Rupert Neve: Life Beyond Measurement

Rupert neve: Life Beyond Measurement

Part I. What I Learned From Rupert

First a disclaimer: My working relationship and subsequent friendship with Rupert Neve occupied a very small band of time in our lives. It began in 1989, when Rupert entered into his consultancy with AMEK. I parted ways with AMEK in 1994, just as Rupert was moving to Texas. I wrote a letter of recommendation for him to US authorities when he applied for his permanent residency in the US. Rupert and I remained in touch for the rest of the decade. For a number of years, it seemed as if I might return to AMEK but by 2000 it was clear that would not be happening. After 2000 my contacts with Rupert were few and far between.

We were both preoccupied with establishing new companies – he with Rupert Neve Designs and I with Gotham Audio LLC. – in very different segments of the professional audio world. We rarely communicated with each other and once I stopped attending trade shows in 2009, our meetings and communications ceased altogether. That being said, those six brief years of close association (1989-1995) left an indelible mark on my life and thinking.

In that brief time, I learned that Rupert was not some god-like manifestation of genius inhabiting an elevated realm that separated him from the mere mortals that labored daily in the profession of audio. He was very much one of us, his extraordinary gifts notwithstanding. He was certainly a complicated human being with a full share of human faults and imperfections. Working with him was rewarding, but he also had those less than admirable moments and traits, just like the rest of us. That being said, he was a man of great faith, great passion and an ever-present desire and enthusiasm to communicate his ideas and beliefs to others, with grace, wisdom, wit and patience. He was always curious, ever observant, always learning. The behavior of others sometimes challenged his sensibilities but, in so many circumstances, he remained gracious under stress.

As impressive as Rupert’s achievements were, his genius also relied on assembling teams of talented co-workers who could assist him in designing and producing finished, marketable products. The current, almost worshipful, appreciation of his genius tends to ignore the degree to which he was able to rely on the talents of others to help achieve the fruition of that genius. The success of these team efforts in no way diminishes his status as a Master Designer. It just serves to prove that he was indeed very human and that, like the rest of us, he benefited greatly from having supportive and gifted co-workers who understood his vision.

As AMEK’s US Press Officer and Regional Sales Manager, I traveled with Rupert to various speaking engagements. His schedule at times could be grueling and a bit exhausting, but when he was presented with an audience of thoughtful audio professionals, he was thoroughly energized, and he would greatly enjoy those interactions. He had that remarkable gift of making all in attendance think he was speaking to them directly and most personally, as if it were a one-on-one conversation.

When we began our association, I knew next to nothing about his life or his designs. He patiently spent hours presenting his entire life history to me, in a most personal and intimate way, free from any trace of condescension, even as he discussed and explained technical subjects and issues that were clearly way beyond my limited knowledge and experience at the time.

I had started at radio stations as a teenager and had been an active recording engineer and studio owner from 1976 into the late 1980s, but my own studio experience was nearly all in small rooms, with limited tracks and modest equipment. Aside from a single mixing session on an AMEK Angela, I had rarely worked on anything more sophisticated than an entry level 24in/8out board, so Rupert certainly had a lot to teach me about the history and design of large consoles for multitrack recording. He tolerated my ignorance and my endless questions with his typical grace because he loved the act of sharing his life’s work with young engineers and colleagues and he always seemed to appreciate the interchange as much as he enjoyed presenting his viewpoints.

His interest in people from widely different backgrounds and willingness to interact with them and perhaps learn from their experiences was ever-present. During his travels he spent a few nights at my mother’s apartment in Manhattan, thoroughly enjoying the company of a first-generation American, elderly Jewish mother. She cooked him dinner the first night. He slept on a convertible sofa in her den that night and took us to dinner at her favorite neighborhood Greek diner the next evening. He visited my home in Atlanta and greatly enjoyed time with my wife and children. When he learned that my mother-in-law was an herbalist who practiced foot reflexology, he insisted on going to visit her store to discuss natural health matters and alternative medicine.

He patiently endured some odd travels with me, such as the time I persuaded him, along with Nick Franks, to dine at Tad’s Steaks in San Francisco- a nationwide chain famous for steak dinners for under $5.00. Tad’s was a “special treat in the dining world for those of modest means and somewhat-less-than-discerning taste palettes, decorated with red velvet walls, fake Tiffany lamps and an overall garish demeanor.” Rupert ordered his dinner from the cafeteria line, sat down at a table that had seen better days, and consumed his noticeably tough steak with a smile, pronouncing it all to have been a memorable American experience. I do think he enjoyed the evening far more than some of the meetings he endured that week with worshipful owners of old Neve consoles, in quite poor condition, who insisted that nothing he could do in the 1990s could possibly top what their old and less-than-prime Neve models were capable of.  But he was always gracious.

Rupert taught me that “hearing” with our ears was only half the story. What humans do is better described as perception – a complex process by which the brain interprets auditory information from the ears and puts it into a wider context which is informed by numerous sensory inputs. So much of how and what we perceive is dictated by our mental powers of focus and concentration, not just by the physical abilities of our hearing mechanism. Rupert’s interest in the science of psychoacoustics was boundless. He observed how great recording engineers listened, he knew how he himself listened when designing equipment and he realized how much about the complex ways and means of auditory perception was still a slowly-unfolding mystery.

His hearing in the 1990s (he was 65 in 1991) had certainly deteriorated considerably according to any conventional measurements. But his ability to perceive – to focus on, identify and evaluate the smallest components of sound – was remarkable. I remember when the late David Smith was proudly showing off the new SONY recording facilities in Manhattan to Rupert. We were walking through a cavernous main recording space and listening to sounds in the room. Rupert loved the room but he said to David that he could still detect a small amount of noise coming from the lighting fixtures overhead and he assumed they were still working on eliminating that. David looked baffled. Neither he nor any of the rest of us had noticed anything. We walked around the room for another few minutes, gave it some concentrated attention, and there it was – a bit of buzz lurking just above what had initially been the noise floor. One never questioned Rupert’s “hearing” in these matters.

Another evening I took him out to a new restaurant in Atlanta. We sat down and he immediately got “that look.” I knew he was listening to the acoustics of the room. He smiled with excitement. “Do you hear that? – It’s amazing.” All I could do is say “what?” It was just a noisy restaurant room. He implored me to keep listening and after a few minutes I could distinguish a half-dozen distinct conversations in the general din. Rupert then commented that he could hear and distinguish nearly every conversation in the room. He pointed at the domed ceiling. Unbeknownst to the builders, they had created a design that focused all those conversations down to a single point, and there we were. It was amazing. I suppose that few had ever noticed. To most it was just noisy room.

Time and time again, I saw those powers of concentrated perception at work in many ways. Rupert explained his design process to me and it always began with listening. Listening first to the content creators, the musician and producers and the engineers about what they were trying to do and what they were hearing. Then you take your prototypes and listen carefully – but not at high volume and not with a rushed intensity to hear and identify. You turn the volume down, put it in the background, do some other things, and let the sounds settle into your brain’s processing mechanism. Then bit by bit you begin to hear things that stand out and you can begin to identify changes that need to be made. You make those changes, go back to the ears of your clients, and get their input. They tell you what they are hearing and what they are still missing. You go back and tweak again. More listening. More feedback. More tweaking. The process repeats until the client finally exclaims something like, “Rupert – It Sparkles!”1 And then for a brief moment, the Designer can rest until the next challenge to get a bit closer to perfection claims his attention.

This low level, extended listening is inevitably a slow process, so unlike the quick A/B comparisons and blind tests that many value so highly. But psychoacoustics increasingly finds that this is the way the brain processes auditory information and creates the context that we identify as perception. These revelations thrilled Rupert, confirmed his instincts and informed his work. His curiosity in the 1980s and 1990s led him down so many productive paths, turning what for others would be the “retirement years” into a time of ceaseless innovation and improvement.

Given Rupert’s example, I came to realize that much of what we do as recording engineers is also a process that takes place in the brain, as opposed to one that primarily involves our skill in the use of the equipment that we have to capture, record and mix sound. Our ability to mentally analyze sound through focused concentration and then to use techniques of meditation and visualization to process the components of a mix, and find correct balances and optimum communication of emotions, is as much a part of our craft as the ability to choose and use the right equipment.

Also, much of our ability to evaluate and make the best decisions in mixing is informed by a whole range of physical reactions that give us clues to the wider context that the brain is creating with the auditory information it is receiving.

My time with Rupert was the inspiration for a series of college lectures I gave, beginning with the LaGrange College Electronic Music Festivals in 1998 and 2000, entitled “The Art of Engineering: Metaphysics of Mixing.” The lectures explored how engineers perceive the recording process and the “sound” of music. We are all familiar with the way engineers use equipment to get the sounds they want during mixing – what I call the mechanics of mixing. Of equal or greater importance is the way sounds are mixed and processed in the engineer’s brain – what I described as the metaphysics of mixing.

These concepts helped to explain my observations (based on personal experiences with George Massenburg and John Keane) that great engineers often exhibit identifiable gifts in their mixing at the very start of their careers, when their equipment and their experience were still very limited. Their early recordings exhibit the same footprints of talented and effective mixing as their widely acclaimed mature work, because their minds and powers of concentration were already functioning at a very elevated level when it came to understanding sound and particularly music.

Rupert was, first and foremost, a man of faith. Like Lord Kelvin, whom some believe to be the most important and influential physicist of the 19th Century, his faith supported and informed his scientific and technical work. Both were devout believers in the Christian faith who saw the hand of a loving Creator in the order and beauty of the physical world and the gifts given to his human creations. Rupert saw that man, formed in the image of God, had an inborn desire to create the good and beautiful. He believed that his work, and the work of the artists, musicians, engineers, etc. were all (when done with skill to the best of one’s abilities) a form of high praise to the Creator. As for that Creator:

“What may be known about God is clearly evident… for his invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward… because they are perceived by the things made.” (Romans 1:19, 20)

Along with the teachings and revelations of his Christian faith – the good news of Jesus Christ – Rupert saw music as one of the Creator’s greatest gifts. To capture and communicate the fullness of music was to him a form of respectful worship. His designer’s workshop, the recording studios, the sound systems – these were all temples where he worshiped. His co-workers, musicians, engineers and producers were all fellow congregants. Even if they did not share his formal religious beliefs, they all shared his profound respect for the goodness of the gift they had been entrusted with and his determination to perfect their craft for the benefit of all who would listen to the art they helped to create.

Rupert relished the Scriptures recorded in the Bible book of Hebrews:

“Faith is… the evident demonstration of realities that are not seen… By faith we perceive that the systems of things were put in order by God’s word so that what is seen has come into existence from things that are not visible.” (Hebrews 11:1, 3)

Rupert Neve spent a life measuring the known parameters of highest quality audio recording and reproduction. But clearly, he knew there was life beyond measurement. So he chased perfection, always seeking to look beyond the obvious so as to better understand our marvelous mechanism of auditory perception and the power and beauty of sound and music. There were layers and layers of subtlety to be explored and peeled away, exposing yet even more to be discovered. Human auditory perception builds the most complex and compelling soundscapes from a seemingly endless supply of microscopic bits of information, spread across, above and under the accepted boundaries of our hearing mechanism. When it comes to capturing and reproducing those soundscapes, anything less than the best we can do is never good enough. There will always be something out there to discover, subtleties that go beyond the currently  accepted models and which do make a significant difference in what we perceive and feel.

As Rupert eloquently taught, it all begins with listening and opening our minds to new ideas and possibilities, ever respectful of our perceptual capability to approach the infinite beauty and harmony of the natural world. What cannot be measured now, will be measured and understood in the future. But we should never let the limitations of the present restrict our vision to what can be clearly seen. There is so much more beyond that.

Like so many visionaries, he saw so much of our current vision as something functioning behind a veil hiding realities not yet perceived. It was those realities he diligently searched for.

“Therefore, we do not give up… we keep our eyes, not on the things seen but on the things unseen. For the things seen are temporary, but the things unseen are everlasting.” (2 Corinthians 4: 16, 18)

His creations were indeed the most wonderful of tools. But his greatest and most lasting legacy will be in the thinking, convictions and methods that inspired his creations and the ways that others will use the creative tools he entrusted to them, to bring forth the fullest expression of the beauty and power of the musical experience. To use George Massenburg’s eloquent words, hopefully they will serve to benchmark and calibrate our hearing and thinking for generations to come.

[1] “Rupert – It Sparkles!” was Geoff Emerick’s initial reaction when he first listened to Rupert Neve’s Montserrat console at AIR studios.

Part II:
The Changing Landscape of Audio Technology 1969-1994
A Career Overview: “The Rupert Neve Company, ARN Consultants, Focusrite and AMEK

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