To begin this review, I first must admit that this is the most expensive piece of recording equipment we have yet reviewed in Tape Op. It is also, outside of my home, the most expensive purchase I have ever made in my life. $56,000 is a lot of money - and our readers who have invested in professional consoles know that much more can be spent on a studio console if desired. Heck, much more could have been added to my console as well - and it would have cost more. So, way back in issue #18, I interviewed Bob Weston, and I remember both of us expressing a desire for custom consoles. (Bob even threatened to build his own.) We had the same basic idea: a mixing platform with line inputs, auxiliary sends, buses, and a left/right output section. A simple, stripped-down device to mix records on - not to track through (unless summing channels or monitoring tape). The shocker to the "normal" user would be that there were no mic preamps or equalizers in this console - and in my case, no automation.
A number of years ago, the chaps at Rupert Neve Designs showed me a blueprint of a console they were planning to manufacture. I asked if the console of my dreams could be configured with 32 line inputs, a classic VU meter bridge, and aux and bus capability. They said, "Yes." In November 2008, after much money juggling on my part, we installed a custom 5088 in Jackpot! Recording Studio. Replacing the old console was fairly painless, as I had preordered DB25 patchbays and harnesses with XLR or 1/4'' TRS and DB25 connectors on each end from Redco Audio (www.redco.com, Tape Op #21). The 5088 comes without a stand, but the folks at Sterling Modular Systems (www.sterlingmodular.com, #72) build stands to order for these - 5088 Legset ($949 direct) - so I had ordered one. The stand is made of heavy-duty steel and was quick to assemble, though a few bolts were mistakenly missing. The one point I would stress to anyone using this stand and console is to have some sort of rubber strips available to put between the mixer's base and the stand's top rails - or to drill some holes and bolt them together. When we first put them together the console would slide around. Luckily I had some dense rubber pieces which held it in place perfectly. (Thanks to Sam Coomes of Quasi for hanging out and helping move consoles around.)
At the time I agreed to buy the 5088, there were 16 in the world, so instead of taking a trip to visit one of them, I placed a truckload of trust in Rupert Neve's reputation (interviewed in Tape Op #26) - but what a reputation that is. He is possibly the best-known and most respected console designer in the world, and his earlier designs are all still sought as studio centerpieces, or parted out and sold as individual racked modules; and his designs are slavishly copied by many boutique audio companies. The 5088 is being touted as the "culmination" of Rupert's console design. But what technical features "sold me"? How about 90 volt power rails? That's 45 volts plus and minus power. Many consoles use 24 to 28 volts (or less), and this voltage (generally) corresponds to the amount of headroom the console can provide without breaking up. What about custom transformers on every I/O point? Yup. Rupert loves transformers, and this board is chock full of them. Discrete op-amp cards - that's right, they designed their own op amps (these are not IC's!), and the gain stages use these throughout the console. Being that the entire console is modular, and these op amps are as well, future repairs are already easier. Speaking of repairs, buying a console with built-in tech support and a warranty was also one of the reasons I considered buying a new board from Rupert Neve Designs instead of purchasing an older one with all its inherent problems. Having heard many nightmares from studio owners who'd purchased used consoles and spent thousands of dollars and years getting them to run properly, I opted out of that scenario by buying something new. Beyond the circuit design, the console's flexible 8 aux sends, 8 buses with balanced inserts, and 4 stereo aux returns allowed for a decent amount of creative routing. In fact, the master section with the four group channel strips allows for 16 inputs (8 snagged from the bus returns when not being used) - so in the case of my console with its 32 channel strips, there are a total of 48 inputs during mixdown. The console also features a decent monitor section, though at Jackpot! we use a Dangerous Monitor ST to control three sets of speakers and a subwoofer, along with talkback and input routing. Speaking of talkback, there's an XLR jack on the front panel so you can pick your own mic, though the awkward placement wouldn't work so well with a cable or very large mic; fellow 5088 owner, Doug McBride, recommends the AKG D 58 E, as it sits with a nice low profile. Another feature that sold me on the console is the liberal use of switches available to remove inserts, aux sends, panning, and such from a given signal path. It's great to know your mixer's signal isn't running to the patchbay and back at every insert point unless it's engaged; plus it's also excellent for checking bus compression insert settings.
I'll reiterate, this console is fully modular. All input and group channels can be pulled easily, and the console arrives with them removed and individually boxed up. The monitor master section is also removable. A 5088 can also be configured in a number of different ways. In our case we went without the "penthouse" - the section (up to two "stories" high) that can hold preamps, EQs, compressors, or any of the Neve Portico-series products, which integrate with the input channels via a proprietary bus system. The cost will obviously go up with the more goodies you add, but then again, you could order a console with some blank panels covering a penthouse and then proceed to purchase what you'd like as money permits. In our case, we decided that the outboard preamps and EQs we already had (piles of them) would be more than enough to provide for tracking and mixing. As we had previously owned an Allen & Heath Saber console for ten years, I had also gotten into the habit of not using the onboard EQs, and the preamps weren't even hooked up for use. The 5088's modular flexibility could be a huge plus for some folks.
Once the 5088 was installed, we ran it through input and output tests to make sure all connections were good. Everything was fine, so we put up a reel and listened though the console. Everything sounded clear as a bell coming through, so we ran the console through some tests, like pushing channel input trims up all the way and assigning all channels to all buses and bringing them into the L/R mix. We could certainly overdrive the 5088 at this point, but the kicker was that the overdrive took a lot of pushing to get to, and the resulting distortion sounded pretty damn cool. Not at all like the nasty, harsh IC op- amp-based clipping we'd had on the Saber. Back on safe ground, with the input trims at their unity center indent, the tracks once again sounded full, clear, and better than ever before; and the L/R mix sat at a good level with faders around unity for most instruments. But, we had a major problem with the console design, and one so stunning I couldn't believe it was for real.
When an engineer has a mix up, they expect to hit a channel button marked "solo" and to hear that instrument alone. When I hit solo nothing happened. I finally noticed there was a monitor bus marked "solo". If I hit solo and then switched to the solo monitor I then heard the soloed track(s). This ran so contrary to my expectations I figured something was broken. Hell, with 32 channels to the left of the monitor section I couldn't even reach channel one's solo and the monitor button at the same time with my arms fully outstretched. I called our buddy Doug McBride (see his comments below) at Gravity Studios in Chicago, as I knew he had taken possession of a 5088 before me. Doug assured me that this was the way it had been designed and that he'd gotten used to it. I was worried though, as Jackpot! features mostly freelance engineers, and I knew this would throw anyone off. I contacted RND, and sure enough they explained this was the way the console had been designed. Why? I've still never gotten an answer for that, but I've been promised one over a beer at some point. Anyway, I assured them that if I had known this was the case that I would have seriously considered not buying the 5088. I must have stirred something up, because the company soon leapt into designing a mod for the master section - one that would enable "normal" soloing like most consoles out there. As of July 2009, we've had this feature installed and it works as promised, plus all future 5088s will have this mod as a standard feature. You all have me to thank. I should also mention that the solo function is set as solo in place (SIP) with no ability to solo pre- fader or have solo "follows" for effect returns or buses. This isn't so bad, and I'd found I was almost always in this mode when working on other boards, even when I had other options. Plus as the solo mode still routes through its own bus, you can never solo and accidentally mute channels while tracking. Another problem, though less upsetting, was that many of the mute switches turned out to be defective. In the first several months, we pulled and swapped 11 input channels because the switches would fail to engage in mute mode, even though the LED would indicate otherwise. I believe this problem has now been solved. The other goofy thing was the use of silicone adhesive to hold the caps to the mute switches in place; they ended up at differing heights and some even popped off up in the air during operation. We bought our own adhesive and reattached many of them with better luck.
Okay, enough complaining. What the reader probably wants to know is "Does it sound good?" and "Was it worth it?" After installation, I flew back home as I don't live in the same town as my studio these days. I had been hearing positive reports from my studio manager, Kendra Lynn, but I didn't get to run the console through its paces until I returned in January to spend three weeks recording and mixing Richmond Fontaine's new album, We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, with J.D. Foster producing. J.D. and I had done several other sessions on my old console before, so I knew this would be a good test. Initially we tracked to 16-track 2'' and used the console to monitor the deck. Immediately I felt I could hear more detail during mic placement, and the whole process was much easier. Mics and preamps were swapped out for better choices with an assuredness I'd not quite felt before - the console's clarity was astounding. We proceeded to dump best takes into Pro Tools at 24-bit, 96 kHz with Apogee Rosetta 800s (Tape Op #40) and overdubbed while monitoring "in the box". When it came time to mix, we put the tracks up again through the 5088 and went to 1/4" tape on an MCI JH-110. That was the real moment of truth. You can tell me that mixing in the box can work, and I'll believe you that it can be done (and I've worked this way myself with good results), but with a console like the 5088, the tracks will simply sound better going through this beast. Route to the line inputs, push the faders up, and it is better. J.D. was in agreement that these mixes sounded stellar. He even visited other studios afterwards to take a listen to the tracks before mastering and confirmed the inherent goodness again. I've mixed several projects on the 5088 now, and I can say that mixing has become an easier process, the mastering folks have praised the results, and the overall sound is easily better than before. Even the groups with whom I've worked on both consoles can hear the difference. It also seems like clients have passed the word around for us; whereas we previously had a console that could "get the job done", we now have one that really adds something to the mix.
Was it worth it? At the level I'm at as a studio owner and engineer, the answer is absolutely, "Yes." Hell, if I had this console in my hands from the beginning of my so-called career, all my records would have sounded better, and I would have never needed any upgrade. Having a company that stands behind their products with a quick, responsive repair team is very important to me; Jackpot! has to be able to stay up and running all year. But to have a company that will listen to a purchaser and respond with a modification (and a new product design) really exceeded my expectations; I was certain I would have to live with the odd solo mode. But none of that would mean shit if the console didn't sound great, and it does. I would put this mixer up against any console being manufactured right now, and any vintage boards, and based on what I've heard it do and my experience with many other consoles, sound-wise I would bet that it would either compare favorably (apples and oranges) or surpass any of its competition. Rupert Neve's legacy in the world of console design is a daunting one, but I truly believe with the 5088 he's created a board that will only add to his achievements to date, and it's a piece of equipment that will only improve any recording session it is used on. And that is all we ask, isn't it? -LC
After owning and operating a vintage Neve 8058 for ten years here at Gravity, it was no longer working for us. No, not functionally, but it no longer made sense. It had been good for attracting freelance producers and engineers to bring in bands (while I took time off to get married and make little boys), but those days are over. By that I mean the overhead-to-lockout rate ratio no longer worked, and Gravity is one of those studios that actually has to function as a business (not a trustafarian hang). So, I did a lot of research and talked with a lot of people and demoed a lot of gear. Unlike Larry, I wasn't looking for a "line in" console. As I spend a majority of my time mastering, I'd gotten used to tweaking my EQs from the sweet spot, so I wanted a console that gave me powerful, sweet sounding EQ right there in the console. Both the Portico 5033 (5 bands) and the 5032 (3 bands with preamp) fit the bill. So I bought a more compact 16 channel frame with a penthouse stuffed with 25 Portico modules and 24 channels of Tonelux's ShadowMix automation. The ShadowMix is pretty groundbreaking - there's another article in there. (Martinsound's Flying Faders is also available.) An important detail about the 5088 for us is that you can use the group/bus insert returns at mixdown to add additional inputs; I most often use it as a 32-input console. I've had a lot of folks ask me to compare the sound to our 8058. The 8058 was a bit darker, and it was a bit thicker sounding (whether I wanted that or not). The new 5088 is wider sounding, clearer, more detailed, and generally more versatile. I can make this console sound thick or open. As a mastering engineer, I've learned that I can add thickness later if I need it, but it's nice to have the option to bring in a more open-sounding mix that still has that Neve transformer tone. By the way, Larry's right. These new transformers sound great - oh yes.
Update: March 2017
Nine years later I am still in awe of this console. It makes mixing easier, and beats mixing in the box by a mile. Having a “name brand” and high quality analog board has helped me get work, cemented my reputation as a mixer, and probably changed the course of my career. I still think it is the best analog console currently made.
What anyone thinking about buying this beast should know: It gets hot, and the control room will be warmer. It also has cooling fans, and they are slightly audible. I am okay with both of these points, but they are god to know about. We did also go through an extensive switch replacement process, as the little white capped switches all blew out on us. Turns out the supplier pulled a bait and switch on RND and I was the one client who got the raw end of that. But RND set me up with loaners, and we went through banks of 8 getting parts replaced, on their dime, many years into ownership. Consoles like this are not plug and play, nor are they sold at Guitar Center, and the best manufactures act like RND do; they are always available for help, they fix it, and they listened when I had complaints. I don’t think I will ever swap this console out for anything else, and I think that says a lot. -LC
(Prices start at $32,750; rupertneve.com -Doug McBride <www.gravitystudios.com>