By Lynn Fuston
The Neve 1073 is probably the most famous and possibly most desirable preamp in the history of recording.
Designed by the Rupert Neve company in the early '70s, it has earned its place as the "gold standard" among preamps. This discrete transistor mic/line amp with 3-band EQ and highpass filter may not be the flattest, cleanest, or fastest preamp design, but it epitomizes the Neve "essence," endearing it to engineers and producers worldwide. When I gathered seven world-class engineers together for the 3D Audio Preamps in Paradise video and asked about a "desert island preamp," three of the seven said without hesitation: "Neve 1073." With hundreds of preamp options available today, finding so much agreement is testament to the desirability and sound of the 1073. I called Fletcher at Mercenary Audio and asked him which preamp he thought is the most copied, he retorted "Copied? Or copied well? The 1073 is without a doubt the most copied mic pre, however it is very rare that it is copied well." The legendary big, punchy sound of the 1073 is well documented so I'll stick to comparing the reissue to the original unit, to see how close AMS-Neve came to duplicating the vintage 1073.
Realizing the number of 1073 copies out there, along with the skyrocketing prices for originals,
AMS-Neve decided to re-issue a new 1073.
However, I think the word "re-create" is more accurate. When I pulled two racked modules out of the shipping box, I thought there had been a mistake. I was to get an original (old) 1073 and a recreation (new) 1073. But the two I had here were identical. Closer inspection revealed minor differences. The "vintage" unit seemed to be in pretty good repair, somewhat rare for vintage Neve modules. The knobs on the old unit were dirty and the frequency-select rings had grease pencil on them where the original paint had worn off. The knurled knob on the new one was shiny, while the old one was dull. And the highpass filter knob was darker blue on the old one. Other than that they looked absolutely identical, so close in fact that I put marker tape on the front of the new one so I wouldn't confuse them. (See Figure 1.)
Next it was time to go under the hood. I pulled the units from the case, a sturdy 3U box that includes power supply,
XLR inputs (both line and mic) and outputs on the back, along with power frequency/voltage select and a power switch. On the front, there are LED indicators for +24V and +48V, along with phantom on/off select for each module and a pair of output level trims. The modules look exactly like every other Neve module I've held - the Amphenol connector on the back, with a Lo/Hi switch on the rear for the 300/1200 ohm mic input impedance, and completely encased in metal. I did notice one thing that struck me as funny: On the old module was a bright red sticker that said "Original old unit." Obviously I wasn't the only one who had difficulty telling them apart. (See Figure 2.)
Next I unscrewed the sides, slid them off, and
got to the heart of the matter. (Even the screws are interchangeable between old and new.)
The first thing I noticed as I placed them side-by-side was the similarity of the printed circuit board (PCB) traces. A big aspect of preamp design, which some clone-makers overlook, is component placement and PCB design. When copying an old design, you can use the same components in the same circuit but lay out the PCB differently and end up with a unit that sounds totally different. The routing and size of the signal traces can have that much influence on the sound. Conversations with many well-known preamp designers has confirmed this to me.
So I was delighted to see that the PC boards looked absolutely identical, apart from the color of the board material. (See Figure 3.)
When I asked the technical design department at AMS-Neve about the PCBs, they informed me that "the PCBs look identical because they are made with the original tape PCB artwork, carefully stored over the years and now in use again. All original PCB drawings are used." Chalk one up for "historical accuracy." That made me wonder if the same was true for the accurate reproductions of the front panels as well.
The word from AMS-Neve? On those "it was more difficult because we had to spend a great deal of time matching today's CAD fonts with the original hand-produced artworks." Original artwork or not, to my eye the front panel is indistinguishable from the original.
The next thing I noticed was the looming (the way the cables are routed and wrapped between individual PCBs). This aspect is just as significant as the PCB layouts and I was pleased to see the cables were positioned and wrapped exactly like the original. The faithfulness to the original design and construction is overwhelmingly evident. (See Figure 4.)
So lots of similarities. Now let's talk about some differences inside. I noticed a difference in the potentiometers and resistors between old and new, as you can see in the images below. The old carbon track pots, corroded over the years, were replaced with newer conductive plastic pots on the re-issue. The larger brown resistors on the old were replaced with smaller metal film resistors, bluish in color. (See Figure 5.)
Probably the most influential things to the sound of the 1073 are the audio transformers. On the new module, although identical in size and color, the transformer case markings were different. I asked the AMS-Neve team to explain these three differences. (See Figure 6).
Simon Daniels, Product Marketing Manager of AMS-Neve responded: "Originally Neve used "Plessey E" carbon track potentiometers, but during 1977 a new range of pots was introduced after extensive evaluation. These were manufactured by SFER Nice, and had better performance, especially in terms of noise and life and they were physically much smaller. Today we still use the white SFER PA11 pots, which have conductive plastic tracks and gold plated contacts, and give excellent audio performance, longevity, and linearity.
"The resistors used today are metal-film and exactly the same specification as the ones used in the original units. They are available from our suppliers and component size is reduced.
"The original transformers were co-designed in 1968/69 by Neve and Marinair Rader of Harlow, who then manufactured the transformers for Neve. As Neve expanded in the 1970s, a second supplier was required and so another local (to Cambridge) transformer manufacturer (St. Ives Windings) produced transformers of the same design. So Neve used both suppliers.
"The transformers used in the current AMS-Neve built modules are to the same design and from the same factory in St. Ives in Cambridgeshire. (The parent company name is now changed to Carnhill, the name on the current transformer.)"
THE ULTIMATE QUESTION
It's time for the ultimate question: What does the new module sound like compared to the original?
After detailing all the similarities, you may not be surprised to find that it sounds like a 1073. Using the old and new pair on stereo sources such as piano, no noticeable differences were detected between left and right channels. I ran tones to check conformity of gain staging and it was right on. I compared the two equalizers by ear and found that the curves and values of the EQ sound identical. In studio use, I did spot a few differences: The switches for EQ and phase on the old Neve modules are notorious for the scratchy sound they make. The new ones feel the same but don't make that annoying noise. The frequency select switches on the old modules go "chunk" when you turn them. On the new one, they feel lighter and go "click." The boost/cut knobs on the old 1073 are very heavy and you have to purposefully "twist" them. On the new one, they feel lighter and you can just turn them. The old rotary highpass switch is actually easier to turn than the new one. As you can tell, I'm reaching to find differences - no one would expect 30-year-old switches and pots to operate like new ones. Besides, none of this will have any impact on the sound of the unit.
All in all, I think AMS-Neve has done a spectacular job of recreating a classic. The new module is worthy to wear the Neve symbol and the 1073 name. Those who purchase one won't have "vintage Neve" bragging rights but they won't have old gear frustrations either. They will certainly be entitled to say, "I have a Neve 1073" without reservation.