Legendary Designer Rupert Neve Addresses Chicago Engineers
“It’s an unfinished job, looking for high quality audio. It never finishes.”-Rupert Neve
Rupert Neve said it had been 15 years since he last addressed the Chicago engineering and recording society (EARS), who were gathered in the Rogers Park neighborhood at the state-of-the-art Mayne Stage. Unfortunately, this time, Neve, nearing the age of 85, was speaking via Skype from his home base in Wimberly, Texas.
Neve told the group how he started out recording sound onto 78 rpm shellac records that were low quality and brittle. He had two 78 rpm disc-cutting lathes and would record – mostly choral music – onto 12” discs that had a paper label at the center. Neve charged 35 shillings to make one record. Each side ran 4 ½ minutes and Neve said he would have to simply hope the recording didn’t extend beyond that mark.
When Neve met his wife, Evelyn, he found himself in the unpleasant situation of having to explain to his future father-in-law what a “sound recording and public address engineer” actually did.
“Why do you want to address the public?” came the remark from Neve’s incredulous inquisitor.
In the end, it was recommended Neve get a “proper job,” which he did with the loudspeaker company Rediffusion. It was here, Neve said, that he began learning about transformers, which would inform his later work.
Neve was at the job a mere 18 months when a colleague dumped a book about transformers on his desk. “You are the new transformer king,” the colleague informed him. Neve said in the days before transistors, he learned about transformers from early sound designers like Norman Partridge and other men who helped pave the way in sound engineering, but who’s names are mostly lost to history.
In 1961, Neve, with the support of his wife, formed The Neve Company, perhaps one of the defining moments in 20th century audio history.
Neve said that it was around this time that he began exploring the possibilities of transistors, which he said he realized had considerable advantages over valves for their size and efficiency. Working with transistors would eventually lead to Neve innovations like the famed 1073 and 1066 products.
Neve’s influence was also felt as the audio industry began developing multi-track recording. In the days of mono recording, Neve built an equalizer than lifted the frequency of the guitar in the mix. (“Guitarists always want to be louder,” Neve quipped at the EARS lecture.)
From two-track on ¼ inch tape to four-track on ½ inch tape, Neve innovated with the needs of mixing rooms. “Soon the track race was on,” Neve said, as recording technology jumped from four to eight tracks.
Neve recalled a client in North London who, somewhat perplexed, lamented, “It’s going to 16 tracks, isn’t it?”
“I was hoping so because that means more consoles,” Neve said he replied.
In the mid 1960s, Neve began working with Beatles producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. Neve said it was largely through Emerick that he became interested in human’s emotional response to sound.
One day Emerick called Neve to AIR Studios on Oxford Street. The engineer was unhappy with a discrepancy he was hearing between two channels on a console. After much detective work, Neve determined that one of the channels hadn’t got the correct termination on its output transformer. At 54 kHz frequency, far beyond what humans can hear at 20 kHz, Neve was astonished that Emerick could perceive the difference. He decided Emerick must be able to perceive sound in some other way. Later, Neve met and worked with the Japanese Professor Ohashi who studied how the absence of high frequencies can affect human emotions. Neve said his pursuit of high quality sound has only intensified by studying human’s emotional responses to the high frequency cutoff in compact discs, not to mention mp3s, which Neve said can lead (often without the listener realizing why) to frustration.
While Neve sold his company in 1973, and left in 1975, leaving the intellectual property rights of many of his iconic designs in lesser hands, he has continued to make innovations in console design.
Asked by EARS President Blaise Barton what Neve considered his pièce de résistance in over 60 years of design, Neve said his current console, the Rupert Neve Designs 5088 – which has class A circuitry, 96 volt rails, and an increased dynamic range – he felt, embodied his whole oeuvre as a designer.