Neve 4081 Review by Al Unsworth
Four Channel Mic Pre-Amp with Some Interesting Features from AMS Neve
Every audio engineer knows about Neve and their sonic heritage, with the 1081 mic pre & EQ module being one of their most popular, sought after and finest sounding units around. I have used the 1081 on various recordings over the years and have always been very happy with the results. Recently I was booked to engineer and mix a full album for a rock band with quite a lot of different instruments to capture. I have a couple of mic pre-amps myself but really thought 1081 pre-amps would be worth hiring in. The 4081 from Neve has four channel 1081 mic pre-amps and was my choice for the session.
Neve 4081 Features
Features on the front panel are 4 gain pots, signal indicator, overload indicator, phantom power switch, -20 pad, low Z, mic line, phase reverse and insert, plus selectors and indicators for sample rate and indicators for sync source. Rear features are 4 XLR input and output, ins/line out on 25 pin D-sub, USB 2, RS485 in & out and 4 ID dip switches. The unit I am using is also equipped with the optional digital board which has AES In / Out, FireWire and word clock in & out. Power is supplied by a external PSU. On the top of the lid there are the words Made In England, that’s always pleasing to see.
It takes a few moments to setup. Connect the 4081’s USB to computer, install the driver followed by the remote software, the unit is recognized and all the functions work, simple. Although easy to setup, a potential remote problem exists. A lot of live room tie line’s usually consist of standard audio connection, XLR, jack etc, USB not being one of them. How would you get the control data to the unit? Thankfully the studio we were in had an access hatch so running the cable through was easy, but could be a issue elsewhere. I have seen you can get USB to XLR converters but not tried so don’t know if this would work. Again, potential problems if you are recording digitally using the FireWire, but here we are recording analogue, XLR outputs to patchbay to Pro-tools.
First off, drums. Studio booked for four days so not much time to mess around. Already decided prior to recording what the 4081 will be used on - kick, snare and overheads. Whenever possible I will situate the pre amps in the live room, hopefully in a position where I can see the meters from the control room window. On the 4081 there is a green LED for signal and a red LED for overload. As a bonus though, the 4081 can be controlled remotely via USB 2, which really suits my way of working, saving me having to keep running in & out of the control room to set the gain. The remote software allows you to change the gain and switches, plus there is metering for each channel.
Microphones are setup around the kit and connected to pre-amps, standard Shure SM57 on the snare, AKG D112 on kick and a pair of AKG 414s for overheads. Time for the drummers entrance, make sure he is comfortable and no microphones or stands obscuring his playing, check for squeaky pedals, rattles etc. We are good to go. Just get drummer to play full kit, get him and the drums warmed up, while I set up levels and re-position mics. Setting up the 4081 from the control room is really easy. The gain structure increments in 5dB steps, line from 0 to +20, Mic +20dB right up to +70dB. In line, the phantom power, -20 pad and Low Z are not switchable (why would they be). Mic positions and gains are set, -20 pad in on snare, phantom on the overheads.
We are ready for some takes (I have also set up rest of band to play along for guide tracks). The kit is sounding pretty good, now for the test, drummer comes in to control room to hear-back takes, no complaints on the sound of the kit and seems rather happy with it all. I have a play through and solo, bass drum is sounding good, has a nice thickness to it and good detail, snare, really nice, capturing the attack of the transients but not too harsh, overheads also sounding good, even when the dynamics are increased the sound doesn’t become too harsh.
Over the four days of drum tracking the setup stayed basically the same mic-wise, though some drums were changed for different tracks and gains were altered. The 4081 performed very well, no issues, being able to adjust the gain sat in my chair was lazy but convenient. The recall of the unit worked, handy when going back to another track and needing to drop in a replacement drum fill or going for a fresh take.
Onto bass guitar. Radial passive DI into the line input of channel 1of the 4081. Recorded all as DI in control room. No remote function needed. Various bass guitars used and a Neve 33609 compressor. Sounded fantastic, good depth and detail.
Acoustic /Electric guitars. There were a lot of guitars, amps and mics used. The 4081 was used on everything. For electric I would have had at least 4 mics on the cab, usually a Shure SM57, U47 clone, Coles 4038 and Cascade Gomez. Overall the 4081 sounded great on all of it. Again it captured the depth and detail without being harsh. When using it with the ribbon mic, such as Coles 4038, the Low Z (impedance) switch should be used as this impedance matches the mic to the pre amp, if not, this restricts the movement of the ribbon therefore giving it a duller sound and also a loss in gain (although this can work well in some situations, try it out). There was still plenty of gain in the 4081 to get a good level without too much noise added.
For acoustic duties I employed the use of a prototype U47 clone (this was built by the owner of Studiocare, Richard Threlfall, who is a microphone expert and the Neumann U47 being one of his areas of great expertise). The U47 was put together by him using German and American parts and built accordingly to original U47 specifications. Richard has five well maintained long and short body U47’s so he can accurately compare his clone (more on this at a later date) - anyway, it sounded superb!
Vocals. Male and female vocals, U47 Clone, 4081, Neve 33609. I had the choice of two different heads for the mic so this helped when tracking, I used a brighter head for female and a duller for male. The U47 and 4081 combination worked a treat. Really nice vocal sound which needed very little EQ when it came to mixing. This is a classic vocal mic and pre amp choice - there is a reason why this combination is still used today. It just works, usually with exceptional results.
Other instruments involved during the recording process using 4081 - Banjo, Ukulele , Didgeridoo, Bagpipes(!) plus more and the 4081 delivered.
So, as a stand-alone remote mic pre amp, it is excellent. But there is more, you can daisy chain up to 16 x 4081’s to give you a total of 64 channels using the built in RS485 interface, the dip switches on the back are used to identify each unit all of which can be remotely controlled.
Digital Option Card
The 4081 I have has the optional digital card which expands the use of the 4081 to an audio interface. The digital card has 4 AES input and output, FireWire and word clock.
The AES is used for converting the four analogue mic signals into AES (obviously) with selectable sample rates up to 192kHz via the selector switches. But as an addition it has 2 stereo AES ports D to A conversion for monitoring which comes out of the 25 pin D Sub connector.
In FireWire mode this allows the 4081 to be connected directly to your computer as an interface and provides four mono ADC to FireWire and four mono DAC channels from the computer. Using the ins/line out D sub connector, this allows you to monitor signal. As an example, using Pro-tools V9 onwards you can select the Neve 4081 as an I/O device in your playback engine using the core audio driver, which needs to be installed. This allows you to route all four pre-amps into Tools via FireWire but being able to monitor using the line/ins outputs. Perfect setup for mobile recording with a laptop.
We all know there are many factors involved within the recording process, the pre-amp being one of them. I can honestly say that I can’t think of a situation where I would feel uncomfortable using the 4081, everything I have used it on sounded great. It worked straight out the box, the remote and recall function very useful and having the optional digital card and being able to use it as a audio interface makes it ideal for high quality recordings, particularly for mobile use. Four classic superb-sounding 1081 mic pre-amps with the digital option for further flexibility, all in one unit, what else do you need...yes, another one!