Legendary Audio Masterpiece Analog Mastering System

Two years and many man-hours of testing and tweaking later, the Legendary Audio Masterpiece Analog Mastering System is a reality.
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The story of the Legendary Audio Masterpiece began when an unlikely stranger moved into a small Texas town. The town was Wimberley, home to Billy Stull, a musician, engineer and long-time associate of Buddy Holly's producer, Norman Petty. The stranger was Rupert Neve. Rupert had moved to the area to eventually set up a new manufacturing venture to be called Rupert Neve Designs. After learning of Billy's nearby mastering studio, he would visit from time to time and the two became friends. Billy, seizing on the opportunity of having one of the greatest circuit designers in the history of audio as his neighbor, began discussions of what he envisioned as the ultimate analog mastering system.

Product PointsApplications:

Post production, studio

Key Features:

Modular; input, compressor, EQ, mastering modules

Price:

App. $19,000

Contact:

Legendary Audio at 512-842-1431,

http://www.legendaryaudio.com/

Two years and many man-hours of testing and tweaking later, the Legendary Audio Masterpiece Analog Mastering System is a reality. Rupert has expressed great respect for Billy's critical listening ability and their collaboration has produced a new benchmark for a Rupert Neve design. As a reviewer, I try to maintain a calm, understated voice so that there is a chance that the reader will find my comments to be credible. However, as far as this review goes, I have given up trying to curb my enthusiasm.

Features

The system, approximately $19,000 though individual customized modules can be had cheaper, is built on a 6RU rack frame accommodating eight vertical slide-in modules reminiscent of the venerable Neve 8000 console series. Signal flow is daisy-chained across the rack with odd and even numbered slots processing the left and right channels, respectively. The order of the modules can be hot-swapped if desired. Included are the newest Rupert Neve EQ and compressor/limiter designs, some novel ideas, and a few tricks from Neve's classic legacy. Rather then write up a laundry list of every feature, I will cover the aspects that make the system noteworthy. A full list of features can be found on www.legendaryaudio.com.

Fixed at the far right of the frame is the master module. Its input stage is a balanced discrete instrumentation amplifier utilizing Rupert Neve's transformer-like active interface. The input is converted to unbalanced and remains so until the output stage. The balanced main outputs consist of custom torroidal transformers driven by what Rupert refers to as "miniature power amplifiers" capable of driving ultraclean levels to +26 dBu. The output transformers are a further development of his proprietary design used in the famous Air Montserrat console.

Precision potentiometers for each channel adjust input and output levels over a range of ±12 dB. Push buttons individually switch each pot to either boost or cut, effectively doubling the control's sensitivity. With the pot turned all the way counterclockwise there is no gain change; turned fully clockwise yields + 12 dB or -12dB depending on the setting of the switch. This arrangement allows for accurate settings and is also put to very good use in the equalizer modules. Legendary has opted not to detent the master gains in order to allow forÊfiner level adjustments.Ê Increments ofÊ.1 dB are possible and stable over the ±12 dB range of the controls.

The master module provides for selection between balanced +4 dBm or unbalanced -10 dBV rear panel inputs, switched input/output metering, channel phase reversal, and high-pass/low-pass filtering. There is a master bypass that can be switched between two modes - one for complete system hard-wire bypass and one that switches out all the processing modules while the master section remains in circuit. The latter is useful for turning off processing while retaining the gain structure of the master section.

The last feature on the master module is the Image Control section. As with some of the other special features of the Masterpiece, Legendary is somewhat reluctant to reveal all the details of its implementation. There are two controls: ambience and depth. From what I can tell, the section is a stereo sum-and-difference (AKA mid-side) mixer combined with a high-pass filter and a phase rotator. The most basic usage is to engage only the ambience control. As the control is turned up, a high-pass filtered left-right difference signal is added which increases width, ambience, and side detail, without creating phasing problems in the low end. The parameters of the filtering are well chosen and just the right setting of "ambience" can open up a mix very tastefully. The depth control, when engaged, rotates the phase of one channel above 70 Hz, moving central elements of the mix between foreground and background, with the trade-off of varying degrees of phasing artifacts.

Masterpiece equalization consists of the type 1515 three-band parametric peak module and the 1517 two-band shelf module. The EQs are newly designed from the ground up. Although they are informed by the Rupert Neve heritage, there are some novel enhancements. The frequency and gain controls are stepped encoders with the benefits of perfect recall and near silent switching. A zoom switch changes the gain increment from 1 dB to .25 dB and a +/- switch changes the entire control range from boost to cut. There are sixteen carefully selected frequencies per band. These features combine to make the equalizer very easy to relate to and to fine tune. The feel is exceptionally right. Q settings range from 1.0 to 5.0, although it seemed that the maximum bandwidth was wider than a nominal 1.0 would indicate. The shelving EQs are normally 6 dB/octave but their slopes can be made twice as gradual using the "sheen" and "glow" switches first introduced in an earlier Rupert Neve design. The output of any band can be sent to the side-chain of the compressor/limiter module for frequency dependant dynamics control. The sound of the EQ surpasses even the high expectations brought by the Rupert Neve name.

Sharing the shelving module is the Classic Circuit. It is a Class A discrete line stage with transformers that approximate those in the vintage 8000 series desks. Its euphonic effect is palpably reminiscent of the sound of an early Neve.

The classic section introduces the Input Filter. The filter is a band-splitting circuit that is also found on the Tape Texture, aux send, Phase Rotator, and compressor modules. It allows the option of applying these processes exclusively to any combination of low, mid, or high frequency bands with selectable corner frequencies of 100/200 Hz and 1.2 kHz/2 kHz. The filter is similar to a speaker crossover network in that there are phase polarity inversions near the corner frequencies. At the output of the module, out-of-band audio is recombined for flat frequency response. The quality of the filtering is excellent and the versatility gained is worth the trade-off of applying it.

One of the more intriguing modules is the type 1710 Tape Texture. The module cleverly matches the non-linearities of a custom transformer with an actual record-drive, replay, and equalization circuit typical of a 15ips tape deck. The result is a very convincing magnetic saturation effect. As the saturation control is turned up the record drive is increased while the replay gain is simultaneously decreased to allow for a wide range of saturation at a roughly constant output level. Output level still varies by 3 dB over the range of the control, so Legendary is working on a mod to bring the replay adjustment to the front panel. This would be especially useful when using Tape Texture in band-limited mode. Because the circuit is effectively a magnetic pickup, there is hum and noise introduced at roughly the same level as a real tape deck.

Sharing the Tape Texture module are the Auxiliary and Vari-Phase sections. Auxiliary allows insertion of external gear into the Masterpiece bus with the added flexibility of an Input Filter and a side chain send to the compressor. Vari-Phase provides up to 270 degrees all-pass phase rotation for frequencies above 70 Hz. Vari-phase is not for the faint-hearted but can lead to some interesting spatial effects when combined with its Input Filter.

The type 1900 Compressor/Limiter module provides dynamics processing. It is built upon prior successful Rupert Neve designs, but introduces dual VCAs in a balanced configuration to further reduce noise and distortion. The ratio and threshold controls are encoders with detents to enable accurate, recallable settings. Makeup gains, however, are not detented. Threshold increments are 2 dB, 4 dB and 5 dB, which are a little coarse, but gain reduction can be fine-tuned by tweaking input levels on the master module. Attack and release times are set manually, ranging from 20ms to 75ms and from 100ms to 2.5s, respectively. An Input Filter allows for band-selective dynamics control. There is also a soft-knee setting and an internal/external side-chain selector. A link switch synchronizes gain reduction for two or more 1900 modules and there are rear panel link jacks for combining multiple Masterpiece units for multi-channel work! Rupert's philosophy for the 1900 is unobtrusive level control, but the module does have its own rich, coherent character.

In Use

The heart and soul of mastering is in the EQ. The EQ in the Masterpiece stands tall among the truly great ones I've worked with from vintage originals on down to the latest contemporary designs. The Masterpiece EQ is so clean and smooth that it draws absolutely no attention to itself. A few of my other premium EQs actually sounded grimy by comparison. This EQ disappears into the music. The sound is large, very large. Instruments and tonal ranges can be brought forward with impressive, even astonishing, musicality. The peak EQs are capable of a natural sounding presence, body and depth, while the gentle HF shelf brings out air and brilliance without thinning and pinching the midrange. Their detented silent-switching controls have a feel that allows them to be "played" musically. The filters sweep at just the right speed allowing you to finesse a sound with ease. The curves sound so good that you can almost do no wrong with any settings within reason, it just becomes a matter of what you like to hear. Arriving at a smile-inducing result with this EQ took far less time than I have ever experienced. The stepped encoder design enables accurate logging and recall. I would not be at all surprised if history shows the Masterpiece to be the best analog mastering EQ of our time.

There seems to be no limit to the number of boxes and plugs-ins that promise to transform the squeaky clean, literal nature of digital recording into the analog sound that our ears just love. The Masterpiece truly delivers on this promise. A proper all-digital master carefully treated can take on that charismatic analog sound in the best sense. The snare that smacked you in the head now socks you in the chest. The smoky sax gets smokier and sexier, vocals richer and more appealing.

I decided to experiment by using the Masterpiece to remaster two projects that I'd recently done with my standard rig. The system led me into new territory and the results in both cases surpassed what I had done previously. With enough confidence to work with the unit on a new booking, I went to work on rock project that had been tracked and mixed with ADATs and a Mackie 8-bus in a project studio. The fullness of the EQ, the fattening effect of the tape texture, and a touch of the ambience control upgraded a thinnish and grainy set of mixes to a respectably ballsy-sounding indie record. The engineer was pretty surprised.

Next, at the opposite end of the spectrum, was Northern Lights, a pristinely recorded modern jazz project by Steps Ahead leader Mike Manieri. The EQ gave a rich, compelling presence to a mix of vibes, electronica, trumpet, sax, percussion and rhythm section and made the overall presentation as big as life. The ambience control added a sense of enhanced definition and touched up the reverb level. Tape texture, band-selected to below 100 Hz, made the bass round, tactile and clear.

The next application was for a follow-up to Lagrimas Negras, a modern Flamenco project from Madrid that has become popular worldwide. The tracks consist of layered vocals, nylon-string guitar, extensive percussion, piano, harmonica and acoustic rhythm section. The Masterpiece EQ improved both the presence and the body of the mixes and did so with naturalness and soul. Setting the compressor for around 1.5 dB of occasional gain reduction with attack at 75ms, release at 500ms, and ratio at 1:1.5 enhanced both the solidness and the pulse of the sound.

As with all complex gear, there is a learning curve. Working with the EQs, for example, it became apparent that 0 dB is not 0. Even with the boost set at minimum, just engaging a band gives an audible resonance at the dialed-in frequency. This reminded me of a trick I'd seen some top mixers do on the old Neve 8068 console - getting a sound by punching in an EQ with its boost set to 0. A lot of the fun of using the system is discovering new combinations made possible by novel features such as the input filters, multiple band side chain feeds, and the tape texture effect. The latter should be used with care - it's easy to get a little carried away. The Masterpiece is also very compatible with digital EQ. Using the system for the overall vibe and shape of the track in conjunction with my workstation's Algorithmix linear phase digital EQs for additional surgical tweaks has given me some the nicest results of my mastering career.

The overall impression was that the Masterpiece could be as transparent or as euphonically colored as you'd want. The internal interfacing is so finely engineered that there never seemed to be any audible signal degradation no matter how many of its stages I engaged. A sound can be built up through the modules in subtle increments such that if you switch any one process out the difference is almost unnoticeable, but completely bypass the unit and the sound is not nearly as good.

Summary

The measure of a piece of pro audio gear is where it leads you - its feel, how inspired you get by it, and how it benefits the music under your care. The device took me to new places on projects I had previously mastered with results that were chosen over the prior versions. The more I worked with it the more evident it became that this was extraordinary analog processing of the highest caliber. After hearing the results of working with this latest expression of Sir Rupert Neve's genius, I broke my new year's resolution to not get any more gear and wrote a check for the review unit. A few of the controls could use detents and finer step sizes but, as a sonic palette, the Legendary system is exceptionally versatile and offers vibe for days. The system was intended for mastering but it is also highly suitable for placement across the two-bus in an extremely well-heeled mix room. The Billy Stull-produced, Rupert Neve-designed system can rightly be called a masterpiece, and if you are fortunate enough to have access to one, it may help you to create a few of your own.