Thirty years after selling the first company to bear his name, and after three decades spent consulting and designing for Focusrite, Amek, and others, Rupert Neve returned to the fray in 2005 with new high-end studio gear bearing his name once more: Rupert Neve Designs. RND hit the ground running with a lineup of eight half-rack units, dubbed the Portico series, featuring various combinations of microphone preamps, compressors, and eqs as well as esoteric gear like a tape emulator and a stereo field editor. Back in our June 2008 issue, Justin Peacock gave us the scoop on each and every one! His overall synopsis of the line was that it had "a character unto itself" and was "the calling card of the new Neve, rather than a recreation of the old." In simple terms, he was impressed.
One of the more interesting pieces in that review was the Portico 5016 Mic Pre/DI, which featured parallel microphone and DI inputs along with transformer-coupled outputs. With the 5016 you could record a direct signal from a bass or guitar while simultaneously miking and tracking the amplifier. This was made even more efficient by a variable phase knob that allowed you to adjust for and tighten up phase issues between the miked and direct signals without having to wait to adjust phase at the console or in your DAW. This box quickly became popular as a tracking front end for both bassists and guitarists alike, and soon found more use out of the rack and on the studio floor.
Sadly for some, the 5016 has been discontinued, but in its place we now have an even more purpose-built version with some cool new features, the new Portico 5017.
Built to move, tweaked to improve
Breaking the half-rack tradition of the Portico series, the new 5017 is slightly smaller and is designed with portability in mind. With a stylish rounded all-metal top chassis and rubber feet on its undercarriage, this unit will sit comfortably at home on a desktop or on a studio or stage floor. It follows the redesigned red, white, blue and silver color scheme of the current Portico line and uses the same metal knobs, plastic push buttons and accoutrements.
The 5017's preamp section has been greatly streamlined to make room for the newer features. Gone are the variable highpass filter, two-stage input gain, and full-stage input metering, but in their place the 5017 adds an input blend feature and a newly designed opto-compressor -- see below.
In front the 5017 hass two 1/4" jacks labeled INST and THRU. The Instrument input can handle both Hi-Z and line-level signals, while the Thru jack functions just like a typical stage DI and allows you to send the raw signal back out of the unit to a guitar amp. The back of the unit has one XLR mic input and one XLR line output as well as an additional 1/4" TRS balanced microphone out, plus a switch for +48 V phantom power, a ground lift switch and a power button. Power is supplied by a 12v DC external "line lump".
Mics and lines
The 5017's mic preamp circuit is similar to the ones in the rest of the Portico series, with a different output transformer. It has a single stepped gain switch that ranges from 0 dB to +66 dB in 6 dB steps. This section also includes an 80 Hz/12 dB-per-octave highpass filter, a 180 degree phase switch, and a signal/clip LED. It also retains the now-famous Silk switch found on all the Portico mic preamps for adding a touch of vintage harmonic fullness. The DI section is similarly simple with a single +30 dB continuous gain pot and its own signal/peak LED.
Both the DI and preamp are of the "clean and clear" variety, but as you may expect given its lineage, the 5017 leans closer to a well-balanced console sound than a sterile straight wire with gain. The Silk switch, as its name implies, adds a tasteful silky roundness to the highs as well as a thicker harmonic fullness in the low end.
The compressor and Blend controls
The 5017's compressor section has a new LDR (light dependent resistor) opto design and is controlled by a single threshold knob (-20 to +10 dB), with a fixed attack and release, a set ratio of 2:1 and automatic makeup gain. This compressor is great for taming simple transient peaks and beefing up a signal on its way to your recording medium, but this is not a "mojo, squash or vibe" compressor.
The compressor is active on both the DI and the mic preamp signals simultaneously, but inside the unit is a jumper that will set the compressor to the mic pre only. While we are on the subject of jumpers, a second internal jumper is available to alter the compressor's attack to a faster time as well.
The Blend control is where the true magic of the 5017 happens. Like the previous 5016, the 5017 can actively function as a two-channel device and both the DI and preamp sections have their own individual output transformers. As mentioned above, this comes in quite handy when tracking a direct signal along side a miked amplifier. Unlike the 5016, however, the 5017 also has an additional trick up its sleeve: the ability to blend the two to a single output, and again the variable phase control becomes quite handy in these instances.
Note that the 5016 was a two-channel device -- one dedicated to the preamp, the other the DI. The 5017 is better viewed as a single-channel unit that sums and blends two inputs and offers a secondary output if needed. The way this works is that the rear 1/4" mic output always carries the mic signal only, while the line output is always post-Blend. If you wish to separate the two signals into individual outputs, you need to have the Blend knob set to DI so only that signal goes the line out while the mic pre goes to its own output.
The 5017 is well suited as a project studio front end, on the floor of a tracking room for DI'd instruments and/or amp capture, and it is great as a live-stage DI as well. Since I do just as much live sound as I do studio work, I started with the latter. On both direct bass and acoustic guitar this box is sonically superior to a typical DI in every way, which is to be expected since it costs about ten times more than your average cheapo passive DI.
On acoustic guitar, with the compressor hit fairly hard and Silk engaged, I got a tone that was full and clear, yet thankfully devoid of the thin and buzzy jangles common to direct acoustic. It's equally useful as a bass DI, although here I found Silk a bit too thick, and also dialed the compressor back a bit.
Back in the studio the 5017 continued to be my bass go-to, with or without a miked amp to go with the DI signal. As for guitar... although I am typically a fan of mixing direct acoustic miking and electric pickups on stage, in the studio I usually prefer to mike the instrument instead. However, having the ability to blend both and dial 10-30% of the direct signal back in added some nice additional forward presence to the tone of my test guitar, and hey... all the hardware was already in place to do it!
Why do you need this box?
With an already established sonic pedigree, there is really no point in laboring over what the mic preamp sounds like on what sources -- it sounds great and in the past 6 years it has already carved its niche in the audio world. What is important to consider is: Why should you or I consider laying out around $1100 street price for this box?
As I see it, the Portico 5017 is a tool that fills a distinct void from the bedroom studio all the way to the pro studio and the stage. It is a great answer for the often asked question, "Which model should I consider when choosing my first professional mic preamp?". Its size and rugged design make it a great piece for traveling engineers and gigging musicians who require great tone as well as portability, and aside from vocals, I think the one source that musicians most worry about capturing well is the acoustic guitar. Having the convenience of the Blend, Silk, compression, and phase adjustment all in one neatly integrated box can be a huge problem solver.
Lastly I think the 5017's biggest strength is that unlike many of the specialty DI boxes made for live use, this is a Rupert Neve Portico unit with all that implies. Essentially it brings studio quality sound to the stage! No, it is not cheap, but when you consider that you get two Blendable channels, full phase control and simple compression, it's not an unrealistic investment at all. If acoustic guitar recording gives you headaches in the studio or on stage, consider Mr. Neve's little cure.
More from: Rupert Neve Designs, www.rupertneve.com.