The beginning engineer can be overwhelmed with the number of preamps out on the market, however, understanding the role of the preamp in the signal path is important and so is understanding what one preamp will do or not do to your source. Also, a future sound engineer needs to be familiar with classics and the references other sound engineers have. The Neve 1073 is a classic preamp, classic enough that Vintech Audio (amongst others) makes a clone of the original 70’s design. This clone, the x73i, is one of the preamps available to students at Musitechnic. Before looking at the X73i and hearing how it sounds, I’d like to put the original 1073 in context and share some of legendary designer Rupert Neve’s thoughts. Next time we’ll provide some audio samples.
A Vintech Audio X73i preamp
The X73i has an output potentiometer that is not present on the 1073. The output potentiometer plays the role of the fader you would find on a console channel.
A Neve 1073 preamp
What it is, what it has
The X73i is a microphone preamplifier based on the classic Neve 1073 module. It is class A, all discrete and like the Neve module, the preamp includes an equalizer. ‘Class A’ simply refers to the way the amplifying device operates. Without going into too much detail, a class A amplifier is based on a simple design and has low distortion as one of its advantages. ‘All discrete’ means that the device does not use ICs (premade integrated circuits), instead the circuits are soldered component by component. Priced around 1500$ (external power supply not included) it is constructed with modern manufacturing techniques to keep the price low. Other features include selectable input impedance, 1/4 inch D.I. on the front panel, phase reverse, phantom power and EQ bypass switch, 70dB of gain in 5dB steps, quality switches and sturdy knobs.
The microphone and line inputs are transformer balanced which implies excellent isolation between the ground and the audio signal. The cheaper alternative is electronically balancing the signal but this option does not isolate as well.
How it compares/differs to the original
When looking at replicas, the first thing that comes to mind is “how does it compare to the original?” That’s a fair question and the official answer, as well as the general consensus amongst users, is that the difference between a 1073 and an x73i is no wider than the difference between 2 original 1073. You have to bear in mind that the 1073 was first built by Neve in 1970 and that between two vintage units there can be some (audible?) differences, not to mention scratchy pots. The modern day version of the 1073, handcrafted in Burnley England following the same 1970 specification, goes for around 3500$. Vintech Audio claims you cannot hear the difference between the original and their replica, and if you’re not happy they’ll give you your money back. To the question “how does it compare to the original?” we could also answer “who cares?”. From the aspiring sound engineer’s point of view, a vintage Neve 1073 is possibly just another venerated over-priced piece of gear he has yet to come across. So instead we could ask the question “how does it compare to a run-of-the-mill preamp?” and answer the question sonically rather than comparing specifications theoretically.
We should mention that the original 1073 is a modular unit that fits into Neve consoles (BCM10 and 8014) vertically whereas Vintech Audio’s X73i is a horizontal 19 inch rack mountable unit that takes up one rack space, an obvious choice for easy integration into modern studios. Because of the additional space provided by the rack mount format, all the parameters and settings are faithfully, but more conveniently implemented than on the original 1073 units. The equalizer mid range frequencies also gets an additional frequency option.
The 1073 is Rupert Neve’s own worst enemy because everything he does or did (Neve, Amek, Focusrite, Rupert Neve Design) seems to be compared to the 1073. Part of Mr Neve’s success in the 70s with the 1073 is that in a context where tube circuits were used, but needed about 300V to operate, he based his circuits on a 90V power supply.
Words from the man
Concerning preamps, it is interesting to hear that Mr Neve himself thinks that “before going out to buy any piece of expensive gear (including his own gear), one should go out and listen to how instruments sound, how real sounds sound. One must be able to compare and seriously understand what a particular piece of gear does to an instrument. You need to know what you are aiming to do”.
From the point of view of an the aspiring sound engineer who is still learning how the studio works, it may not make a difference what preamp you are using when you are just trying to get sound out of the loudspeakers, or battling with the connections in the patchbay. I remember my first recording sessions, I was just concerned about trying to make the session run smoothly for the musicians to not get bored and I’d occasionally glance to make sure I was not clipping my recording. I had no time for choosing and comparing preamps. In this context using an expensive preamp will probably not make a difference. Mr Neve is saying that in order to determine if you need to use an expensive preamp or just the preamp from a standard mixer, you need to know how the source/instrument sounds like (or is supposed to sound like) in real life before determining that one preamplifier would be better than another. Mr Neve argues that you cannot know what a preamp adds to your source/instrument if you do not know how that source/instrument is supposed to sound like.
On the topic of technical specifications Mr Neve warns that “excellent specifications is not actual proof of the excellence, excellent specifications do not automatically translate to excellent performance”. Coming from someone like Rupert Neve, it is advice any future sound engineer can use.
– A/B Tests: Plugins Vs Hardware
Slightly off the preamp topic here, you might be interested to know that Mr Neve has done some A/B tests and in some cases he cannot tell the difference between the plug-in and the real thing. I’m sure that can be reassuring for future sound professionals that may doubt their critical listening abilities.
If you want to follow Mr Neve’s advice and are not sure what to go out and listen to in order to develop your ear, you might be interested to know that Rupert Neve is a big fan of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” and used it throughout his career for his pleasure and listening tests.
German born, British Baroque composer George Frideric Handel
Next time I’ll share some audio files.
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