The Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5042 is a two- channel tape emulator and line-driver. Like other units in the Portico line, the 5042 is a half-rack design. It is equally at home as a desktop unit or rack mounted next to a spacer or a second Portico unit. The front panel is clearly labeled and simple to comprehend. Each channel has a knob for gain and one for saturation. Other parameters, such as meter source, tape engage, buss send, and tape speed, are controlled via pushbuttons, which illuminate when engaged. An eight-segment LED meter can monitor input level or level being sent to the tape circuit. The illuminated controls and meter make it easy to get a rough read of the 5042 from a distance or in a dark control room.
Connections are balanced XLR. Additionally, there are four 1/4'' female buss jacks. These allow you to strap the 5042 to other Portico units. For example, a 5042 could be fed by a Portico 5012 preamp/EQ to form a hi-end mix buss.
I found that the 5042 can be useful in both mastering and recording situations. For mastering, I found the 15 IPS tape setting with the saturation knob fully counter-clockwise (the unit's absolute minimum saturation level) provided the most controlled coloration. The 7.5 IPS setting seemed to pull too much high-end air from the mix, and any saturation setting past a millimeter of the minimum setting seemed to go too far. I often found myself turning the knob by just a hair and having the saturation level jump too far for my tastes. In terms of delivering the goods, I would say the 5042 lands squarely between the Crane Song HEDD, which can add subtle analog emulation, and an actual two-track machine. Ideally, it's a great tool to have in addition to the HEDD and a real deck. Mastering engineers be warned: this box is another thing for your list.
The unit has no true bypass, so mastering-types will want to directly patch the 5042 or add it to your insert chain as appropriate. Even with the tape emulation bypassed, the unit affects the signal. But, that's not always a bad thing. When not engaging the tape emulation circuit, the 5042 may be used as a full, transformer-coupled, high-performance line amplifier capable of cutting or boosting a signal by 12 dB. I found it to be a great way to add some firmness to a thin mix. Running solo acoustic tracks through the unit reminded me of recordings made with a John Hardy mic preamp- high praise indeed.
Beneath the hood are some surprises. The 5042 uses four mini "tape head" enclosures. The Portico actually feeds the input to a tiny magnetic "head" which, in turn, is coupled to an equalized replay amplifier. No tape. No alignment hassles. No oscilloscopes. This is about as close as you're going to get short of buying a real tape deck! Second, it is great to see two big pieces of "iron" (transformers) near the output stages. Properly designed and constructed transformers can be one of the best things for audio gear, and it's clear Mr. Neve did not skimp at this stage.
You can really open up the 5042 in a tracking environment. Running drum overheads through the 5042 at 7.5 IPS with the saturation set to 1 o'clock produced some of the best overhead sounds I've heard
out of a DAW. If I'm forced to track drums to a DAW (instead of using 2'' tape), I really want the 5042 in my chain. Guitars also benefit being tracked through this guy. Using the line amp to bring up the level of a clean Strat can add just the right amount of thickness to the track. Distorted guitars take on new depth when you take the time to find just the right amount of saturation (which was often a lot!).
My concerns with the 5042 are minor. First, I am not, have never been, and probably won't ever be a fan of half- rack spaced units. (It's a personal peeve, but it makes me bonkers.) Second, users must be aware that abusing the gain and saturation settings can actually add a degree of hiss and high-end noise to a signal. Make sure to use the input level meters in conjunction with the gain control to properly gain-stage your signal. (Of course, purposefully doing this can be a great effect on its own). Finally, the use of actual tape heads makes the unit susceptible to some interference. Most times, the case provides enough shielding, but in some instances, it will be necessary to change the unit's angle or rack positioning. Make sure to test the 5042 before racking it in.
If you're in the market for a hardware tape-emulator, the 5042 must be on your short list. The coloration of the box is good enough on its own, but add in the two Neve- designed line transformers, and this is one formidable unit that is more than a one-trick pony.
($1795 MSRP; www.rupertneve.com)