I don’t really want to choose sound quality over reliability, or vice versa, so I picked up one of these new 8801 channel strips, hoping that it could solve some of my problems . . . yet I remained skeptical about AMS Neve’s claims that a new product could offer the same magical sounds as the originals. Here’s what I found out.
OUT OF THE BOX
The 8801 has a whopping 26 switches and 22 knobs on the front panel—a design feat achieved by having most of the controls double as switches (i.e., when the gain pot is pushed in it acts as an input selector; all eight knobs in the dynamics section double as switches for functions such as attack time and auto release; and most of the pots in the EQ section switch functions between bandwidths, including shelving and bell curve presets).
Scared? Don’t be. The 8801’s basic features are easily understandable (these include a mic pre with variable gain pad, phase invert, and 48V phantom power; a line mic/DI switch, front/rear panel connectors, high and low pass filters, digital output option, an output control with meter, and the ability to recall all settings stored by the user). The compressor and expander sections are full-featured with control over threshold, ratio, attack, release, makeup gain, separate gain reduction meters, and the ability to side-chain the filters or the EQ section. Note that this is a very useful feature, as side-chaining allows using EQ or filters to affect the signal that triggers the compression. For example, side-chaining a high pass filter can keep lows from pumping too much, and by boosting selected highs when an EQ is side-chained, the compressor can act more as a de-esser.
The EQ has four bands, with the middle two being fully parametric. Conversely, the top and bottom bands are sweepable, with switches to select bandwidth and shelving. This is a serious upgrade from earlier units—such as the 1073—where all the values were fixed, and thus offered less flexibility in terms of creative and/or corrective use of the EQ section.
APPLYING THE 8801
For testing, I patched the mics into the 8801’s rear panel input and ran the preamp’s analog output into the analog input of my Digidesign 192 I/O. From there, I tackled a variety of sources, starting with a 22" ’70s Ludwig kick that was miked with an Electro-Voice N/D 868, just inside the opening of the outside head. The pre on the 8801 sounded clean and accurate—not as colorful as some of my Daking or Neve clone pres that I tend to prefer for kicks. The EQ, however, added some incredible top end snap that some of my vintage pieces (and retro clones) couldn’t touch. Not too shabby a performance, I must say.
Up next was a distorted electric guitar sent through an old Marshall cabinet, miked with both a Shure SM57 and an SM7 running through the 8801. The flexibility of the EQ section was simply a godsend. I used the high pass filters around 100Hz, boosted some of the low mids, and added about 3dB of compression on the SM57 for some added thickening. The result: a track that needed no fixing in the mix. The 8801 could quickly become my go-to pre for recording guitar cabs, as it’s one of the few pres that still comes equipped with high and low pass filters—features I find especially useful in ridding guitar tracks of unruly subsonics and overly-airy highs.
Next in line was a loud male rock vocalist who had settled on a Blue Bottle mic to scream into. Generally I would use a more colorful pre for rock vocals, but, again, the 8801s exceptional EQ gave me all I needed to ensure the tracks sounded energetic, with plenty of body and presence to boot. The compressor section sounded good on this source, though I must say that when we got into 4–5dB of reduction the 8801 seemed to take the edge off the top end. I would recommend inserting a Universal Audio 1176 or maybe an optical compressor into the signal chain as well when using the 8801 on vocals of this type, as I’m into the habit of using a pair of compressors on loud vocals; I feel that the 8801 works best when paired with another compressor in an application that needs heavy compression to make the track work.
With all the hype I’m generating as to the EQ section of the 8801, I should add that the unit’s recall feature is probably its most valuable asset. The recall is easy to set up, and accurate. Just remember that it’s essential to store your settings before powering down the 8801. Trust me on this: When I switched the power off to my racks after a session, the soft switches reset and I had to manually reset the pad, phase, and a few other electronically switched features. Save yourself that hassle and just store your settings before calling it a day.
The 8801 is a flexible, feature-rich unit with tons of welcome additions and upgrades (especially the total recall feature) to some of their previous products. Thoughtfully designed and sturdily built, this strip is great for anyone looking for an all-in-one front end solution for tracking . . . and it doubles as a nice little tool for out-of-the-box mixing as well. The EQ imparts a distinctive Neve sound quality to sources, yet is precise enough to carve and clean problematic tracks. The high and low pass filters are top notch, the pre is very clean, the expander functions smoothly and reliably, and the compressor worked especially well on guitar tracks.
My only wish is that I had two of these units, as they would be unstoppable if paired together on the mix bus. Entry-level recordists may need to spend some time climbing the learning curve—this is no one-knob processor. But the time spent is well worth it to make use of the 8801’s powerful feature set.
PRODUCT TYPE: Full featured, top-shelf analog channel strip.
TARGET MARKET: Any recordist needing a single piece front-end unit.
STRENGTHS: Total recall capability. Incredible EQ. Feature-heavy. Solidly built.
LIMITATIONS: When power is shut off to unit, soft switches reset, necessitating use of store and recall function for accurate recall of the unit’s settings.
LIST PRICE: $3,250