A new microphone channel from Rupert Neve Designs (RND)—oh, boy! It’s no secret that I love a powerful channel strip, especially if it has numerous options and heavenly transformers. But what about a new RND channel strip with a Rupert Neve transformer-gain preamp, inductor EQ, and diode-bridge compressor? Now that’s love on an entirely new level.
As far as features are concerned, you may want to navigate to the Shelford Channel’s own webpage for all the juicy details, but allow me to highlight the salient features.
The Shelford Channel is centered on Mr. Neve’s first new mic preamp design in more than 40 years, taking design cues from beloved and classic designs like the 1073, 1081 and 2254; via this inspiration, it introduces a transformer-gain mic amp. Add in the inductor EQ from the Shelford 5052; a colorful diode-bridge compressor; a new dual-tap transformer output that includes the variable Silk saturation modes; and the high internal operating voltages that enable world-class tone and headroom. Assemble them all together in a 1U package and you have the alluring Shelford Channel.
The first 15 dB of gain comes from a new RN4012 transformer; the remainder of the total 72 dB of gain is courtesy of discrete Class A amplifier blocks. The RN4012 is directly coupled to the mic—unlike Portico designs—and is precisely controlled via stepped attenuator and a trim pot (for fine adjustment). A sweepable high-pass filter, 48V phantom power, quarter-inch DI (same as found in the popular RNDI direct box) and polarity reverse complete the input section.
The three-band EQ section includes a low-band (shelf or bell) based on the 1064 with its characteristically creamy bass tone. The 1073-inspired mid-band utilizes proportional Q, which offers a lower Q (broader bandwidth) at minimal settings and higher Q (narrower bandwidth) at higher settings. The high-band is a hybrid modern/vintage design, utilizing capacitors in its Class A, low-feedback design—generally reducing edgy tonalities, which is crucial in a high-frequency band design.
The diode bridge compressor is based on the classic 2254 design, except with full-wave rectification and a Blend control (for New York-style parallel compression). Having addressed the classic problems of high noise floor, limited attack time and inflexibility, this Shelford compressor brings modern flexibilities with a bold, colorful and quite audible compression rather than invisibly transparent dynamic control (as found in many VCA-type comps).
Mr. Neve’s popular Silk feature allows the substantial addition of both second- and third-order harmonics and selection of both Red and Blue modes, emphasizing harmonics in high and low frequencies, respectively.
The output stage continues the Shelford’s attention to important details. A RN2042 dual-tap transformer is found along with Mr. Neve’s popular Silk modes, which allow the substantial addition of both second- and third-order harmonics and selection of both Red and Blue modes emphasizing harmonics in high and low frequencies, respectively.
Like many top-shelf mic channels, the Shelford has lots of controls and numerous choices, thus it requires a good understanding of gain staging. I jumped right in and made a few mistakes, even as I dialed in tasty tone.
With perhaps just a little too much gain dialed-in at the preamp, I obtained a particularly sweet and pleasant vocal tone with a new client. I hadn’t yet learned of his dramatic jumps in level, so I found a few peaks becoming saturated and subdued by the preamp. The tone was uniquely warm, yet detailed in a beautiful way that my verbiage struggles to explain. The soft “squish” of the excessive peak vocal levels showed just how smooth and absorptive the Shelford Channel’s circuitry can be. Its variable HPF was extremely useful in dialing in the requisite leanness to all this warm/full tone and the 12 dB range of the fine level control is essential.
The EQ section proved to be beyond adequate, despite a minimalistic set of controls. The low band reaches as high as 200 Hz (any less can be so disappointing) and the option of shelf or bell is sufficient for all but surgical bass sculpting. Same for the top end—it was also musically sweet with only two frequency choices (8 kHz and 16 kHz); however I did wish for a 10 kHz or 12 kHz choice. The mid band offers just enough choices in frequency and the Hi-Q switch for further tailoring of slope. It’s not the most versatile EQ to be found, but it definitely is one of the sweetest sounding and eminently capable at the ol’ “one mid dip and a little top or bottom tilt” when I EQ a well-chosen mic to its source.
To my ears, the compressor and its inherent personality are a good match for the transformer-based mic amp. Both are so very well mannered and smooth, offer soft cushioning and are genteel enough to record very loud and potentially rude sources without harshness. Indeed, the compressor imparts a certain tone when clamping down and if it’s a bit too much, you can always blend in a little direct signal to offset. Maybe it’s not ideal on purity-needing acoustic instruments, but if you’re looking for some drum or vocal squeeze to grab your ear with panache and vibe, you will enjoy this diode-bridged character.
As I made it to the output section, I found myself longing for a master output level control. I engaged in the same complaining when I reviewed the RND Portico II channel back in 2011 and I stick to my guns here: A final level control is quite useful. However, a couple of Shelford features mitigated this desire. The compressor’s output gain control ends up acting as the final gain control and is adequate. Also, the Shelford Channel employs a main output point (on XLR) but also a secondary one that is 6 dB lower. A second output is always useful for multing and such, but this attenuated output is especially nice if you want to drive it into substantial distortion. As Tristan Rhodes of RND explains it, users can drive the Shelford Channel’s output stage pretty hard, even with the peak indicator often blinking on loud peaks. Coupled with its Texture control and the -6 output, users can get a decidedly chewy, growly texture all without clipping A-D converters on the way into the DAW.
If you’re looking for saturation, smoothing and texture-friendly feature sets in a top-shelf input channel, the Shelford Channel may be your best option. In my experience, Avalon and Grace Design make comparative channel strips with more neutrality; Millennia Media makes one with more versatility; and others utilize more tonal choices (selectable impedance, bypassable transformers, etcetera). Yet not even another RND product offers the unique trademark tone of the Shelford Channel. Even as a seasoned reviewer and pro-audio wordsmith, I am struggling with descriptors to convey the subtle personality of its tone.
If you’re in the market for a frontend that can warm up, moderate, saturate and even distort signal in a notably dignified and classy way, I whole-heartedly recommend the Shelford Channel at $3,495 street.
Rupert Neve Designs