Sting and the Police abused it. Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits recorded an album on it that is arguably the greatest sounding rock disc ever made. A grieving Paul McCartney used it shortly after the assassination of John Lennon. It was also employed by Guns N’ Roses for the band’s historically contentious Use Your Illusions sessions, and it managed to survive the Civil War-singing experience.
We’re talking about the Neve “AIR Montserrat” recording console (serial number A4792), perhaps the most revered analog sound board ever made. It was custom-designed in 1977 by the recording equipment pioneer Rupert Neve to the radically high specifications required by Beatles sound maestros George Martin and Geoff Emerick.
The console was the centrepiece to Martin’s brand-new, state-of-the-art facility on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where the biggest rock stars of the eighties came for the surf and paid for the sound. The albums recorded at AIR Montserrat (and later, when the massive board was sold and moved to A&M Studios in Los Angeles) could fulfill your contractual obligations to Columbia House Records immediately and impressively. MTV and MuchMusic were practically built on the albums recorded or mixed on the beloved AIR Montserrat Neve.
The Globe and Mail has learned that the world-renowned console currently lives under the radar in Toronto, tucked discreetly away and fully operational at Subterranean Sound Studios, a high-end/low-profile basement facility. Benny Varadi, a toy-industry entrepreneur and music enthusiast, purchased the AIR Montserrat console for $500,000. That’s a load of cash in an era in which recording studios struggle for business – record labels don’t have the recording budgets they once did – and smaller digital machines are handier and more prevalent. But the sound of the vintage analog Neve? Priceless.
“There’s zero doubt in my mind that the Montserrat Neve is easily one of the two best-sounding recording consoles ever made,” says American producer-engineer Neil Dorfsman, who earned a Grammy in 1986 for his sound engineering on the Neve-recorded Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits. “If there has been one particular piece of gear that deeply influenced, enhanced and made record-making more fun for me, that would be the Montserrat Neve analog console, along with its twin sister at AIR London.”
There are actually three custom Neves in the class to which Dorfsman refers. In 1981, after the original Montserrat Neve was shipped off from London to Martin’s island hideaway (where rock stars from the likes of Rush, the Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, Elton John, the Police, Eric Clapton and McCartney enjoyed a hassle-free high life), an identical console was constructed and installed at AIR London’s old Oxford Street studio. It’s now at AIR London’s current facility at Lyndhurst Hall. A third console, again built for AIR London, now lives at Bryan Adams’s Warehouse Studios in Vancouver.
While the knob-and-fader set will obsess over the three boards’ unique toroidal transformers, revolutionary remote-controlled microphone preamps and integrated circuits that allow for a higher frequency response, others hail the Neves in more general terms.
“They are highly musical consoles,” says Garth Richardson, a Canadian producer and engineer, who has worked on all three of the rare Neves. “They sing, they speak and they just sound warm, rich and fat. Awesomeness, you know?”
The Montserrat days for the Neve console were marked by visits by vitamin-D deficient British rock royalty. There, in 1981, McCartney recorded Tug of War, which included the hit duet with Stevie Wonder, Ebony and Ivory. The album sessions, which began in London, had been suspended after the murder of John Lennon on Dec. 8, 1980.
An impoverished country of 11,000 or so people then, Montserrat was a private playground of excellent oceanfront, superior intoxicants and splendid villas (often rented out by wealthy Canadians) for the discerning millionaire musician. Between outrageous food fights and Remy Martin moments, John recorded return-to-form hits I’m Still Standing and I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues on the island’s star audio attraction the Neve.
Famously, the video for the Police’s Caribbean-vibed Every Little Thing She Does is Magic shows the band frolicking maniacally in the studio control room where they shockingly mess with the Neve.
In 1984 and ’85, the Dire Straits’s Brothers in Arms was among the first albums to be specifically crafted with the spanking-new CD format in mind. “It was a bit intimidating to me,” recalls the album’s engineer and co-producer, Dorfsman. “I was concerned that digital would make the record sound edgy and harsh, but the creamy quality of the Neve completely eliminated that problem.“
The Rolling Stones recorded its comeback album, Steel Wheels, at AIR Montserrat in 1989, but by that time the Neve had been sold and installed at A&M Studios in Los Angeles.
Just months after the Stones left Montserrat, Hurricane Hugo devastated the island and ended the studio’s star-studded heyday. After a volcanic eruption in 1995, AIR Montserrat sits ruined and abandoned.
In Los Angeles, the Neve was used by the fractious Guns N’ Roses, Don Henley (The End of the Innocence), U2 (Rattle and Hum), Ringo Starr (Vertical Man, mixed by Emerick) and many other recording legends in a bygone time, in which the public purchased music in brick-and-mortar stores and “I phone” was just bad grammar.
The Stones mixed and overdubbed Voodoo Lounge at A&M. Speaking to The Globe and Mail last month, Mick Jagger assessed the 1994 album as a “pretty good one.” And the Neve? It was alright, I guess,” Jagger said. “It was a standard Neve console, you know?”
About the legendary Neve, now in Canadian hands, Jagger seems to be the only one with mixed emotions.
If the Neve console could speak
A timeline tells the story of one of the world’s most famous (and expensive) pieces of professional audio equipment, the AIR Montserrat Neve console, now installed at Toronto’s Subterranean Sound Studios.
1977: Designed by Rupert Neve for George Martin’s AIR Studios Montserrat, the hand-wired, 24-track desk (a customized upgrade of the Neve 8078 model) is built at the Neve Electronics factory in Melbourne, England. Though designated A4792 (its internal works order number) the desk is soon nicknamed “Monster-Rat” because of its length. “That,” says project engineer Graham Wood, “and the console’s performance kept biting back at us as it was tested to meet the extended bandwith specifications that were required.”
1979: Martin opens AIR Studios Montserrat in 1979. The first album recorded on the Neve is Climax Blues Band’s Real to Reel. The same year, Jimmy Buffett records Volcano there. Buffett prophetically names the album and its title song after the island’s then-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano. The volcano would erupt, to devastating effect, in 1995.
1982: Paul McCartney releases Tug of War, produced by Martin and engineered by Beatles sound man Geoff Emerick in Montserrat. Emerick sends a congratulatory note to Neve Electronics, writing “it is apparent that all of your efforts have achieved what I believe to be the finest sounding desk that I have ever worked on.”
1984-1985: Police frontman Sting is on a windsurfing vacation in Montserrat when Dire Straits record the album Brothers in Arms on the island. Upon hearing an early playback of future hit Money for Nothing, he exclaims, “You’ve done it this time ... ”. Later, he adds the “I want my MTV” refrain to the song, thus earning a lucrative co-credit.
1985: The Canadian trio Rush fly to Montserrat to overdub Alex Lifeson’s guitars on the album Power Windows. "It was a kind of cruel trick we played on Al,” Rush singer-bassist Geddy Lee would later recall. “He’d be slaving away in the studio, while Neil [Peart] would be out swimming in the ocean, and I would be going back and forth from the swimming pool to check in on how Al was doing. There was no small amount of jealousy coming from the amplifiers in the room.”
1985: The decision is made to replace the AIR Montserrat Neve with another manufacturer’s console. Producer Chris Thomas (Beatles, Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols, INXS, Pete Townshend and the Pretenders) remarks, “They’ve taken out a Rolls Royce and put in a Datsun.”
Late ’80s through the ’90s: At busy Studio A at A&M Studios in Hollywood, the Neve is used in the making of albums including Don Henley’s End of the Innocence, U2′s Rattle and Hum and Guns N’ Roses’s Use Your Illusion I and II.
2007: In storage for most of the 2000s, the Neve is acquired by Allaire Studios in Shokan, N.Y. At some point during the Neve’s stay there, seven-time Grammy winner Frank Filipetti is mixing an album on it, with studio manager Mark McKenna and legendary producer Glyn Johns also in the control room. Suddenly a giant speaker slips off its stand and crashes onto the Neve. “This is a one-of-kind console, so I jump up and lift the speaker off of it," McKenna later recalls. “I was horrified.” Johns, unperturbed, looks over and dryly asks, “Frank, is your speaker okay?”
2019: The original AIR Montserrat Neve is still fully operational, after 40 years, now at Toronto’s Subterranean Sound Studios.
– Brad Wheeler
Bryan Adams’s own Neve
Of the three legendary custom Neve analog consoles custom-designed and built by Rupert Neve for former Beatles producer George Martin and AIR Studios, two are now in Canada. The first one lives at Subterranean Sound Studios in Toronto; the third of three has long been installed at Vancouver’s Warehouse Studio, owned by Kingston-born hit-maker Bryan Adams.
Everybody Neves Somebody: The Adams-owned Neve (serial number A6630) was built in 1979 and initially installed in London’s AIR Studios. The console was later sold and used at the Atlantic Studios in New York. Adams purchased it in 1991. Refitted by prominent engineer and acoustic-design technician Ron (Obvious) Vermeulen, the board has been used at Studio 2 at the Warehouse on albums made by AC/DC, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Shakira, R.E.M., One Republic, the Tragically Hip, Marianas Trench, Muse, Slayer, Michael Bublé, Destroyer and, yes, Bryan Adams.
You Want It You Got It: “I wanted the best recording console I could possibly find for the studio, something that would be on level with the best in the world,” Adams says, when asked about his motivation for acquiring his custom Neve. “I heard it was for sale, so I made an offer and got it.”
Cuts like a Neve: Musicians and recording professionals often talk about the magical qualities of the three custom Neves. “The voodoo is real,” Adams says. “It’s the result of the design and build. Rupert Neve, George Martin and [former Beatles recording engineer] Geoff Emerick looked at every detail and made the best it could be, sparing no expense.”
– Brad Wheeler
Editor’s note: July 29, 2019: An earlier version of this article stated that a similar soundboard was currently housed at AIR London’s Oxford Street studio. It’s actually installed at AIR Lyndhurst Hall.