FIG. 1: The Portico 5042''s front panel features continuously variable rotary controls and button-style switches; the latter are backlit by status LEDs when depressed.
For the past dozen years or so, I've searched for a box or plug-in that could deliver the big, warm sound of a large-format analog tape recorder, without the hiss. Most products I've tried have failed. The Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5042 Two-Channel “True Tape” Emulation and Line Driver comes closer than most. Unlike products that use DSP for their emulation, the 5042 incorporates the actual record and replay circuitry of an analog deck along with a tiny magnetic head. All that's missing in the audio path is the tape itself.
Plays Well with Others
The dual-channel 5042 belongs to Rupert Neve Designs' new line of affordable, all-analog signal processors dubbed the Portico Series. Products in the series are designed to either work independently or be interconnected to form a larger system with many of the capabilities of an expandable, modular production console. The 1U, half-rack 5042 features rubber feet for tabletop placement. Alternatively, units can be rackmounted (singly or two side by side) or fitted into the company's 8-Way Vertical Rack Frame using optional kits.
Identical controls and metering grace each independent channel (see Fig. 1). A continuously variable rotary Trim control, positioned immediately after an input transformer in the audio path, boosts or cuts gain by as much as 12 dB; the 0 dB gain setting reflects unity gain with processing disabled. When the Engage Tape button is pushed in, the output of the Trim stage is sent to the tape-emulation circuitry, for which a continuously variable rotary Saturation control provides additional gain as needed. An 8-segment multicolored LED bar graph displays level either posttrim or post-saturation, depending on the setting of an associated meter-select switch.
A front-panel switch toggles between 7.5 ips (inches per second) and 15 ips emphasis and deemphasis; these settings emulate the electronic record and replay characteristics and distinctive sonic qualities of an analog tape recorder operating at tape-transport speeds of 7.5 or 15 inches per second, respectively. Another switch sends the processed audio signal to jacks on the rear panel. The front-panel switches are all buttons, which are backlit by status LEDs when depressed. The meter-select and tape-speed buttons don't have screened symbols to indicate which position is for which setting, but I quickly intuited the setup by looking and listening.
The manufacturer decided to forgo hardware bypasses for the 5042 in deference to its line-driving amplifiers. These feature proprietary I/O transformers that impart their own subtle sonic conditioning to signals passing through the unit, whether or not the tape-emulation processing is engaged. (Tape emulation is bypassed when the Engage Tape button is out.) The 5042 incorporates Class A circuitry throughout its audio paths, which are unbalanced internally (meaning that single-sided amplifiers are used to reduce noise).
It Takes Connections
Each channel features an input and output using balanced XLR connectors on the 5042's rear panel. Each channel also sports two unbalanced, high-impedance buses on ¼-inch TRS phone jacks (see Fig. 2). As more Portico Series products are released, you will be able to connect them together in various configurations by way of their bus jacks. That will allow you to build an expandable, modular recording and mixing system. The 5042 is planned to interface with the 5014 stereo-bus mixer and the 5043 2-channel compressor/limiter, neither of which had been released at the time of this writing. The two bus jacks for each 5042 channel are normaled together, allowing one to be used as an input and the other as an output so that multiple units may be daisy-chained. That's useful for busing several tracks to a common compressor, for example.
FIG. 2: Bus jacks on the 5042''s rear panel accommodate interconnection with other modules in Rupert Neve Designs'' Portico Series.
A power switch and a DC input jack for the included external power adapter round out the 5042's rear panel. Multiple 5042s can purportedly be powered from an optional P-2 power supply or a car battery, suggesting use in sound-reinforcement or field applications.
The Heat Is On
Patching audio through the 5042, I quickly discovered an undocumented feature: the unit's top red LED lights to indicate clipping, and it remains lit longer for higher levels of clipping. I also found out that as long as the Engage Tape button is pressed in, the tape-emulation circuitry receives input — often at very high levels — even with the Saturation control turned all the way down.
In all cases, turning up the Saturation control provides negligible gain boost at the unit's output. That's because the 5042 was designed to automatically reduce the gain of its replay amplifier by an amount equal to the additional gain sent to its magnetic tape head. In short, you can dial in increasing levels of tape warmth and compression without having to compensate by turning down output levels. In fact, the 5042 doesn't include output-level controls.
Although boosting the Saturation control doesn't boost the unit's output level, it can cause the tape-emulation circuitry to clip if you aren't careful. The 5042's line-driver audio path has a lot more headroom than the tape-emulation circuitry, so high signal levels at the 5042's input usually require a low or even minimum Saturation setting (unless, of course, the Trim control is lowered substantially).
I connected the 5042 to my Yamaha 02RV2 mixer's +4 dBu stereo analog outputs to process a stereo mix. The 15 ips setting provided a little less rounding in the highs, more-transparent mids, and less head bump (bass boost) in the bottom end than the 7.5 ips setting. This made 15 ips my preferred setting for processing mixes of well-recorded material that didn't need extreme processing, and for which maintaining transparency was a primary concern. Both ips settings lent a pleasing, slightly compressed sound to the processed mixes.
However, the 5042's headroom — while much higher than that of any tape recorder ever made — presented a problem when used in mixing applications with my high-output mixer. My 02RV2's +4 dBu stereo outputs produce +26 dBu at 0 dBfs (all 02RV2s are slightly different in this regard), a level that exceeded the 5042's +25 dBu maximum output level. That caused clipping unless I lowered the Trim control below unity (0 dB).
When using the 5042 to mix well-recorded material at the 15 ips setting, I typically used less than two-thirds of the saturation effect available before clipping. Even with the Saturation control set to its minimum setting, I had to lower the Trim control to at least 3 dB below unity to reduce the amount of processing to this moderate level. I then had to boost the signal by the same amount downstream of the 5042 to make up for the lost gain — not good gain-staging practice. This problem may not arise for you if your mixer's stereo-bus output is considerably lower than that of an 02RV2 (which is relatively hot). In any case, the 15 ips setting noticeably warmed up the mix by softening the highs, broadening the mids, and rounding the mix with subtle compression, all the while keeping detail largely intact. The processed mix sounded a tad warmer and fatter overall.
I preferred the 7.5 ips setting and full saturation for mastering a poorly recorded, thin, harsh mix. That tamed the original mix's edginess and fattened up the sound considerably. However, I found myself wishing I could obtain a more dramatic effect than was possible with the 5042. The manual states, “We did not set out to make a ‘bad’ tape recorder!” But I prefer having enough rope to hang myself for those instances when brute force is necessary.
Cooking Individual Tracks
The 5042 interfaced easily with a MOTU HD192 I/O box (which outputs much lower levels than most mixers' stereo buses) and my DAW (MOTU Digital Performer). I kept the 5042's Trim control at 0 dB most of the time and routinely preferred using the more dramatic 7.5 ips setting and full saturation when processing kick, snare, bass, and electric-guitar tracks.
The 5042 did an excellent job of warming up a thin, harsh electric-guitar track, softening piercing highs, fattening thin mids, and adding pleasing compression. After receiving the 7.5 ips treatment, electric bass sounded fuller and more thunderous, due in part to a dramatic boost in lower bass frequencies wrought by the processing. On the other hand, the bass did not sound quite as tight. Combining the processed bass sound with the original digital track sounded incredible — ballsy, yet defined. On kick and snare tracks, the 5042 added girth to bass and lower-midrange frequencies, but also dulled highs and the snap of transients. Combining the processed kick and snare tracks with their originals gave the best of both worlds — punchy and fat drums.
I didn't like what the 5042 did to lead vocals. Even with very moderate processing, the track lost too much focus for my taste. The effect sounded much like the added proximity effect from a cardioid mic, causing blurriness and adding a little unwanted bottom end. (I prefer miking vocals in omni mode whenever feasible.)
If you want to add only a subtle effect and maintain optimal gain staging, the 5042 works best when placed on the outputs of devices producing no more than about a +23 dBu level. A makeup-gain control — omitted on the 5042 — would have been useful to fine-tune levels going to fixed-gain I/O boxes; input levels at a MOTU HD192 (placed after the 5042's output) often fell 2 to 4 dB shy of 0 dBfs even with the 5042's meters showing full saturation.
Does the 5042 sound like an analog tape recorder? There's no definitive answer, because all tape recorder models sound different. The 5042 doesn't sound quite like any of my analog tape recorders of yore — without the actual tape, part of the full effect is missing. But forgetting about what the 5042 isn't, and evaluating it for what it is, the verdict must be that this box does a great job of warming up individual tracks and full mixes.
Michael Cooper offers out-of-area clients flat-fee mixing and mastering services via Fed Ex delivery. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
PORTICO 5042 SPECIFICATIONS
Frequency Response, Main Output -0.50 dB @ 10 Hz, -3 dB @ 200 kHz (measured at +10 dBu, trim @ unity) Maximum Output Level +25 dBu THD + Noise <0.0015% (@ 1 kHz, +20 dBu output level, no load) Crosstalk better than -90 dB @ 16 kHz
Frequency Response 7.5 ips: -3 dB @ 16 kHz; 15 ips: -3 dB @ 20 kHz Maximum Output Level (trim @ unity) saturation at min.: +25 dBu; saturation at max.: +6 dBu THD + Noise approx. 1-2% 2nd and 3rd harmonic below 1 kHz Crosstalk better than -80 dB @ 16 kHz (maximum saturation) Dimensions 9.5" (W) × 1.73" (H) × 8.5" (D) Weight 8.2 lbs.
RUPERT NEVE DESIGNS
Portico 5042 Two-Channel “True Tape” Emulation and Line Driver
PROS: Fully independent channels. Emulates 7.5 ips and 15 ips tape speeds. Can control the amount of tape saturation. Trim control allows use with a wide range of input-signal levels.
CONS: Headroom capability compromises gain staging with high-output mixers in 2-bus applications. No makeup-gain controls. Somewhat pricey.
GUIDE TO EM METERS
5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed
EASE OF USE...4
Rupert Neve Designs