Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5033 EQ

You always remember your first one; mine was the ITI MEP-230 parametric equalizer, the first commercial product featuring now-classic circuitry designed by George Massenburg as marketed by Burgess MacNeal, who later founded Sontec.
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(click thumbnail)You always remember your first one; mine was the ITI MEP-230 parametric equalizer, the first commercial product featuring now-classic circuitry designed by George Massenburg as marketed by Burgess MacNeal, who later founded Sontec. I bought my first in (I think) 1972, and kept at least one of them in my studio throughout the ‘70s. Not only did it equalize with surgical precision, it had that sound, especially within its inductor-based high- and low-shelving sections. Think about it: an equalizer is designed to change the sound of one’s audio for the better. Thus, it’s not unreasonable for a designer to build an equalizer circuit with a certain personality — a certain character separate from the actual equalizing it’s doing.

Over the ensuing years, I’ve owned other solid-state parametric equalizers, inductor-based “sloppy” equalizers (such as Pultecs), modern “clean” equalizers, digital equalizers, numerous plug-ins, and everything in between. For Pro Audio Review, I’ve reviewed several extremely high-end, extremely different EQs (Manley Pultec, Manley Massive Passive and Crane Song Ibis), and I’ve owned a Massive Passive box for several years. Why? Not because it was “better” than the Crane Song Ibis (it wasn’t), but because its “personality” seemed to suit the music I record and the equipment I use to record it.

I’ve lived with a pair of Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5033 five-band equalizers ($1,795) for about three months now and, in this article, I’ll talk about my take on their personality in an attempt to help readers get a bead on whether they might suit your music. At the outset, let me just say that they’re mighty fine units; any engineer I know would be happy to have a pair of them in his/her rack.

Features

The RND5033’s front panel is divided into five sections, delineated by color changes between black and blue. Although they follow the input transformer and +/-12 dB input trim amplifier as a single circuit in the unit’s block diagram, the low- and high-frequency shelving controls are logically placed at opposite ends of the front panel and feature +/-12 dB gain controls and variable frequency adjustments — from 30 to 300 Hz on the low end and from 2.5 to 25 kHz on the high end. All 5033 EQ gain knobs are gray with gray insets and are laid out symmetrically. I mention colors and the arrangement of the adjustment knobs since the purpose of an equalizer is to be used, and the more ergonomic and intuitive its industrial design, the easier it is for a busy engineer to use it effectively in the heat of a session.

The three mid-frequency bands are fully parametric, with Q variable from 0.7 to 5, gain adjustment of +/-12 dB, and slightly overlapping frequency ranges of 50 – 400 Hz, 330 – 2500 Hz, and 1.8 – 16 kHz. The Q and the parametric frequency knobs are smaller gray ones with red insets. All adjustments are by variable potentiometers with only seven little “lines” silk-screened onto the panel. What this tells me is that it would be virtually impossible to set a pair of 5033s to exactly the same settings (as might be needed in high end mastering applications, for example), especially given the fact that “stereo” with two half-rack size 5033s entails mounting them next to each other, horizontally.

Completing the front panel are five pushbutton switches. They’re kind of black when not depressed, but when activated, the three that put the parametric mid-frequency bands into the signal path glow bright yellow, while the one that inserts the shelving EQs glows green. Pressing the “all bypass” button on the upper left (which removes all EQ circuitry from the signal path, leaving only the input and output transformers and their associated buffer amplifiers active) changes it to bright red … and a bit too bright, in my opinion, when at eye level. Though it is a warning, I suppose.

The rear panel of each 5033 is simplicity itself. There’s a coaxial power jack (center positive) that accepts any DC voltage from 9 to 18 volts, and an internal DC-DC converter will take that and regenerate the +/-18VDC needed by the unit’s circuitry. A pushbutton power switch turns the unit on, and a pair of TRS buss connectors can interface the 5033 with other Portico modules. Finally, a set of male and female balanced XLR jacks provide the unit’s input and output facilities.

In Use

The 5033’s user guide makes the statement that simply inserting the unit into a signal path will make “a significant contribution to the purity and sonic quality of the music signal.” I liked the way those words were chosen; it didn’t say it would “warm up the sound” or “make it better.” So, as part of my test setup, I spent several weeks listening to stereo mixes and compared their sound running through a Weiss DAC1 MK II (a $6,700 converter previously reviewed in PAR 12/05), with the Weiss’ output running directly into the 5033 on its way to McIntosh MI-200 power amps and custom transmission line monitor speakers.

Since my control room is currently off-line (pending a “make-over” to be detailed in an early 2008 issue of PAR) I’m now using one corner of my studio as a temporary control room. In this test, I simply split the Weiss stereo output and fed one side of the split directly into a Coleman MS8 passive monitor switcher (which drove the power amps directly). The other side of the split went to the 5033, which in turn went to input two of the Coleman switcher — an instant A-B test “around” the 5033! I used various versions this setup through the test period, so I was always able to make a “hard-wire bypass” of the 5033 EQ with the press of a button.

Cutting to the chase, I was certainly able to hear a difference when the 5033 was in the circuit, but I’m not sure I would describe it as making “a significant contribution to the purity and sonic quality of the music signal.” However, please realize that the line amplifiers in the Weiss DAC1 are about as high end as one can get in pro audio; they claim to have “a virtually-zero Ohm output impedance, but still can drive large loads without stability problems … output levels can be set between -infinity and +27 dBu.” So perhaps inserting the 5033’s line amplifiers and transformers in series after them wouldn’t have quite the same effect as putting them after, say, a $500 Chinese preamp.

At any rate, when the 5033 was in line, but in its own “bypass mode,” I heard less definition in the extreme lows, a certain lack of air in the highs, and — in the mids, although they sounded a bit more present — they also sounded slightly cloudy (another way of saying “silky”). However, once I engaged the EQ sections, I was able to ameliorate most of these effects except that of the low end; I could always make it sound “bigger,” but never as deep as it sounded straight from the Weiss DAC1 (whose direct-coupled output goes all the way down to DC, at +27 dBu).

These are all small criticisms, however, because I would never consider using an expensive stereo EQ box in bypass mode in the first place! When it came to doing its EQ thing, the 5033 did a pretty awesome job, especially when compared with anything else in its price category.

I had just finished recording an audio demo (with video) for an aspiring pop singer here at Studio Dufay and, since I’ve been mixing “outside the box” for several years, I figured this would be a good time to add the 5033 to the equation. I had recorded eight tracks plus a stationary video camera to a Rosendahl BonsaiDrive and, to do the mix, I sent the audio through Pro Tools|HD and back into analog through a Genex GXD8 DAC. Once in analog, I could use an arsenal of outboard gear, including a Manley VoxBox, Massive Passive, and VariMu, an Amek RNCL 9098 compressor/limiter and, now, the RND Portico 5033. The analog elements would then be re-digitized at 88.2 kHz within a Crane Song Spider mixer, and I could monitor the results, again, through the trusty Weiss DAC1.

Fast FactsApplications
Studio, project studio, mastering, high-end live and touring

Key Features
Single-channel, five-band EQ in half-rack form factor; designed for standalone use, dually as a stereo single-rack pair or, via the buss in/out connectors, interfaced with other Neve Portico modules

Price
$1,795

Contact
Rupert Neve Designs | 512-847-3013 | www.rupertneve.com

PRODUCT POINTS

Plus

  • A modern and very smooth take on the classic Rupert Neve sound
  • Made in Texas with impressive build quality and an all-steel case

Minus

  • For some applications, its smooth, euphonic sound quality (i.e., not neutral) might not be desirable

Score
If you’re looking for a modern EQ channel (or two) with a smooth personality, the RND Portico 5033 should be on your short list.I decided to use the 5033 on the vocal and fiddle, as they were the main elements in this country-pop tune. The female vocal was originally miked with a M-Audio Sputnik driving a Martech MSS-10 preamp. The fiddle was miked with a combination of two Neumann M49s and an AEA R84, all mounted together on an AEA Decca Tree stand; preamps used were a D.W. Fearn VT-2 for the 49s and one side of an AEA T.R.P. for the R84.

For the mix, I sent a Pro Tools submix of the fiddle through one of the 5033s and applied small amounts of boost around 1 kHz and 10 kHz (it’s hard to tell exactly where since, as I’ve mentioned previously, the 5033’s tiny knobs aren’t marked very well). I also cut low end mud substantially with the low shelf and boosted a little air around 12 kHz with the high shelf. Doing this was my first indication that the 5033 was a really special equalizer. There was no solid state “zippiness” whatsoever, nor was there any mushy tube character. Instead, there was just a silky smoothness to the sound. The fiddle player’s expensive violin just sounded better (and keep in consideration that it was miked with pretty awesome mics to start out with)!

In mixdown, I was able to make the vocal sound bigger and airier by using the 5033. First, I sent the track to the Manley VoxBox for some compression, but left its EQ switched out. I set the 5033 to boost a little around 275 Hz, cut a little around 1.5 kHz (again, these numbers are approximate), added air up top and cut -12 dB below 110 Hz, and the good sound I already had on the track improved even more. For a test, I bypassed the EQ on the 5033 and tried doing the same thing back on the VoxBox. I could get different good results, but with its two peaking and one cut controls, could hardly duplicate what I arrived at on the 5033.

The final mix to DVD (eventually recorded to DVD Studio Pro) came out pretty okay, with the 5033 on the two key elements in the mix, one side of the Amek dynamics processor on the bass, a little Vari-mu and Massive Passive on the stereo bus, and a Kurzweil KSP8 for reverb. When it was all over, I went back into Pro Tools and tried the 5033 on the bass track and my own stereo piano tracks; sure, it would’ve been nice to have more 5033s but, hey, this is the real world, right?

What I learned from all the time I spent with these units is that the RND Portico 5033 EQs have a really “smoooooth” sound, which is all the more remarkable when one realizes that the active devices in each EQ section are lowly, venerable NE5534 op-amps! Apparently, Mr. Rupert Neve designed his circuits to run these chips single ended and biased them in the Class A direction for low level signals … and this must account for at least some of the smoothness I hear. After all, the old Sontec 250 parametric equalizers (which I refused to purchase back in the late ‘70s) used the same chips, and they didn’t sound nearly this nice!

Summary

The Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5033 EQ is an extremely smooth-sounding, ergonomically laid-out piece of equipment. Although its small size precludes extensive labeling, the front panel is so logically planned that a good engineer should be able to easily use it. Its sound in equalization is beyond reproach; the way it seems to smooth out the jagged edges of source material is bound to appeal to many engineers and producers.