Somebody likes the Portico II. I had to wait a week for RND to cook up a fresh batch when the review unit they were supposed to send was bought instead of returned. It arrived welcomed, if late. Coming out of the box it looked gorgeous - like a piece of sculpture. The front panel is a textured silver-grey with the metal knobs (they look to be the same ones as on the 5088 console) black, grey, and red in alternating rows. We all know that looks don't mean a thing; its what's on the inside that counts, but if any of your clients don't know the name Neve, they'll probably still be impressed seeing it in your rack, even without much in the way of blinking bling. Preamp on the left with an attendant high-pass filter; a four-band EQ, switchable pre or post-compressor; the compressor itself; followed by the output section with 16-point LED gain reduction and output metering. The circuitry of the Portico II utilizes a different topology from the original Portico line, and internally, it runs on +/36 volt rails.
I took the Portico II down to the Kitchen Studios where owner/operator JP had blocked out some time to work on some of his own stuff and check out the new unit. We patched it in, and at first, I just twisted knobs while JP sang some vocal lines. I like to see how a unit handles extremes before finding out what it does well. Mostly I messed with the EQ, and the Portico II sounded like an EQ should. The highs didn't pierce, simply plied on more top end, and the lows didn't bloom and get all mushy. It could produce plenty of mud - thick and heavy enough to plug a certain damn hole in the Gulf of Mexico, but it was a refined mud. The low and high bands both have four steps, from 35 Hz to 220 Hz, and 4.7 kHz all the way up to 25 kHz, respectively. The on/off buttons and shelf/peaking buttons all latch and light up when depressed, making it easy to see what's going on. The two mid-bands are switched on as a pair, and each is parametric, although neither amount nor Q is stepped. Combine all four with the high-pass filter's four stepped bands (20-250 Hz) and you have plenty of tone-shaping control. It is the kind of modern EQ one would expect from the bench of Rupert Neve. After mucking around with the voice, we moved on to bass and compared the Portico II to a Brent Averill 1073 without using EQ on either unit. With its extended new Silk+ control engaged, the Portico II sounded very close to the BAE. The Silk circuitry benefits from a variable knob so you can dial in different amounts. The red-light Silk+ seemed to match the low end and slight top shimmer of the "vintage" BAE. Next we ran an already recorded bass from JP's song through the unit. It was a psychedelic number, and the bass propelled the groove. There was nothing wrong with it, but a little fiddling with the compressor and Silk made for an improvement. The comp is full featured with threshold, ratio, attack, release, and makeup gain. A button inserts the compressor in line while another switches detection from a faster feed-forward to the more vintage feedback mode. There is also a blend knob, allowing you to achieve parallel compression "in-the-analog-box." Like the feed forward/back button, this gives more flexibility for controlling dynamics - and sound. The typical use of the blend function would be to add a touch of dynamics back into already squished tracks, but you can also add a touch of heft and sustain to a nakedly unprocessed track. The compressor sat the bass into the song, adding punch and an evenness. The Silk+ added the perfect amount of low-end girth while leaving individual notes defined and articulate. The only flaw in the unit now raised its head. With enough signal present, switching the buttons produced a thump. Not speaker endangering, but still annoying. Button punching was silent if no signal was present, and there is a mute button as a workaround. Still, it is something to be aware of. Next, it was on to electric guitar with a Vox cab and a Shure SM57 - a classic combo. Not so classic was a rack of stompboxes and a wireless setup so JP could play from the control room. Here is where the ability to dial in the amount of Silk really paid off. JP played while I twisted the amount knob and switched Silk modes. On more open, picked sounds and slow runs, Silk+ sounded great, full and present. When he switched in a distortion pedal and played chords, the older blue-light Silk brought out the glory of the midrange - smoothly. You just knew it would jump out of the speakers like a distorted guitar should. We burned up about 40 minutes that way. I'd dial in something that I thought sounded good while he played, and I would look up to see a great big ole grin on JP's face. The amount of tonality you can coax out of this one feature is simply brilliant. Switching between Silk textures, or none at all, is great - but dialing in a Goldilocks "just right" amount is something else altogether. Later, we used the unit to stack some female backing vocals. We didn't use any Silk for her and just let the preamp do its thing. It delivered - big, transparent, with a hint of transformer roundness. It stacked clean and clear in the mix. We had the input set high, and on one take, the singer surprised us and red-lighted the input. There wasn't any distortion on playback, so there is plenty of input headroom.
At home, all my initial impressions were reinforced. A fender bass DI'ed and red-Silked sounded radio ready. More female vocals got red-Silked, too. Unlike JP's backing vocals, these needed to fill out a basic acoustic arrangement - which they did, sounding rich and full coming from a small diameter condenser. For the first time ever, I didn't second guess my ability to capture that big studio sound in my humble bedroom setup. All the electronic goodness connecting the high-quality components came as close to replicating the big-board sound as I'm ever likely to get in my boardless room. Some of it was "new gear" psychology, no doubt, combined with the Neve pedigree, but the singer herself said she'd never sounded so good - even in a "real" studio. Another bonus was sibilance, or the lack thereof. I hate it, and I hear it all the time on commercial releases. I'd had sibilance issues with her in the past, but there wasn't a hint of it with the Portico II. Which was good, but still a shame, since I wanted to try out the de-esser. Instead I used the de-esser to tame some spikey filter resonance on an arpeggiated synth line in another song. Using the mid-high EQ band set to a wide Q, I found a happy place that squashed the most offensive squawks without losing the overall resonance effect or simply dulling the effect with EQ. It's another nice tool in the kit and better than the software equivalents I had already tried.
Is the RND Portico II that mythical desert island channel strip? No, but then nothing is. Some will prefer vintage, others engineers transformerless clean. The Portico II sounds big with transparent effects. Then there is the Silk mode. It can add all sorts of different colors coming in or going out, and it's brilliant and flexible for adding shades when you are deep into a mix. If the Portico II isn't the only desert island strip you'll need, it could certainly be one of them.