Thought you'd seen the death of the large‑format console? Think again, as you read our exclusive preview of this modern take on classic Neve designs.
The introduction of any new analogue console is always greeted with considerable interest, but one that purports a Neve heritage doubly so. The launch of the Custom Series 75 at the Sixth SAE Alumni Convention in Berlin in October stirred up a hornets' nest of debate across the Internet, both before and after I had an exclusive preview of what's currently the only prototype, with its designer Bruce McBean.
The first thing to say is that this console has been developed and manufactured entirely independently of the British AMS Neve company, and it appears that it will be manufactured and supported exclusively by a company set up in Australia by Tom Misner, founder of SAE. AMS Neve have agreed that the Custom Series 75 console can be marketed with the phrase 'Powered by Neve' — which essentially refers to the fact that the new console's circuitry is derived from the original Neve 1081 input and 1272 line-output modules.
The prototype I saw, which was two years in the making, will receive a few further modifications before the production units leave the factory, and the control software is still being fine‑tuned. Most of these tweaks, though, are very minor — like the detail of the stand construction, the layout of part of the rear connector panel and some extra control-label legends.
The console is constructed from extremely strong 'bins', each holding eight individual 40mm‑wide 'N2081' channel strips, together with a 10‑channel‑wide master section. The channel and master bins can be placed in any order. The 32‑channel prototype is surprisingly compact: although it can mix 80 inputs to the stereo output if required, every control can be reached quite easily from a central, seated position. Configurations of up to 64 channels are planned, but for where there are more than 32 channels a larger (by 80mm) centre section will be required, to accommodate the additional mix-bus and routing-relay hardware.
The estimated cost of a 32‑channel model including 2245 compressors is around $64,000 plus shipping, with moving fader automation and HUI control being made available as cost options at some point in the future. That may not be cheap, exactly, but if it sounds like the modules it is based on, that's actually quite competitively priced!
This console is essentially a hybrid of Neve designs from the 1970s and some more up‑to‑date elements. The channel mic-preamp and EQ circuitry, for example, is derived from the classic Neve 1081 module, but it uses discrete surface‑mount transistors. In fact, this is probably the first discrete transistorised console to be made in years! Misner says that this style of construction will make future servicing more efficient — for example, through no-quibble exchange of individual channels.
The discrete circuitry is based around Neve BA338 gain stages and BA283 output stages. However, it must be said that while the circuitry is similar, it isn't identical to the original designs: Bruce's aim was to recreate the original function and sound, but not the form, because to do that would have proved way too expensive.
Interestingly, as Bruce and his team used 'SPICE' (Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis) modelling to optimise the original circuit designs, they discovered some deficiencies in the originals along the way. For example, a weakness was found in the high‑pass filter circuit so, having addressed this weakness in the new design, the Series 75 design runs 10dB more level through the channel path — and offers better dynamic range as a result.
Gain‑stage biasing arrangements have also been modified, to improve temperature stability and reduce distortion significantly. However, most of the 'Neve' sound comes from the output stage and the transformer, and in the Series 75 the 1081's Class‑AB output has been replaced with the Class‑A stage from the 1073/1272 modules, complete with an MJE3055 transistor feeding the traditional LO1166 gapped‑core transformer. The desk has a lot of these chunky transformers, and they're mounted in the chassis rather than on the channel strips.
The 1081 channel path is essentially the same as on the original, but with a single 10468 transformer in the channel strip that handles the mic, DI, and attenuated line and DAW channel inputs (the line and DAW inputs bypass the first 45dB gain stage too). Other cost‑reducing tweaks include omitting the rarely‑used low‑pass filter, and giving the high‑pass filter a continuous rotary control, rather than a switch. The horribly expensive triple‑layer input‑gain switch has also been replaced with a much simpler switch, controlling relays to give gain ranging from 0‑66dB in 6dB steps (instead of the original's 5dB increments) plus a variable ±10dB trim for a maximum gain of 76dB (the original's was 80dB). This re‑configuration is claimed to give marginally better performance at a much lower cost.
Similar modifications have been used in the EQ, with relay switching for the high and low bands, and separate frequency and gain controls instead of dual‑concentrics. The 'off' positions provide a genuine section bypass too. Each channel has three mono and one stereo aux sends (the latter can be routed to two stereo aux buses), with pre‑post and channel‑monitor path selection via a push‑button that's integrated into the level control. By default, the channel insert point is post-EQ, but jumpers on the PCB allow it to be set pre‑EQ if preferred.
With the channel insert point bypassed, the entire signal path comprises discrete transistors. However, if the insert is engaged the signal is dispatched and received via high‑spec op‑amps: a Texas DRV135 line driver and a National LM4562 to handle the return. In fact, LM4562s are used in all the critical stages, such as the current‑summing mix-bus amps and the monitor-path gain stages. Although the eight groups don't have insert points as such, the group direct outputs can be used as sends and the corresponding DAW inputs as returns.
All the switches, relays and connectors handling audio signals are gold‑plated, while capacitors in the signal path are either polypropylene film or Rubycon ZLH‑series electrolytics, both chosen for their sonic performance and long life. The single‑sided nature of the transistor circuitry inevitably means that a lot of electrolytic capacitors are required.
Most modern consoles use current‑summing (virtual earth) technology, but the vintage Neve designs employed a voltage summing arrangement using transformers — a design in which the bus impedance and channel output level is affected significantly by the number of source channels connected.
The Series 75 console, however, has both types of bus available. The eight groups and the 'retro' stereo mix bus use voltage summing (with transformers in and out). Unlike Neve consoles of the '70s, though, the voltage mix buses are fully balanced and very short, with channel routing performed via relays in the master section; the buses themselves are only 150mm long. Unusually, the channel pan control is after the channel output transformer, and the bus impedance seen by the channel and mix amp remain constant, regardless of the status of the channel routing relays. This avoids the loading losses that classic Neve consoles suffer as a channel is routed to more buses.
The second (non‑retro) stereo mix bus, the monitor mix bus and the AFL buses use current summing, so the user has a choice of mix topologies, and they can be selected globally or on a per-channel basis. The two stereo mix buses (voltage and current) are subsequently combined, along with the group outputs and the monitor stereo mix bus, onto another local current mix bus, before being passed to the master fader. The stereo mix signal is then routed via optional and patchable 2254 compressors and an insert point to the master stereo outputs.
Extending the sonic options even further, the master outputs are also provided with dual topologies: one set of stereo master outputs follows the old‑school 1272/transformer route, while the second set is electronically balanced using LM4562 op‑amps.
This unusual flexibility means that the user can choose an all‑retro signal path (fully transistorised with four transformers between input and stereo output — or six transformers if you route via the groups!), or an all modern op‑amp path (with only the input transformer in the way — and even that can be avoided if the monitor return path is used). With a little thought, it's also possible to use a hybrid path comprising both technologies, with the option of tracking in retro mode and mixing in modern mode, for example, or vice versa.
The 2245 compressor design is basically the same as the original, but the diode bridge that unit employed is no longer available, so Bruce uses matched diodes instead, which, it turns out, produce less asymmetric distortion and a subtly smoother sound character. The input and output of the two 2245 modules, if installed, can also be accessed externally if the compression is not required on the stereo bus. A calibration oscillator and pink-noise source are also included, as are a studio loudspeaker (SLS) output and built‑in talkback and studio-listen facilities.
Although a patchbay will be available as an option, since each channel has separate line and DAW inputs and the monitor path can also select between Line and Monitor inputs, in many cases sources can be hard‑wired to the console without compromising flexibility. Most of the rear‑panel interfacing is via DB25 connectors using the usual Tascam wiring standard. Input-channel bins have eight XLR and quarter‑inch sockets for the mic and DI inputs respectively, plus five DB25s to handle the eight line and DAW inputs, the direct outputs and the insert send and returns.
The master section has XLRs for the main speakers, two-track monitoring input and stereo mix output, while everything else is on DB25 connectors, including a spare socket for future expansion! The DB25 sockets cater for 7.1 inputs, Alt2 surround outputs, four stereo reverb returns, stereo monitoring speakers, aux sends, red-light logic, Studio LS and talkback in/out, headphones, mix inserts and two‑track inputs, mix outputs and 2245 I/O, group outs/sends, stem outs, and group/tape returns.
There's also an Ethernet socket, the PSU input and provision for power to the HUI DAW control option — because motorised faders require ±12V power, which the normal PSU doesn't provide. In fact, five regulated voltage rails are supplied from the main PSU, each regulated again in the meter bridge of each bin, and again on the individual channel-strip PCBs. The audio relays operate on a 24V supply, while a 27V rail is dropped to 24V for the transistorised audio circuitry. Dual ±15V rails power the op‑amp circuitry and a 9V rail is dropped to 5V for all the logic. Finally, of course, there's a 48V phantom supply. A pair of ultra‑quiet cooling fans is located in the central section, and the central microprocessor monitors their speed and synchronises them to avoid 'beating'. Fusable resistors are included on each channel-strip PCB board to provide protection, too.
As I mentioned earlier, fader automation will be available as an option, although the hardware and software has yet to be developed. A basic level of DAW control is also planned, probably using the HUI protocol, with 32 channels of fader and cut automation.
The monitoring section caters for three sets of stereo speakers fed from 12 sources, and the huge volume knob is scaled, amusingly to 11½. (Spinal Tap has a lot to answer for!) The Alt 2 output can also be reconfigured for 7.1 surround monitoring, complete with user‑adjustable channel solo, cut and level trims using the group status buttons. The stereo monitoring outputs all use relay attenuators, with facilities to dial in level offsets between the different outputs. When Alt 2 is switched to 7.1 mode, however, the level is adjusted by a pair of Texas PGA4311 four‑channel volume controller chips. A large LED display normally indicates the selected channel, but while the monitoring level is being adjusted it displays the output level. Some clever mono monitoring switching options permit muting the left or right speaker, or the left or right source, as well as listening to the L/R difference signal.
PFL, AFL, solo‑in‑place and solo‑in‑front modes are all included, and a nice feature is that the channel and monitor paths can be isolated from the solo bus by pressing their respective pan controls. In a similar way, the channel and monitor faders can be swapped by pressing the channel HPF control. The PFL signal can also be routed just to the 3.5mm headphone socket on the monitor panel, or to the studio loudspeaker output, if required. There are actually three headphone amps built into the console, using the National LME49710 output driver op‑amps feeding the top-panel 3.5mm output, plus two rear-panel quarter‑inch outputs — both of which have additional line‑level outputs to drive external power amps or distribution systems.
The channel and monitor‑solo and cut buttons can be configured for momentary, latching or auto‑switch operation, and there's even an option to configure the action of the buttons so that they operate on the press or the release! Four stereo effect returns can be routed independently to the two headphone outputs, mix or monitor buses, each with level and balance controls, plus solo and solo‑isolate buttons.
Each channel is equipped with a bar‑graph meter, and a further eight assignable bar‑graph meters sit above the master section. Eight small VU meters monitor the group outputs, and a further two show the main outputs (with an associated phase meter). The channel bar‑graphs can be switched to show channel, monitor or direct output levels, or the fader position (for fader automation), and switched between VU and PPM modes. The master‑section meters can be switched four ways to show main, monitor, control room and AFL outputs; or the eight groups; or the aux outputs and PFL levels; or the four stereo-return levels.
Every channel bin is controlled via its own microprocessor, which communicates with the central section on a dedicated RS485 balanced data bus with a centrally distributed data clock. This microprocessor control of all switch functions is useful when the desk is constructed, as it allows almost fully automated testing — which reduces the manufacturing costs significantly — but, more importantly, it allows instant recall of all desk switch configurations (there are currently eight instantly recallable scenes).
The production console will have a web server built in for configuration, testing and other utilities, accessed via the Ethernet port. A pair of BNC connectors on the top of the meter bridge provide power for optional gooseneck lamps.
The channel printed circuit cards all have either four or six layers, with extensive ground planes to minimise crosstalk, and the data control signals are kept well away from the audio. There are about 1300 components on the boards, but clear labelling aids fault‑finding and reveals the careful thought that has been given to enable easy maintenance — such as leaving clearance so that the potentiometers and switches can be removed easily, and the incorporation of additional 'via' connections, so that if the board is damaged when replacing a worn-out potentiometer, the wiring can be reconnected using these reserve connections. These are very thoughtful considerations that reveal Bruce's years of experience in servicing consoles and other equipment.
The Custom Series 75 comes with a one‑year labour and five‑year parts guarantee, but it is clearly designed to remain serviceable for 20‑plus years. Similar attention to detail can be seen in the fact that all the buttons are engraved, rather than printed, and the panel legends are laser etched — so the legends won't ever rub off.
The Custom Series 75 is an impressive console to look at. All the small control knobs on the channels are made by the same British company that makes the larger winged knobs used on the optional 2245 bus compressor modules, and these bespoke knobs work well ergonomically. They also convey a very attractive vintage feel, which, combined with the ultra-modern illuminated push-buttons, makes a very impressive sight. The design and build quality is extremely high, yet with a careful eye on cost to ensure that the console remains competitive alongside the likes of API's 1608 and SSL's AWS900.
While it's obviously not the same as a 1970s Neve console stuffed with 1081s, the Custom Series 75 follows the same design topologies and shares the same core sound character, but it also offers an ultra‑clean, modern signal path for those who require it. That the DAW-control features (both current and planned) are limited to the HUI protocol may concern some potential users, but as a straight analogue console, this is a very attractive beast in every sense, and it should do well.