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Rupert Neve Designs
Behind the gear with Josh Thomas, Rupert Neve, & “Hutch” Hutchison
We last visited the legendary console designer and audio guru Rupert Neve in Tape Op #26, over ten years ago. In 2005 Rupert Neve Designs presented the world some amazing new Neve products, with the Portico Range of equalizers, mic preamps, compressors and more. A few years later the 5088 Discrete Analogue Mixer [Tape Op #73] made its debut, and I became the very satisfied owner of 5088, serial number 27. I traveled down to the serene rolling hills of Wimberley, Texas, to meet up with a very gracious Rupert, Josh Thomas (Director of Sales and Strategic Alliances), and Craig "Hutch" Hutchison (Senior Design Engineer, formerly with Manley Labs).
One thing I think our readers would be surprised about is that at this level, Rupert is not designing the entire circuit on his own. There are actually teams of engineers that subdivide the work.
Hutch: It's usually a combination of things.
Josh: Someone will mention something at a trade show. Rupert will mention something to me. And I'll say, "What if it did this?"
H: And then there will be a page description, a front panel sketch and a block diagram. From there, Rupert might draw a preliminary schematic. I might draw one. And then we hand it off to the team.
I assume front panel switching and power supplies are easy things to hand off.
H: There's still a fair amount of detail work before it can be drawn up in its official form. It takes time.
J: It takes far too long! [laughter]
H: Then it gets handed off to the person who does the circuit board design and we do a lot of communication back and forth.
Where are the components going to sit? How wide are the traces?
Rupert: Yes, we spend a lot of time working very carefully on the layout. The old enemy of audio is forms of interference from power supplies or whatever. In the old days, it was AC 60 hertz, or 120 hertz, and today it's more high-frequency stuff due to the switching modes of [power] supplies. You've got to keep the circuits from talking to each other. It's a hard job. It really comes back to experience. You get to know components and how a power supply is going to radiate in a certain way. So, the last thing you want is a helpful assembler to say, "There's a better way to do this. Why don't we put them side by side to save space?"
There are many details. Rupert has a pretty important legacy to maintain.
H: I think we all feel that we're doing the best work we've ever done.
J: Yes. If we get that bit right, the money will fall into place.
R: We have today a huge advantage. We don't give any credit. People have to pull out a credit card and put the money down. That wasn't so back in the day. The first console I did, we came to the conclusion that we needed £100 worth of components. We were selling it for £300, which I thought was sheer robbery! But my wife was the businessperson and she said we had to make some money out of it - otherwise we wouldn't be able to make the next console. We didn't have any money and I didn't know how we were going to get the parts. I called the customer and said, "It's company policy that we get one-third of the payment up front with the order. We need £100 from you." The guy said, "Okay. Do you want check or cash?" I said I'd come pick it up from him. I was going straight from his place to the place to get supplies! [laughter] The same thing happened the next time. We came to the conclusion that it was the way to run the business. When we didn't do that, it seemed something went wrong or the relationship was sour. It was a good business practice, as well as a guiding principle. It worked until we started to export. In those days, all the European companies had export and exchange controls. You couldn't get any money out of Spain without the goods, for example. Spanish banks weren't allowed to send money out of the country without proof of invoice. If something went wrong, you had to renegotiate the whole damn thing. You spent more time on paperwork than building consoles. We started to run into company problems. We really needed to find a way. We allowed ourselves to be taken over by a small, private company who came to us with a wonderful formula. They said to us, "Our money and your brains and we'll really have a wonderful package here!" Well, that was all fine. We had our brains, but unfortunately they had no money! [laughter] So, it was limping along. Every small console manufacturer that I've ever spoke to has been through this. Amek went through the same thing. You need to have enough of a down payment to make the console. It was always a struggle.
J: I think we'd all seen enough ways that it didn't work. We have a number of advantages. Martin Arthurs puts the consoles together - he's put together hundreds and hundreds. I knew right away who to get. If he says a console is good to go, I know it's not coming back. We've got a great subcontractor who's just down the road. In many ways, it's easier now to do production than it's ever been before.
When you guys prototype something, do you take it around to studios and other people you know to try it out?
H: We just sent a prototype to a studio on Saturday. They got the debut - the first listen. But that won't hit production and hit the streets until AES.
J: We're always listening here.
H: It's essentially ready.
R: There are advantages of present production. Everything is done on the computer. We can show you a panel, or a complete unit. You can put it up on the screen and rotate it. Every dimension is down to meticulous accuracy. The program won't let you enter wrong values. When you take that to your sheet metal worker, he can slide that disc into his computer. His machine can orientate to our drawings. You get parts that just flow together. There's no question.
J: We've got a great set of companies we're able to work with, all based here in Texas.
You could be manufacturing in China.
R: There's an advantage both ways. But, broadly speaking, the same principles are used in China as they're used around the corner here. But the whole process of manufacturing has totally changed from the old days. I remember when I started using printed circuits. I argued about the quality and ended up going right back to basics. One thing a person has to learn the hard way is reliable connections and how to solder. And that applies if it's a printed circuit board or just two bits of wire put together. Printed circuit technology got itself a bad name back in the day; it was not reliable. When we first started putting it together, I had circuit boards made by a firm up in the Midlands. These were not even plated because I couldn't trust the quality of the plating. They were just copper on the board. They were very large pads, compared to what we have today. I had every one of those joints checked by me personally, or someone I could trust. The first time we started putting a module together, one of my interns asked me, "Is it going to corrode, Mr. Neve?" I said, "Yes, it might corrode. How are we going to stop it from corroding?" Well, I put the intern on his bike and sent him to the local hardware store. We sprayed all of them with a clear varnish. There are boards that were done in those few weeks that are still in service today.
J: They're probably still showing up on eBay today! [laughter]
They're probably more valuable now! One last question: how did the sE RNR1 [Rupert Neve Active Ribbon High Frequency Microphone] come about?
R: I like ribbon microphones. I knew some of the designers way back. Michael Gayford was the first designer of the ribbon microphone. He died a few years ago. He and I used to talk about microphones. I just got to like the sound quality. The other thing was that a ribbon mic requires a lot of low-noise gain. His problem was he couldn't find anyone to give him the amplifiers that he needed. So I played around with amplifiers for some time until we got that rolling. Several years ago, we had a visit from the people who are now our Chinese colleagues. Siwei Zou has a wonderful pair of ears. For one thing, he listens. He's the conductor of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. He really knows what he's doing. We've talked about these things and the idea of a ribbon mic with an extended high-frequency response and which had an amplifier so you didn't have to depend on the mic pre to run it. The ribbon itself is a very high-quality unit. So, that's really where it started. But there's a whole range of microphones coming along now.