Whenever the name Rupert Neve is brought up in conversation with regard to any piece of new equipment, expectations and interest both increase to an understandably high degree. This has always been in familiar areas such as console and dynamic processor design, but now this has shifted to a new arena: microphones.
In conjunction with Siwei Zou and sE Electronics, Mr. Neve has applied his design skills to a new series of microphones, the sE Rupert Neve Signature Series.
These are completely new designs from the ground up; Siwei Zou and sE focuses on the series' transductions and enclosures, while Rupert supplies the circuits and transformer designs to take the transducers' outputs and deliver them to your studio system. The first offering in this new range is the SE RNR1 active ribbon microphone.
The RNR1 is a solid-state active ribbon microphone with a tight bi-directional polar pattern. The transducer is a 2.5-micron aluminum ribbon that can be user-tightened. SE does not recommend this, however, and I was not going to go against that advice and try it.
The ribbon has a very low 200-ohm impedance, and it is at this point that Rupert Neve's contribution comes into play. A custom hand-wound input transformer steps up the level and delivers it to an amp stage of discrete single-sided circuits. From here, the signal passes through another custom hand-wound output transformer very similar to those that Rupert Neve was working with some 40 years ago — they have just gotten quite a bit smaller. The specs for the RNR1 show a frequency response of 20 Hz to 16 kHz +/-3 dB, sensitivity of -32.2 dB (ref. 1v/pa +/-1 dB), equivalent noise level (A-Weighted) of 15 dB, and a maximum SPL >135 dB.
Siwei Zou of sE and Rupert Neve The RNR1 comes supplied in a wooden presentation box with a full suspension cradle microphone mount. Lifting the RNR1 from the box, it's reassuringly heavy, and close examination of the interestingly tapered body shows a high level of build quality. There's only one switch on the RNR1, and that's the high-pass filter. The suspension cradle screws solidly to the base of the RNR1 and has a good range of movement with a nice strong screw angle clamp.
I started with a few basic tests for noise levels and pickup pattern. Inherent noise levels were exceptionally low and, as with many ribbons, there was an extremely tight figure-of-eight polar pattern. Side rejection proved virtually complete.
I have a fondness for the natural clarity that a ribbon gives in the midrange, so had high hopes for the RNR1. I took the mic on a mini application tour to get a taste of performance in a variety of different spaces.
Starting with a choir in a large church, the results were truly stunning. Results were as close to being "in the space" as I have heard. That wasn't simply due to the usual ribbon characteristics of warm lows and spacious mids, but also an added level of detail that extends right through the high frequencies. This high frequency detailing is an area that ribbons often seem to struggle with; in the case of the RNR1, there were no problems at all.
I then took the RNR1 into the studio and placed it in various locations around two drum rooms, using the same kit and performer for reference. Once again, the RNR1 delivered an "as if in the space" feel. Getting tight into to the kit to see how the RNR1 handled high SPL signals (with axis placement carefully chosen), the RNR1 coped happily with very close proximity, indeed. This was also the case when I used the RNR1 with a variety of lead and bass guitar amplifiers in the same studio rooms. Finally, I headed back into the main studio for a series of stringed acoustic and percussive instruments. I spent several hours working with numerous setups here. Various positions, preamps, and gain levels all kept delivering wonderfully natural results.
During my audio training, I was always taught about the importance of spaces and the contribution to the sonic and dynamic characteristics of sound, something that has proved to be very important with my work in general. Using the RNR1 has both reinforced and, in some ways, rejuvenated, the way I think about this.
I put the RNR1 up alongside a number of well-known, large-diaphragm condenser and ribbon microphones from a range of manufacturers, and then invited colleagues to assess in a blind test. I felt confident from my own experience that the RNR1 would stand up against this very stiff competition. When it came to which best represented the natural sound in the room, the RNR1 was universally identified as the preferred choice by all. The surprising thing was how quickly all settled on this choice, commenting on the sense of space and high-end clarity.
The word that constantly comes up when you listen and talk about the sE RNR1 is "natural." The fact that the RNR1 has excited me about recording spaces to such a degree is real testament to the quality of this microphone — the high frequency clarity and presence is stunning.
This is not a cheap mic, although it is good value. I would have no qualms about spending the asking price, as units that might be considered comparable (depending on your criteria) still cost a lot more; many of the mics I used during the comparative evaluations above would fall into this category.
More than just this, Rupert Neve and Siwei Zou are collaborating on several other microphones to fill out this Rupert Neve Signature range and, if the RNR1 is an example of what to expect, there is every reason to get excited about what's in store.
Simon Tillbrook is a U.K.-based engineer. He contributes to PAR this month courtesy of our sister publication, Audio Media.
Q&A - Rupert Neve on the RNR1
PAR: What inspired you to lend your expertise to the creation of a modern ribbon microphone?
Rupert Neve: The electromagnetic mechanism of a ribbon microphone or loudspeaker has always interested me because of the way it can elegantly overcome many of the limitations of other transducers. A diaphragm should move as a rigid piston under the control of, or within the area of, a linear electromagnetic or electrostatic field. An electrostatic field is not linear: It varies in relation to distance between the polarized plates, one of which is the diaphragm. Also there is no such thing as an infinitely rigid diaphragm; its movement is complex. It flexes, depending on standing waves in the diaphragm material, and resonates with the suspension compliance, modified by edge damping and any variation that may be exercised by nonlinearity of the field in which it moves.
An electromagnetic field can be designed to provide a substantially linear flux density. A ribbon is made of extremely thin conductive material suspended at each end to produce high compliance. There are lateral corrugations that tend to give sideways rigidity, and the magnetic pole design is such as to provide very linear flux density over the whole distance that the ribbon can move. This is analogous to the "long throw" voice coil of a good low-frequency loudspeaker that provides for the cone to be driven by a constant magneto-motive force over a large amplitude.
With the RNR1, sE owner Siwei Zou and I have endeavored to create a ribbon microphone that exercises the full potential of the electromagnetic transducer without incurring any of the drawbacks associated with an electrostatic field.
PAR: What issues did you have to overcome in designing a ribbon microphone?
RN: A ribbon microphone is potentially very linear and free from distortion or coloration, but the ribbon itself has an extremely low impedance, of the order of 0.2 ohm, and consequently, only a very small signal voltage is developed. Voltage amplifiers are at a considerable disadvantage, and the traditional method is to use a transformer to raise both the ribbon impedance and the signal voltage. Leakage inductance and the tendency of a "long" ribbon, to lose out on high-frequency response, usually results in a sound that is beautifully "silky" and smooth but with poor transient, high-frequency response.
However, by using an innovative transformer approach, with the superb engineering design of the ribbon "engine" itself by Siwei Zou, sE's masterly designer, we were able to overcome the traditional disadvantages. The RNR-1 microphone embodies a single-sided, discrete "head" amplifier with a rather special input transformer that works into a full-range output transformer capable of feeding long microphone lines at levels normally associated with a high-output condenser microphone.
PAR: How would you personally describe the "sound" or character of the RNR1?
RN: My own feeling is that subjectively, the microphone has disappeared, and we are looking through a clear window into a sound picture that is only limited by the skill and imagination of the sound engineer. An audio design engineer must understand the principles and limitations of microphones, loudspeakers, recording devices, and the like — these will always constitute a challenge and when one has the privilege of working with people like Siwei. The challenge becomes an exciting adventure, one begins to see how one's own expertise can be invoked to produce a truly seamless acoustic-electro transducer.