NEVE VS SOUNDCRAFT
When the Neve 8816 first hit the market I ordered one. I also ordered the 8804 fader package which basically changes the 8816 into a mini Neve console with hands-on faders. Was it a wise investment?
WELCOME TO THE CHALLENGE, NEVE VS SOUNDCRAFT, HERESY?
First of all, I love both of these great British brands and have a lot of their gear which I've purchased over the years. The Neve brand has had a crazy ride over the last 30 years but the current management seems stable and the products they are outputting are genuine British design and manufacture. Most importantly, their gadgets sound awesome. Few gear purchases have delivered inspiring sonics like my Neve pieces.
Soundcraft was born more than 14 years after Mr. Neve had started his business. Phil Dudderidge and Graham Blyth started Soundcraft and their products were well accepted in the live sound marketplace. The Soundcraft 200 was a great success, a full modular stereo mixing console with several input modules available to meet the needs of the user. Currently the Soundcraft brand is owned by Samsung.
The GB in the name of the Soundcraft GB series is a tribute to the product engineering by Graham Blyth.
|Neve Main Mix 8816 at H.o.T. Studio|
The Neve 8816 was introduced over 15 years ago and was the first product specifically engineered to answer the needs of DAW mixing. I ordered mine through the local Guitar Center store in St Louis. The 8804 fader package arrived three months after I placed the order for both pieces. By itself the 8816 is a bare bones stereo mixer with some trick monitor and cue options. The recall software is a big advertising point but I never use it. It's too much of a pain to have another little program running along side my DAW. In my experience Neve has been tardy in keeping their software up to date.
|8804 Fader Pack|
Basically the 8816 is a stereo line mixer with 16 input channels. There are also a pair of bus inputs for expansion. To install the 8804 you must open the top of the 8816 and move some jumpers along with installing the I.O. connector in the rear panel. It's not simple and it's not an easy installation for someone without technical skills.
The sound is what I really love about the 8816, it adds an overall air of spaciousness with tight authority in the lower registers; all my mixes have been going through the 8816 since it first arrived in my studio.
Neve uses a technology they refer to as "voltage mixing". In this analog summing bus design they knock the signal level down from line level to -40dBu inside the mixer. The output stage of the mixer amplifies the summed mix signal back up to line level through a pair of custom Neve designed transformers, ultimately the outputs are electronically balanced, but the sound they're carrying has that sweet vintage Neve magic which we'll be talking about in more detail.
Soundcraft has made A LOT of mixers since the company began in the mid 70's and the brand continues to deliver products today, in spite of multiple corporate acquisitions. The actual manufacture of most Soundcraft products moved to China many years ago, along with other British console brands like Allen and Heath and SSL.
In this review we'll be considering the Soundcraft GB4-16 mixing console. This mixer is a full and proper mixing console. It has 16 mono input modules and two stereo input modules. The GB4 features 8 auxiliary sends (4 pre-fader and 4 post-fader, switchable to pre-fader), 4 sub groups and a stereo master output along with a mono center channel output which is intended for live applications. Each subgroup has an auxiliary return. There is also a little matrix section (top right, just below meters) for creating alt mixes in live applications. These consoles have been quite popular with churches and houses of worship, the matrix could be used to create mixes for hallway and restroom feeds.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD MIXER?
Smooth, linear frequency response throughout the audio range is a hallmark of quality professional products.
SOUNDCRAFT: Less than 1dB of deviation from 20Hz to 20,000Hz is the frequency response range of the Soundcraft GB4, from input to output.
NEVE: Neve lists the frequency response of the 8816 as plus or minus .5 dB from 20Hz to 20,000Hz and frequency response extends on up to 60,000Hz where it is down 3dB.
Output level is another important characteristic to consider. A mixer needs to be able to deliver a stereo output with sufficient signal level for professional recording applications.
SOUNDCRAFT: The Soundcraft GB4 has a claimed maximum output of +20dBu.
NEVE: The Neve 8816 has a claimed maximum output of +26 dBu.
Low levels of distortion are another benchmark for quality equipment.
SOUNDCRAFT: Soundcraft claims the GB4 has total harmonic distortion of less than .006% at +20dBu, this means it has virtually no distortion at full output.
NEVE: Neve rates the Total Harmonic Distortion of the 8816 at better than .02% from 50 to 20,000 Hz at +20dBu. This specification also means the Neve has virtually no distortion in its useable range. I suspect that Neve limits the scope of their frequency response rating due to the audio transformers inside, transformers distort more as frequency goes down, it is just a matter of physics not bad transformer design.
WHAT MAKES A BAD MIXER?
Back in 1987 I bought a 24 channel British console which had an integrated 16 channel monitor section for use with a tape deck. Advertising said this configuration delivered 40+ line inputs at remix.
|At least it looked cool (not a good reason to choose any gear)|
With only 16 tape tracks and a couple of reverb returns in use this console sounded pretty good; but when you filled every input (two synchronized 16-track tape decks) along with a few stereo effect processors (aka Reverb) and hammered it with a rocking mix the summing electronics would break down and distort. This was not a pleasant, progressive distortion and once you begin to hear it you can't get away from this awful character being added to your music. Within 6-months this big hunk of hardware was no longer in my studio.
Other people who only listened to this console doing a 2-track playback never complained but the more I listened to this desk the more I hated its sound. This became my benchmark for listening to mixing boards, whether, over time, I heard something alarming or not good about the tonal quality of the output. As my electrical engineering chops developed I came to believe that the outboard power supply for this mixing desk was under sized and incapable of delivering sufficient current to light up all the 5532 and 5534 op amps contained in the console input and output modules. This is not condemnation of the 5532 and 5534 op amp components in the slightest, the best components can easily be used in compromised designs.
So to answer the original question, what makes a bad mixer? The answer is, one in which sound passes through and is made unpleasant to the human ear.
LONG TERM USE AND LISTENING
|Front and rear of 8816|
I've been using my first Neve 8816/8804 mixer since around 2005 and it has been a joy sonically. I've had no breakdowns or difficulties with it ever.
The first Soundcraft GB series mixer came to work with me when my partner and I were streaming a live show on the internet in 2011, it was a 16 channel stereo console, I liked the sound of it so much that when it came time to upgrade I went for the GB4-16. This console also performed electronically way-above-its-cost, delivering quality low noise performance on every mix.
Neither the Neve or Soundcraft have ever been disappointing sonically in any respect.
LETS COMPARE CONSOLE HARDWARE FEATURES
NEVE 8816 FEATURES
- 16 line level balanced inputs, Stereo output fader with "Width" control
- Mute switch, volume and pan on every channel
- Dual Master inserts, One pre-Master fader and one post-Master fader
- Dual peak reading output level meters
- Full control room monitoring with two outputs for speakers
- Inputs and Outputs on 25-pin D-sub cables
- Uses 88 series "Voltage Mixing" technology, a Neve exclusive
SOUNDCRAFT GB4 FEATURES
- 16 input channels, each with mic or line input socket, unbalanced channel-insert socket, mute, 4-LED pre-fader input level display
- Variable gain preamp on each input channel
- 4-band EQ on 16-mono channels, each with sweepable frequency on the two mid controls
- Eight auxiliary mix sends (4-prefader, 4 switchable pre/post fader)
- Two stereo input channels with 4-band EQ (great for effects returns)
- Four mono subgroups, each with balanced output, LED VU, unbalanced pre-fader insert-points, aux return input, 100mm fader, mute,
- Four mute groups
- Stereo master output section with Control Room and 2-track return functions, Stereo Master LED VU, unbalanced pre-fader insert-points
COMPARING SOUND BETWEEN NEVE AND SOUNDCRAFT
For my A-B listening tests I reconfigured my Coleman Audio TC-4 monitor controller. The TC-4 features relay switched loops for switching mastering effects in or out of the circuit. These loops also provide an excellent means for comparing any audio in A-B listening tests, pushbutton simple, instantaneous, noiseless and colorless. My TC-4 meter outputs are connected to high resolution JLM bargrraph meters which have 1-dB resolution; this makes it easy to match analog signal levels very precisely.
To try and get an idea about the sonic imprint of the Neve and the Soundcraft I listened to favorite CD's I'm familiar with. Listening to CD's through the Neve and Soundcraft in an A-B setup really did not reveal anything definitive, both products sounded basically equal. For straight sonic appeal I'll admit I lean towards the Neve, there is an authoritative character in the low frequencies and a zing in the highs which I don't hear using the Soundcraft alone. On the other hand, the Neve has no EQ, only one pre-fader aux send, solo is a pain to use and there are very limited 1/4" jacks for making connections. This means expensive D-Sub cables just to plug the 8816 in and use it.
I mixed an album back in 2009 using only the 8816/8804. All EQ was done with plugins. Outboard compressors were used and the stereo master bus compressor was a Chameleon Labs clone of an SSL (which was recommended and sold to me by Warren at Zen Pro Audio). My output converters were a pair of Apogee Ensemble, two 8-channel rack mount converters provided 16 balanced output channels. That album was the least fun mix I've ever done, it took 9-months to mix ten songs. I felt like my hands were tied using only plugins for EQ. I'd look down at the 8804 and wonder "where's the rest of my mixer". My background was analog multitrack tape so going almost totally digital with practically no hands-on controls was a struggle even though I'd been working with digital audio since the late 80's. My plugin collection back then was almost entirely Waves brand.
I've spent countless hours mixing on the Soundcraft, I love all the knobs, EQ, faders, inserts; all that hardware I can put my hands on and jockey the balance between anything, louder or softer, push a fader or turn a knob instantly. I need all this analog mixing control to work my magic, I could never go back to digital-only, even with some analog mixing thrown in. My analog console workflow takes off the handcuffs of digital-only workflow and gives me the best of analog and digital working together.
The equalizer stages in the GB4 can be switched IN or OUT of the signal path. My approach is to record material right from the start of a track so I don't use the console EQ very often. The EQ in the GB4 is sweet and useful when I have called on it. Being able to switch it completely out of the signal path is very useful.
A High-Pass filter is available on a switch up at the top of each GB4 mono channel strip. This filter removes just the right amount of bass to help tighten up a track in a mix.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS, FEED THE SOUNDCRAFT INTO THE NEVE
One day, while fooling around, I connected the GB console stereo master output to feed a pair of inputs on the Neve 8816, I did it so I could use the Neve for parallel compression, stereo width control, dual monitor speakers for comparing mixes and even a little output level boost as the stereo mix heads for a 2-track master recording. Going through the Neve 8816 adds that authoritative low-end and zing in the highs which makes the Neve sound so unique and desirable.
WHAT IS MISSING?
How do you feed your DAW with the tracks you want to record?
The Neve 8816 has a convoluted way of feeding the DAW but it does not include mic preamps so you'll need to address that if you're using one of these.
The Soundcraft GB4 does not have inline monitoring or any function to feed the DAW so you'll need to address that if you're using a GB4 for mixing. I use a lot of TRS 1/4" patchbays for routing signals around; these provide reliable and flexible ways of sending signals where they need to go.
|Second 8816 for feeding DAW|
To get the recording flexibility I wanted and the right sound, I purchased a second 8816 mixer, a rack full of preamps and a patch bay that allows me to pick which preamp feeds which DAW input. It was another "wiring" festival to connect all this gear but total flexibility was the pay off. The 8816 is a great piece to mix through but it's also a great piece to use to mix signals together and input them into the DAW.
Sending the Neve 1073spx through a Neve 8816 imparts that classic Neve tone which our ears are accustomed to from listening to albums mixed on Vintage Neve desks. Recording the Kemper Rack through the 8816 adds that authoritative Neve low end analog character to the Kemper digital sound.
|Neve 8804 Fader Package|
I'm not a huge fan of the Neve 8804 fader pack. The solo controls don't function unless you have both the mixer and the fader pack connected to a computer with (2) USB cables, plus you need Neve software running, which takes more processor horsepower away from your DAW. The Neve software does give you "Recall" which could be useful but in my personal studio workflow I don't need it. One final important bit about the 8804, the line level direct outputs per mixer channel come from the 8804 fader pack, on more recent issues these direct outputs are connected using D-Sub cables instead of a custom made piece (which cost me $300 to have built). Implementing the direct-outputs on the Neve is more painful wiring.
|Using GB4 to feed Neve 8816|
The 8804 Fader Package is currently selling for $1740 on Sweetwater. The GB4-16 mixing console is selling for $2059 on Sweetwater. I suggest that you buy a Soundcraft GB series mixer and connect it to the inputs 1 and 2 on the 8816. This will get you 16 faders, mutes, solo which works without software, metering, mute groups, subgroups, direct outputs on every channel using the Soundcraft, along with parallel Neve processing connections (which are fully balanced) and the Neve "Width" control. With this setup you can use the Neve control room features and drive two sets of monitor speakers which are switch selectable. A Soundcraft GB4-16 mixing console feeding a Neve 8816 produces an even more flexible workflow for only around $300 more than buying an 8816 and 8804.
One final payoff, the 100mm faders on the GB4 console "feel" a lot better than the parts Neve chose for the 8804.
I admit it, I love both the Neve and the Soundcraft GB series mixing consoles. I'd be totally happy with a GB4-16 for mixing, it's got EQ, aux sends, inserts, effects returns, metering, everything an old analog guy craves and the price is silly low. You'll need to use a split console metaphor, just like the original Neve Wessex desk did. The reward is great sound and lots of control.
Snobs might argue that the Soundcraft can't compete in the Neve league of sonics, I very politely beg to disagree. The Soundcraft GB series offers excellent sound (if anything it's clinical sounding), plenty of headroom to accommodate all the inputs and a hands-on analog console with rock solid features. True, it was designed as a "live" mixing console; with 40+ years of experience, I just look past the hype and see a mixing console. There is nothing about it being a live mixer that limits it sonically in a studio mixing situation.
If I could only pick one for mixing it would have to be the Soundcraft GB4 because I NEED all those analog aux controls, subgroups and all those individual EQ circuits. They're not resonant inductor equalizers like the Neve 1073 but they sound really good and the whole GB4 console is about the same price as one channel of Neve 1073spx. The GB4 EQ does not contribute a bunch of noise, each can be individually switched out of the signal path. Having two sweepable mid bands really gives you a lot of tone control.
Once I made the Neve 8816 the master output of my mixing process, my sonic paint palette was complete, the sweet authoritative sonics of the Neve complement the capabilities of the GB series Soundcraft mixing console, perfectly.
You can download the user manual for both of these mixing systems and learn a lot without investing in either product.
The combination of the Soundcraft feeding the Neve 8816 is the ultimate winner in this shootout. This pairing gives you lots of hands-on control through the GB4 and that sweet Neve sound.
Good Music To You!
Thanks for reading High on Technology, ©July 2023 by Mark King, all rights reserved, it is NOT OK to copy or quote without written permission. Thanks again.