In the audio world, Technical GRAMMY Award recipient Rupert Neve is arguably a bigger star than the artists who recorded some of pop music's most iconic albums through his analog mixing consoles. Considered the "father of the recording console," the self-taught engineer's achievements include designing the console that inspired Dave Grohl's Sound City film, which documents the now-defunct Los Angeles studio where Nirvana tracked 1991's seminal Nevermind and artists from Fleetwood Mac to Tom Petty recorded landmark albums.
A Wimberley, Texas, resident since 1994, the unassuming British native still speaks proper Queen's English (substituting "which" for "that") in well-modulated tones honed by decades of sound testing. At age 86 (he turns 87 on July 31), Neve gets around with the help of a cane, but remains involved in day-to-day operations, including research and development, at Rupert Neve Designs, where each console is still custom-made.
"We have somewhere between 15 and 20 projects [going] at some level, from a kernel of an idea to just about finalized and ready for production," says General Manager Josh Thomas.
In March, while christening a new 5088 mixing console at Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Neve reaffirmed his allegiance to analog sound. Comparing it to a painting — "a thing of beauty" — he said, "Digital is cut-and-dried. It's very correct, very analytical. It can be very good, but it will never produce the finer nuances that analog does."
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Neve discussed his love for analog, Dave Grohl's purchase of his 8028 console and how his Technical GRAMMY Award netted him a run-in with airport security.
In 1997 you became the third recipient of The Recording Academy's Technical GRAMMY Award. What other achievements are among your proudest?
It's hard to enumerate without sounding boastful, but really, the thing that I'm proudest of is the fact that people are still using designs of mine which started many years ago, and which, in many ways, have not been superseded since. Some of those old consoles are really hard to beat in terms of both recording quality and the effects that people today will get when they make recordings.
What projects are you currently working on?
[We are] working now on new concepts of sound, the way humans can perceive sound and the effect that it has on the human brain and on the mood of the listener. Those things, in a sense, are more difficult because they're not easy to recognize. Somebody will listen to two different recordings of the same thing, but with different methods, and there's not a lot of difference to hear. Both can be very good recordings, but they do actually generate electric brain waves, a thing that not only I, but others, have been working on for quite a few years now. So bit by bit, we're uncovering quite a few layers, and there's always something new to uncover.
I've recently started on a range of what I call "reference recordings," which use really high-definition, direct stream digital, so that it's no longer limited [by] the compact disc limitations. The trick now is, having made some recordings, how do you play them back, how do you put them into the hands of Joe Public and get them to play it? We're actually getting there.
You're marrying theoretical research to practical application. Neil Young was doing some of that. Are you two collaborating?
[smiles] Not openly, no. But I have a high respect for what he does and, of course, we agree on the value of analog. There's this general interest [in] moving back toward vinyl recordings. The quality can be superb. The products that we here at Rupert Neve Designs have produced in the last eight years have all been absolutely pristine designs with no high-order distortion, and the frequency range extends way beyond recording limits. So right from the microphone [preamplifier], the microphones themselves and the console, everything is opened to between 50 and 100 kHz bandwidth. And it makes a difference. You listen to a really good professional player or group of players recording through a pristine system, and it just makes you full of enjoyment. It's hard to describe the emotion it brings.
So what kind of music do you listen to? And what kind of system do you listen on?
Well, I listen to a variety of different systems because I'm always experimenting. So I like to find a loudspeaker which produces not only the frequency responses I want but the polar wave shape which fits the room. As far as the music is concerned, I like choral music, I like English cathedral music, large organs and choirs and soloists. It gets me interested right away.
What is the significance of your console numbers?
That's probably the hardest question you've asked. In the very early days, it was sort of related to the date of its introduction. As the number of [styles] increased, we tacked on additional numbers, which actually end up not having any direct meaning, but they've become well-known.
Dave Grohl's purchase of your 8028 console inspired him to make the Sound City documentary. You've said that you wish people would get rid of your old models. Is there a part of you that's still sentimental about them?
Well, sentimental maybe in the wrong sense, because looking back on consoles of that era, I know too much about them. I know things that are wrong with them that I would just like to be able to correct. And yet, having said that, the quality of the signals that they're able to record are what people want. Today, a lot of what we do is introducing effects into those modules. There's a range of aficionados who buy these modules because of the very interesting musical effects. Designers like myself are constantly torn between excellence and pristine design, and adding some musical effect. We have to rely upon [users] to tell us whether [they] like it or not.
I was surprised that Dave Grohl took such an interest in the source of the console. Very often, [music] producers just use a piece of equipment without much thought as to how it came into existence. But he understood that you can't produce a console of that sort without the personality and artistic element that goes into it.
Some say your work with GRAMMY-winning producer George Martin helped facilitate the British invasion. Do you agree?
I wouldn't say facilitated. George Martin and [GRAMMY-winning engineer] Geoff Emerick had been working with EMI Records. They were using consoles which were made by EMI initially. Big, cumbersome instruments designed by Mike Batchelor, a marvelous designer — true, basic analog designs, but somewhat limited in what you could do with it. During the startup of the pop scene, we produced the idea of equalization in every channel, which the EMI console didn't do. So that was, I think, what attracted George Martin — that he had a tool available to him which was much more powerful than just the basic recording channel. From about 1968 or '69 right through to the mid-'70s, George Martin bought quite a number of Neve products.
There's a story about you trying to take your Technical GRAMMY Award home. Was that your rock star airport moment?
[laughs] Yeah. It was, I suppose, the fact that I'd been speaking slightly less American than I am now. But there was this amazing ceremony where this [Technical] GRAMMY was awarded and it was enclosed in a beautifully sculptured cardboard box from Tiffany's, and that was in a great big carry bag. When [my wife] Evelyn and I were heading home, there were not many people about, and we came to the security. They asked what this was and I said, "That's my GRAMMY." [The security guard responded,] "Your grammy? But sir, I'm sorry, we cannot permit ashes to be carried in the cabin. We can check it for you." I said, "Have a look inside." And so they took it out of its box and there were just screams of disbelief; the security people, girls especially, were absolutely all over the place. Security at the airport came to a standstill for several minutes. "It's a GRAMMY! Look at this! A real GRAMMY."
You're a self-taught engineer and scientist. Today, is it possible to do what you did as a self-taught expert?
Oh, yes. But the great problem is that there is so much more in the field today that a newcomer would have to learn. When I started, things were very simple. Microphones were omnidirectional, very basic, and so on. You would learn how to use these microphones [despite] their shortcomings, and that learning curve would be very valuable. And really, it's just a question of listening — listening to the room, listening to the recording, and trying this, trying that. And reading some good textbooks on acoustics and methods of recording, and so on. I still have these books on my bookshelf at home.
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis has contributed regularly to American Songwriter, the Christian Science Monitor, Paste, Rollingstone.com, public radio, newspapers nationwide, and many regional and local magazines. A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen From A To E To Z, she also writes bios for new and established artists. A closet techie, she's written about Austin's iconic recording studios, several of which contain Neve consoles.)