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Hands-on with the Rupert Neve Designs 542

Hands-on with the Rupert Neve Designs 542

If you read our blog post on whether you need outboard hardware to make music, you may remember that I like a choice bit of gear or two. I still use a hardware mixer and, while the majority of the mix is performed using plugins, I like to send audio on a wee trip outside and twiddle some knobs occasionally. Imagine then, if you will, my delight at installing the Rupert Neve Designs 542 in my Lindell 506 lunchbox.

RND 542

The RND 542 Tape Emulator

It looks relatively benign sitting in the rack. A restrained, yet elegant fascia bestowed with but 4 knobs and three buttons. The 542 comprises three sections: a trim control; the tape emulation section with saturation and blend knobs and a button to switch between 15 and 30 ips modes, and the silk section with a switch to select silk off, red or blue modes, and a pot to adjust the amount of texture.

Two meters let you know just how much drive you’re getting in the tape section and the level of the signal before it hits the silk circuit. Behind the scenes, there is a soft-clipping circuit that kicks in when the drive level hits 5 on the meter.

The 542 manual is a short, easy read and tells you all you need to know, along with a few plots that show you exactly what is going on. Well, with test signals at least, you’ll no doubt want to hit it with some of your own sounds though…

The Rupert Neve 542 on the session

During this review, I was working with an in-the-box produced electronic track. The drums and percussion were completely synthesised, as were the bass and percussion. There was a spoken word vocal, as well as some flute, guitar and piano samples that served as ear candy, but I wasn’t dealing with a dozen tracks of instruments recorded with microphones in a real room.

My main goal was just to try and get to grips with the RND 542 and see what it had going on. Obviously, putting it to work on a proper mix would have been a more involved and iterative affair, but I just wanted to see what the 542 could do on a source, and try to A/B a scratch mix with each track either sans-542, or with Mr. Neve’s tape-emulation goodness.

To try and get a reasonable understanding of what the 542 could do – if not a real-world impression of how it would actually be used on a real session – I first roughly mixed the track. Fairly basic, but it got me close. I then bounced the master out for later comparison.

The next thing was to go back through each track one-by one, adding the 542 as an external audio effect as an insert effect on each track in the project. One channel at a time, I spent some time running each part through the unit, seeing what effect the different stages of the 542 would have.

What was quite noticeable is that it’s quite easy to overcook the tape emulation stage into spectacularly obvious distortion. And if it’s spectacularly obvious distortion you’re after, then there are things that will do it better. Putting an oscilloscope plugin before and after the external effect device showed just how square the tops and bottoms of those waveforms were becoming. Not quite the effect I was going for here!


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Starting to add some of the tape-saturation emulation to a test signal shows the addition of extra harmonic content

Keeping things a bit more in the where-things-are-supposed-to-be spot though is very easy with the Trim and Saturation controls. Start balancing those and you’ll get to some great places. Of course, you can always push things that bit more and dial them back with the blend control.

The added bonus of the 542 is of course the Silk control. With the Red and Blue silk modes available, and a control to set just how silky you want things to be, the Silk circuit is a great addition to the 542. The effect is very subtle, and on some sources I couldn’t really hear much at all, but on a few of the channels it just worked a bit of subtle magic, making things sound more ‘finished’. I got the distinct impression that, had I been tracking with this, I wouldn’t have needed to work as hard during the mix.

But this test was to push the 542 hard and see what would happen. And that’s what we did. Each track was pushed into the 542 fairly hard: there was definitely some character coming out the other side! Having already got a rough mix working, I level matched each track to the dry [without 542] track as best as I could, working my way through each track and printing the character back into the session.

RND 542 analogue warmth

Dialing in some silk from the Red circuit shows the subtle changes to the spectrum…

After I’d worked my way through to the last channel, it was time for another bounce of the master and an A/B of the unprocessed and processed versions. As I was expecting, I had completely overcooked things. The mix was just too thick. With things pushed to achieve an obvious effect, things were a bit much with all the extra harmonics that the 542 had added.

That lesson learned though, things were very different on the next mix. With things set to just audible, then dialed back a little bit, the quality of the 542 really shone. Used very sparingly on every source, or as an effect on a choice track or two, the RND 542 is a very useful tool to have as part of your outboard.

If you were to buy just two lunchbox modules, a good preamp and a 542 should be right up there.

Up front analogue

During the course of this review, I didn’t have the opportunity to use the RND 542 for tracking on an appropriate session. From reading other reviews online, and from my experience using the 542 as an after-tracking effect, I would love to have this in the rack and get things run through it up front.

Obviously, my test for this review was not a real-world scenario: I was intentionally pushing things too hard just to see whatwould happen, but – used with a bit more restraint than I did – the 542 really could be a part of every channel on every project, just letting that last 1 or 2% of extra character build up as the tracks get mixed together, and providing that often spoken about ‘glue’, that can often be so elusive.

Having learned the lessons of subtlety, putting the analogue character into your mix from the outset makes things a lot more straightforward in the DAW world. Not only are bass guitars and hi-hats easier to sit in the mix, as you’ve done the outboard bit, you can do all your mixing in the box with your choice of plugins and have the benefits of complete recall of the mix sesssion!

Can I have one [54]2?

Of course you can. If you’ve got a spare lunchbox slot, pick one up and plug it in. If not, then something like the Lindell Audio 503 is an affordable way to get into the 500-series, and the 3 slots let you put together the perfect input stage for tracking and a great chain for signal processing.

For an effect that is so subtle, the RND 542 might not seem like the cheapest piece of gear you can take home, especially if you don’t already own a lunchbox rack. However, if you divide the cost by the number of channels and the number of projects it’s likely to get used on, it suddenly seems like much better value.

And you could of course just look at the price of an old Studer on eBay and see what that would set you back…

All I know is, I would very much like one of these units. With this, a Phoenix DRS1R and an API 565 in the lunchbox as the front end, I’d be pretty happy with my lot really… I don’t want to give it back.

UPDATE – Recording with the RND 542

Since first writing this post, I’ve had a chance to spend a lot more time with the Rupert Neve Designs 542. Having established that, yes, it can most definitely make a difference to the sounds you put into it – it was time to integrate it into the recording chain from the start.

I went from my RND 517 preamp into the 542 and into my MOTU 828mk3. Using it in this way, a more scientific A/B comparison wasn’t possible, it was all just about how things sounded once the track count started to build up.

DI’ing some outboard synths – including the sumptuous ARP Odyssey – gave me some sounds that just sat very nicely in the mix without having to do too much too in terms of additional processing; I had a similar experience with acoustic guitar tracks. Re-tracking hi-hats and ride cymbals back through the chain just rounded things off a little bit without turning everything into an overly soft mess.

Having now spent more time with the unit, I return to my earlier statement: I don’t want to give it back.

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