The 88RS console-inspired 8801 incorporates a mic preamp
with hi and low-pass filters; four-band EQ; and a compressor and gate. You can reorder the functions as you like and assign the filter and/or EQ to the dynamics sidechain. An optional A/D converter card can do 192 kHz or even direct-to-DSD.
Straight out of the box, without even digging into the compressor and EQ section, the 8801's preamp imparts an extra bit of life and character. It's just that Neve je ne sais quoi-a little bit of undefinable warmth residing just on the edge of crunchy, but not dropping over that edge-that can enhance every recording. My first time using the 8801 was on a baritone voice. The preamp brought out the detail and character of the low range while still controlling the muddy 150-400 Hz tones and keeping each note clearly in focus. On higher-pitched female vocals, the upper-air in the spectrum was perfectly light and silky, without any harshness or sterility at 8-10 kHz. And again, all this without touching the rest of the channel strip. At its core, this is a fantastic mic preamp, but it's also wicked as an insert processor. The line input sounded great, and the EQ was very musical, especially in the upper mids. The compressor was fine, though a little imprecise with short release times. Overall though, everything processed through this unit came out sounding warm, undistorted, and better for it.
In terms of controls, the 8801 has some great positives and a few minor negatives. Packing all the necessary controls for a full mic preamp and channel strip into a single-rackspace unit is a tall task, and Neve, for the most part, did a great job. In terms of feel, the pots are solid yet move smoothly-always a nice thing. Some of the controls are, however, not terribly intuitive. It is not immediately obvious, for instance, that to change the input between mic, line, and instrument, one must press in the input gain knob. Similarly, much of the switching for EQ and compression setting is accomplished by pressing knobs instead of separate buttons, and while this allows for fewer buttons cluttering the front panel-and for the buttons that are there to be bigger-it is not at all intuitive or clearly labeled. (If you have one of these units installed in a facility for hire, make sure the assistant is available to explain it.) One fantastic feature of this unit is the recall software. The 8801 can be connected to a Mac or PC via USB, and all channel strip settings can be saved and later recalled. It's intuitive for anyone who has used a large analog console for this; the software gives you a picture of the front panel knobs and buttons, highlights the ones that are incorrectly set, and flashes when you have them set properly.
Now, I am known for taking things to 11 sonically, so what is this unit like when you push it to the extreme? Well, I have made some of the most wonderful kick and snare recordings with this baby. Pushing everything to the edge on a kick is awesome. I still have "botttom end" on the kick, and it's still "musical" as opposed to just being a load of bollox crunch. It says, "Hey yes, I am fucked up, but I still rock. Use me!" I love it. Also, taking a vocal and switching the order of the EQ and dynamics; throwing in an overly aggressive gate and EQ'ing it to turn it into an effect; then compressing the shit out of it; and then feeding the 8801 to a 3/16th and 1/8th-note delay... it kicks, man. Honestly, it's so musical that when you use it out of the "norm," it stays so loyal and encourages you to take it further. It's like having a clean stretch of Autobahn in a Bugatti and going full throttle; the car will go way beyond your expectations. Same shit here in a musical sense-this box makes me want to push the limits. Like a Distressor, it says the end stop is where you want it to be. The unit never started to sound shit at any stage that I was messing with it. I loved this aspect of it. If I am going to
spend this much wonga on a unit (by the way, you really need two of these), I want the bog-standard audiophile warm, phat Neve sound; but I also want a box that will go with me to the dark side of music and love it in that space too. ($3250 MSRP; www.ams-neve.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.