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Rupert Neve, the Wizard of Wimberley, turns 90

Posted by mcorcoran on July 30, 2016

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Vintage Neve board from Sound City

WIMBERLEY — Nobody ends up here by mistake. This quaint Hill Country town 40 miles southwest of Austin is not on the way to anywhere else, but a destination. And home to about 3,900.

The unlikeliest of those residents is Rupert Neve, the British recording icon who first came to Wimberley in 1980 to visit a friend and finally moved from England to this “lovely part of the world” in 1994.

Neve is the father of the recording console, that behemoth board that dominates studio control rooms like a slanted dinner table with knobs and faders. Cherished by analog apostles, his boards from the ’60s and ’70s sell today for up to five times what they originally cost.

The Neve name got a boost in 2013 with Sound City, a documentary by Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters that debuted at South by Southwest. Bought new in 1972 for $75,000, Sound City’s Neve board captured such landmark recordings as Why Can’t We Be Friends by War, Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac,” Pinkerton by Weezer and the self-titled debut from Rage Against the Machine. Each completely different, having only a Neve 8028 in common. “Rupert Neve is a genius,” Grohl stated in Sound City, a love letter to the old-fashioned record-making process, before such software as Pro Tools puts the means for production in the hands of anyone with a laptop.

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Rupert, which he prefers to “Mr. Neve,” turns 90 today, July 31. The photo above is the early birthday celebration from the shop in Wimberley where he still works about three days a week. His focus, when I last visited him in 2013, was on his latest analog console the 5088, which was a late-career smash hit.

But to most of the music world he’s best known for his work 50 years ago. “He designed the audio apparatus for the British Invasion!” declared Billy Crockett, whose Wimberley recording oasis Blue Rock recently installed a 5088, with Neve as a hands-on consultant.

In 1961, Neve built two consoles for London’s Recorded Sound Ltd. — one for the studio and the other to record remotes for the highly influential Radio Luxembourg. He designed a transistor-based mixing console with an equalizer in 1964 for Phillips Recording Ltd., another hot London studio in that time of Beatlemania.

Neve also built a reputation for producing robust consoles. He recalled a recent visit to a radio station in Singapore, which owned a console Neve built in 1967. “I went to fiddle with it and they said ‘Don’t touch it!’ I said ‘Why not?’ and they said it was being used on the air at the moment.” Reliability was foremost in Neve’s mind, he said. “I was terrified of having an equipment failure in the middle of a recording session or a radio program.”

Evelyn and Rupert 2011.

Evelyn and Rupert 2011.

Neve’s boards, from his valve consoles in the early ’60s to the powerful 5088, have always recorded to tape. It doesn’t take much prodding to get Neve, a Christian who rarely has a bad word for anyone, to put down digital recording systems. “Basically, (it) chops up the analog signal into a lot of little pieces and stores it in a digital process,” he told me in 2004. “Each of these steps has a switch, a click which is processed in the region above human hearing.” Neve cited a Japanese study that found listening to incomplete sound starts electric frequencies in the brain that are associated with anger and frustration.

Spoon drummer Jim Eno, who has a restored 1969 Neve console in his Public Hi-Fi studio in Austin, says the analog appeal is in the way “a Neve board colors the sound pleasantly and adds to the musicality. It’s the difference between a photograph and a painting. The painting is fuller, deeper and ultimately more satisfying.” To Neve, such “coloring” is just distortion that his old boards weren’t good enough to lower.

“Rupert’s a funny man about his old consoles,” said Fred Remmert, whose Cedar Creek studio sports a 1972 Neve console that used to belong to Elvis Presley. “He’s like an artist who’s still making records and doesn’t want to always be reminded about the songs he cut 30 years ago.” When Remmert proudly showed off his console to the man who designed it, Neve told him that he should sell it while it still had value and buy one of his new boards.
During his ’70s renaissance period, Neve battled American-made API consoles for market share. These days, studio owners have to decide whether to shell out around $100,000 for the 5088 or at least twice that for a vintage Neve.

“I find myself constantly in the position of competing with myself,” he said recently from the workshop in the rocky hills outside Wimberley, where he has a staff of 14 full-time employees.

For such an industry giant to live in this small Texas town is as incongruous as Jack Nicklaus living in Alaska. But Rupert and Evelyn, his wife of 66 years, love their lives out of the music business spotlight. They work and they go to church and they socialize. Until recently, Rupert Neve Designs was listed in the local phone book under “electronics” and folks would call to ask about getting their DVD players repaired.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t do that sort of work,” Neve told one man on the phone in 2004. The caller was persistent, so to send him on his way Neve announced, in his stately British accent, “our going rate is a thousand dollars an hour.” Click. Back to work.

Rupert was raised in Argentina, the son of missionaries, while Evelyn grew up in British India (now Pakistan), where her father was a schoolmaster.  They’ll take the heat of Texas to the constant cold drizzle of England, where their five grown children live. They also prefer the enterprising climate of their new home country to the more socialist stature of the heavily taxed United Kingdom. Rupert and Evelyn became proud U.S. citizens in 2002.

Prominently placed on a living room wall in the Neves’ home in Wimberley is an overhead shot of an old church rectory in Cambridge. “This is the place where a lot of things started,” said Evelyn. The family lived in the 27-room building from 1964 to 1975. At the start, the Neves had th

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ree employees and Rupert worked out of the carriage house. By 1973, the company, then called Rupert Neve International, had 500 employees worldwide with factories in England and Scotland. In the ’70s, Neve consoles became synonymous with a warm, rich, organic sound. Every studio had to have one.

Needing an infusion of capital and wanting to concentrate on design, Neve sold his company in 1975 to ESE, a corporation that made its money primarily in oil exploration. The Neves were paid mainly in company stock, and when the stock plummeted to pennies on the dollar, they virtually gave the company away. Creatively, however, Rupert Neve was on a roll. He designed the first automated console, which stored and recalled the sliding fader positions, saving producers hours of time per session.

In January 1976, Beatles producer George Martin stopped by Neve’s studio to try out this new “moving fader automation,” as Neve’s new product was called. “We thought he might stop by for a couple hours, but he was mixing until late in the night,” Neve recalls. The next day Martin sent a note: “How soon can I have one?”

An inventor without an off switch, Neve’s mind is always at work, even at 90. “Once when I was on vacation with Evelyn in Spain, I had an idea on the beach and started drawing schematics (circuit designs) on the wet sand and photographing them,” he said with a laugh. “My work is my hobby.” A self-taught electrical wiz, Neve started building radios as a hobby at age 13 in Buenos Aires. He made it a business a few years later when World War II broke out and radios stopped coming from U.S. manufacturers. Neve was able to buy the components and build radios that he sold to stores in Argentina. “Even as a boy, my product had to sound better than everybody else’s,” he said. “I’d listen for hours and tinker with all sorts of ways to reduce the distortion.” At 17 he joined the British Army and sailed to England.

After the war, Neve bought a U.S. Army ambulance, which he converted into a mobile recording and public address system. His first “hit” was a policy speech by Winston Churchill, which Neve recorded straight to vinyl for worldwide release.

He met Evelyn through his sister — “sparks flew straight away” — but when he asked her father for permission to marry her, the old man said he didn’t see much future in the PA system business. “You can’t support my daughter in a style she’s accustomed to on that kind of money,” he said — so Neve moved to London and got a job designing transformers. The owner of the company also manufactured enormous loudspeaker units. “The thinking then was that quality speakers had to be huge,” Neve said.

Neve in 1968 in England.

Neve in 1968 in England.

Neve designed a unit that was just as powerful, but at about a quarter of the size. When the company balked on manufacturing the bookcase speakers, the Neves formed their own company, CQ Audio, in 1957. Undercapitalized, the fledgling enterprise struggled initially and there was no money to pay mounting bills. Even worse, the Neves’ infant son, John, was rejecting his mother’s milk and was in danger of dying of malnutrition. “I wondered what my parents would have done,” Rupert said in 2004. “They would have prayed — and so about 3 a.m. one night I fell to my knees and said, ‘If you’re really out there, please do something.’ In that instant, I could sense that someone was listening.”

Although his parents were missionaries, Rupert Neve “grew up a grandson of God, not a son of God,” he said. “I thought religion was for the old, the weak. I didn’t need God in my life. But in that moment of clarity at 3 a.m., I realized that I’d been given a gift.” The Neves’ son recovered and they’ve been devout Christians ever since.

“I’m not educated,” Neve stated. “Nobody taught me how to do what I do. From that day forward I’ve never forgotten that I owe everything to God’s grace. There’s no other way to explain it.”

Rupert and Evelyn initiated the Cambridge Radio Course in 1973 to train Christian broadcasters. It was one of his former Cambridge radio tutors whom Neve visited in Wimberley in 1980. When he returned to England, he told Evelyn that if they ever decided to move to the States, he found the perfect place, with a clean river running through it and amazingly friendly people.

The Neves invited me to seniors Bible study class at the First Baptist Church of Wimberley in 2004, when I first wrote about Rupert for the Austin American Statesman. It was his week to lead.  “Nobody knows the Bible better than Rupert,” said class leader Sue Baker. Putting on his name tag, Rupert joked that it was so he wouldn’t forget his own name. But his talk was sharp, weaving Patrick Henry’s defiant “give me liberty or give me death” speech of 1775 with Old Testament narratives concerning the prophet Elisha, who put himself in danger for his beliefs.

“Sometimes we have to take an aggressive action and risk the consequences,” Neve said, closing his binder full of notes. “Be bold.”

Wimberley is no place for the lost. When you end up here, it’s usually meant to be.

 

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