First Look: Neve 88M Preamp & Interface

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First Look: Neve 88M Preamp & Interface

neve 88m
Words by Lewis Noke Edwards

Taking decades of innovation and refinement and concentrating it into the unassuming Neve 88M

It’s hard to fully encapsulate just how much the Neve brand name means to the culture of Pro Studio. 

It’s an omnipresence, a symbol of prestige, and in terms of day-to-day practicality, is still the yardstick to which all other mixing consoles/preamps/channel strips are measured, even some 60+ years since the company’s inception. 

To put it simply, the Neve brand has become studio shorthand for quality and excellence in the field. It’s phonetically imprinted into the very foundations of everything we know about professional studio both past and present, becoming one of the most defining sonic signatures in recorded music history.

Traditionally, when we think of Neve we generally think of full-scale, large-format consoles and recording solutions for the top end of town, but the legendary brand has actually proven themselves to be surprisingly nimble in recent times, having spent the last couple of decades expanding into the world of standalone rack units and small footprint options, all with versatility and scalability front of mind.

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Up until this point, the lion’s share of these smaller Neve offerings had come in the form of isolated circuits lifted from the brand’s famous large-scale consoles – standalone preamps, EQs, and compressors for those of us who might not have the space or budget for a fully fledged 32-channel Neve console. The new Neve 88M on the other hand, is something different entirely – a professional-grade, small-footprint recording interface with the modern recording climate in mind. Based on first looks, it’s more than worth getting excited about.

Given the recent successes of other prestige studio manufacturers in the prosumer interface market (like UA’s Apollo series and SSL’s 2 and 2+), many of us were waiting with baited breath to see if arguably the producer of the greatest front end in recorded history would pair its peerless preamps with some high-powered digital converters and launch into the interface market, boots and all. Happy to say, that day has arrived.

Using the same state-of-the-art Marinair preamps as Neve’s flagship 88RS console, the 88M is a premium two-channel audio interface with the option of eight additional digital inputs via ADAT optical connection, in turn allowing for 10 channels of simultaneous audio, making it ideal for both standalone use or for integrating into a more complex recording chain.

Connected via USB 3.0, the output/monitoring path of the 88M offers a bevy of options for the budding engineer, with plenty of versatility on offer. With two analogue monitor sends and eight additional digital outputs (again via ADAT), the 88M is a natural for expandable monitoring situations or for providing additional performer cue sends and connecting to different outboard gear down the line. You can monitor either from your DAW or totally latency free, ideal for switching between recording on the fly or mixing. 

The unassuming controls put everything within reach, and the independent headphone controls and monitor pot allow you to finely tune what you’re hearing back after recording through those classic-sounding preamps.

While the various masterstrokes in routing and signal flow are sure to get the more experienced engineers among us listening and enthused, for many it’s the affordability and ease of acquiring those two premium Neve preamps that is sure to take centre stage in the eyes of budding engineers worldwide.

Indeed, it is the quality and character of these preamps that has informed so much of the legendary ‘Neve’ sound and it’s the presence of these premium, analogue circuits within the context of a prosumer interface that makes the 88M such a revelation. It really is the meeting of two worlds.

Born in the UK in 1926, the late Rupert Neve began his audio journey moving around between radio repair jobs before finding his way into public address and TV systems, garnering an intimate understanding of producing the highest quality recordings possible with the relatively primitive equipment afforded to him at the time. 

His experience in live situations with radio interference, cross talk, and distortion helped inform his early designs, before eventually founding Neve Electronics in 1961. 

While Neve designed his circuits and equipment to be as hi-fidelity as possible, it was his uncanny knack for producing clear but characterful audio, a bi-product of the transformer and transistor-based circuits employed in his designs which made for the lethal combination of rich harmonics, clean gain, and isolated signals, even with channels sprawling across a console that would make his consoles such a hot commodity throughout the golden age of professional studio.

The Marinair specification in particular, a transformer-based preamp design drafted by Neve and laid out in the original 1964/1968/1969 designs, is the magic formula that helps to produce the trusted sonic characteristics that have come to define the Neve brand.

Often categorised as ‘fat’, ‘warm’, ‘rich’ and above all else ‘highly musical’, it is this harmonic richness and inherent character that makes Neve preamps so highly coveted. 

Compare this with the broad purpose, clinically transparent nature of the preamps found on your average over-the-counter interface and you begin to understand the appeal of the 88M. One is concerned with manipulating a less-than-ideal sound after the fact, the other is about getting the highest quality, most musical sound before conversion and working from there. You can probably imagine which one yields better results. 

Suffice to say, that when the quality of the onboard analogue pre’s is as high as what we are dealing with here with the 88M, it only makes sense to pair it with equally quality digital conversion, which is precisely what the team at Neve have opted for with reference-quality A/D conversion throughout the 88M’s signal path.

In terms of layout, the front panel features two premium Neve preamps with microphone, line, or DI options available via combo ¼”/XLR Neutrik jacks. LEDs signify that the signal coming in is optimum, and the preamps have independent 48V power for condensers, as well as toggling between listening back to a direct, mix, or DAW signal when monitoring. You can toggle between stereo and mono modes, and adjust volume via a big, red volume control on the front of the unit. The back features ADAT in and out, allowing for eight extra inputs or outputs, USB connections, and ¼” monitor outputs. 

The unit itself weighs about 1.6kg and is about 20cm wide, so it’ll easily fit in a case or bag of a travelling professional or anyone recording remotely. It’s a small unit, but it’s a powerhouse in terms of expandability and with the ability to pair it with an ADAT breakout box or other ADAT adjacent outboard pre means that there is much more on offer than its diminutive size would have you think. 

The chassis is road-ready, and while the aesthetic is truly classic Neve, it’s functional and multipurpose, with pots that toggle between circuits for clean recording, and Marinair transformers for your signal to pass through before the converters and to your DAW of choice via USB 3.0.

Another feature which helps the 88M stand out from the crowd, besides the obvious preamp quality, is the presence of insert send and returns for a truer channel-strip style functionality, something that is seldom seen in the broader interface market, but which belies a classic console workflow. Self-recording singers and acoustic guitar players especially, will no doubt rejoice in the ability to add compression or subtractive EQ on the way in, optimising their overdubs and layered parts prior to commitment.

If we are being honest, there aren’t many who wouldn’t benefit from a bit of Neve in their life, and the 88M now makes this possible for engineers of all walks.

With its forward-thinking approach to routing, high level of scalability, reference quality conversion, and of course, the presence of two of the finest preamps money can buy, the 88M is sure to set a precedent of where small scale interfaces are headed and the kind of quality we can come to expect in the space, moving forward. 

Neve is a company steeped in a rich history of innovation, having been founded by one of the greatest audio minds of our time, complete with the lifetime achievement awards, interviews, and testimonies to prove it. The Neve 88M takes these decades of innovation and refinement and distils them into one little unassuming box, a product focused on helping you make music, capture inspired performances, and hear it all back with a little harmonic push from whatever analogue magic they’ve got going on in there.

Find out more on the Neve 88M here.