All the smoothness and class you'd expect from a vintage Neve compressor — but with the benefit of software recall. What's not to like?
The Neve company, although no longer related to the living legend that is Rupert Neve, is still associated with many of his early designs and concepts — in addition to many more recent designs, of course. The infamous Neve 1073 preamp is still going strong after some 40‑odd years, for example, and other 'heritage' circuit designs of that era are heavily sought after today. Not surprisingly, the company have recently capitalised on this constant nostalgia with the release of the 2254/R mono Limiter/Compressor (Lim‑Comp) unit. I first saw a pre‑production model of this unit at an AES show last year, but the production unit on review here differs in a few small ways.
The original 2254 design was produced back in 1969 — which is the same year that saw the release of the album Led Zeppelin, the last public Beatles concert, the first Monty Python's Flying Circus programme on the BBC, Richard Nixon taking office as the 37th US president, the maiden flight of the Boeing 747 'jumbo jet', the Harrier Jump Jet entering service with the RAF, and Apollo 9, 10, 11 and 12 all doing something fairly spectacular... Quite a year, then!
The 2254 is quite interesting from an electronic design point of view, and it found considerable favour with its users as an integral part of the Neve consoles of the day — and for the following three decades. I cut my professional audio teeth on a good few Neve consoles with 2254 Lim‑Comp modules. The later rackmounting stereo form of the same basic design, the 33609, is still a widely used broadcast compressor today, and I've seen them perched on top of a state-of-the-art digital broadcast console more than once in recent years, too!
The standard in‑console 2254 Lim‑Comps were built as square‑faced, single‑channel modules, with RAF blue‑grey paint, edge meters to show audio levels and gain reduction, and the characteristic 'winged' rotary control knob caps.
The new version reviewed here shares the same classic styling, feature set and design topology of the original, but also introduces Total Recall facilities via a supplied software package and a USB connection (the 'R' in the name stands for Recall, of course). This processor is housed in an elegant‑looking 1U rackmounting case, painted blue, with clear, white control legends. The rear panel is very simple, with an eight‑pin DIN socket to accept DC power from an external line‑lump power unit, a recessed slide‑switch to separate technical and mains earths, a pair of XLRs to accept a line‑level input and provide a line‑level output, and a DB9 socket for linking units together for stereo or surround operation. In some ways, the external PSU is slightly disappointing in such a prestige product, but given the fact that there are four audio transformers inside the case, keeping the mains transformer as far away as possible makes a lot of sense. This is the major difference between the production and pre‑production units; the demo model I saw at the AES a year ago had an internal PSU.
The front panel is classy and logical, and starts at the left‑hand side with the limiter section. This is equipped with two large rotary switches to adjust the Threshold (in 2dB steps from +4 to +20dBu) and Recovery time (100, 200, and 800ms, plus an automatic mode). A smaller continuous rotary control adjusts the attack time between 100us and 2ms, but only when the illuminated (yellow) Fast Attack button is engaged. The standard attack time is fixed at 5ms, which is usually perfectly adequate. Switching to fast mode provides much tighter control of brief transients, of course, but also risks audible distortion, especially once the attack time is reduced below 1ms. Interestingly, in the Auto Recovery mode the attack time is adjusted automatically along with the release time, according to the audio material. Isolated peaks are controlled with a fast response, whereas extended high levels are controlled with slower attack and release times. This is a very commonly used technique that gives the impression of natural dynamics for transient material, while still controlling the actual dynamic range precisely. The limiter section is switched in or out of circuit with another illuminated (yellow) push button.
The compressor section comprises four more large rotary switches and a single illuminated (yellow, again) push button to engage the compressor section. The controls switch the ratio (1.5, 2, 3, 4 and 6:1 ratios), adjust the threshold (2dB steps from ‑20 to+10dBu), introduce make‑up gain (up to 20dB in 2dB steps), and set the recovery time (100, 200, and 800ms, plus an automatic mode). As with the limiter, the auto mode provides programme‑related variable attack and release time constants. The compression slope knee is fairly soft, providing a gentle transition from linear to the defined ratio over a 10dB range.
The last few controls are three more illuminated push buttons, a small rotary switch, and an analogue level meter. The top button is the power switch and carries the Neve logo, which lights up red when pressed. The two yellow illuminated buttons below provide a hard bypass mode (input connected directly to output when unlit) and activate the control voltage linking when additional units are connected to the rear‑panel Link socket. The rotary switch determines what the meter shows: input signal, output signal or gain reduction. The meter has quasi‑peak ballistics, and an LED in the top right-hand corner illuminates green when the signal reaches ‑10dBu and red at +25dBu to warn of imminent clipping. The meter scaling runs from ‑16 to +12dBu — implying that you should run this unit fairly hot — and in gain reduction mode can show up to 16dB of signal level attenuation.
The circuit topology of the 2254/R combines an active gain‑control section, with classic Neve modular discrete gain stages and a plethora of transformers. The input signal is received via a transformer and fed to the single gain‑reduction element, which comprises a VCA built around a diode bridge (an inherently balanced circuit, by the way). This is a very lossy circuit, and the output level is typically around 40dB lower than the input. A second transformer takes the output and passes it to an amplifier chain (the Neve BA283, also used in the 1073 preamp), which brings the level back to standard line level and adds any make‑up gain required. It's the combination of a lossy gain‑control element and 40dB-plus of replacement gain that make the 2245 and related designs relatively noisy devices — the specifications quote a noise floor of ‑73dBu, whereas modern state-of-the-art VCA dynamics devices would be more like ‑90 or ‑100dBu. A third transformer drives the output from the device.
Both stages of the dynamics control are feed‑back designs, which tend to provide a gentler, more musical sound, but are less accurate at transient peak control. The compressor side‑chain monitors the signal at the input to the amplifier chain (post gain‑reduction), while the limiter side‑chain monitors the signal at the output transformer. The limiter side‑chain includes a fourth transformer, and the outputs of both side‑chains are combined before feeding to the gain-control element and to the external linking connector. All the audio circuitry is discrete class A, and runs off a single‑sided 36V power supply. The 2254/R is apparently hand‑built at the Neve factory in Burnley, with transformers custom manufactured to the original specifications. Aside from the relatively high noise floor, the other specs are all excellent, with a maximum output level of +26dBu, and flat response between 20Hz and 20kHz (‑1dB)
The 2254/R is trivially simple to use: all the controls do exactly what you expect, and the control scaling is accurate and reliable. With single‑sided, discrete, class‑A electronics and three transformers in the audio path, the 2254/R sounds silky smooth and luxurious. It does sound immediately like a vintage Neve product, and its compression is generally gentle and benign. I wouldn't say 'transparent' — it adds a little too much character of its own to warrant that description — but it is an attractive and very beguiling sound. The most commonly used word from all those that played with it here during the review period was 'smooth'. The limiting is effective, but sounds fairly gentle unless you go for the ultra‑fast attack settings... in which case you are likely to be rewarded with obvious transient distortion.
With only a single‑channel device to review, I was a little limited (excuse the pun) as to what I could use it with, but found it worked superbly well on a wide variety of source material. In particular, I found 2:1 and 3:1 compression ratios with modest gain reduction of 4‑6dB on vocals, exposed acoustic guitar parts, and basses worked very well. With those kinds of settings it smoothed things out usefully without becoming dominant or obvious, while making mixing easier. I tended to use the auto recovery‑time option, which never put a foot wrong. While the 2254/R works very well as a source track compressor, I found myself constantly wanting a pair to use for stereo drum‑bus or mix compression, not least because I know from previous experience just how well the 33609 works at gluing a mix together — but I suppose you'd buy a 33609 for that application.
I didn't notice any problem with noise, although I was deliberately running fairly hot signals (peaks around +15dBu) into the 2254 from my SADiE system via Benchmark converters. All the threshold and level parameter control ranges allowed operation quite happily with signals at this elevated level, although it was originally designed for nominal 0dBu operation, of course. One issue I did discover quite quickly is that you have to be very careful what you place above and below the 2254/R in the rack. Those four audio transformers are very sensitive to external magnetic fields, especially from big mains power supplies in other equipment, so it looks as though employing an external power supply was a sensible call, although I think it would have been more elegant if they had used a properly designed internal switched-mode power supply instead.
The 2254/R certainly looks the business and feels truly professional to use; rugged, precise, and accurate. The sound is pleasingly smooth and full but not obviously coloured, and the dynamic control is sublime and almost creamy. I loved using this product and was sorry to see it go. It's expensive, but 10 minutes' use will be enough to convince you of its worth. Nice!
The Neve 33609JD is an obvious candidate, providing a very similar feature set and sound character, but in stereo. There are a number of clone devices on the market, with the Vintech Audio 609 closely replicating the Neve 33609 as a stereo unit. For single‑channel applications, the obvious contender is the Chandler Limited LTD2 Compressor, which is based closely on the 2254 circuit design. However, although this model provides faster release settings, it doesn't have an adjustable compression ratio control (rather bizarrely), and lacks the separate limiter section.
The Recall software is provided on a CD along with the electronic user manual — although both can also be downloaded from the Neve web site. The software runs on both Mac and PC and installed without any problems onto my laptop PC, which found the 2254/R immediately on connection. I first came across this system when I reviewed the 8803 in SOS June 2007, and the initial device selection graphics still seem overly large and chunky, but it works well enough and it's nice not to have to squint to read the screen details! Up to 16 different units (8801, 8803, 8804, 8816, and 2245) can be monitored by the software, and where there are multiples of the same type of unit, each can be named to aid recognition. There's also a facility to make the front panel of a connected machine flash to help identify which software mimic relates to which hardware machine.
The on‑screen graphics for a selected unit resemble that device's control panel, with similar screen legends around the knobs and buttons. In the case of the 2254/R, the screen panel layout doesn't portray the linear arrangement of controls on the hardware unit, and neither does it resemble the original square 2254E panel layout — which seems like a missed opportunity to me. But the layout is nonetheless clear and straightforward. Purple markers show the saved positions from a selected Recall file where they differ from the current hardware control positions, and as you adjust the hardware controls the on‑screen equivalents update in real time to reflect the changes. When the current and saved positions match, the control knob disappears from the graphic. To the right of the panel graphics is a large repeat of the control currently being adjusted, and once a match is achieved it changes to the next mis‑matched control.
Compared with DAW and digital console systems that have instant automatic recall facilities, this manual matching of control settings seems quaintly old‑fashioned. However, it is a very cost‑effective way of providing reliable and accurate setting‑recall facilities, and I quickly became very comfortable using it. The trick with this kind of system is good housekeeping — and if you make sure you save the recall files in the appropriate project data folder and give them sensible names, they'll still mean something to you in a year's time!