Have Neve succeeded in creating a compact desktop mixer with large-format console functionality?
Neve's announcement of their 8424 console met with some very mixed reactions from the online audio community. Some got and even loved the idea, whereas others seemed totally bemused. I realise it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I think the armchair detractors have rather missed the point. Although the price tag makes for a great headline ("A 24-channel Neve for half the price!"), this isn't really a £20k$25k mixing desk at all. Rather, it's the 'engine room' of a £$50k+ large-format console, with some of the more underused parts stripped away. This brings down the production cost and thus the asking price. It also shrinks the mixer's footprint, and puts every control within easy reach. Of course, there being only a couple of mic amps and a handful of shelving EQs, it also means that to make use of it you'll need either to own or to budget for plenty of external gear too.
The idea is that you can 'drop' the 8424 into pretty much any studio, without duplicating the preamps and EQs many potential customers already own. Just hook the various D‑subs and handful of jacks and XLRs up to your patchbay and you're good to go. It's a strong concept, and though Neve are not the first to manufacture a console that relies on external mic preamps and EQ, I can't think of anything that's directly comparable.
The big-console feel is very obvious when you first sit in front of the thing. The physical construction exudes an air of precision, and the brightness of the backlit switches is beautifully judged: always visible, never a distraction. The master section is in the middle, where you want it. A number of tiny holes offer screwdriver access to trimpots to set things like the outgoing and return talkback levels and the return talkback compressor's threshold. The end cheeks are removable, specifically to enable the user to commission matching furniture.
Then there's Neve's elegant, effective, semi-automatic recall system, which allows you to store and recall 99 profiles. Every gain position and switch status can be recalled almost instantly, globally or on individual channels. A tiny but easily read Global Services screen assists the user in manual recall of the few controls that aren't digitally controlled (and provides access to a host of more mundane configuration options). That process takes a little longer, but I was still surprised by the ease and swiftness with which I could perform a full, precise console recall — it's literally a couple of minutes' work. Pretty much the only things that aren't recallable are the recording input trims and the controls of units in the two 500-series slots.
By the time you read this there'll also be the cost upgrade option of motorised faders and a plug‑in to save recall settings in your DAW session. Based on the larger Genesys console's motorised fader system, Neve say they're looking at whether this system can be improved upon further. At least the 24 channel faders, but probably the group and master ones too, will be able to control the console's channel levels, to write/read DAW automation data (for automation and recall of the console's faders), or to control your DAW's faders using the HUI protocol. This could make the 8424 of real interest to multipurpose, multi-user studios, such as in universities, or to anyone needing to work on multiple projects simultaneously.
The channels are made in banks of eight, but if a fault were to develop on one channel, it doesn't mean all eight will be out of action, as a drop-in replacement bank can be sent out before you send back the faulty one for repair. Having observed Neve's manufacturing process, though, I'm confident that serious faults should be rare: Neve take a real 'belt and braces' approach to quality assurance, right down to X-raying every solder joint, in an attempt to ensure they identify the sort of minute, hairline faults that inspection by eye and measurement cannot detect. Everything is made in the UK, even what's outsourced, such as metalwork and the audio transformers.
Despite the evident sophistication, almost everything is obvious and intuitive. At heart, this is a 24-track console, with two main, electronically balanced mono, line-level inputs and a direct output per channel. This arrangement allows you to hook the desk up to your converters and to use your DAW in the role of a multitrack tape machine: hook the channel direct outs (three DB25 D‑subs) to your converter's line inputs; connect your converter's outputs to the channels' Input A (D‑subs again); and patch line-level sources into Input B (quarter-inch TRS jacks).
You can set the input source for each channel using a switch above the gain encoder, or globally in the master section. Each channel also has a balanced insert send and return on separate quarter-inch jacks, and a button to engage/bypass the return. The sends are always active, so can double as secondary pre-fader direct outs. A Dir Pre button sets the main direct out signal as pre-fader/cut or post-fader/cut, always post the input trim and insert return.
Any channel can be routed to four mono subgroups and/or the master stereo bus. The four subgroups and main stereo mix both have always-on insert sends and bypassable insert returns too, the groups on quarter-inch jacks and the main mix on XLRs. Also on the rear panel are various other XLR I/O: the main mix and cue mix outputs, two stereo reverb returns, three pairs of speaker outputs, a listen-mic input, and the inputs and outputs associated with the two onboard 1073 preamps and 500-series slots. On the front right, beneath the armrest, are two instrument inputs, two headphone outputs and a 3.5mm jack input: a sensible arrangement for easy recording or songwriting in the control room.
There are four separate aux sends on each of the 24 channels. Three are mono and route the signal to electronically balanced XLR outputs. These are switchable (individually or globally) pre-/post-fader and their response to the channel's mute behaviour depends on which input (A or B) is selected. This ensures that the sends aren't cut when tracking (Input B), but are when mixing (Input A).
The other send is far more interesting! Called the Stereo Cue send, it employs Marinair transformers on its mix bus, so that it sounds identical to the master stereo bus. Both the level (-infinity to 0 dB) and pan encoders double as switches: simple presses engage the send and pan, and set the send to pre-/post-fader, so it can be used for cue mixes and effects sends as you'd expect. But other button-press combinations both on the channel and in the master section can set up different routing configurations. By default, this Stereo Cue send taps the input signal as selected on the channel (A or B) to the Stereo Cue bus, but it can also send from a third line-level input, called Input C (on D‑subs).
Three console-wide configuration modes are included in the 8424. The 48 Mix Mode, selected in the master section, overrides the channel settings for the Stereo Cue bus, and routes all the Input C signals to the Stereo Cue bus. Thus, DAW channels 1-24 are balanced on the faders in the usual way, while DAW channels 25-48 (or other line sources) can be balanced, panned and summed via the Stereo Cue bus, giving a whopping 48 separate line-level sources (52 if you include the two stereo reverb returns) at mixdown. Furthermore, the 24 insert sends/returns can be switched between the Input A and Input C. You can also route the Cue bus to groups 3/4 to provide sub-master faders for inputs 25-48.
The console's Inline mode configures the Stereo Cue bus as the 'small fader' section of an inline console, allowing you to mix Input B via the faders as you record it, and the monitor mix on Input A or C using the Stereo Cue controls. The cue-to-group feature allows you to use inline mixing on any number of channels, while preserving cue sends from console recording channels.
Finally, and perhaps most intriguing, the Parallel Processing mode splits the normal 24 inputs from the DAW, to feed both the Stereo Cue bus and the main fader on each channel, and you can deploy the insert send/return in either signal path. It's a really neat feature that enables parallel processing without taking up a second channel.
The big-console feel is very obvious when you first sit in front of the thing.
Probably more useful to me than the high channel-count and the many routing options is just how much thought has gone into some of the 8424's more mundane features. For instance, although you could press any basic send into service as a cue mix, Neve have made the three mono sends configurable as pre/post-fader sends, and you can also determine whether or not they'll include the talkback mic signal. That's a nice large-format touch for such a compact console. Another thoughtful feature is the switchable 'group pan': when engaged and a channel is routed to a pair of mono subgroups, it treats them as a stereo group, with its pan control determining how much of the signal is sent to each.
Arguably the most thoughtful such 'little' feature is the solo facility. Neve describe this as 'world class', and I can see why. The default mode is what you'd expect: solo-in-place, whereby if you press any channel solos you hear only those sources just as they'd appear in the mix, with inserts, pan and fader settings and all routings; it mutes everything else in the mix. You also have the option, though, of switching to AFL or PFL modes (AFL includes pan and fader settings, PFL doesn't), in which the engineer can audition sources without disrupting the Main or Stereo Cue mixes. To achieve this, both modes send the soloed channels' signals through a stereo AFL bus, which again features Marinair transformers so as to sound identical to the master stereo bus. If that weren't enough, the solo facility for the 24 main channel inputs and the Stereo Cue mix can be linked. Linking is essential if you want to use solo or mute during a 48-channel mixdown, while you'd not want it to disrupt an artist's cue mix. Each of the 24 individual and four group channels can also be made solo-safe, so that unless you mute them, they'll always play, no matter what other sources are soloed. How many other compact analogue consoles do you know that can do this?
The most controversial aspect of the 8424 is undoubtedly the bare-bones approach to preamps, EQs and 500-series slots, as a lot of people will struggle to understand why you wouldn't include more as a starting point. Of course, some people will be very happy with line-level inputs: it could work well for DAW summing, for someone integrating lots of outboard with the DAW, or even a massive synth setup. But most people using a console like this will probably want more preamps than offered in the 'base' console.
As I mentioned earlier, there are two 1073 mic/line preamps on board. Internally, these are identical to the company's 500-series 1073LB preamps, complete with input and output transformers, so there's little point describing them in detail here. They have dedicated inputs and outputs on the rear, so can be patched anywhere, but their outputs can be routed internally, at the push of a button, to the adjacent channels 17/18, or to a module in either 500-series slot as an insert before channels 17/18.
The 8424 actually has a third mic input, for a 'return talkback' mic. This clean-sounding preamp, intended for a live-room or producer mic, is accompanied by a 'preset' compressor (the threshold of which can be adjusted using a trimpot), but as it has a dedicated output, it can be patched into an input channel as a recording input. Finally, there are two nice, clean-sounding, Class-A, high-impedance (760kΩ) inputs, with a -25dB pad. These have balanced inputs, so can be used equally well for instruments or balanced line sources, and they offer similar routing options to the 1073s (but to channels 19/20). Curiously, they can't be routed internally into the 1073s. To do that, you need cables.
The two 500-series slots (see below) could also be used to host a pair of preamps, though I doubt most users would want to do that. For projects requiring more than two mics, the intention is that you use external preamps, so it's interesting to note that the 8424 was not designed in isolation: its development went hand in hand with that of Neve's 1073OPX, a 2U rackmounting eight-channel mic preamp (reviewed in SOS August 2020: www.soundonsound.com/reviews/neve-1073opx). That preamp's gain can be remote-controlled, and by the time you read this it will be controllable using the 8424's endless rotary gain controls. What's more, Neve offer a healthy discount if you buy one or more 1073OPXs alongside the 8424. So you can have that preamp-laden 24-channel Neve, if you want; it just costs a little more than the base price.