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bAES KEYNOTE–Rupert Neve/b

New York City (October 7, 2005)--The following text comprises Mr. Neve's notes for his Keynote address for the 119th AES Convention, 2005, as opposed to a verbatim transcript of the speech.

New York City (October 7, 2005)–The following text comprises Mr. Neve’s notes for his Keynote address for the 119th AES Convention, 2005, as opposed to a verbatim transcript of the speech.


1. What has to happen for Audio to “come alive”?

Interest in satisfactory Recording, storage and reproduction of sound has never been higher. Where are we? What stage have we reached?

It would be hard to find any area of human activity where Art and Science run more closely together–are more closely intertwined and so mutually inter-dependent.

An artist will give you his perspective and an audio designer another. And of course, there are as many opinions in between as there are people on the planet…or so it seems.

Has audio come alive?

If not, can we define what has to happen to make it “come alive”?

A. Technically, Better specs?:
We know a great deal about why gear sounds bad; can we make sure that it sounds better? (Never the ULTIMATE – A word that should never be used; we work in a continuum, there is no ultimate, there is only a stage reached which fulfils today’s objectives.)

B. Artistically, Creatively?:
A sound picture starts in the mind. Can you paint that picture ?

And, by the way, if your gear sounds sweet and lovely, it may unleash new life creatively; your palette takes on shades and tones you never knew were possible.

2. Art or science. To measure or to listen!

Unlike other fields of electronic design; for example, communications and electronics, where intelligibility is paramount or computers, where accuracy and speed predominate and the numbers represent what you pay for; in our field of Pro Audio, the numbers,–specifications and measurements don’t really describe the quality of the sound we hear.

This has lead to a jungle of subjective descriptions and “folk lore” which we professionals either scorn or laugh at.

But let’s not be too hasty–Audio is not just about facts and figures; it’s an art form, it’s addictive and creative and above all, very fulfilling to both designer and artist–when he gets it right!

There is no written specification or set of measurements that will guarantee perfect reproduction of music.

I’ve often quoted those great old timers, Lord Kelvin and Lord Rayleigh who, more than 100 years ago, lectured on science to a population that was becoming keenly aware of the impact that new discoveries could make in their lives.

Lord Kelvin:“To measure is to know.”

“In physical science the first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it.

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.”

But on the other hand Lord Rayleigh who in his book, The Theory of Sound published in 1877 told us that the ears are the final arbiter of sound:-

“Directly or indirectly, all questions connected with this subject must come for decision to the ear, as the organ of hearing; and from it there can be no appeal.

We were reminded at the 100th. Convention of the AES by Donald Plunkett, who we remember with affection, it that it was in 1948 when a group of Audio Engineers were worried that Audio was not receiving proper recognition because the I.E.E. concentrated on radio and the emerging field of Electronics.

The need to quantify and measure sound quality–to tie it down with specifications is not new.

The Founders of the AES were confronted then with the same sort of qualitative versus quantitative problems–the same questions that we have today.

Measurements of the equipment don’t correlate adequately with the sound we hear.

We can define excellence in performance of every item in the chain;

We can “measure” to far greater depths that Lord Kelvin ever imagined.

But the INFORMATION cannot be COMPLETE! because:-

(a) there is no guarantee that our hardware measurements uniquely define sound quality and,
(b) we have very little control over the acoustic signal once it leaves the loudspeaker.

It’s pointless to try to define the audio quality we hear only in terms of equipment measurements


I was trying to remember how I became addicted to Audio Design.

As a boy, my parents used to take the family, from Buenos Aires where we lived, to a YMCA holiday camp in Uruguay, romantically set amongst the pine trees on the white sandy beaches of the Atlantic ocean. It was at an evening camp entertainment that I heard my first classical piano recital given by an attractive young lady whose fingers flew over the keys. I was amazed and captivated by the sudden realization that the piano was capable of producing ‘music’, not just hymn tunes!!

About that time my Father had bought a short wave radio kit, which he had assembled, and through the crackles and fades we could hear Voice of America and, of course, the BBC Overseas Service. I started to experiment on trying to make it better. My father was satisfied if he could hear the news but I wanted to hear the music as well.

3.a After demobilization from WW2 in England, my addiction to sound recording landed me in many challenging situations, some frustrating but many rewarding and all having something to teach.

For example, rigging microphones in a Cornish Town Hall half an hour before the concert was due to start–the audience pouring in…we’d found out too late, that the town power was 220 volts DC. We had to rig up an ex war dept 230 volt AC rotary converter. In the background was the thump, thump of the single cylinder gas engine nearby, that still powered the city lights.

We recorded a full performance of Handel’s Messiah on 78 RPM acetates that night! A 300 voice choir and an audience of 200–all that would fit into the hall. About as dead an acoustic as I ever remember!

3.b Then, quite a different experience providing Public Address for a Conservative Party political rally at Saltram Park, near Plymouth. The highlight of the day was to be a speech by Winston Churchill that was to be carried live by the BBC and broadcast around the world.

My partner and I spent days rigging marquees and open air seating venues for P.A. We had 9 miles of ex army telephone cable around the 75-acre site. It poured with rain all day–a sea of mud. Suddenly the organizers panicked and changed the venue for Churchill’s address to a large marquee some 1000 or more feet distant from the main house where the great man was supposed to speak. Our system in the marquee was working well–we had field telephone feed to the main house where both the BBC and we had our control rooms.

The BBC equipment just outside the marquee had never been fully set up. It disappeared into the mud as thousands of people trampled and slithered towards the marquee. We gave the BBC a feed–600 ohms, transformer-coupled, of course–then, covered in mud, soaking wet I stood on the platform to greet Winston Churchill.
He looked at me with a grin:
“I take it that you are in charge, my boy”, he said. “Been having a spot of bother?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered, “Don’t worry: Bother is all under control”

“Then you’d better just tell me what I have to do”
For two glorious minutes I explained to Winston Churchill just what he had to do!

3. C. Then, at Easter, some years later, we were asked to install a sound reinforcement system in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

Loudspeakers must not be visible. There must be no “amplification” of the music.

It would take too long to tell you how we camouflaged directional column speakers – my own design – and fed 7 different speaker banks with appropriate delays to get intelligible speech from the different locations, the Provost, the Dean, the Precentor, the Succentor, the Lectern and the Altar so that the widely scattered sources came from the right direction, creating the right image and perspective for all the congregation; the word was heard clearly within the context of more than 7 seconds Reverberation Time.

The following day the Chairman of the Architects and his committee toured the chapel with a view to inviting us to put in a permanent system. The Chairman paused after looking around him–he thought we must have removed the speakers.
“Where are they?” he asked.
“You are standing within 8 feet of one right now” I said.
Eventually they had to be shown him with the aid of a flash lamp. “Are these really loudspeakers?” he asked. “I can’t see any of them.”
“Well, Sir, that was one of your conditions” I said.

“I think you have made your point, Mr. Neve” was his answer.
(But they didn’t have a budget for it!)

Enough of the old stories – let’s look to the future:


We ought to be “thinking outside the box”; concentrating our efforts on bringing home enjoyment of the whole experience–of immersing the listener in the ambience of the Concert Hall, the very atmosphere of the basement Jazz club or of the great stage show, not just concentrating on the wonderful sound equipment which should only be the means to an end, not an end in itself.

If we can capture our experiences or our visions and reproduce them in the home without disrupting the furniture, the walls the floor and the architecture to make way for many loudspeakers, powerful amplifiers and cables everywhere, we shall have accomplished a significant service not only to the domestic consumer but to our own Industry.

So what, you may ask, is my vision?

Not long after leaving the Army, (WW2), wondering about a career and where audio could lead me, I imagined a stage projected at home where musicians were seen and heard, not on a screen but in a 3D hologram. The sound was not only Surround but as I moved amongst the musicians, the image moved with me. I could wander amongst them at will and the sound which surrounded me changed its balance and perspective as it would in real life if you wandered amongst the players in a live orchestra. I could return to my chair and select the ambience that reflected my memory of the Concert Hall, adjusting the position of soloists and plaers as I wanted. I don’t think there were more than two loudspeakers; I wasn’t aware of them and there was no “Sweet Spot.”

We are a long way from that dream!

But without a dream or a vision or, maybe a memory of a greatly enjoyed musical performance, how can we know what to aim for?

In those days of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s soon after the war, there were visionaries.

I remember Gilbert Briggs talking about the listening concept. A good loudspeaker system could put you outside the concert hall, listening through a porthole. Depending on the position of the porthole, you would hear direct sound and the ambience of the hall–it was good to be able to recognize the hall.

A large window would give you a much better perspective of the hall with a greater sense of depth and some degree of direction. The ideal was to be able to remove one wall of your lounge completely and suspend it inside the concert hall!

Some systems came close to achieving that ideal. Those were the great days of MONO!!!

I feel nostalgic about those days sometimes and not a little lonely. I rubbed shoulders with the great Audio men of the day, visited them, heard their lectures, called them on the phone and learned the basic stuff of audio engineering–I still read their books ………..

Peter Baxandall

W. Bryan Savage,

D.T.N. Williamson

James Moir

John Linsley Hood

Michael Gayford

……………… all gone….

And Geoff Watts–Dear Friend and colleague for nearly 40 years–Chief Engineer of Rupert Neve and Company from 1966. A truly disciplined man of sound engineering in every sense of the word; loyal supporter of many of my wild schemes that would never have seen the light of day but for his organized approach. He died last year of cancer–He was 6 months younger than I.

This generation inherits great and noble traditions. But we have the greatest opportunity ever, to look to new things.

Bishop Gore, in the 1930’s, said: “To be inheritors of a great tradition makes men martyrs but it blinds their souls”.
Let your soul be enlightened to the potential of the future, not blinded by a status quo that is not going anywhere except into a greater mass of technical complexity.


Let’s give some thought to where we should concentrate our efforts.

Back in 1977, (forgive me if you’ve heard this before – it’s part of the Neve heritage now! ) Geoff Emmerick, who, with George Martin, recorded the Beattles and many others, showed me that he could hear a difference between two identical channels on a new console. After some hours of listening with him, I too could perceive a subtle difference. When we measured, we found that out of forty-eight channels, three had been incorrectly terminated and displayed a rise of 3 dB at 54 kHz.

To me, one of the significant features of this episode was that Geoff was deeply “unhappy”, even “distressed” at what he was hearing/perceiving. It had an emotional impact!

Nobody could explain this. During the next few years I held experiments with audiences, at AES lectures, music schools and similar gatherings in many parts of the world.

Professional engineers, musicians, producers, – could perceive the difference between a square and a sine wave, even when the first of the harmonics was way above normal audibility. Professionals who know how to listen could, apparently, perceive the presence of frequencies approaching 60 kHz.

Since Then there has been plenty of evidence that we are aware of the range beyond 20 kHz. and some of the emotional effects.

Equipment which transmits frequencies up to 100 kHz with low distortion and noise, sounds warmer, sweeter and fuller. Apparently affecting the low and mid frequencies. This is true, even when subsequent elements in chain are limited as, in practice, they are bound to be.

It’s also noticed that a High quality signal at the start of the chain reflects right the way through it. This is why it’s so important to deal with the signal back to the microphone and Studio itself.

At the 91st. Convention of the A.E.S. October 1991, Professor Oohashi and team, from the Institute of Mass Media Education in Tokyo, read a paper entitled:

“Audible Range affects Brain Electric Activity and Sound Perception” (Ref: 1), He claimed that extension of the frequency range beyond audibility was beneficial to sound quality and produced brain electrical activity from the area associated with pleasure etc.

I visited Prof. Oohashi in Tokyo and was treated to an impressive series of demonstrations comparing music recorded and reproduced with bandwidths that were limited to 20 kHz then to 60, and 100 kHz.

Again, there was no adequate explanation as to how these frequencies could access the brain. We could speculate endlessly but the most interesting conclusion left in my mind is that the magnitude of these out-of-band musical harmonics must be incredibly small–but their dramatic and quantifiable effect can’t be doubted.

Electric waves emitted by the brain are direct evidence that these frequencies can be sensed by humans.

We are, ourselves, unwitting measuring instruments: We generate quantifiable electrical activity from our brains!

I think we are sufficiently aware of the need for extended bandwidth.


Out-of-band detail is not the only factor that underlies good Audio. Everyday sounds that surround us–at least if you live in the lovely quiet Texas Hill Country–normally are taken for granted and can pass un-noticed. Because they are not necessarily part of a main communication message, as it were, we may think they are not important–if we think of them at all. But they all go to complete the Soundscape–the perspective of our human experience.

The quantities, if you like, underlying and producing perceptible sonic differences are extremely small – that is in terms of Sound Pressure Levels, and amplitude–one may be tempted to think that the information reaching the brain–by whatever means–must be so small as to be negligible.

Dynamic range of much of the reproduced sound we listen to nowadays is pretty limited, particularly as to threshold. I won’t try to justify that statement, but, as a pedantic, dyed-in-the-wool analog designer, you might take a guess at where I’m coming from!

The absence of tiny ambient sounds that make up our world, leaves us with a grey palette. The same sort of thing happens if noise–acoustic or electrical–is high enough to mask those small sound levels.

Now every sound that surrounds us has not only amplitude but direction. It’s amazing, when you think about it that if you hear a twig breaking in a quiet woodland, you know its direction, its height, the kind of twig–it’s a 3D picture…well, I must not ramble on.

We really do have to fill in this picture if reproduced sound is going to be anywhere near as pleasurable as the real thing.

This is not the place to delve deeply into the many stimuli that make up even an “ordinary” every day hearing experience but I would like to remind you of some basics without which we can’t get very far along the path of visions or dreams:


There are many mechanisms that produce distortion of the audio signal but probably the most offensive is crossover distortion that produces high order harmonics of the signal. Even more distressing are the switching transients: these are not harmonically related to the signal except that they occur at twice the signal frequency.

So what about my dream vision?

I’ve said very little that is not obvious to any pro audio designer about the amplifier performance, but ….

Let’s assume that we have a “good” amplifier; we have true class A (why do I have to say “true”? Do I have to define Class A?–except to avoid misuse of what has become an almost meaningless buzz word)–low feedback amplifier.

We have no crossover distortion and no low level intermodulation: we have adequate out-of-band frequency response, reasonably fast slew rate response and a noise level that is significantly lower than our lowest, pianissimo, signal level.

However, there are sonic differences that we have not found ways of quantifying–or that are very hard to measure and will always be open to the designer.
Use of valves [tubes], “Discrete” components, or I.C.’s. “Oxygen-free” copper, transformers and, of course, choice of microphones with their different characters and directional properties.
These are some of the more obvious choices open to a designer and these, become, as it were, his signature.

This is the way he/she does things: this is his art–the way he creates equipment that you will recognize and that will give you pleasure.

So he may place little reliance on quantitative measurements that are often difficult to interpret.

This sense of exploring unknown depths is part of the challenge that stimulates the Analog Audio designer.

An audio amplifier can be quite simple. It simply has to conform to the basics of handling the necessary frequencies and the dynamic range with integrity and it sits there waiting for MUSIC!


Why do we tend to view sound reproduction as we would point-to-point communication…
Transmitter and a receiver?

When we are confronted by loudspeakers, we tend to regard them as bearers of messages–like telephones! As I’ve suggested, we are surrounded by sound fields all the time; we hear messages against a constant ambient background that gives far more information than the message content.

Loudspeakers should disappear–or at least not draw attention to themselves, for instance, by demanding that we find a “sweet spot”.

We know something about imaging; can we create delicate and convincing sound images that the brain will recognize as virtual reality?

Is he going to talk about Surround Sound?

I’m going out on a limb to talk about IMAGING

The concept of IMAGING is to differentiate and achieve balance between direct and ambient sound so as to deliver a whole Soundscape to the listener.

This is not the occasion to promote a system or to discuss a design.

The Audio Engineering Society embodies the finest body of sound people ever.
My challenge is; Aim for the VISION.

– it won’t happen at once but what can and will happen is that creative designers, producers and musicians will come up with new and exciting ways of delivering a full experience of music to the average home, using, possibly only two loudspeakers–maybe three at most.

The challenge, involves freeing ourselves from the bondage of the norms that have gone before.

Paraphrasing the words of Francis Cornford:-

“Every action which is not customary, either is wrong, or if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.” (Refs.2)

Deep down in each of us is the Creative gift that we are given by our Creator.

It’s unique. It’s yours. It does not belong to another.
It’s your handwriting–your hand on the brush that paints the scene. To give pleasure to others.

Some verses from Psalm 36:7-9,

7. (Lord), How priceless is Your unfailing love!
Both high and low amongst men find refuge in the shadow of Your wings.

8. They feast in the abundance of Your house;
You give them drink from Your river of delights.

9. For with You is the Fountain of Life; in Your light we see light.

1 Tsutomu Oohashi, Emi Nishina, Norie Kawai, Yoshitaka Fuwamoto, and Hishi Imai. National Institute of Multimedia Education, Tokyo. “High Frequency Sound Above the Audible Range, Affects Brain Electric Activity and Sound Perception” Paper read at 91st. Convention of the A.E.S. October 1991. Section 7. (1), Conclusion.

2 “Microcosmographia Academica”, 1908, Francis Macdonald Cornford