A new, affordable, single rack unit channel strip, Rupert Neve Designs' Newton Channel isn’t a stripped-down version of their Shelford Channel [Tape Op #118] or a direct replacement for the more complex and discontinued Portico II Channel (which I own and reviewed in issue #82). The preamp in the Newton skips a transformer-coupled input for a Class A input circuit, similar to their 5211 preamp. Interestingly, the preamp exhibits many characteristics I associate with quality transformer-coupled units. The mid lows are thickened, especially when driven. It isn’t a Neve 1073, but more along the lines of the newer Rupert Neve Designs products, which provide a lighter touch with robust clarity.
Next in line is a 3-band EQ, followed by an incredibly smooth and simple VCA compressor – both bypassable with a button for EQ'ing pre or post compressor – and the special Texture section featuring Blue or Red "Silk." The Newton EQ has a semiparametric midband with a 12 dB cut or boost. The low frequency choices are selectable at 60 or 150 Hz, and highs at 8 or 16 kHz, also with 12 dB cuts or boosts. The compressor reveals a similar simplicity. We get Threshold, Release, and make-up Gain. There are classic compressors that give even less control than the Newton Channel, of course, so don’t let the lack of knobs be discouraging! The fixed attack is 20 milliseconds, yet the VCA is smooth and doesn’t sound strained even while controlling large dynamic swings. All potentiometers are solid yet turn easily, and all feature 31 detents that aid in matching units and recalling settings. Many mixers in today’s market have switched from analog to digital for repeatability’s sake. Well, the Newton Channel is a good analog answer to the repeatability gap. Maybe not as precise as digital, but there is a recall sheet online as well as the old phone-photo recall capture trick.
At The Kitchen Studios in Dallas, Texas, we set the Newton Channel up in the control room. Owner/engineer J.P. Painter grabbed a bass, a DI box, and in less than 5 minutes dialed in an almost steady-state output. Next, he switched the EQ to post-compressor, brightening the compressed sound. It was then that I could see his hand relax, confident that the Newton would catch the peaks and ride the quieter bits. He moved between a funky bass line and a tame flat-wound sound, testing a range of dynamics. It’s rewarding when outboard like this becomes part of the performance and song itself.
Next up was acoustic guitar, plugged into AudioScape's The Classic DI. Note that the Newton Channel has no DI or front input. Sure, a built-in DI would simplify some tasks, but even a simple Rupert Neve Designs DI would boost the cost (check out their RNDI [Tape Op #113]), but this way you can provide your own favorite DI. On the acoustic, the Newton sounded great. Once again, we added compression and followed by tweaking the EQ (set post-compression) and got a beautiful, controlled sound. J.P. dialed in some Blue Silk, which adds harmonics within the output transformers to achieve a thick vintage sound. The Silk made the acoustic guitar sound better, adding a touch of saturation in the lower register. Nothing gritty, but a very organic feel. While J.P. continued, two-handed, I switched the unit over to Red Silk. That brought out more of the high frequencies. His compression settings were still working, so I simply dialed in the EQ to get yet another beautiful sound. Either Red or Blue Silk would work, and either might be better, depending on the song. That is a nice dilemma to have.
Running tracks back out through the Newton Channel worked even better than tracking, since one can dial in precise settings during repeated passes. Even better than one Newton are two Newtons for stereo bus work. Each processed track seems to come through more clearly defined, occupying its own separate space between the speakers. Under his breath I heard J.P. say, “I wish I had a dozen of these,” and his studio features a Wunder Audio console. He did end up buying a Newton for acoustic guitar tracking and mixing.
Back at my humble project studio, running a recorded electric guitar back out and into a pair of Newtons, I kept the volume even and carved out top and bottom frequencies, producing a thick slice of staccato, distorted, stereo guitar. I pushed synths and drum loops through the units and found that the Newton Channel truly excels as a bus processor. Hitting the pair hard (there is a 1⁄4-inch link jack for the compressors) made tracks really shine. It is like putting your sound through a buffer to polish old rocks. The post sound is cleaner and not as boring as the various instruments/sounds are lifted and separated from each other within the field. There are dual balanced outputs, with one at -6 dB, so you can drive the Newton Channel hard without overdriving the next input down the line.
The Newton Channel provides a balanced, single-rear combo input jack. For line level, just set the Mic Gain to zero while the Trim pot is centered. The Newton does include a variable high-pass input filter (20 to 250 Hz), which adds a little more EQ usability to the unit. I had a vocalist in the studio to finish up a song, who I'd used my Portico II with previously. We used the Newton to finish the last verse, and the tone was very close between the two channels except I had taken out too much bass on the later takes. By cutting some of the bass from the earlier tracks and resurrecting some bass on the third verse, I got them close enough to work. I could hear it, but the vocalist couldn’t until I pointed it out. Yeah, I was fixing my own mistake, but that just shines a light on how much correction the Newton’s simple tools can provide. Fixed gain and EQ points might not seem ideal, but most of the steps are only separated by a couple of dBs or frequencies. For years, the Portico II drove me crazy, since every function on the front panel lit up with the exception of the power button. My fingers would circle around the right side of the faceplate until I found the small unlit button. The Newton does have a power light on the front, but the switch is on the back. Jokes on me. A little more serious are the power rails. The Portico II Channel runs on +/-36V. The Newton runs on +/-15V, but all that extra voltage only provides about 1 to 1.5 dB extra headroom, according to Rupert Neve Designs. However, you can make the Newton crunchy. The Portico, not so much – it is like a sonic seawall.
The Newton Channel is an interesting and useful product. There are other channel strips out there, and one could design their own path using standalone units or via a 500 Series rack. However, most comparable units cost closer to the $4000 Shelford. So, $1999 is a lot more doable for many, and the Newton’s quality is up to snuff. Treat the Newton with respect, and it will give you one classy capture and mixing tool.