The 88M packs the sound of a Neve console preamp into a compact audio interface.
Many people like to record through transformer‑based mic preamps, in the quest for ‘analogue warmth’. Many people record to a computer, through an audio interface. And many audio interfaces have mic preamps. Which begs the question: why don’t many audio interfaces have transformer‑based preamps?
There are interfaces that emulate the sound of transformers, and there are 500‑series rack‑cum‑interface units that can host your choice of preamps. Until now, however, the only conventional interfaces I knew of that actually have input transformers were Steinberg’s UR‑RT2 and UR‑RT4. To most audio engineers of a sufficiently geeky persuasion, the words “transformer‑based mic preamp” bring to mind the name Rupert Neve. The Neve 1073 is the archetypal solid‑state transformer preamp design, and Steinberg’s UR‑RT interfaces represent a collaboration with Rupert Neve Designs. But they no longer have the field to themselves.
The original Neve brand and trademarks have changed hands several times over the years, but are now safe in the hands of AMS Neve. Manufactured entirely in Burnley, UK, the AMS Neve range still includes numerous variants of the 1073 circuit, as well as other Neve classics and more modern designs. And Neve’s latest product is... an audio interface with transformer‑based preamps. To be precise, it’s a bus‑powered, stereo desktop interface with two mic preamps and optical I/O for digital expansion.
Given the legendary status that now attaches to the 1073, it would seem an obvious move for Neve to use that preamp circuit in such a product. They haven’t, and for good reason. The 1073 is a Class‑A design, meaning that it’s relatively inefficient and therefore much too power‑hungry to be run from a USB or even a Thunderbolt bus. However, the 1073 isn’t the only classic transformer‑based preamp design in the Neve catalogue. The preamp circuit used in the state‑of‑the‑art 88RS console is a much more efficient design, and with a bit of tweakery, Neve’s engineers have managed to adapt it to run on USB bus power.
Functionally speaking, the resulting 88M is a USB 2 interface, but it needs to be connected to a USB 3 host socket, as it makes full use of the increased power delivery capability of the newer format. Even so, the internal power rails can’t be run at the same voltages as in the 88RS, which means that there’s less headroom on the inputs, and that the maximum output level is +18dBu rather than +20 or +24. Crucially, though, it uses the same proprietary Marinair‑branded input transformers.
Physically speaking, the 88M is quite a bit larger than most two‑channel interfaces, and is housed in a solid‑looking metal chassis with a Tolex‑style covering. This is a bit less than half rack width, and a bit less than 2U high, so could conceivably be housed on a 2U rack tray if you felt like doing so. The front panel boasts Neutrik Combo XLR/jack inputs with associated gain pots and independent phantom power switches. Pressing one of the gain pots cycles that input through mic, line and DI settings, and each input has a single signal‑present LED that illuminates traffic‑light style to let you know that your levels are on point.
At the front of the 88M, to the right of the two inputs, is a ‘master section’ with two further pots. The larger one governs the level at the main monitor outputs, while the smaller turns the single headphone level up and down. Both have a very clear and confident detent at the 12 o’clock position. This is an unusual feature but one I very much like; assuming you’re using active monitors, you can set the volume at the monitors themselves to give you a calibrated level in the centre position, leaving 12dB additional output level in hand for times when you want to crank the mix (or 6dB on the headphone output). It also means there’s no real need for a separate mute function, as it’s trivially easy just to turn the monitor level all the way down when you need to.
The headphone level control has its own press action, which cycles through four zero‑latency monitoring modes. In the DIR setting, computer playback is muted, signal from input 1 is routed to the left monitor channel, and signal from input 2 to the right. The DAW setting is the opposite, with only computer playback audible at the outputs. In Stereo and Mono MIX modes, both inputs and playback are heard, with the inputs being hard‑panned or summed to mono respectively. Mono MIX would be the obvious mode to choose if you were recording, say, a vocal overdub and you wanted to monitor it panned centre.
As this routing is handled in the analogue domain, it provides true zero‑latency input monitoring, but on the down side, it’s not the most flexible implementation ever. There’s no provision for low‑latency monitoring of the ADAT optical inputs, and the only way to change the balance between DAW playback and input signal levels in the monitor mix is to adjust the output fader in your DAW. There’s also no way to have different settings or balances for the headphones and the monitor outputs.
The 88M is a class‑compliant USB device, so on macOS it uses the built‑in Core Audio driver. As there are no digital mixing or routing features to control, there’s no control‑panel utility. If you want to use an external ADAT source as the clock master, you need to select this in Audio MIDI Setup, and the only indication that the clock source is valid is that it remains selected here. I would have liked the reassurance of a front‑panel LED to indicate successful clocking.
If you’re used to judging audio interfaces purely on the basis of numbers, you might question whether the numbers in the 88M’s specifications justify the number next to the pound sign. But that, really, is the point. Neve aren’t engaging in a numbers game; they’re adapting an established high‑end preamp design to a desktop format. Having said that, for the most part, the 88M’s numbers are still very decent. Dynamic range on the mic and line inputs is better than 110dB, whilst the outputs achieve at least 113dB, which is sufficient to accommodate any real‑world signal with vast amounts of headroom to spare. On the input side, THD+Noise is an order of magnitude above what you’d get from a squeaky‑clean transformerless circuit, but again, that just goes with the territory, and at 0.004% for the mic inputs, it’s hardly a fuzzbox.
One spec that did give me some concern, at least on paper, is the gain range. The 500‑series version of the 88 preamp, the 88R LB, has a 50dB range on the main gain control augmented by a 20dB pad, for a total gain range of 70dB. But the pad is missing from the 88M, and the range of the main gain control is only 47dB. In mic input mode, the minimum gain that can be applied is +21dB. The headroom at the A‑D converter is a fixed +18dBu, which means that the hottest mic signal that can be accommodated is ‑3dBu. That’s the lowest headroom level I’ve ever encountered on an audio interface mic input, and by quite a distance.
In practice, to my surprise, this didn’t seem to be an issue unless I wanted to use capacitor mics on loud sources. I was able to close‑mic a 60W guitar amp fully cranked using a Sennheiser MD409 without any issues and, likewise, a Beyer M88 stuffed into a kick drum came through fine. And at the other end of the scale, I had absolutely no problem recording speech with an insensitive moving‑coil mic.
Ultimately, of course, what will sell the 88M is its sound. It’s not trying to be like other interfaces; rather, the goal is to eliminate the need to buy a separate transformer‑coupled preamp in order to get the results you want. Does it sound sufficiently different from other interfaces to justify its cost? Well, just in case anyone was wondering, it certainly doesn’t sound worse! It might measure less well than the latest IC‑based designs in terms of noise and distortion, but it isn’t subjectively noisy and it’s capable of sounding perfectly clean when you want it to. The sonic contribution of the input transformers is somewhat source‑dependent. I found it very subtle on most miked vocal and acoustic instrument recordings, but plug in a bass guitar, and it’s a different story. I’ve used a lot of audio interface DI sockets over the years, and none of them has delivered this sort of fat, rounded tone.
I’ve used a lot of audio interface DI sockets over the years, and none of them has delivered this sort of fat, rounded tone.
The only ADAT preamp I own is a Focusrite 828, which is likewise a relatively modern transformer‑coupled design. For comparison, I tried hooking that up to the 88M’s digital input, and set up a pair of Beyer M69 mics next to one another, one routed through the 88’s mic input and the other through the Focusrite. They sounded very similar — and great — to my ears, and not noticeably saturated or coloured. Then I made the happy discovery that plugging a cable into the 88M’s insert send, but leaving the return unconnected, doesn’t prevent signal reaching the A‑D converter. So I set input 2 to Line mode and fed it from input 1’s insert send, then recorded the same mic on inputs 1 and 2 simultaneously, to see how much difference routing the signal through both transformers would make. The answer, again, was ‘not much’. I am not sure I could have told the two signals apart by ear, and a frequency analyser suggested that the only measurable difference was a 1dB boost below 100Hz in the re‑recorded signal.
One feature of the older 1073 preamp design is that it has an output attenuator, allowing you to deliberately drive the input stage harder for more coloration. The 88 preamp doesn’t have this, but the insert points on the 88M allow you to achieve the same effect, either by placing an attenuator inline or by sending from one channel’s insert point to the other channel’s line input, as described above. You need to be careful, because the onset of outright distortion is pretty abrupt, but there is definitely scope to add extra hair to your signal this way. In normal use, though, you shouldn’t expect the 88M to sound noticeably ‘retro’ or coloured, and that’s probably as it should be.
The 88M is a difficult product to sum up, because comparisons tend to be misleading. Considered as a two‑in, two‑out USB audio interface, it looks expensive. But considered as a two‑channel version of Neve’s 88 preamp that comes with the added bonuses of ADAT conversion, USB connectivity and a headphone output, it’s highly competitive. And, to my mind, one of the great things about it is that you can use it purely as a preamp. In that role, bus powering is perhaps less of a benefit, and some might prefer a mains‑powered unit with more headroom, but you’ll still get two channels of classic Neve preamplification with balanced inserts at a much lower cost than, say, two 88R LB modules and a 500‑series chassis. Pair it with a laptop and an ADAT expander, meanwhile, and you have a seriously high‑end location recording setup. The question ‘Why don’t many audio interfaces have transformer‑based preamps?’ just got a new answer: this one does — and I am sure it won’t be the last.
The rear panel boasts six balanced quarter‑inch jack sockets. Two of these are for the main monitor outputs, and the other four provide insert sends and returns for the two analogue input channels. The insert returns could be used to bring in line‑level signals in cases where you don’t want to pass them through the 88M’s transformers and gain stage. USB connectivity is made using the older Type B socket rather than the newer Type C. This was a deliberate choice on Neve’s part in order to achieve better resilience and long‑term reliability.
- Classic Neve 88 preamps in a convenient, bus‑powered format.
- Detented monitor level controls make calibrated monitoring easy.
- Balanced insert points on both analogue inputs.
- Expandable over ADAT.
- A truly great bass DI.
- Limited gain range, with no pads.
- No front‑panel feedback relating to clocking.
You can view the 88M as an audio interface with console‑style preamps, or a dual preamp with USB connectivity. Either way, it’s an unconventional move from Neve, and one that could carve out a new niche in the market.