Neve 88M USB Audio Interface review

When it comes to exemplars of the audio industry, there are few companies as revered as Neve, but can they apply that same status to their new audio interface? We bus-power-up some classic mic preamps.

In case you’d missed it, ‘Vintage’ is not so much the next big thing, as the beautiful-new-thing that has been rediscovered, yet again! While there is a quest for ever quieter and more discrete audio interfaces, there’s also a great demand for vintage sounding equipment, from hardware to software emulations.

Boxing large and clever

Neve’s new 88M audio interface perfectly straddles both ubiquitous territories, with a sense of the old, through the re-versioned use of preamp technology, but with the contemporary angle of a bus-powered interface.

Before we get into the sonics, let’s consider what we have in this box. Firstly, and most obviously, the 88M is a reassuringly weighty device, at 1.675Kg. That’s quite a number of bags of sugar, and might suggest that while it’s slightly larger than many other similar desktop audio interfaces, (it offers a18x20cm footprint) it’s going to feel pretty heavy in transit. Place on your desktop, and the rubberised feet keep it securely in place, while its tolex-style wraparound finish looks classic and stylish.

The front of the interface provides 2 x mic/line/DI inputs, via XLR/1/4” jack connectors, with 4 pots which double as push-button switches. Due to the added functionality, the pots don’t feel quite as sturdy as they might if they were just dampened pots, but the ‘made in the UK’ quality shines through. Each of the input channels toggles between mic/line/DI input, with phantom powering available from a button next to input connector.

The presence of a see-saw monitoring pot allows easy balancing between incoming signals and DAW playback, with the ability to dictate your signal priority, along with the option to switch to mono, proving to be flexible for playback and tracking possibilities. These elements are very simple to access, which is just as well, as the 88M does not offer any accompanying software, to fine tune your interface preferences.

Around the back of the interface, there are monitor outputs on TRS 1/4” jack only, with send and return insert points for both input channels. You may also extend the number of inputs via the on-board ADAT light pipe, making the 88M a perfect partner for outboard mic pre’s with ADAT functionality, which include Neve’s own excellent 1073 OPX, albeit with the optional digital card fitted.

Neve’s classic numbers

Let’s not beat around the bush here, the 88M is a premium quality product, with a premium price. If you buy into this device, you’ll be dialling in to Neve’s history, which might make you wonder why they haven’t placed their legendary 1073 pre amp at the front end? Put simply, it all boils down to power; one of the major party tricks that the 88M has to offer is its ability to run solely on bus power, which is to say that it powers directly from your computer. This explains the presence of the heftier USB3 connector to the rear, with included cables for conventional USB A and newer USB C connectivity, supplying the 88M with the appropriate amount of power. It still blows my mind that you can bus-power an interface such as this, and connect a condenser microphone using phantom power.

USB power has its limits, which explains the move toward a tweaked incarnation of Neve’s very own preamp circuit, culled from the legendary 88RS console. There is a reduction in headroom, over a fully powered channel, but it’s impressive and useable nonetheless, being reliant on the very same input transformers.

Sonically Neve

So having bought into the whole classic preamp argument, it’s time to take the 88M for a test drive.

I used several different mic’s, in different recording scenarios, to get a flavour of what the 88M could offer. Beginning with a U87, tracking was a total cinch! The low-latency monitoring proved to be impressive, with more than enough headroom for vocal work, both at the channel and monitoring stages. Some like their playback loud; that’s not me, although I would defy anyone to suggest that the 88M cannot crank to high enough levels.

While recording vocals, the depth of capture feels impressive, with what I would describe as a full-tone, particularly in the middle frequency band. My other day-to-day interfaces do feel different, with a suggestion of greater brightness in the upper frequency bands, but this is more likely due to a lessening of mid-register frequencies, providing more of a perception than a reality.

Reaching for a Coles 4038, paired with a Fet Head transformer, I picked up a trombone and layered up some tracks. In this scenario, the Neve sounds fantastic. Its classic calling pays enormous dividends here, where the richness of mid-register tone lends itself beautifully to the sonority of the instrument.

While the presence of some mighty channel preamps will provide one reason for the tonal colour, it’s worth noting that the 88M uses a SABRE 32 convertor, which is not the more usual D/A and A/D convertor, found in other interfaces. Under all circumstances, it’s a class act, but as with all timbral colours, you may well gravitate to your preferences, possibly directed by the music you choose to record and produce.

Further recording explorations yield a very solid sound-stage, which is wide and detailed in all respects. Everything just feels like it slots into place. As my time with the 88M increased, I found the overall sonic makeup really great to work with, although referring back to my usual day-to-day high-end interface, the 88M definitely presents what could be regarded as a slightly more vintage or classic tone, which is very desirable. It sounds just as sublime with bass and guitar based content, as it does with drums and synths.

Final summing

There can be no doubt that the 88M is a class performer. One point, that you will either love or hate, is its total reliance on hardware operation. The lack of Neve software could feel like a moot point, dependent on how you choose to use the device. Even more surprising then, that at the input stage, there is a lack of pad, phase reversal switch or low-cut. Granted, you can handle these elements elsewhere, but there is no option on-board. The convenience of USB powering does present less top-end gain, but for most recording scenarios, this is unlikely to be an issue for working.

If you are a Mac user, the 88M is class compliant, and will just plug-and-go. I also tested the 88M, using GarageBand on an iPad Pro, and it worked amazingly well, although Neve recommend using a powered USB hub in this scenario, to provide the full-power-grunt required by the preamps. Connection without a hub did deplete my battery relatively quickly, which is unsurprising! PC users will also need a driver, to couple the device to their DAW.

It’s also surprising, that on a device of this calibre and price, that there is no provision for Word Clock connectivity. With the possibility for ADAT connected devices, this is often a useful preference for digital stability, although Neve confirmed that both the Core Audio driver for Mac and the AMS Neve USB ASIO driver for Windows have the ability to clock from the optical ADAT input or from the internal clock, allowing for accurate synchronization of external ADAT devices.

If you’re looking for a Stereo-based interface, which will provide a quick and easy route to tracking, with one of the classiest signal paths available in this format, the 88M is something of a winner. The price really reflects the overall quality of the product; cheaper interfaces are available, but this has a sonic identity all of its own, and it’s got Neve stamped all over it. Quality costs, and the 88M oozes quality in bundles.

Pricing  (RRP)

Neve 88M – £1075


Welcome to issue 7 of Audio Media International