In the lore of recording history, there are those who make one-of-a-kind contributions that will forever be remembered for their work in the field. For Rupert Neve, he's had the distinct honor of doing this over and over again by consistently bringing new innovations into the pro audio world. Throughout his 80 years of building electronics, Neve has gone from childhood tinker to console master to audio legend.
To celebrate Rupert's 90th birthday, we spent time with him at Rupert Neve Designs headquarters in Wimberley, Texas. We talked about how he got his start in the industry, the beginnings of the Neve brand, his design philosophies and his continued work with the team at RND. Check out our brand new Make Your Mark and Inside Look featured below and continue reading for an expanded interview with the man himself.
What were some of the earliest electrical projects you were working on in your younger years?
I was interested in constructing radio receivers and I built a very nice communications receiver. Keeping in mind that this was in Argentina, we couldn’t buy the regular communications receivers used, partly because of cost, partly because during the war you couldn’t get anything like that. So, I built my own. I could buy all the parts and I put them together.
Everything I did had to do with radio receivers, ranging from the standard type of table radio set, listening to the local AM stations, and at the other end of the range were the communication receivers. We didn’t worry too much about the sound quality, just the intelligibility.
You were living abroad at the start of World War II. What made you return to England to join the service?
I lived in Argentina the first 17 years of my life. There was quite a large population of British young men and it was the thing to do to volunteer your services during the war, to go to England and join the services. Fight for King and Country. Basically, that’s what I did, with some adventures along the way, but I wanted to join one of the technical branches, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical engineers.
The officer who interviewed me looked pretty doubtful and said, “Well, if you really want to serve your country, my boy, you need to think of being a radio operator.” Well, I was already a radio operator from a Ham standpoint. I soon discovered that you could be a really bad radio operator and you’d be taken out of that, be promoted and might even be an officer. If you were a really good radio operator, you were always a radio operator. I was in between… I was just good enough to stay where I was.
What happened after the war ended?
As I had been a volunteer from overseas, I was entitled to be repatriated to my country, free of charge or government expense, or go to university. I thought it would be good to go to university, but I discovered there was a three-year waiting list. There were thousands of others at the end of the war who were being demobilized and wanted to take advantage of that entitlement. I was much too impatient, I did not go to university. I went to a private school, which was affiliated with EMI and that worked ok for nearly a year. I soon realized the purpose of the school was not so much to educate, but to look for candidates for employment at EMI. They were looking for engineers for their own R&D purposes. I wasn’t keen on joining EMI, so that came to an end and I decided to start my own business.
The drive to make use of the talent that I realized I had for sound quality. I started to provide rental public address systems during the summer and then I did private sound recordings during the winter. I didn’t have a studio of my own, but I had an agreement with a small local studio that allowed me to use their facilities. It was quite a good partnership and I learned a lot about recording. Now, recording in those days was on 78 RPM acetate, you could cut a record and, if you took care of it, you could play it a half dozen times before it became too mutilated. Nevertheless, people would commission recordings of singing, musical instruments, sometimes just reading a story book or poem they had devised. It was interesting. I learned about microphone techniques, there were only two different types of microphones available and that taught me a great deal how to use very limited resources.
How did you get into designing as your business?
It was simply a matter of meeting a demand. I found that there were some quite nice directional loudspeakers made by a British company with 42” horns, which were originally designed for music and use in the cinema. I talked to the manufacturer and they saw the opportunity of extending beyond the cinema as a market. So, between us, we evolved a pressure unit, which would handle much more power over a limited frequency range.
What was the transition like from speakers to the original Neve company?
I was looking for work really. A friend of mine, who had worked for me at a job that I had two or three years before, had set up and run his own studio. He had a wealthy father. He really asked me if I could produce a piece of equipment that would give him better music quality than he was currently experiencing. That led to a better quality recording amplifier, which produced musical sounds. Having built a couple of these for him, that seemed to be the limit of the market, but I realized that other people would be interested.
I started to be able to serve other people. I advertised in the only journal there was at the time, a little small size ad, which in effect said, “We’ll design and make anything for anyone.” It wasn’t good advertising, you need to be far more specific than that. But I did get a call from Phillips Records, who had set up in London, and I nearly missed the contact because I was out when they called. The lady we had looking after the kids, when we returned, said there was a call for you, she hadn’t got his number, but she thought it was a “Mr. Phillips.” I called every Mr. Phillips that I knew. I was thumbing through the local telephone directory when all of the sudden I thought I should cast my net wider. So I got a London directory and came across Phillips Records, I didn’t really think it could be them, but I tried.
I called the number in the telephone directory for Phillips Records and I said, “My name is Rupert Neve.” She said, “Oh, Mr. Godwin’s been trying to call you.” She gave it to me on the plate straight away. That was the beginning of the professional recording systems, the amplifiers, the mixers and so on. They asked for all kinds of things, which really gave me a challenge, and that was the start of the Neve business.
What type of gear did you innovate for Phillips?
I designed equipment for them for several years. First of all, they asked me for an equalizer. They said, “Can you build an equalizer which would be able to select the guitar in a group?” That was the beginning of the equalizer. I managed to devise an equalizer with a sharp cut-off above and below the quite limited frequencies of the guitar. Yes, of course, the harmonics were being cut and by itself it wouldn’t have sounded good, but in the group, it was ok. They were impressed by this and it actually worked. That was the beginning of the equalizers, which later on became very famous.
They then asked me if I could produce some other more regular equipment and I produced a series of modules, which were straightforward microphone in, line out, with the ability to control the gain and a limited amount of equalization. These were initially all tube equipment, obviously, we had to do something about this. They asked me if I had ever heard of the transistor. I had grown up on tubes and I didn’t really want to know about transistors, but they asked the question if the transistor would ever be good for audio. Well, I had to find out and I found out after weeks of experimentation that you could do things with a transistor that you could never do with a valve. From there on, the equalizers and the amplifier modules suddenly became smaller and better quality.
There came a point when Phillips Records, having taken delivery of some of these modules, said, “We’d like to ask you, we’re looking for a console, a transportable console. We’ve had some bids from various people on the continent, but they vary enormously in price from a couple thousand pounds to 10,000 or more, and we really have no idea how to assess these things. What would be your opinion?” I said, “Now, you’re calling me a consultant, consultants have to earn a living. If I give you that kind of advice, I’m going to have to charge you.” They said, “Well, we don’t have a budget for that,” and I said, “Well I there’s solution for that. I’ll build the darn thing myself…” They said, “OK, you’re on.”
This was supposed to be a transportable console and it took like four men to lift the thing. It was certainly not transportable by normal standards, but that console was used for many of their outside broadcasts from concert halls in and around London. The first time we actually used the console was in Watford Town Hall, which had very nice acoustics, and we worked with an American company that was associated with Columbia Records. Their producer was standing there listening to a replay looking very thoughtful and the Phillips Records studio manager said, “Jack, why are you looking so thoughtful?” He said, “I don’t understand how you get this sound to be so clean.” That was one of the first endorsements I ever received. That was a major step forward and that went around the industry.
When you’re working with the designers at Rupert Neve Designs, what kind of advice do you give them?
We are God’s creatures, created in perfection. We’ve each been given talents and capabilities, which we can develop, but we don’t do it alone. There are attributes, which each person has, that are all a little different, and you have to be aware that the textbooks don’t say it all.
For example, the textbooks will tell you that human hearing extends to 20 kHz and, in fact, most human hearing can’t extend beyond 20 kHz. It depends on age, experience and a whole lot of other things, and even with a healthy, late teenager, it’s probably going to be 17 or 18 kHz. As you get older, it drops. When you are about 70, it drops to 8 or 9 kHz.
This is the kind of conversation I have with my colleagues and they pay me the compliment of listening and applying the same things. They now have become better than I, certainly faster than I. As you get older, you get slower at everything. They are a lot younger and faster and they are producing some absolutely wonderful designs.
When you’re designing, do you stay focused or do you put it down and come back to it later?
Oh yes, yes, especially in my younger days, I would carry on working until, in some cases, I dropped. That’s not necessarily the best thing to do, but it’s a part of being focused, not wanting to give up and being impatient. Common sense suggests you would be better off limiting the hours you put in and getting some rest, but I could never discipline myself to that extent. Even today, my wife gets very impatient and says, “I can’t go to sleep if you’re not here.” When I’m in the lab and working away on something, it will sort of escape if I leave it over.
When you look back at your life, was there ever a period where you weren’t designing?
I have always been a designer in the sense of whatever I was doing, I wanted to improve it. In the days when I was designing radio receivers, that was design, even when I was building on others’ designs. I’ve always been a designer and I now recognize that as a person who was created in the image of the Creator, the kind of designs that I’ve been involved with are those that seek perfection. We never reach that perfection, but you can go on searching for it, and that always makes me a designer.