Monday, April 15, 2024

Chairman of the board Rupert Neve

WIMBERLEY — The guy on the phone said he needed to have his videocassette recorder fixed, as soon as possible. “But we don’t do that sort of work,” a man with a stately English accent answered.

The fellow with the broken VCR persisted. “C’mon, man, give me a price. There’s a show tonight I need to tape.” Realizing that this conversation wouldn’t easily end, Rupert Neve came up with a figure and said, “Well, our going rate is a thousand dollars an hour.” “A thousand dollars!” the man exclaimed. “Why, I could buy 10 brand new VCRs for that much.” “Very well, then,” Neve replied, and the man hung up, unaware that he’d been talking to a music industry legend who’s the father of the modern recording console — that behemoth board with hundreds of knobs and faders that dominates studio control rooms.

The Neve name is to studio owners and engineers what the Titleist brand is to golfers and the Hasselblad name is to photographers. It’s the gold standard, a synonym for craftsmanship and durability. But even some of his best friends in Wimberley don’t know exactly what it is that the well-spoken Brit with the wry sense of humor does. They ask him to recommend a good stereo, unaware that some of the most glorious music that would come out of its speakers has been made more pleasant by his touch.

“From a technical aspect, there’s no one more important to the recording industry than Rupert Neve,” says Fred Remmert, whose Cedar Creek studio in South Austin sports a custom vintage Neve. “He’s our Mozart.” In 1997, Neve received a special merit Grammy award for “outstanding technical significance to the recording field.” In 1999, he was named “Man of the Century” by the Mix Magazine trade publication. And yet his company, ARN Consultants, is listed in the Wimberley phone book under “electronics.”

This quaint Hill Country town (population 3,700) is an unlikely home for the 77-year-old Brit who ran a public address system for Winston Churchill in the ’40s, designed the earliest bookshelf speakers in the ’50s and pioneered massive mixing consoles in the ’60s and ’70s that are still wildly valued today. “I was floored when I heard that Rupert Neve had moved to Wimberley (10 years ago),” says Billy Stull, who runs a mastering studio in the town 35 miles southwest of Austin. “It’s like being a mathematician and having Albert Einstein move into the neighborhood.”

On Sunday, July 4, it was Neve’s turn to lead the seniors Bible study class at the First Baptist Church of Wimberley. “Nobody knows the Bible better than Rupert,” says class leader Sue Baker. As he pins on his name tag, Neve says, “We know each other very well.” The group of about 40 also regularly meets socially. “This is so we don’t forget our own names.” Before he steps up to the podium, Rupert and Evelyn, his wife of 53 years, chat with fellow parishioners. “I heard you brought your guests to Miss Mae’s Bar-B-Q,” says one man, referring to a group from Shanghai-based SE Electronics, in town the week before to talk to Neve about designing a new line of microphones. Neve’s talk weaves 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 by anointing Jehu the new king of Israel. “Sometimes we have to take an aggressive action and risk the consequences,” Neve says, closing his binder full of notes. “Be bold.”

Neve discovered Wimberley when he came to visit a friend there in 1980. “When I got back to England, I told Evelyn, ‘If we ever move to the States, I found the perfect little place,’ ” Neve says. “Wimberley is a lovely part of the world, with a clean river and hills and rocks all around. Plus, the people are amazingly friendly.” The couple, whose five grown children live in England and Spain, bought an unassuming house on a couple acres near the banks of the Blanco River in 1994. Rupert Neve was raised in Argentina, the son of missionaries, and his wife grew up in British India (now Pakistan), where her father was a schoolmaster, so they prefer the heat of Texas to the constant cold drizzle of England. They also prefer the enterprising climate of their new home country to the more socialist stature of the heavily taxed United Kingdom. Financially secure with nothing left to prove, Rupert Neve still puts in 50-hour weeks at his one-room workshop, where he hands designs to two technicians who assemble and test them. In the past couple years, Neve has entered the musical instrument field for the first time, designing a pre-amp for Taylor acoustic guitars.

An inventor without an off switch, Neve’s mind is always at work. “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 says 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 says. “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 used a small inheritance to buy a U.S. Army ambulance and converted it into a mobile recording and public address system. When Churchill gave a policy speech in Neve’s hometown of Plymouth, Neve ran the PA system and pressed a 78 rpm recording of the speech, which was distributed to radio stations all over the world.

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 says.

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. Evelyn Neve handled the business end, leaving Rupert Neve free to design. The fledgling company struggled; 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 Neve says. “They would have prayed — and so at 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 says. “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. I’m not educated. 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.” The Neves’ son recovered.

A couple years later, the business really took off when Neve developed one of the first studio-quality sound mixers for classical composer Desmond Lesley, who was using a room full of tape recorders in front of various instruments and needed a device that would balance the sounds together to make a master tape. The advent of the British pop scene provided a boom for the business, which was now called the Neve Co. In 1961, Neve built two consoles for London’s Recorded Sound Ltd. — one for the studio and the other to record remotes for Radio Luxembourg. Neve also built a reputation for producing robust consoles. He recalls 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 says. “I was terrified of having an equipment failure in the middle of a recording session or a radio program.”

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,” says Evelyn Neve. The couple and their five children lived in the 27-room building from 1964 to 1975. At the start, the Neves had three employees and Rupert Neve 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. “You listen to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ (the Pink Floyd classic recorded at Abbey Road in 1972) and you know it could only have been produced with a Neve board,” says Chris “Frenchy” Smith, who owns the Bubble studio in East Austin. 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 since 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?” Some would say that Neve’s peak period was the 1970s, but Neve isn’t one of them. “It’s very frustrating to find myself in the position of having to compete with myself to make a living,” he says. 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 half a million dollars for the Neve-designed AMEK 9098, with its pristine audio signal path, or a Neve monster board from the ’70s. “I see some of the old consoles go for up to $600,000, three times more than they originally cost, but I don’t see a dime when they change hands,” says Neve, who gets a small royalty rate on the sale of each AMEK board. “Rupert’s a funny man about his old consoles,” says Remmert. “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 showed off his 1972 Neve console to the man who designed and built it, Neve told him that he should sell it while it still had value and buy one of his new boards.

“The 9098 (which launched in 1993) re-established Rupert as one of the top audio designers in the world,” says Mark Hallman, who owns the Congress House Studio in South Austin. Austin audio engineer Mark McQuilken of FMR Audio, who has assisted Neve in several projects, says Neve has a reputation for being as much an artist as a scientist. “His passion for sound and music and his creative flair set him apart from other technologists.” Spoon drummer Jim Eno, who has a recently restored 1969 Neve console in his home studio, says the Neve 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.

As someone whose lifelong quest has been to reproduce as pure a sound as possible, Neve is not a fan of CDs. “Basically, the digital system chops up the analog signal into a lot of little pieces and stores it in a digital process. Each of these steps has a switch, a click which is processed in the region above human hearing,” he says. “But, in fact, the human perception is capable of receiving signals way, way beyond audibility. The Japanese have done studies that show that when you listen to incomplete sound, the brain starts to generate the same electric frequencies that are associated with anger and frustration.”

Acknowledging that the digital system does have superior capabilities of storage and delivery, Neve’s next product, coming out on the Legendary Audio company he formed with Stull, is a mastering unit that uses the best of each system, filtering the digital signal through an analog (tape) process. The Masterpiece, which will sell for $15,000 per unit, will be unveiled at the Audio Engineer Society convention in October. The unavoidable coexistence of digital and analog in the recording industry mirrors the way science and spirituality have intertwined in Neve’s life.

Even during their busiest period, when their company was achieving worldwide renown, Rupert and Evelyn Neve initiated the Cambridge Radio Course in 1973 to train Christian broadcasters. It was one of his former Cambridge radio tutors whom Neve had visited in Wimberley in 1980. Fourteen years later, Rupert and Evelyn Neve would move to this “lovely part of the world” themselves. In 2002, they would become U.S. citizens. When Rupert Neve tells the senior Sunday schoolers that what may seem an infinity of coincidences is the Lord working in mysterious ways, he’s telling his story. This unassuming genius, who balances simple pleasures with complex designs, is exactly where he’s supposed to be, as unlikely as the destination may seem.

(This article became a chapter in “Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran, with art by Tim Kerr)

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