End of a musical era (I): Rupert Neve

Arthur Rupert Neve died on 12 February 2021, in his adoptive home of Wimberley, Texas. People who don’t know him by name are probably familiar with aspects of his work. In its obituary for him, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper calls Neve a “recording genius regarded as the ‘father’ of the modern mixing console – the massive board with hundreds of knobs and faders that dominates studio control rooms”.

Neve designed and built the key components of recording studios that “gave depth and power”, the Telegraph says, to albums by bands such as Foo Fighters, The Who, Santana, Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead.

Rupert Neve was born on 31 July 1926 in Newton Abbot, Devon, England, but grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where his father was a missionary.

He wasn’t an inventor so much as a designer and builder. His interest in sound recording and editing began in his youth, when he took apart and repaired shortwave radios. During World War II he returned to Britain and, although only 17 when he enlisted, served in the Royal Corps of Signals, providing communications support to the British Army.

After the war, according to the obituary for Neve published by the Guardian newspaper, he built a mobile recording system for capturing on 78RPM acetate discs public events such as band concerts, choirs and speeches. He also built public address systems, which were used by (then) Princess Elizabeth and Winston Churchill.

In the 1950s, Neve worked for a company that designed and built electrical transformers and loudspeakers. “He also started his own business, making hi-fi equipment,” according to the New York Times

He found that the amplifiers, microphones and mixing consoles he was building performed better with solid-state transistors than with the commonly used vacuum tubes, which were “cumbersome and required very high voltage”.

His first custom-made transistor mixing console was delivered to Phillips’ Studios in London in 1964, and the New York Times says its success led to thousands more orders over the years for customers such as Abbey Road Studios, London, and the AIR Studios – founded by Beatles producer George Martin – in London and on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

Studio engineers attribute the quality of sound captured by Neve equipment to his transformers, the components he designed “that connect microphone signals to the console and the console to a recording medium like vinyl or a CD”. 

In an interview with AudioTechnology magazine in 1998, Neve says he is “not academically qualified. I am what I call QBE – that’s my degree – Qualified By Experience”.

Neve says he “grew up with valves (tubes)”, so when transistors emerged he had to re-educate himself, “to start over on the semiconductors”. 

He says “it all started with making sure the semiconductor designs produced a sound quality at least as good as the valves. That meant a lot of listening, and a lot of measuring. The more I got into it, the more of a perfectionist I became.”

As Neve worked his way through the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors, he had to grapple with myriad factors such as supply voltages, output levels, impedances and dynamic ranges, all relating to eliminating some noises and capturing and enhancing others in the recording process.

The Guardian describes equalisation, or EQ, as one of Neve’s “flagship achievements”, and that his “signature EQ design” would lead to what would become known as “the Neve sound”.

It says EQ is “the process of managing and balancing different frequencies within a sound – giving it more or less bass, perhaps, or cutting out certain disruptive harmonics. It allows sounds and instruments to fit together in a mix, and is an essential component of mixing consoles.” 

A story produced by the US National Public Radio (NPR) program “Here & Now”, headlined “Remembering Rupert Neve, the legendary audio equipment inventor who shaped rock’n’roll’s sound”, featured one of Neve’s best-known creations, the 8028 soundboard, “a piece of equipment that Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl made the star in his 2013 documentary, Sound City”.

“They’re like a grayish colour, sort of like an old army tank with lots of knobs, and to any studio geek or gear enthusiast it’s like the coolest toy in the world,” Grohl tells NPR. “But they’re pretty simple. They’re not filled with miles and miles of cable and wires – they’re pretty simple. And 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.”

In the AudioTechnology interview, Neve explains his approach to designing audio equipment: “The trouble with a lot of designers, you know, is that they don’t listen. They think their maths books will give them all the answers. You do absolutely need to listen, and to be prepared to listen to what other people are saying, too. And then you will be able to come up with some really first-class designs.”

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