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Sound Skulptor MP573 – Building a Neve (style) Mic Preamp

sound skulptor mp373

How does anyone with a skinny budget get high-end analogue outboard gear into their studio rack? Is the “Neve Sound” completely unobtainable by mere mortals with a digital setup and not much cash?

Well, we did some research, grabbed a soldering iron, and GOT BUILDING…

This is a build diary and review of the Sound Skulptor MP573 mic preamp. It’s a DIY kit of a Neve 1073 style microphone preamplifier. This is the story about why and how we started building our own gear. Written by The Beat Shed session drummer, Merlin Matthews.


DISCLOSURE – This is NOT an advertorial. We bought the product directly from Sound Skulptor at RRP and have no relationship with the manufacturer whatsoever. This is just a good old-fashioned review and build story!


I WANT that sound!

I’ve been lucky enough to record in some BIG and incredibly expensive recording studios in my time. I’ve played-through and heard the SOUND of priceless top-end consoles and analogue outboard gear. But I’ve never actually got my mitts on the controls and experienced first-hand what exactly vintage analogue circuitry does and how it creates its signature sound.

Since building my own digital in-the-box studio, I’ve found myself increasingly using vintage console emulation plugins. Particularly those ones you put on each track and then sum on the mixbus. It’s become a normal everyday practice to drive level through virtual gear in order to saturate signals and create the harmonics associated with high-end (often old, vintage) analogue gear.

Ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

The existing preamps we have in The Beat Shed are fantastic high-end Focusrite Claretts. Very clean and extremely “transparent” with tonnes of gain. Brilliant!

But…. what about that colour and saturation and those harmonics? This from the Warm Audio website sums it up pretty well:

“A lot of preamps on the market do a good job of raising the volume of mics and instruments. Unfortunately, many pres are doing only that, raising volume. The “Super clean” designs of today often leave the signal exiting the preamp sounding much the same as it did entering it.”

At The Beat Shed, our products are often available as “dry” multi-tracks, meaning the audio is as naked as it was the day it was recorded. I want those audio tracks to have the benefit of being printed through warm, vintage-sounding preamps.

Besides, with lockdown in full swing at the moment I am getting more involved with online sessions, and the quest for a better drum sound never ends!

The Neve 1073

There is NOTHING I can write here that hasn’t already been said about this legendary channel strip… so I’ll keep it very brief with links.

The 1073 is a channel strip from what is probably Rupert Neve’s most famous 80-series mixing consoles. It’s essentially a preamp and an EQ, but the way that they both interpret a microphone signal, and the “colour” that they impart is often described as “musical”, “larger than life” and synonymous with “The British Sound”.

It’s just never going to happen…

If you can find one, a console with original vintage Neve 1073 preamps will set you back 5 figures. One that doesn’t need some expert attention, probably closer to 6.

There are many modern single/dual channel rack versions and various other “clones” – much more affordable than the real thing, but still pricey.

Then there’s the 500 series options. Again there are many, all wonderful I’m sure, but even then I (rightly) assumed these were a little out of my reach. The bidding starts at around £800 per channel.

This is all a bit steep for someone who needs at least eight of them (eventually) with almost no budget!

What about plugins?

The ones I’ve played with (and the ones friends have told me about) sound AMAZING.

UAD have emulated a 1073 about as faithfully as you can. The effort that’s gone into the sound modelling and software development is extraordinary.

But…. it requires that you drop a wedge on their interface, their hardware. So there’s a major investment and, in my case, a complete change of system. And one that you’re tied into for the life of the interface. And once the interface is obsolete and lobbed into a skip, so is the software.

PLUS (and I’m setting myself up for a right kicking here!) plugins are still an EMULATION. Not actual electrical components in the analogue domain reacting to signals BEFORE hitting an A/D convertor. I still feel that counts for something… but maybe I’m wrong! (Comments below please…)

DIY? Why?

I then discovered the pro-audio DIY community, and the seriously clever people out there who produce kits.

These guys take the schematics of lovely old gear, and either follow them as closely as possible or adapt them to a more modern standard. Some also create weird and wonderful new hybrid creations. They then manufacture a PCB (printed circuit board) gather the components, box them all up and send them to you as a complete kit to solder together.

The cost saving is MASSIVE. By building stuff yourself, you can halve (or even quarter) the cost of “branded” gear. You also get to learn how your gear works, how to fix it, why it sounds the way it does, and sharpen your ears to the way components sound in relation to one another.

The Epiphany

Sooo… I realised it could be done for £250-£350 per channel depending on spec and company. Using the modular 500 series “lunchbox” system, I can also build these one at a time, as and when funds permit.

I bought a MIDAS L10 10-slot 500 series rack unit. I still don’t quite understand how “major brand” companies are selling these units at £70-£90 per slot. It’s just a power supply and connectors no? (Again, comments below please!)

The L10 has decent Neutrik connectors and is under £20 a slot, which is good enough for me.

Before too long (hopefully) I could end up with 8 of my 16 channels running through beautifully designed circuits, transistors, capacitors and the same actual transformers that Rupert Neve used in his 1073 designs some 50 years ago.

sound skulptor mp373

The Sound Skulptor MP573

I did a LOT of research. There are so many companies making great DIY products. As it was my very first foray into DIY electronics, I went for the best documented kit I could find.

Plus one that was highly recommended (from a sonic perspective) and had EVERY feature it could on it. I figured this would sit in the first slot of the rack and be my “go to” preamp for any type of mic or DI signal.

So I settled for the Sound Skulptor MP573, which is the preamp section of a Neve 1073 clone.

Sound Skulptor also make the EQ part of the 1073 which you can add and, cleverly, sits in the correct part of the circuit (before the output transformer) to faithfully recreate a “complete” 1073 channel strip.

The user manual for the Sound Skulptor MP573 is here for an idea of how it works and its features.


The Build

A very STEEP Learning Curve

I live on a boat, so Ohm’s Law, wire-gauge and soldering are not completely unfamiliar to me. But this was in a different league.

Don’t let me put you off though. Seriously ANYONE can do this, it just takes a bit of practice, technique and patience.

I got online and looked at through-the-board soldering tutorials. Then I got some really cheap “breadboard”, a load of resistors and spent a couple of evenings practising.

There are loads of really great soldering tutorials online. But all you REALLY need is Dave at EEV Blog!!!!

Dave’s pretty out there. So would you be… inhaling lead fumes all day. But the guy is a genius, and his following tutorials tell you pretty much EVERYTHING you need to know, beginning with which tools you need:

Tutorial 1 – Tools
Tutorial 2 – Soldering/techniques

Be Organised. Prepare Properly. Label EVERYTHING.

In preparation I read the instructions so many times I could almost recite them from memory. I also tipped all of the resistors out onto the bench, tested every single one with my multimeter and labeled them all.

sound skulptor mp373

This took a while, but saved a lot of time during the build by being able to confidently go directly to the right component. Finding each one as it went on the board would’ve taken weeks….

In at the Deep End

Right off the bat, the most terrifying part was separating the boards. Two pieces of circuit board need to be “snapped” across pre-etched lines to separate them into their component parts.

It was actually much easier than I expected, but grabbing something delicate for which I’d just shelled-out the thick end of £300 on and forcibly SNAPPING it into pieces caused me sweat and palpitations.

One thing about doing my practice soldering on cheap breadboard was that SUDDENLY, with a really good quality PCB, the soldering felt SO much easier. Oh… That’s what it’s supposed to do!

The first few stages were going nicely. How hard can this be?

sound skulptor mp373

And then, DISASTER

A “pad” (one of the soldering terminals that connects the component to the board) came away on the end of my soldering iron.

“Ah, well I’ll just glue it back on with more solder”. Nope.

These connections are vital to the infrastructure of the board. Every Google search about “lifted” PCB terminals delivered the same verdict – it was fucked.

The whole circuit board was ruined. The project was over. And it was all down to my inexperience and crap technique.

Could Sound Skulptor sell me a new board? And the components I had already used? This was going to cost me, and saving money was the whole idea in the first place….

An email to Sound Skulptor Support…

… was humbly sent with my tail between my legs. A reassuring email came back telling me that the particular pad that had “lifted” was actually not connected to anything – just a pin on a relay that made a solid physical connection to the board.

The email also helpfully suggested that I turn my iron heat setting RIGHT down.

Hallelujah!!! A narrow escape… and a HUGE thank you to Sound Skulptor support for their very quick and reassuring help.

sound skulptor mp373

Hot Silvery Snot

Bouyed by my good fortune, but treading cautiously after my close-shave, I continued to whack components into the board with molten metal snot.

This kit is really well documented. You get a step-by-step manual of how and what to assemble in exactly the right order, with photographs of the board at key stages so you can both visually locate a component placement and check your work as you go.

Transformers

So the real fun started when it came to the transformers and the chasis. This feels a bit more like BUILDING something, and the maze of electronics starts to look like a unit that might do something useful or live somewhere in a sexy rack of gear.

The unit also suddenly becomes VERY heavy.

Heavy is GOOD in my view.

sound skulptor mp373

The Moment of Truth

There had been, to be generous, a couple of fairly MAJOR fuckups during the build. I’m not a natural pessimist, but electronics are not sympathetic to cock-ups.

So I genuinely expected this unit to simply NOT WORK. Or possibly explode and burn down my studio. I was ready for all worst-case-scenarios…

With the unit installed in the Midas L10, it was time power-up, test and calibrate…

sound skulptor mp373

Well, bugger me, the relays clicked, the green light winked and the thing switched on. Then I attached the multimeter to the test pins, and it delivered perfect readings. Then it let me calibrate everything perfectly according to the instructions. This thing ACTUALLY worked!

I plugged in an SM57 and “sang” into it. It sounded GOOD?!

The DI Board

sound skulptor mp373

Just when I thought it was safe (although by now I was full of confidence) I then had to solder up the DI board. A completely separate PCB of components. I breathed and took my time. On a long journey, the final mile is the MOST dangerous…

I soldered it to the main board, and placed the unit back in the rack.

I plugged a guitar into the DI. Again, GOOD!

I was so delighted I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. So I started assembling a drum kit… (it’s always a good “leveller”…)

sound skulptor mp373

The Tests

I only did a very few proper “geeky” tests. Sorry!

But one that I did do, I couldn’t quite get my head around the results. I had to consult some much cleverer people than me to pick the bones out of my results to get “findings”. And I’m still not quite sure what they mean… (again, feel free to comment below!)

Loudness

I recorded a tube mic in front of a drum kit straight into my workhorse Focusrite Clarett interface using the internal preamp. I then “re-pramped” it (as described below) – sent this signal back out, through the MP573, back into Focusrite (into a line input at unity gain mind you – so no extra gain!) and recorded it.

I then matched the level as closely as possible according to the meters. The signal coming back from the MP573 was reading the same as the source but was MASSIVELY louder.

So to check I wasn’t going bonkers, I went the other way around – I got a loudness meter out on the output bus and matched the loudness by backing off the gain with a plugin.

Here’s the source track next to the re-pramped track showing a MINUS 5.9db difference to match the loudness at the output.

MP573-Loundess-test-screnshot

HOW could a signal sent through the Sound Skulptor MP573 come back in at EXACTLY the same “level” (unity gain) but be so much LOUDER?!

This is a whole other website (let alone page) to do with gain, voltage, level, “loudness”, and stuff I don’t understand.

All I know is that this thing is LOUDER without being, errr… higher in volume (or gain level.)

I suppose there is just that much MORE harmonic content in the signal coming from the MP573 that it’s FULLER. And therefore generates more “loudness”without carrying a higher signal level? CRAZY.

I don’t pretend to understand it. I just love the sound it produces.

Harmonics

I also whacked a 500Hz sine wave through it to see the lovely harmonics it was adding…

harmonics

Living with it…

I’ve recorded so much material since building the MP573, and also since starting writing this review, it’s almost impossible to give specific examples of how it performs….

It flatters pretty much anything, but bass guitar, vocals and drum room mics are where I’ve had the best results.

Like most bits of kit (and musical instruments) the Sound Skulptor MP573 has become part of my studio ecosystem and one I’ve instinctively learned how to use in different situations.

Re-Pramping

I’m currently writing another article about the joys of “re-amping”.

You can do the same with a nice preamp. Run a signal out of the system through the preamp, drive it a little or a lot, and record it back in.

All those instrument/vocal tracks I’d recorded before building the MP573 can now benefit from it’s warmth and character by running them through it and back in again. LUSH!

Conclusion

In case it wasn’t already clear, I’m pretty chuffed with the Sound Skulptor MP573. I would highly recommend it to someone wanting to start building their own gear.

I’d also recommend it to anyone isn’t interested in DIY, but wants a great-sounding preamp without having to re-mortgage anything.

Sound Skulptor do fully assembled units too, and they have a range of interesting gear.

I’ll now try to describe how it sounds

…but I apologise if I sound like a pretentious second-rate wine critic. Here goes…

The Sound Skulptor MP573 is coloured, it’s warm, it’s silky, it’s natural and it sparkles.

EVERYTHING that goes through it sounds THICKER, and richer – more “full”. Also brighter, but not in a way that hurts your eyeballs. In other words, Just Right.

Another revelation occurred when I got to mixing tracks recorded through the MP573. Very little processing was required. The tracks just seem to melt together and glue themselves with much less work than usual. I suppose this is where the “natural” sounding bit comes in.

Of all the hundreds of descriptions of the 1073 sound, I think that “larger than life” is still the most accurate. It’s natural, but it’s BIGGER, in a good way.

Congrats to Sound Skulptor

They haven’t just designed and built a fantastic preamp that is a VERY faithful recreation of a timeless classic.

They’ve also deconstructed it, boxed up the components and written a guide so easy to follow that a complete chickenhead like me can build one for themselves.

Plus their support was excellent during my (literal) meltdown.

Bravo!

offcuts

More to come…

The only downside of getting into building your own gear is that it’s DANGEROUSLY addictive. Not only is the building process enjoyable and rewarding in itself, but at the end of it you’ve not only got a thing that does something, but it does it INCREDIBLY well.

I almost wish the Sound Skulptor MP573 sounded rubbish, because I now have a “bit of a preamp habit”.

A the time of writing I have built another (different) 1073-style preamp, and yet another one is on its way. More reviews and build stories coming soon…


DISCLOSURE – This is NOT an advertorial. We bought the product directly from Sound Skulptor at RRP and have no relationship with the manufacturer whatsoever. This is just a good old-fashioned review and build story!


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