This classy console emulation from newcomers KIT puts Blackbird Studios’ Neve in your DAW.
The KIT Plugins name may not yet be on the tip of every engineer’s tongue but judging by both the quality of this plug‑in and the company’s ambitious plans for the future, it will be pretty soon!
Their debut processing plug‑in was the BB N105, an emulation of a channel of John McBride’s Neve 8078 mixing console, which lives in Studio A at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. Developed in collaboration with McBride, v1 of this plug‑in was the first in a planned line of dozens that will be based on his enviable collection of vintage outboard gear, and which are due to be released over the next five years or so. Just as I was concluding my write‑up of v1, though, I put a few minor queries to KIT and they responded not only with the details I wanted but also a request that I hang fire because the release of an improved version 2 was imminent.
BB N105 v2 is now available and it’s reviewed here. It is compatible with any Mac/Windows DAW that supports the AAX, VST3 or AU plug‑in format and is authorised using iLok, though no dongle is required. You can pay up front or in instalments if you prefer, though the long‑term plan is to offer a subscription service, once more plug‑ins are added to the range; BB N105 owners will be granted a free year’s subscription to the other plug‑ins. While I’m on future plans, BB N105 currently models only a single console channel (though, naturally, it can be used with mono or stereo sources) but I believe the plan is to emulate many more channels, to give that ‘full console’ experience if using lots of instances in a mix.
Of course, this isn’t exactly the first Neve channel‑strip emulation we’ve seen — I already have some impressive options in my plug‑in folder — so why start the Blackbird project here? Well, for a couple of reasons, really.
First, this console is unique: when McBride acquired it he had it modified and upgraded to his satisfaction over several months by Geoff Tanner, who was part of the Neve team that originally built this console and who now runs respected console/outboard manufacturers Aurora Audio. Second, McBride considers this console critical to his workflow, and his collaboration with KIT Plugins is intended partly as a sort of insurance policy. If any of the vintage equipment at Blackbird were to become damaged beyond repair, or spare parts became unobtainable, the plug‑ins should allow him to obtain the same sound using a familiar control set.
With all of that background in mind, what do we actually have here? Well, it’s a complete console channel‑strip emulation, with a modelled mic/line input stage, switchable polarity inversion and switched high/low‑pass filters and four‑band EQ, again all emulating the specific console installed at Blackbird, along with an output fader. As on the console there’s no compressor in this strip, but there is a saturation circuit which impacts on the dynamics as well as the sound character. (No doubt various Blackbird compressors will become available in the fullness of time.)
The GUI strongly resembles the hardware, with its toggle switches, dual‑concentric rotary switches and a long‑throw fader. This particular Neve layout has its quirks (for example, I find turning a knob down for a higher frequency but up for more gain a tad counterintuitive!) but you soon grow familiar with it, even if you’ve not used the hardware. Everything’s a good, practical size: the GUI’s compact enough that I can accommodate several channels on screen, yet tall enough that I can make fine (roughly 0.3dB) adjustments with my main studio PC’s 27‑inch 1920x1080‑pixel touchscreen.
You’ll also find several useful nods to modernity here. For instance, an auto‑gain facility brings down the output‑level fader as you turn up the input gain knob, so you can drive a signal into the sonic sweet spot without making your ears bleed or having to juggle two controls. This isn’t a loudness‑matching tool as on some plug‑ins: it works relative to the gain at the time you switch auto‑gain on, and the fader can still be manipulated directly without lowering the gain. That, to me, is a pleasing balance between automatic assistance and manual control. A text box at the top should display the total gain added by the plug‑in to the nearest 0.1dB, though on my Windows/Cubase 11 system that didn’t seem to work; it always registered 0.00dB (I’m sure that’s an easy fix!). You can also choose, per instance, one of five fader‑cap colours, so you could have different cap colours denoting, say, lead vocals, backing vocals, effects and stereo bus instances. And you can set oversampling to up to x16 (per instance or globally) and link the Hum level control for all instances; Hum (a noise generator) can be toggled on/off and set to one of three levels, and while the quietest is pretty unobtrusive I tended to prefer it off.
The GUI’s compact enough that I can accommodate several channels on screen, yet tall enough that I can make fine adjustments with my studio PC’s 27‑inch touchscreen.
The preamp stage has switchable mic/line modes, and while it is never technically ‘transparent’ the line setting manages to sound pleasingly clean. The gain knob is inactive in line mode but in mic mode offers a ‑15 to +70 dB range, in steps by default but with a continuous mode option. This mode allows you to add much more character: a combination of the frequency response, the ‘curve’ varying with the gain, some phase shift and harmonic distortion. Switching on saturation delivers yet more colour in mic mode, adding musically pleasing odd harmonics, but while operable in line mode it doesn’t seem to do so much.
Between the preamp and fader comes the EQ section. Starting at the bottom, after the polarity‑invert and EQ on/off buttons, a single dual‑concentric knob engages the high‑ and low‑pass filters, each with five settings ranging from 27 to 270 Hz for the HPF and 3.9 to 18 kHz for the LPF. I can see why they’ve opted for a dual‑concentric control: they’re aesthetically pleasing and used in the gear being modelled. But while they’re marvellous things in the physical world, allowing you to fit so much more in a channel strip while leaving room for your fingers, the virtual equivalent can sometimes seem rather fiddly to operate: in my first week of investigating this plug‑in, I clicked to switch off the LPF and inadvertently set both filters to off a few times, though I grew accustomed to it soon enough.
The main EQ bands also have dual‑concentric knobs, this time with the outer ‘ring’ selecting the frequency and the inner the gain (±15dB in all cases). The top and bottom bands can be switched between bell and shelving types, while the inner pair have a switchable Hi‑Q option. Not only does the Hi‑Q option make the curve a little ‘tighter’ but it also affects the amount of gain in that band to some extent; I assume this is a characteristic of the console — you just use your ears, turn the knobs and see what sounds good.
Before writing this review, I tried BB N105 on a few very different mixes — a big rock track with multitrack acoustic drums and lots of electric guitars, an acoustic vocal‑plus‑picked‑guitar number, and a slightly dancey rock/pop remix — and it always sounded mightily impressive. I reckon KIT have done a cracking job here and while, sadly, I don’t have a vintage Neve 8078 to hand in my studio, in comparison with my usual Neve‑of‑choice plug‑in, Acustica’s Gold 4, I was able to get the two sounding very close indeed on pretty much every source.
I’ve already discussed the role of the mic pre, but the EQ also impacts on the overall sonic character, beyond what it’s doing to the frequency response, with phase shift and low‑level distortion contributing to the ‘analogue’ mojo. The analogue‑style combination of high‑end smoothness and midrange presence is impressive, and there’s the right sort of low‑end fullness for a Neve — if anything, it’s a tad tighter/less flabby at the bottom end than I’d expected, which is a good thing in my book – but this all seems to happen without really sacrificing anything in your sound. It can be pretty addictive! Another pleasant surprise was just how hard I found I could push the mic stage into distortion before the modelling began to ‘fall apart’, which means this plug‑in is as ripe for abuse as it is ‘normal’ operation.
In summary, then, KIT’s BB N105 is a convincing analogue emulation, and I reckon half the challenge when using multiple instances on a mix will be in exercising restraint and good judgement! Indeed, it is among the best‑sounding analogue modelling plug‑ins I’ve used to date. For the most part, it is really easy to use, with perhaps the only thing that might put off some users being that virtual dual‑concentric controls can be fiddlier to operate than the hardware equivalent. I love having the big fader with my touchscreen, the auto‑gain feature is thoughtful, and small touches like the per‑instance switchable fader cap colour are helpful when using multiple instances. I can’t wait to take more KIT BB plug‑ins for a test drive!
- Sounds lovely.
- Easy to use.
- Some nice, thoughtful features.
- Virtual dual‑concentric knobs can be a little fiddly.
One of the most convincing analogue emulations I’ve yet heard from a modelling plug‑in, BB N105 hints at great things to come from KIT.