Review: Neve 1073LB 500
The classic 1073 mic preamp module is now available in a 500 series format. Stephen Bennett puts this new version to the test.
Originally launched in the 1970s, the 1073 is now available for your 500 series rack. Stephen Bennett puts this reworked classic to the test.
It might seem slightly perverse to begin a review with praise for a competitor’s product, but if it were not for the development of the innovative 500 series format by API – arguably the most successful open source audio technology since the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) – the product under review, the Neve 1073LB mono microphone/line level preamplifier, hereafter known as the 1073LB 500, would not be sitting snugly (even smugly) in my API ‘lunchbox.’
A ’70s design, the original 1073 module rapidly became one of the preamplifiers of choice for discerning engineers and is one of the main reasons for the continuing popularity of Neve’s eponymous large-format consoles. Several versions of the 1073 series modules have been sold over the years by Neve – and cloners, of course – and the model under test has been designed to retain the sonic heritage and characteristics of the classic preamplifier, but packed into the 500 series format.
The 500 series chassis provides both power and the required input and output connectivity to the British-made 1073LB 500, which consequently means that the preamplifier’s cost is significantly less than would be the case if you were to buy the full monty version in a 19in rack format, or indeed, one of the repackaged vintage units. Because of the small front panel footprint of 500 series modules, the best are usually those with fewer controls and the 1073LB fulfils this criterion admirably.
A useful Neutrik combination connector sits at the bottom of the front panel and provides XLR microphone and balanced 0.25in TRS connectivity, while a large, rotary, stepped input gain control sits under a two-colour LED that flashes green when the signal is between -25dB and +26dB and red at +26dB or greater. I would have preferred to see a proper input meter, but, in practice, the LED allows you to easily set up the correct input gain into your digital audio workstation (DAW) or desk.
The input control allows gain settings that run from -20dB to +10dB in 5dB steps for the line input (the right hand side of the control) and -20dB to -80dB for the microphone input (the left side), along with an off setting. The 1073LB features a phase button with associated LED and a Lo Z button that switches between two input impedances, 1,200 ohms (Hi Z) and 300 ohms (Lo Z) – the latter setting indicated by a yellow LED. The final button on the 1073LB 500 switches in the front panel input, disabling the API lunchbox’s input connectors. A rotary Trim control allows you to tweak the input gain for both microphone and line signals and also switches on the +48V phantom power when depressed – phantom power is automatically disabled when the stepped gain control is set to line input settings. Finally, the signal is fed into a transformer-balanced Class A output stage and thence to the lunchbox output XLR. Neve’s rather grandly named Audio Processing Insert Technology allows other Neve 500 series modules housed in the same lunchbox – such as the 1073LBEQ Equaliser – to be inserted directly into the 1073LB 500 pre-output stage signal path via the preamp’s rear panel INS LINK connector.
Neve publishes distortion figures for the 1073LB of 0.07% from 50Hz to 10kHz @+20dBu output with an 80kHz bandwidth, a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz with a ±0/5dB deviation and -3dB down at 40kHz. Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) is specified as better than -125dBU @60dB gain and noise at -82dBu at line settings from 22Hz to 22kHz. For a piece of equipment like this though, the importance of this data is moot; most experienced engineers will know what a 1073 preamplifier should sound like and so will choose it for its provenance rather than its specifications. Suffice it to say that I had no problems with noise or distortion over the period of the review.
I tested the 1073LB 500 in the real word by using it to record bass and snare drums, piano, vocals, cello and acoustic guitar using a variety of microphones including the venerable Shure SM57, a Neumann U87 of ’80s vintage and a C12 be-capsuled AKG 414. I compared the performance with the preamplifiers in my Metric Halo ULN-2, a Focusrite ISA 430 Mk I channel strip and some recordings I did with the same company’s Red 500 series preamplifier.
As I’d expected, the Neve was noticeably more coloured than my other preamplifiers – but in a lovely way. Allowing the input gain to hit the red occasionally didn’t seem to detrimentally affect the sound in any way – in fact I got into the habit of letting this happen probably more than was absolutely necessary, as I was so impressed with the results, especially with a Fender Rhodes and MiniMoog fed into the line inputs. The 1073LB exhibited the same characteristic I’ve often noticed in good preamplifiers – it allows microphones to really shine and even humble performers to produce excellent results. I didn’t have another flavour of 1073 available during the review, but I’ve used Neve desks extensively in the past and comparing the results obtained from the 1073LB 500 and some archive master tape recordings leave me in no doubt that the 1073LB 500 series is basically sonically the same as other versions of this classic Neve design – bearing in mind, of course, that a ’70s vintage 1073 rescued from a defunct console is unlikely to sound the same as a pristine new baby from Neve’s workshops! However, if you’re after the ‘Neve sound’ I can unreservedly recommend the 1073LB 500 – it’s an awful lot of beautifully built Neve for the money.
Stephen Bennett has been involved in music production for over 30 years. Based in Norwich, UK, he splits his time between writing books and articles on music technology, recording and touring, and lecturing at the University of East Anglia.