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Young Guru, Darrell Thorp, Al Schmitt, Jimmy Douglass, and Tom Elmhirst on Harnessing the Classic Neve Sound.

Young Guru, Darrell Thorp, Al Schmitt, Jimmy Douglass, and Tom Elmhirst on Harnessing the Classic Neve Sound.

Let’s admit it: it’s difficult to talk about preamps and EQs in the abstract — terms like “warm,” “crunchy,” “punchy,” and “transparent” are the closest we can get to describing the very alive dynamics of these magic boxes. But when talking about the character and sonics of legendary Neve EQs, channel strips, and compressors, engineers largely agree on the above terms. But in the end, most engineers will say, Neve stuff just sounds right.

Few understand the depths of the Neve character — and how best to unlock its secrets — than the five engineers UA has assembled here. In this roundtable, we try and find out what it is that sets Neve gear apart, and how its inherent musicality has informed huge, multi-platinum hits.

Meet the Roundtable

1 How would you describe the Neve sound?

YOUNG GURU: The Neve sound to me is warm, and if I’m comparing it to other preamps, while some may be more punchy or more transparent, the Neve preamp is a dedicated spice. It’s definitely something that has a lot of character, and it distorts extremely well.

TOM ELMHIRST: The Neve sound? Thick. And no matter what other preamps you're trying to describe — SSL, API, etc. — you always end up comparing it with the way a Neve sounds. It’s the standard.

AL SCHMITT: Neve boards are the most natural sounding to my ears. They were a few boards that did a similar thing back then — including API, and Quad Eight was another — but given my druthers, if there was only one board I could work on in the world, it would be a Neve. I know them like a book.

DARRELL THORP: The Neve sound is fu**ing beautiful. To me, it’s the sound. Amazing and in-your-face. I’ve never put an instrument or a voice through a Neve and thought, “Wow, this sucks!” That just does not happen.

JIMMY DOUGLASS: I’d say warm, meaty, and round. And when used in the Mic Input mode on a 1073, even a little of that desired dirty/crunchy sound. Compared to other mic pres, like the API and SSL, while they all have a nice clarity and sheen to them, the Neve just has more of that classic warm sound.

2 Do you recall the first time you worked on a Neve console?

YOUNG GURU: It would have been around 1996, when I went to recording school at Omega Recording Studios in Rockville, Maryland. What was so great about that place was that there was an SSL room, an API room, and a Neve room, so not only was I able to get hands-on with the Neve itself, but it was very easy for me to take a tape recorded in one room, and compare it using the sound of those different boards and preamps against the same material. It’s pretty rare to get to do that while you’re learning.

JIMMY DOUGLASS: I believe I worked on one with engineer Keith Olsen at Sound City around 1975, but we certainly had one in Room B of Atlantic Studios in New York City as well. And it sounded way different from the MCI 500 Series console and others we’d been working on up until then.

AL SCHMITT: The first time I remember working on a Neve board was when I was producing at RCA in Hollywood at 6363 Sunset Blvd, in the mid-’60s — they were some of the first Neve boards made. I believe the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was recorded by Dave Hassinger on a Neve board in RCA Studio C. We all know how good that sounded!

TOM ELMHIRST: That would have been the Neve VR48 at Sarm East Studios in east London, in the mid-’90s when I was working on Seal’s second album.

DARRELL THORP: I didn’t use a Neve console until later, and probably the one I remember best was the Neve 8048 console I worked on while I was an assistant at The Village. We used it to work on a Brian Setzer record, Vavoom, around 2000.

3 Do you ever combine the character of different flavors of Neve while tracking or mixing? Say, an 88RS on the kick and a 1073 on overheads?

YOUNG GURU: I definitely do that. I love using the 1073 on overheads. It’s a sound I’m very familiar with, and it’s so good at rounding out those high transients without squashing them. I don’t want them to be brittle, but I will still want them to shine.

So I’m using the 1073 more as a tone-shaping device. I use the 88RS a lot as my starting point, for instance on vocals — I’ll instantly go there first, as it’ll make it feel heavier, and I can craft my overall sound with the compressor, dynamics, and EQ right there in the channel strip.

JIMMY DOUGLASS: Sure, I mix that stuff up all the time. I treat the plug-ins exactly as if I was on a real console, and I was using various hardware and outboard gear to go with it. I think the best way to approach these tools is that there are no rules. Personally, I tend to go right to the Neve 88RS on most sources — it’s a bit grainier than the 1073, which fits my sound profile best, and even while working totally in the box, the 88RS keeps me feeling like I’m still listening through a physical console.

DARRELL THORP: Yeah, I do that quite a bit. I might use a UAD 88RS on the kick and snare, and that’s because I’ve got EQ and compression right there, and then I’ll use 1073s on the overheads.

TOM ELMHIRST: I’ll use whatever is quickest. Usually I'll start with a 1073 or a 1081, and if I need to get more detailed, I’ll move to something else. For me the UAD 88RS Channel Strip is more useful when I'm doing things completely in the box or for some reason don't have access to my console.

4 What UAD Neve plug-ins are you most fond of, and why exactly?

YOUNG GURU: I love the UAD 1073 Preamp & EQ Plug-In Collection. And it’s not only because of the great EQ section, but also because of Unison™ technology with the Apollo Twin, and its ability to print that Neve preamp sound. That has solved such a huge problem. To have that ability now, with no latency, to record through my 1073, EQ section and preamp, is amazing.

TOM ELMHIRST: I use the UAD Neve 1081 Classic Console and the UAD Neve 33609 Compressor regularly. And I keep the 1081 as my default EQ in Pro Tools, so I use it on almost every mix.

DARRELL THORP: The UAD 1073 plug-in was a game-changer for me. It sounds so good, and I use it all the time, especially on drums and guitars, and selectively on vocals. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I use it a little too much in my mixing!

JIMMY DOUGLASS: I’d have to say the UAD Neve 33609 Compressor and the UAD Neve 88RS Channel Strip Collection. The 33609 just works so seamlessly with me and my desired end result, and it sounds so close to the original.

5 Do you have any tips for using Neve EQs?

YOUNG GURU: When I work with No I.D., who’s produced for Common, Kanye, and Jay-Z, he’ll say to me, “I don’t know if it’s an EQ thing, I just want more “presence.” So I’ll turn the 1073’s preamp section way up — basically the input stage from the red knob — and bring my fader on the output side down to get me back to my original volume level. The preamp gives the signal a harmonic boost that allows it to sit up in the mix, and so you get that presence. When I say “presence” in this sense, I don’t necessarily just mean the top end. It’s neither a pure volume thing, or a simple EQ thing. It’s a kind of harmonic enhancer.

JIMMY DOUGLASS: If I have any tips for using Neve EQs, it’s just to push them to their limits, and that’s the way to get unpredictable results.

TOM ELMHIRST: Yeah, don’t be shy with the gain!

DARRELL THORP: On guitars, I’ve been getting into using the 1073 to play around with the midrange, to make my mixes a little more edgy, without being harsh. With the 1073 on guitars, you can go to that 3.2 KHz area and crank it up a few dB, and I’ll usually add 5 or 6 dB of the shelf to get some air in there at the top. If it’s starting to sound a little thin, I can add a bit of 220 Hz in there to thicken it up. That’s my method of madness. I’ll also use the 1073 line gain to trim down a hot guitar signal so it’s easier to control in my mix, and I can keep my channel fader at a better position relative to the other channels.

AL SCHMITT: Neve channel strips have incredible, easy-to-use EQ sections, which are never hyped sounding. Now, remember, I never use EQ when I’m recording, or when I’m mixing something I recorded myself; it’s very rare for me to use EQ. If I’m recording an acoustic guitar, for instance, and I don’t like the way it sounds, I will never go to the EQ — I’ll swap the microphone until I find something that gives me what I’m looking for.

But I will use EQ when mixing something someone else has recorded. The tweak for me is that it’s not as important what frequencies you add from an EQ as it is what you take out. Sometimes just eliminating frequencies around 300-350 Hz will clear up stuff a lot. It takes out some of the ugly sound in your low end.

6 Do you have a favorite way to use the UAD Neve 33609 Compressor plug-in?

YOUNG GURU: I’ll tend to use the 33609 on groups, like if I have, say, thirty different strings and I want to group all those together. I very rarely use it as my master bus compressor, but I do use it on things are rich in harmonic content, but I don’t want them to sound squashed and I don’t want to take away the sheen on the top end that allows it to sit in the right range throughout the mix.

JIMMY DOUGLASS: It’s definitely my go-to UAD compressor — I like it on background vocals, strings, and horns.

TOM ELMHIRST: I'll also use the 33609 a lot on pianos, background vocals, and strings. I don't use the hardware version of it, so it’s always used as an insert in the box.

DARRELL THORP: I sometimes use it as a drum parallel compressor, and I like it on pianos and keyboards. I’m often looking for more attack out of the piano, so it cuts better in a rock mix. The 33609 with a fast attack allows that quality to come out of the piano.

7 Where’s your favorite Neve console?

YOUNG GURU: It would have to be the VR72 board at Chung King Studios in NYC, which is the Neve board that Run-DMC recorded their albums on. There are lots of these types of “holy grail” boards in rock and roll, but we don’t have a whole lot of those in hip-hop. But because of the impact Run-DMC had on this music, that is certainly one of them.

JIMMY DOUGLASS: It’s the Neve VR72 that resides in my studio in Miami—it’s the board I know and love, and it knows and loves me. We a team, y’all!

AL SCHMITT: There are a few of them. Capitol Studios have two 88RS, and an 8068 56-input board in Studio B that are two old boards they put together. The Village in LA has a great vintage 8048 with thirty-two 1081s and eight 1073s, and two great 88R boards. There’s also a fabulous Custom Neve 40-input 8088 in Avatar Studio A in New York. That is one of the best sounding boards I’ve ever worked on. First of all the room is great, and the board is small and punchy. I’ve done a lot of great records there, including the early Diana Krall records.

DARRELL THORP: My favorite is the Neve 68-input 8068/8088 console at Studio B at United Recording Studios in Los Angeles. The console sounds amazing, and then you have the additional 40 API 550a EQs and fifty-six Neve 31102 EQs on the inserts. The room also sounds amazing, and the mic locker is great, so the combination of the Neve console, mic locker, the room, and API EQs, it just works so well, it’s like heaven to me.

TOM ELMHIRST: The Neve VR in my room at Electric Lady. My VR originally came from Chicago Recording Company, but I just recently bought the channels and faders from Al Schmitt's VR from Studio C at Capitol. It's a bit of a hybrid now, so it’s got a lot of history.

8 The Neve sound is sometimes viewed as the opposite of surgical — do you ever feel you’ve gotten, dare I say it, too much character out of a Neve?

YOUNG GURU: When you choose a Neve, you’re not going for a transparent sound. You’re choosing to add a certain spice, and you choose those spices on purpose. The only time it might ever get too spicy is when I’m recording basses, and if they’re already double-amped — from the bass amplifier and a console style preamp — then you want to be careful that you’re not overdriving it too much. That usually just requires a click or two less on the preamp section.

JIMMY DOUGLASS: There’s never enough “Character” for “The Senator!”

AL SCHMITT: I use the character in the Neve boards as much as I can, especially for vocal sounds. And I don’t really agree with the idea that SSLs, for instance, are necessarily so surgical and clean. I really feel that the Neve and other vintage boards are actually very clean.

TOM ELMHIRST: Actually, when I’m using the EQ on my VR console, I can get quite surgical — that’s why I like them. I’m mostly cutting at very high Qs in the midrange. And with something like a 1081, the broad Q is perfect for boosting in a musical way, especially to open up the high end.

DARRELL THORP: I don’t think there’s such a thing as “too much character.” As an engineer, I’m looking for tone wherever I can get it.

— James Rotondi

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