Think about your favorite song: You're probably thinking about the singer's voice, the melody or maybe the backbeat.
But what about the crisp sound of the recording?
Legendary audio equipment inventor Rupert Neve was instrumental in that regard. His pioneering innovations are responsible for shaping the sound of recorded music in the 20th century and beyond.
Neve died on Feb. 12 at the age of 94. The British-born audio engineer was beloved by musicians for his designs, which included preamplifiers and mixing consoles. Perhaps one of his most notable inventions was the Neve 8028 soundboard, a piece of equipment that Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl made the star in his 2013 documentary, “Sound City.”
“The late '60s and the '70s, a lot of this really beautiful equipment was being made and installed into studios around the world and the Neve boards were considered like the Cadillacs of recording consoles,” Grohl told NPR in 2013. “They kind of look like they're from the Enterprise in “Star Trek” or something like that.”
Audio engineers use soundboards to shape the sound of a recording in the studio, says Susan Rogers, a professor at Berklee College of Music, who worked as a record producer and studio engineer for Prince, Barenaked Ladies, David Byrne and others.
The Neve boards were so “highly regarded and treasured” because they provided a “thicker, fatter, warmer” sound that was difficult to achieve back in the early days of music recording, she says.
“Neve was building consoles that used individual components, which means that the auditory signal path had more room to travel,” she says. “It was like a superhighway.”
This is what made the Neve boards so special, Rogers says. When an audio engineer ran sound sources — guitars, bass, drums, horns, strings — through a Neve board, they were able “to pick up more information.”
“Lower lows, higher highs, things are going to breathe, like the exhale of a singer's voice,” she explains. “You're going to be able to capture all that air that's coming out.”
Neve’s pioneering method of EQ or equalization, which is the process of balancing different frequencies within a sound, made it all possible.
“It is the art of EQ that an engineer must master, especially back in the old days of analog tape when you had to make those decisions straight onto the tape,” Rogers says. “These days with digital audio, you can make those decisions after the fact. But back in those days, an audio engineer had to be a sound sculptor who could make those correct decisions in the moment when you have a band on the other side of the glass.”
The invention was revolutionary because mixing consoles prior to the 1970s were fairly simple, which made it more difficult to make improvements to a recording, Neve told “Sound on Sound” magazine in 2015.
“You bring a bunch of musicians in and make a recording, and they find that the guitar is kind of lost. So, what do you do?” he said. “You bring all the musicians in again? Scouring the various nightclubs and so on into which they’ve all disappeared over the last week? Get them all together again and rerecord? Very expensive, difficult.”
It’s this EQ design that contributed to what became known as the Neve sound — and that sonic texture is what defined classic rock in the 1970s and ‘80s. Fleetwood Mac, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Pat Benatar, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and more recorded on the Neve 8028 soundboard at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles because “it was ideally suited to rock ‘n’ roll,” Rogers says.
“In fact, it was a little bit harder to use that console with dance music,” Rogers says, which is why Prince and other funk and pop artists in the ‘80s often didn’t record with Neve products. “With rock ‘n’ roll, you don't need a pointy, sharp kick drum. With rock ‘n’ roll, you can have that low kick drum. You can have that low, fat bass. So for rock ‘n’ roll, the Neve, with its big, expansive low end was absolutely perfect.”
Grohl actually bought that Neve board from Sound City Studios. He said recording on it during the sessions for Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough record, “Nevermind,” changed his life. Rogers says Neve must have understood musical instruments because his consoles were like a part of the band.
“It's no accident that Rupert Neve’s designs were so beloved by so many,” Rogers says. “It responded like a musical instrument and was an essential part of the collaboration that we're all involved in when we make a record.”
Collaboration breeds the magic that’s born when recording music, and the equipment audio engineers use is an essential part of that process. But Rogers says some of that flair has been lost with digital audio because the sound that goes into a digital recording device is the same as the sound that comes out of it.
This wasn’t the case back in the old days with analog tape, she says. The machine had a human element.
“Everything in the studio, the console, the tape machine, everything was going to distort the signal in some way,” she says. “We liked it. We wanted it. We wanted the machine to speak to us in a certain way with its own unique sonic characteristics.”
This is why Rogers says she likes to remind her students that they can still use the old equipment in a modern recording studio — and musicians still do. After all, she says, those tube microphones from the 1940s are still in use today.
“So every generation has to use the tools that they've inherited in the way that they see fit,” she says. “As long as we can keep those Neve consoles running, we will still have their sound for as long as we can do that.”
This segment aired on February 18, 2021.