Neve's Masterpiece: Is It So?

Rupert Neve? Known for his legendary consoles, sure. However, recently he created a mastering box called, humbly enough, “Masterpiece”. Three years of development in conjunction with mastering engineer Billy Stull [EQ, October 2005], the unit is comprised of precision 3-band Peak EQs, High, and Low Shelf EQs (all with detented controls), Classic circuits options, Tape Texture, Auxiliaries (which allows you to input outboard gear), Variable Phase Controls, VCA compressors, and Input Filter Options, which allow you to apply these features full range or to just the low, mid, or high sections of the audio spectrum [or any combination]. With all this you also get LED metering for the compressors and the input gains. Rupert included everything in this unit except the kitchen sink. And as a visual aid, there are a total of 142 green, red, and amber LEDs that tell you the status at a glance.
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The EQ? It has the classic Rupert Neve sound. If you don’t know what that is, it’s an EQ that is more on the transparent sound; however it gently adds smoothness to the signal (warmth), which most people find very pleasing. This is especially useful since most engineers record to hard drives these days. Though a different EQ, I would say the Focusrite Red series EQ (also Rupert influenced) gives a similar character as this EQ. I was also told there is more circuitry in the Masterpiece than in one of the old large Neve consoles.

EQ: This EQ covers 24Hz to 22kHz in three bands. Each band has 16 frequencies to choose from for a total of 48 [overlapping] choices per band. They can boost or cut up to 15dB in precise 1dB steps. That’s not unusual for a mastering EQ, however Rupert went beyond this: a zoom setting that reduces the precision control by providing gain adjustments in steps. You can also get more range [precision] out of the gain control, since the plus or minus pushbutton allows a full rotation of the knob for adding gain, and a push of the +/- button allows full rotation for reducing gain. There is also a variable Q from 1.0 to 5.0. And any or all of the three bands may be side-chained to the on-board compressor.

Shelf EQ: There is a two-band shelf EQ for the high and low freq. The high freq’ has eight shelf choices from .9 to 12kHz. The low-shelf choices range from 35 to 440Hz. In addition Rupert’s optional gentle transparent shelf is labeled Sheen for the High and Glow for the Low Shelf.

Classic is an interesting design. It’s like putting a 1272 pre through the chain. It adds some nice 2nd and 3rd harmonic distortion. You could use it for heavy rock material to the low section to tighten up the bass or use it in the mid and /or high range to punch the vocals to the front of the mix.

Tape Texture: Virtually an analog tape recorder sans tape. Settings include tape characteristics that add “head bump” EQ on the bottom and gentle tape-like compression. In conjunction with the input filter it can be used on the low range only to create huge bottom end with little or no effect on the overall output levels or to the top end to contain and smooth harsh cymbals or sibilance. Overall adds warmth and smoothness to digital recordings.

Compressor: The two compressors, which can be linked, give you the standard controls of threshold, attack, release, ratio, and gain make up. It also has a button that switches to soft knee when you want the compressor to be more transparent. The threshold is from –30 to +18. The attack has settings from 20ms to 75; release is from 100ms to 2.5 seconds, and a ratio from 1.11 limits, which is more than 20:1. The LED meter shows from 1dB to 14dB in green, 18 to 26dB in yellow and 30 to 40dB in red. In comparison with my Focusrite Compounder (which is also VCA), they both can sound transparent on a stereo bus, however the Neve compressor can also add a slight touch of a vintage compressor color to the signal (“peach color” I call it), which can gently add a pleasant tone to the character. Again less color than a Manley or Pendulum MU but more color than a transparent compressor. At the mastering stage it is usually best to keep your ratio at a lower setting of 1.7 or 2.0.

The Master module: is fixed at the right hand side of the unit. It contains both input and outputs controls for the two channels: There are led meters that can show input or outputs, gain controls, low and high pass filters, and Image Controls. There are also two buttons that bypass the modules for instant A/B of the effect of the module processing. The Master module contains large, custom designed output transformers hand [ear] picked by Billy Stull from several prototypes presented to him by Neve.

Image: There are two controls in this section, depth and ambience. The depth knob allows you to bring the center-panned material forward or back in the mix. The ambience knob though was something even more intriguing. I heard a mix where the reverb was a little too strong on a track. With a turn of the ambience knob we were able to reduce the reverb. This knob could save a lot of mixes on its own. How many songs have you heard where too much reverb caused the mix to sound a little washy?

After hearing and seeing how this unit works, it is apparent that it could also be used for tracking to assist in enhancing your tracks. The Masterpiece is a two-channel analog unit, which has a master module and four unique modules for each channel that are connected on a “daisy chain” buss. Its dimensions are 19" x 10.5" x 12"; the unit weighs in about 67 pounds and takes up 6 U rack spaces. All things of this quality of cost come at a price, and this unit is no exception. The retail cost for the Masterpiece is around $19,000. When I first heard the price, I was discouraged, to put it mildly, knowing there are a lot of mastering devices out there that are a lot cheaper. However, if you buy a GML mastering EQ, a Manley MU compressor, and an Avalon AD2077 mastering EQ, for instance, you are in the same ballpark as this unit. The TC Electronics 6000 Mastering is also is priced in this same area. This unit however could be out of the price range for a lot of home studio owners. They’ll have to look more at a Focusrite Mix Master, dbx Quantum, or mastering plug ins from Waves, or Powercore. What is important though is the sound of the unit, and I can say that the Masterpiece does not disappoint. The unit is able to smooth out and gel mixes, correct mistakes, and just overall make mixes sound better, much better. This is one serious mastering device that gives you the tools that you’re expected to have at the mastering stage. Though you can get great results with other mastering gear, I haven’t heard anything that gives better results than the Masterpiece. But there are a lot of choices out there today for mastering and it all depends on what character you want your mastering equipment to give you. The Masterpiece, if you’re asking me, is in the middle between the transparent Massenberg gear and the warm and rich sound of Manley gear. The Masterpiece is possibly a tad more flexible though since you can add more or less harmonic distortion to its features. Oh yeah, the other nice feature is if you want to add your Cranesong or Pendulum gear, you can just insert it to the Aux section of the Masterpiece, and then you even have the option to use it overall or just on the low, mid, or high range. If you were looking for a high quality piece of mastering gear for their studio, and money were less of a problem then it is for most of us, it would be a mistake not to consider looking at the Masterpiece.