'He was the Steve Jobs of audio': how Rupert Neve changed the sound of music | William Stokes

The late audio engineer revolutionised recording with an innovative EQ design, his innovations used by everyone from the Queen to Dave Grohl

“Many different rock records, in my opinion, are predicated not on a structure or a melodic line, or a rhythm – but on a sound,” said Brian Eno in 1979. He was delivering his landmark lecture, The Studio as a Compositional Tool, in New York, illustrating how, in a recording studio, “you can do what the classical composer couldn’t: you can infinitely extend the timbre of any instrument … and you mix it all in some manner of your choice”. The mixer, he said, “is really the central part of the studio”.

This weekend the music community said goodbye to a core part of that mixer’s history: Rupert Neve, the British-born audio engineer and innovator whose beloved designs over a staggering 80-year career changed the sound of recorded music. Neve, who has died aged 94, was to music what Steve Jobs was to computing and Terence Conran was to design. “Rupert Neve. I can’t describe your influence on everyone who has ever made music,” Matty Healy of the 1975 posted on Instagram on Sunday. Said songwriter Frank Turner: “The sound of every record you like was shaped by his work.”

In 2015, Neve reflected on one of his earliest innovations: “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? 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.” A revolution was needed. “Is there any way we can change that mix?” he asked himself. “Well, EQ occurred to me.”

Neve with Dave Grohl at SXSW in 2013.
‘Neve’s a genius’ … the audio engineer with Dave Grohl at SXSW in 2013. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

EQ, or equalisation, is the process of managing and balancing different frequencies within a sound – giving it more or less bass, perhaps, or cutting out certain disruptive harmonics. It allows sounds and instruments to fit together in a mix, and is an essential component of mixing consoles. Neve’s signature EQ design would become one of his flagship achievements, precipitating what would become known as the “Neve sound”.

As a boy, Neve amused himself by repairing and building radios before volunteering in communications with the Royal Signals as a 17-year-old during the second world war. After returning to England, Neve developed a mobile system for recording choirs and public events, as well as public address systems used by then Princess Elizabeth and Winston Churchill. In 1960, he was commissioned to build his first audio-mixing console. His first company, Neve Electronics, was born in 1961.

Neve crafted the altarpieces of many of the world’s finest recording studios, including Abbey Road, the Kinks’ Konk Studios, New York’s Electric Lady and George Martin’s AIR studios in London and Monserrat. “George had become a trusted friend, far more than a customer,” Neve recalled following Martin’s death in 2016. “I was not a musician, and he helped me to understand the finer nuances of his approach.”

The venerable Sound City Studios in Los Angeles was also home to a Neve console. When Foo Fighter Dave Grohl heard that the complex’s Studio B was to close, he inquired about buying its rare Neve 8028, having maintained a fond attachment to the mixing console ever since Nirvana recorded Nevermind on it two decades earlier. “Neve boards were considered the Cadillacs of recording consoles,” Grohl told NPR. Unfortunately for Grohl, the Neve was in Studio A and not Studio B. The studio manager told him: “I’d sell my grandmother before I sold that board.”

When Sound City closed its commercial operations in 2011, Grohl was first in line to buy it. He subsequently cast it in the leading role for the 2013 film Sound City, his love letter to the studio and the culture that surrounded it. “Whether it was Tom Petty or Lindsey Buckingham or Chris Goss or Josh Homme,” he told NPR, “everybody had a story about sitting in front of this board … It’s kind of a spiritual experience.” Neve appeared in the film talking to Grohl, who was overawed. “When Rupert Neve starts getting that deep, technically, I just – I’m lost,” he confessed. “He’s a genius.”

Neve will occupy a special place in music history as a man whose genius hummed reliably in the background. Even his 1997 lifetime achievement technical Grammy pales in comparison to his musical legacy. As Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry said in a tribute: “Amazing how one man can touch so many lives in a good way and yet most people won’t know who he is … but we do!!!!!”

William Stokes

The GuardianTramp

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