The Rupert Neve name has always been on my list of desirable gear to own. His Rupert Neve Designs has taken the best elements of his older, coveted designs and jettisoned the compromises of yesteryear. I reviewed the RND Shelford Channel in Tape Op #118, a channel strip that has all the benefits and flexibility of a modern piece of gear with the mojo and magic of a classic Rupert Neve design.
The Shelford Channel components have been broken out individually into 500 Series versions with the 551 Inductor EQ and 535 Diode Bridge compressor modules. This is a good thing because the Shelford Channel, and all the power it packs, does not come cheap. This lets those of us that can't shell out $3500 per channel get some of the Shelford flavor we want while selecting the individual components we need.
The controls on these units are straightforward, simple, and easy to use. I mention this because it should not be overlooked. The pieces of gear that get the most use in my studio are almost always the ones that get me where I want to be quickly while sounding great. Rarely do I want to get the manual out with a client sitting in the studio next to me. These modules are elegantly designed, and if you've got even a basic knowledge of EQ and/or compression, you'll be able to wrap your head around these beasts in no time.
The build, like everything RND releases, is top notch. No corners were cut on the look, feel, or performance of these units. The 551 and 535 look like updated versions of vintage Neve classics in their own color scheme, as opposed to the cream/white stylings of the RND Portico line.
The 535 is a direct descendent of the revered Neve 2254 compressor/limiter found in many vintage or classic Neve consoles. Known for smoothness and ease of use, they have ended up on countless recordings – they just "do that thing." The 535 borrows much of the design elements of these revered classics, but they have been modernized for today's demands.
I first patched the 535 compressors across acoustic guitars that had been likely recorded direct and then run through an amp simulator to be dirtied up. The raw tracks were interesting sounding but needed some help. The 535 immediately thickened the tone while at the same time settling them down into the track with audible but musical compression. There was additional tone supplied via the 535s, and it was easy to get them to have some motion without pumping artifacts. It is more than possible to maintain a musical vibe while getting these compressors huffing and puffing. However, if you prefer a neutral-leaning tone with less obvious compression, the unit can be subtler sounding at gentler settings – but definitely not without some color.
The 535s have all the usual features you would expect on a compressor, with some additional bells and whistles I found useful. Here are the features as spelled out from RND:
The Threshold control features a 31-position detented pot that sets the level at which compression begins, from -25 dB to +20 dB. The Ratio control has six selectable positions on a rotary switch, allowing the user to set the slope of the compressor curve with pre-selected ratios of 1.5:1 through 8:1 for levels above the determined threshold. The Timing control is a six-position rotary switch that sets the compressor's attack and release times. The Timing can be further modified by use of the Fast button, which divides the attack and release times (available on the Timing control) in half, effectively doubling the number of Timing presets available to the user. The Blend control has 31 detents and allows the user to mix the uncompressed dry signal with the compressed wet signal (parallel compression), enabling a wider range of compression subtlety. A 31 detent Gain control allows for make-up gain to the processed signal. Level matching with the make-up gain, while A/B'ing with the Comp In switch, makes it easy to evaluate the tonal effect of the 535. The Link switch allows the compressor to be linked to a second 535 via a sidechain control voltage. In Link mode, the compressor generating the greater sidechain voltage (resulting in higher amounts of compression) will control the compression of both audio signal paths to maintain proper stereo center image while compressing. The S/C HPF (sidechain high-pass filter) switch allows the user to insert a 12 dB/octave 150 Hz high-pass filter in the compressor's sidechain. When engaged, the compressor will be considerably less responsive to information below 150 Hz. For example, if used on a drum kit, the low end of the kick drum would have less proportional effect on the compression than a snare drum or cymbals – since a significant portion of the kick drum's dynamic energy is focused below 150 Hz. Two LED meters provide accurate representations of both the output level of the compressor and the amount of gain reduction being applied to the input signal.
In addition to acoustic guitars, I employed the 535 for vocal compression duties. For some silly reason I rarely use a 500 Series module on vocals – maybe because I like to see the big VU of a Universal Audio LA-2A [Tape Op #26]? Also, since vocals are so important, I've always preferred three rack space units for good sonics. This is dumb. The 535 kept all the life in the lead vocal while giving it some lovely creaminess and slightly saturating the high end in a beautiful way. My typical go-to compressors for vocals are the aforementioned LA-2A or an Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor [#32], but the RND 535 is a welcome addition to my rack and will get used on vocals often.
So, on down the line I went, auditioning the 535 on electric guitars, bass guitar, snare drum, kick drum, overheads, etc. I banged on the 535s aggressively as a parallel drum bus, and also tried it on the mix as a whole. There was a theme; rich, thick musical compression with plenty of controls for a wide range of compression duties. It makes things sound bigger, bolder, and (in my opinion) more interesting. If all your sources are aces when you start a mix, then give yourself (or the tracking engineer) a pat on the back and use the 535 to take your mix to even greater heights. But if you find yourself with some anemic sources, the RND 535 could be a significant addition to your mixing toolbox that will surely help inject some life, while solidifying those mix elements that need a hand. Looks great. Sounds great. Easy to use.