From the requisite hand-wired boutique pieces of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, to the large format commercial consoles that followed, and then right into the modern project-style studio, hardware from Rupert Neve’s bench has filled the decades – and sometimes defined them. His recent passing marks not just the end of an audio era, but of a genuinely good human being – RIP, Mr. Neve. Rupert Neve Designs continues operations and has recently released the new 5057 Orbit – a 16-channel summing mixer with two separate stereo transformer-coupled outputs: a main, plus a second output at -6 dB – intended for pushing harmonic levels without clipping.
Both outputs share the RND variable Silk Red and Blue circuit options (selectable with the same button) for adding analog saturation to your mix. Silk modes variably increase mostly second-order harmonics when driven (tuned via the Texture knob): Blue Silk emphasizes low and low mid saturation, while Red Silk accentuates the highs and high mids.
A bus Link feature enables you to combine up to three 5057 Orbits for a bigger input count, which means up to 48 inputs! The faceplate is simple, with four Mono buttons that sum the first four stereo pairs to mono while centering them within the stereo field to within 0.1 dB. The aforementioned Silk button and stepped Texture control, a stepped output Trim knob, and LED indicators (Signal Left, Signal Right, and Power) are also included on the faceplate – that’s all there is. No makeup gain, no channel volume, no panning for mono summing, and no bussing or headphone outputs nor any other console-like features. Nada. All of that is accomplished in the box. The Orbit may have a minimal control set compared to many other summing mixers, but it does feature a Class A +/- 24V active design.
Early arguments in favor of analog summing pointed to a lack of headroom and a narrowing of the stereo field when mixing in the box. However, technology has improved and there are plenty of engineers who no longer see the need for analog summing. Modern in the box workflows can be abundantly transparent with tons of depth, and are now considered an acceptable professional solution. Summing has become an “option,” not a requirement for good mixing, but for me analog still has its charms. These charms include integrating with other analog hardware units. Besides, pristine digital replication and mixing almost requires some analog goodness to be thrown in with all its attendant non-linearities. For example, I know there are plenty of software solutions for distortion and saturation, many succesfully, but most of the time I end circling back and taking the digital saturation out. I love digital for the precision, repeatability, and accessibility it offers. If you need to carve out a few dBs in a narrow band around 350 Hz, then digital is your tool. Reverb and time effects: check. But when I use analog, especially good and expensive analog, I want something that pops out and is not necessarily a clean transcription. If nothing else, I want some tone.
That’s the $64,000 Dollar Question, right? Can the Orbit stamp your recordings with some tone? Yes – that’s kinda what it does. Rupert Neve Designs is known for: a big, but modern-leaning sound. When I interviewed Mr. Neve many years ago, he said he was always trying for the purest sound reproduction possible. He related that years after selling the Neve company, that upon returning to audio he had finally developed a preamp and EQ that added little or no distortion. The electronic engineers couldn’t believe it. Some audio engineers loved the unnamed preamp, while others did not, leading Mr. Neve to develop the Silk circuit.
The 5057 Orbit has two big, beefy transformers that tilt the weight of the metal box in your hands, and there’s a wealth of copper-colored wire glistening through the ventilation grill. It’s got plenty of tone. Even if it isn’t the grainier vintage Neve sonic stamp or the purity of the mystery preamp, it’s a tone I love and reminds me of my Portico II [Tape Op #82]. With a similar transformer saturation of the lower mids and highs, you really have to work at it to make it sound harsh. It’s a full and balanced sound.
The 5057 Orbit seems to soak up as much sound you throw at it, then spits it out sounding better. There is more air in the sound, and the harder you drive the Orbit, the further that air seems to expand, imparting a depth and separation to instruments. I never felt any other processer on the mix bus was necessary – I wanted to keep it pristine. However, the 5057 Orbit was downright exciting on my mixes, yielding tons of fun and excellent, transferable results. This summing mixer made a believer out of me, and I haven’t even described using the variable Silk yet. I’m intimately familiar with the Silk feature in the single-channel Portico II preamp, and I usually crank up the Texture knob if I use it at all. However, stereo master bus duty is different. Silk was able to bring out some really subtle but nice lows and highs with judicious use. Still, on a modern rock and roller of a mix (sans vocals), I cranked the Blue Silk up to two o’clock and the low end bloomed gorgeously. You just can’t tell what it’s going to do with your mix until you play with it. Silk excites harmonics in the incoming signal, so the response gets very dynamic. I spent most of the first day with the unit just juicing up different stereo songs or buses. It was a lot of fun, and I gained a sense of how Silk worked on many sources. Still, I continue to be surprised at what I can prize out of the Orbit.
Where does the Orbit fit in with the pantheon of summing mixers in general? As an analog hub, it works excellent – the two stereo outputs are a boon, even if you were to take away the transformer options. The -6dB outputs will allow you to add some extra weight to the signal, and the Silk options really open up a versatile palette of sounds that complement the solid, taut canvas of the RND sound. For my project studio, the 5057 Orbit would be at the top of the list. Exceptional features at a reasonable price; and without skimping on quality.