resonates with me is “To measure is to know, but the ear must be the final arbiter.” I’ve known a number of designers in my time in the industry, but I’ve never known one to listen as much as Rupert does. He has taught us how to listen at every single point in the development of a product. There are a number of design philosophies that are integral to our products: extended frequency response, widest dynamic range possible, extended headroom, and the controlled use of 2nd and 3rd order harmonic content to help shape the tonal character, and making sure that nothing non-musical (5th or 7th harmonics) is generated at any point in the signal path.
With Rupert’s “classic” designs still so popular (1073, 1084 etc), has it been a challenge to devise new products to supersede these?
There will always be a draw to the classics, be it original 10XX Series modules, '57 Les Pauls or classic cars. We’ve endeavoured to not just simply regurgitate vintage designs, but rather to take what is special and unique and present it in a format that in many ways better serves modern recording practices. For instance, our diode bridge compressor has all the familiar girth and grab as its prized vintage counterparts, but also allows for parallel processing, and can be much, much quicker and more useful than the vintage pieces. We also now have far better noise specs, to say nothing of the reliability issues that come with what are now four (going on five) decades-old pieces of gear.
In an industry where recording setups seem to be increasingly “in the box”, production of a high-spec large format console like the 5088 is quite a statement. What was the driving force behind bringing this to market?
As soon as we launched our first product, the 5012 Dual Mic Pre, and started going to trade shows, the two most frequently-asked questions were "How does it sound compared to a 1073?” and "When are you building a console?" Seldom a day would go by when someone wouldn’t call up and ask about us building them a console. After a number of conversations, Rupert and I were sure that we had something more to offer and to say, and the development of the 5088 was undertaken.
There is both a quality to the mix path and a cadence to the workflow that has yet to be equaled in the box. We initially thought that this would be a product that might possibly sell a few dozen pieces over the next few years. Here we are a decade or so later, and we currently have more confirmed 5088s on order than at any time in the history of the product, and have delivered over two hundred of them to date.
Are there any new products in the pipeline we can look forward to?
At any given point in time, we have between 10 and 20 projects in some level of development - from breadboard concepts to final prototypes ready to be sent to production. We have several new products slated for release within the next year, and we’re very excited about a number of the new directions we’re taking with some of them.
We are always pursuing the production of useful, clever, high-performance tools for audio professionals. The world of music production and playback is ever evolving and we exist as a company to preserve and advance the standards created by Rupert Neve all those years ago, because these standards will always remain relevant. We certainly have no plans to stop any time soon.
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