Rupert Neve is the most well-known name in pro audio, and for good reason. To this day, Neve consoles remain the stuff of legend, and the mic preamp from the Neve 1073 module is arguably the most widely imitated piece of audio gear out there. After the original Neve company was sold, Mr. Neve went on to design outboard gear for his original Focusrite Ltd company, as well as consoles and outboard processors for AMEK, before he eventually moved to Texas and restructured his consultancy into his current company, Rupert Neve Designs.
As you'd expect, RND's products are highly regarded, and the company takes a no-compromise approach with all of its offerings. One thing readers should know, however, is that RND never reissued Neve classics with new names or updated looks. All of RND's products are new designs that incorporate new thinking.
But, there is something to be said for those old modules. Producers and engineers continue to revere the classic Neve preamps, EQs, and compressors. Because these pieces have a sound of their own, in many ways, they become participants in the creative process. So RND finally decided to address this admiration for the classics and delivered the Shelford Channel, a channel strip that simultaneously references the past and looks forward to the future.
Everything about the Shelford Channel is attractive — beautiful color choices, mastering-grade stepped controls, buttons that are satisfying to push, indicators that aren't harshly lit — and it is clear that no detail was overlooked. Despite being a feature-packed channel strip, it has a clean-looking aesthetic and a much appreciated ease of use.
In terms of functionality, the Shelford Channel is sort of a "Neve's Greatest Hits" package. As the manual explains:
"The Shelford Channel is the definitive evolution of the original technologies in Rupert's classic console modules like the 1073, 1064, 1081, and 2254, thoughtfully advanced and refined for the 21st century studio. The Shelford Channel is built around Rupert Neve's first new transformer-gain, class-A microphone preamplifier in over 40 years, the best-of-the-classics' inductor EQ section from the Shelford 5051 and 5052, a tone-packed diode bridge compressor, the analog power of variable Silk saturation, a new dual-tap transformer output stage for maintaining headroom or allowing the full driving of the Channel without clipping standard converters, and twice the operating voltage of vintage designs."
I know some of you jumped ahead to the bottom of this review to see the price. Admittedly, this baby ain't cheap, but when you add up the costs of the vintage equivalents, the price of the Shelford Channel is really well within the realm of reasonable, especially if you factor in that you are unlikely to deal with maintenance issues anytime soon with the Shelford, like you would with vintage equipment.
At this point, I will recommend that you check out the detailed description of the Shelford Channel and its specifications on the RND website, because for the rest of the review, I'm going to focus on how I used the Shelford and what kind of results it gave me.
For my first use of the Shelfold Channel, I took it to Studio Litho in Seattle, and engineer Sam Hofstedt and I tracked a male vocal with a vintage Telefunken Ela M 251. Indeed, the tone of the Shelford's mic preamp reminded us of the Neve 1073 — with forward mids, and highs and lows that were mildly but musically tamed. At the same time, the sound was significantly tighter and more focused than what we would expect from a classic Neve. Engaging the EQ, we dialed in a slight boost at 220 Hz and a small nudge at 16 kHz. Then we set up the compressor with 2:1 ratio and medium-slow timing, so that we were seeing about −1 dB of reduction on peaks. With the compressor blend at 60% and the Blue Silk saturation engaged, the overall result was quite impressive.
The sound was very real/true, but with a touch of something intangibly musical and rich in its harmonic coloration, and the midrange-forward presentation pushed the vocal so it was center-stage in the mix. The combination of the light compression and Blue saturation did not translate as distortion, but rather additional color-shading that I felt enhanced the connection to the singer, lyrics, and song. It enabled an emotional resonance that another setup could have missed. I kept wanting more and more of this flavor. I had a hard time conveying how it made me feel, but it certainly warranted saying out loud, "Man, that feels sooo good."
As the performances got a little more spirited, the gain-reduction meter was hitting −5 dB on some peaks. The compression was still transparent enough to be barely audible, but when we could hear it, we liked it. With the compressor blend set at 100% (meaning no dry signal), we could easily get the compressor to show its tone-filled personality, and on sources like electric guitar, it was easy to get sucked into wanting more.
Speaking of guitar, we next employed the Shelford Channel on a Gibson ES-347 playing through a Vox AC30, mic'd with a Shure SM57. The AC30 was set up for a touch of the ubiquitous amp breakup, and we made minor adjustments to the Shelford's EQ to voice the track suitably. I hit the compressor a little harder this time, because it smoothed out a little of the 5 kHz bite of the SM57, and I pushed the saturation more, using the Red Silk setting. What's not to like? It sounded like so many great rock guitar tones, and it was very easy to get there.
Since I only had a single Shelford Channel for review, we had to move the vocal chain to a vintage 1073 module in Studio Litho's Neve BCM10, in order to use the Shelford on guitar. I have to say, the 1073 vocal sounded really good, but dare I say, I preferred the sound of the Shelford over the vintage module? Heresy!!! That's when Sam and I exchanged looks that said, "Damn, that thing is killer!" — right before Sam asked me, "Geez, how much is that thing?" I'd like to think I am not a super material guy (except for my severe gear sickness), but the Shelford Channel brought out an "I want that" response. It's gear lust, plain and simple. Sad! Terrible! I mean terrific!
It would be very remiss of me if I didn't tell you about the Shelford Channel's DI, because it's not just a tack-on high-impedance jack. Importantly, the DI section is based on the same class-A FET circuit of the well-received RNDI [Tape Op #113], but it also utilizes the mic preamp's transformer for gain. Bass sounded killer through the DI, with big fat bottom and nice midrange clarity. I liked driving the input and backing off the trim for a little grit. The DI also performed well on synth and sampler tracks running out of a laptop, for an ambient bed behind banjo master Danny Barnes; the Shelford added some additional warmth and saturation and gave the sounds a bit of extra life and color. Moreover, the DI input has a nice feature not seen on many channel strips — a "thru" option like you would find on a standalone DI, which allows you to run a line from your instrument to both the channel strip and an amp at the same time.
If I had to further characterize how the Shelford Channel sounds, I would say that the mic preamp delivers incredible clarity without being the least bit sterile, with a very classic and lovely warmth that doesn't detract from its more modern transient response. The EQ has the beloved musicality of the classic Neve modules, with a little more flexibility, while the compressor also sounds and behaves like you would expect a vintage Neve compressor to perform, with an updated sonic character that is hard to quantify, but is still recognizably familiar — and addictively so.
The compressor can add some magic to everything it touches. You can get gritty and saturated sounds out of it, and it can be more transparent, especially when using the blend knob. Slower attack settings can be used when you simply want some glue, but the compressor is certainly fast enough to grab what you need it to. From character-laced utility to sonic vibe-induction, and everything in-between, the compressor section of the Shelford gets an A+.
And finally, the Silk control is a great tool for harmonically fusing the operation of all the components together, and if anything, it pushes the whole sound closer to the classic Neve side of the spectrum. Silk reduces the negative feedback on the output transformer and adds harmonic content as the Texture knob is turned up. Blue mode provides more saturation in the low and low-mid frequencies, and Red more in the highs and high-mids. With the Texture knob, you can dial down to almost zero saturation, or dial up to levels that surpass that of vintage modules. It is here more than anywhere else in the channel strip that you find the tones reminiscent of the cherished vintage Neve classics, but with great tonal-shaping options and variety.
In short, the Shelford Channel is a two-for-one deal — a killer channel strip that harkens back to the sounds of vintage Neve, coupled with all the modern capabilities should you choose to go there.
With that said, does gear really matter? Listen, a great performance captured on a crap mic is still a great performance — and there is no denying that. But a great singer, on a great mic, paired with a great recording chain, can really make for something pretty special. Without a doubt, the Shelford Channel is a great tool, and it is one of those pieces of gear that will get used on a daily basis and stand the test of time. Your only trouble will be deciding what to use it on.