Admittedly, there are more than a couple Neve 1073 mic-pre/EQ clones out there. While one may claim to be a true reproduction, another will call itself a variation. Well it's time for those companies crowding the market to move over and make room once again. Here comes another brother of the 1073, the Aurora Audio GTQ2, and this baby's no pretender. The GTQ2 two-channel discrete mic-pre/EQ has something-or rather, someone-that nobody else has: famous ex- Neve engineer, Mr. Geoff Tanner. Tanner has created what might very well be the best Neve-ish channel this side of an 8068 console. The GTQ2 has two iron-hearted channels with a simplified 3-band EQ, all tucked in a 1U rackmount unit. Aurora describes the box as not a reproduction, but the next generation of the classic- indeed, the "evolved" British channel-amp. Admittedly, Tanner's "baby" was designed to provide much of the character of the 1073. As Tanner himself says, "A Neve influence has to be expected. Heaven's above, we are ex-Neve designers! Who would better know the failings of a much-copied original and want to make something better?"
Before we compare it to the Almighty One, we should first better understand the 1073 itself. Why does it sound like it does? What makes it so special? The 1073's history and features are well-known, but for you Newbies, we'll give a brief recap: In the early 1970's, the 1073 modules, or variations thereof, were plugged in to the I/O channels of the now legendary Neve consoles. The 1073 "channel amp," as Neve called it, is a modular, discrete, transistor microphone/line preamp with a high- pass filter and a three-band, selectable-frequency EQ. The high frequency is a fixed shelf at 12 kHz, with mids and lows allowing for the selection of set frequencies, the mid being a fixed-Q bell filter, the low again being shelf. The 1073's frequencies are beloved for having amazingly musical center-points.
That's only part of the magic, however. Many people believe the transformers are the trick. There was something about those original military-grade units that gave the 1073 (and other Neve amps) the forward, round, and unquestionably big sound they are famous for. Tanner validates this idea. "I think the thing that most contributes to the Neve 1073 sound is the amount of 'iron' inside it, being the input and output transformers, and the inductor based EQ," says Tanner. "The module is not without its failings, but these add to the personality of the module." This "iron" theory is key. More even than tubes, transformer-based circuits have contributed to what we call "classic" or "vintage" sound.
Now let's look at those 1073's "failings" Tanner mentioned. He explains, "The output stage, reminiscent of a tube stage of an earlier era, uses a 2N3055 115- watt power transistor to drive 70 mA through the primary of the output transformer. This transistor is not renowned for its HF response." This is not the only issue, apparently. "Among other things, the equalizer has excessive HF roll off on the inverting stages of the circuit card that can bring the response down as much as 4 dB at 20 Khz," Tanner says. In layman's terms, this means the 1073 is "dark" by today's standards.
With these strengths and weaknesses in mind, Mr. Tanner went about the challenging work of designing a 1073-type amp with better noise and frequency-response specs. The first thing on his shopping list was that special transformer, the original Marinair unit found in earlier Neve amps. The company has been defunct for decades, but after making a few calls, Tanner found that the Marinair crew was still alive and working in the UK. As a result, GTQ2's input transformer is designed by the original Marinair designer and wound/assembled by original Marinair staff. This is really big.
The EQ is an amazing story, as well. "Where the 1073 uses inductors for the mid frequencies and high pass filter, the GTQ2 uses clever 'inductor-less' transistor circuitry. We originally designed the circuit as a two-band EQ for the monitor section of the A3269/71 EMI-Neve console. We expanded it to three-band and matched the Q of the mid-frequency to that of a 1073 and love the way it sounds," explains Tanner. It's a simplified, stripped down version of the 1073, while retaining the famous 12 kHz top shelf. The mid is switchable between 400 Hz and 3.2 kHz, and the low-shelf is fixed at 80 Hz. There is also an 80 Hz high-pass filter. The 400 Hz mid and the 80 Hz HPF are both very useful. Like a vintage Neve, the preamp circuit will yield a sound we call "fat." Indeed, vintage Neve consoles were known to have low-mid "build up" over multiple channels. Being able to dip the "mud-range" at 400 Hz and "roll the rumble" at 80 Hz proves very handy when tracking with these types of channel amps.
That's enough theory, let's get to the demo! We used the GTQ2 to record a lead electric guitar solo and a baritone male vocal. The guitar setup was a Gibson SG through a Bogner Shiva 112 combo, set to a brown and creamy "woman tone," reminiscent of early Clapton or Peter Green. The mic was a Royer R-121 ribbon, about six inches away from the cone. From there, we went right in to the Aurora. The GTQ2 has plenty of gain, which helps the lower-output ribbon. We immediately heard a very true representation of the tone from the amp. This preamp, like its predecessors, is a little slow, and that's a good thing. The sound was thick and chocolaty. We decided to add some aggressiveness and presence with the EQ. First we boosted 12k a little. Nice. Then we boosted it more. And more. Then we floored it, and it still sounded great. There was really no point at which it sounded too harsh. It added a very natural and rockin' top to the tone, revealing some nice speaker-edge.
Dipping 400 was helpful, but when we selected 3.2k and gave it a boost, we achieved true guitar Nirvana. Wow. It's a perfect boost-frequency for rock guitar. It provides both note definition and a leading-edge to the tone. We ended up with both 3.2k and 12k at around +4. There was no doubt that the guitar sounded better with the EQ than without. We now had a fat voice-like tone, with plenty of teeth. Just like what you get with, that's right, a 1073.
Next, we set up a 15-year-old, mint-condition Neumann U 87. This particular 87 has a really smooth and silky sound. It almost sounds "toob." I have used this mic with real 1073's many times. I have also recorded the singer before. He has a low-pitched yet nasally voice. A full mic and a big round preamp is just the ticket for this guy. We used only the GTQ2's preamp without EQ. At first, I thought I was hearing the signal through a vintage 1073. I mean, it sounded exactly like the real thing. There is that intangible magic you get when you hear vintage Neve sound-like it has a soul. And the GTQ2 was doing that "soul thang." The hair on the back of my neck stood up. As we listened more, however, we noticed a couple of subtle differences: first, the GTQ2 preamp is actually quieter than a real 1073; second, it has a bit more "air"-more high-end detail. The core of the sound, nevertheless, is the iron-driven British tone we associate with the legendary Neves.
We didn't get around to the front-panel DI input, but I have talked to a few people who own the GTQ2 and rave about how good it is.
Geoff Tanner has done it! With his "baby"-the Aurora GTQ2-he has truly improved upon the classic, while retaining everything that's great about it. To put it simply, Mr. Tanner got it right!