Rupert Neve, Nirvana, and the Merits of Recording Direct

If you’re a guitar pedal fanatic, you’ve probably encountered a few stompboxes as of late that make the pitch that they offer the sound and tone of plugging direct into a vintage mixing console. Pedals like the JHS Colour Box or Hudson Broadcast offer up variations on the transformer-based, all analog, grit that originated with the accidental outcomes of bands forgoing the amp and mic. One designer, however, is a living legend of the boards that built this sound.  Meet Rupert Neve…

These days, you’ll find Rupert Neve’s name on compressors, racks, 500 series modules, microphones, and monster-sized consoles. This catalogue and expertise, however, didn’t materialize overnight. Rather, it took the better part of eight decades. So where’d it start?

While the Neve Electronics Company was technically founded in 1961, Rupert’s love affair with audio circuitry started much earlier. As a child he tinkered on and repaired radios, as a young man developed his understanding of electrical engineering further in the British Navy, and after WWII first connected the dots of communications with music in the 1950s while working for Rediffusion on units that laid the groundwork for network television.

His own console designs predated the founding of the company with his name on the door. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s and music media exploded, Neve built a mixer for Desmond Leslie (an Irish composer) and his first-ever transistor based recording console for Sound & Philips Records in the UK. Of the many famous boards bearing the Neve name, one design made its mark on modern music: the Neve 8028.

So what is it that makes this console do what it does and sound how it sounds? You can troll the internet for all sorts of technical explanations and lengthy interviews with Rupert, but for my brain capacity, the forty second or so explanation Rupert provided to Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters fame in the documentary Sound City (2013) highlights the essentials. Rupert noted the early circuitry of his boards were essentially based on microphone amplifiers that, when managed meticulously, interact with transformers buses on a board that are built with precision and uncompromising quality. “If all those things are properly controlled,” he added, “you get a very sweet sound.” The tech specs beyond this are far above my paygrade!

So where might you have heard a guitar sound recorded or mixed on a Neve console without even knowing it? You don’t have to go all the way back to the 1960s to get a now classic use. The mix down and recording of many of Kurt Cobain’s guitar tracks on Nevermind (1991) were in part undertaken at Sound City Studios through a Neve 8028 board. As Grohl reflected on the making of this album in an interview with NPR Music, he commented on the centrality of that board and its continuing history. “What you get when you record on a Neve desk is this really big, warm representation of whatever comes into it. What’s going to come out the other end is this bigger, better version of you. And so it makes you sound real, but it makes you sound really good.”

So what’s the lesson for everyday musicians like you and me? I wish I could tell you the answer was going out and buying a hundred grand vintage console and giving it a go. But maybe the more sensible and economical takeaway is to experiment with gear. Whether it’s new, old, or being deployed in a non-conventional way, at times you discover a sound that only results from an experimental interaction between the skill of your fingers and the gear you’re collaborating with. So rearrange, remix, rethink, and have a great #RiffCitySunday.

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