The Vintech Audio X73i is a single-channel, 1RU preamp and equalizer, designed to emulate the Neve 1073 at an affordable price ($1350 street). The X73i uses Class A, all discrete, transformer-balanced circuitry throughout, and it requires an external power supply ($225 street, powers four units). Vintech's goal with the i version was to offer a less expensive version of their X73 model, and they did this by utilizing non-concentric potentiometers and switches mounted to the circuit board and by removing the LED output meter.
On the front panel of the X73i are a 1/4'' instrument input, a rotary gain switch, an output level knob, and switches for mic/line, input impedance, phantom power, phase reverse, and EQ enable. Three rotary switches and three pots make up the EQ section, and the original Neve 1073 settings are available as well as seven additional EQ frequencies. A red LED indicates power on. The back panel includes XLR mic and line inputs, an XLR output, and a four- prong socket for the external power-supply cable.
There are a number of obvious ergonomic differences between the X73i and the original 1073. The horizontal layout of the X73i is simpler than that of a vintage module lying on its side, and horizontal orientation gives one the sense that the unit is not some orphan from a larger family of modules. The knobs are big, custom-cut aluminum pieces, and they're a pleasure to grab and twist without having to baby them. The non-concentric layout is the greatest departure from the original 1073 design-and definitely feels unlike a Neve. For me, the non-concentric knobs aren't better or worse, just different. But this new layout brings the price down and doesn't affect the sound. A great improvement is that each boost/cut pot is center- notched, making returns to home-base definitive tactile moves, rather than uncertain visual maneuvers. The impedance switch is right there for the pushing, not playing hard-to-get with the user. The mini-toggles for phantom, phase and EQ are far more rugged than the wobbly, plastic Neve pushbuttons. Even with these ergonomic changes, using the X73i still feels much like using a Neve design: the notched frequency selectors snap with a similar feel; the boost/cut pots turn with familiar ease; and because "that sound" is there, the ears sense familiar changes in sound as one tries out different gain and EQ settings.
Vintech has added a number of new frequency selections not found on the 1073. The new frequencies include 220 Hz in the hi-pass filter; 300 Hz on the low shelf; and five new positions in the mids at 270 and 560 Hz, and 1.2, 2.2, and 5.6 kHz. Each frequency selector begins in the "off" position (like many of Neve's designs). I've been asked if the extra frequencies take away from the simplicity of the Neve experience, and my answer is no. If anything, the added frequencies, especially in the mids, simplify surgical EQ tasks and add to the tone palette.
My first run with the pair of X73i's was on tambourine and acoustic guitar overdubs on a rock song with a country twang and swing. This song was falling into a Crazy Horse distortion wash, which was burying the nuances of the hi- hats and various country guitar licks. I recorded the tambourine with a Neumann M 149 tube mic, the X73i, and a Drawmer 1960 compressor (all going into a Pro Tools|HD Accel system). Gain settings were easy and fast. To get the tambourine to cut through, I boldly cranked the high shelf EQ, and everyone in the room smiled as the jangle cut through the mix with a silky, transparent charm. On previous attempts to do the same with a vintage Trident Series 80, I had to be more careful with the highs, as it was a touch harsh. I was also able to roll off 300 Hz easily to reduce the tambourine's thump. Also, at the 300 Ohms impedance setting, the tambourine was very bold, while at 1200 Ohms it sounded distant, making the impedance switch almost like a depth-of-field tool. The inexpensive acoustic guitar we recorded wasn't much to speak of, with a rather uninspired sound in the room. With the same signal path, we laid down hard-panned doubled tracks of this guitar, and it became a full-bodied, sparkling Martin, this time by bringing up 1.6 kHz, cranking the hi-shelf, and rolling off 60 Hz. Previous attempts at acoustic tracks on this tune with a Universal Audio 6176 were very good, but with the Vintech, we saved the song. In fact, the tambourine and acoustics now dominate the mix, taking this tune to a completely different place in terms of production-let's say from Neil Young toward John Cougar.
The M 149 is a very hot, sensitive mic, capable of revealing frequency quirks in voices. The singer I was recording has a fantastic Springsteen-like growl, but on high notes becomes quite nasal (perhaps a regional Buffalo phenomenon). My goal was to pad that nasal quality a bit, without killing the airiness. I notched 1.2 kHz just a little and boosted the hi-shelf a hair. At this point, I was able to snap that mid-freq selector around to vary the sound. I actually changed the mid notch from 1.6 kHz (verse) to 1.2 kHz (chorus), with nice, subtle results, but decided not to do this on final takes for the sake of consistency while comp'ing the vocals. Without EQ, the preamps were exceptionally transparent and open-sounding for vocals, and the gain attenuator made compressor settings simple.
On another tune, I needed lead guitar tones to cut through layers of distorted guitars that formed a wall-of- sound with very few missing bricks. I'd used the UA 6176, and got a great tone, but couldn't get past the wall I'd created. Before tearing the wall down, I decided to really push less-occupied frequencies, like 700 Hz. To further the challenge, we were using a Strat to accomplish the job of a Les Paul, and it was up to the EQ's on the Vintechs to turn water into wine. On a Marshall 4x12, I placed two MD-421's, each into an X73i. With very little tweaking, the Vintechs provided a creamy, thick tone that acted like a graffiti artist's paint sprawled on the wall of distortion. Having done this kind of low-mid push with vintage Neve 1081's, I wanted to see what the Vintechs could do, and the results were right where I wanted them.
At a live recording, I used the X73i's on two AKG C 414's as ambient mics for a percussionist playing gongs and china-boy cymbals. He was getting vibrant harmonics out of these instruments by waving them around within the stereo field, causing some interesting panning effects. He was running a sampler loop through the monitors, and the mics were picking that up. I rolled off 160 Hz, and the sampler was tamed, while the rest of the frequency spectrum remained open with a convincing stereo realism that did the complex gongs justice. The next act had a full drumkit, so I used the Vintechs on kick and snare. The lows on the kick were fast and punchy, and the added lower mid frequency at 270 Hz proved to be a needed notch filter. With an SM57 on the snare top, I was able to dial out a pingy overtone at 1.2 kHz while using the high shelf to dial in some more rasps. I then overdrove the preamp a bit to thicken the snare, and with the output attenuator, I was able to get a fat transient overdrive without the usual gain issues. Interestingly, I ended up using two frequencies that aren't available on the original 1073's, proving the expanded EQ to be very useful for a live situation where switching out and tuning drums isn't an option.
I love the sound and versatility of these preamps and plan to heave them to all of my sessions. (These units and power supply are rather heavy with their transformers and full-steel chassis-should I be complaining?) My only concerns are that there are no output meters (included on the more expensive X73 and X81), and perhaps the non- concentric knobs will be an issue for diehard 1073 fans. But none of these issues held me back from easily dialing in very convincing Neve tones.
So, are these accurate reproductions of the original 1073 modules? Many who work with original Neves will tell you that each module has a unique, even quirky, personality. Some are just old and crotchety, others received circuit modifications, and perhaps the transformers vary. And the coloration and distortion of the signal is what so many have come to love about the Neve sound. They are complex beasts. Vintech has posted frequency curve tests between original Neves and their own units on their website that show nearly identical response. This data will be comforting to those who want "that Neve sound"-but actually using the X73i has been far more convincing. Vintech has created an accurate, affordable, and soulful reproduction of the 1073-with a handful of additions I'm sure most folks will welcome. ($1595 MSRP, $ 1350 for a limited time; www.vintech-audio.com)