Gear Reviews

AMS Neve RMX16 500 Review

In a previous review, I touched on Lexicon and how it was responsible for the sound of the '80s; but where the Lex was known for vocals with big plate and big spacey reverbs, the RMX was most definitely better known for its shorter Ambient, Room and Non Linear Programs, perfectly suited to big drum sounds. So the fact AMS Neve were bringing this unit back – in 500 format – was very exciting to me.

In 1981, AMS (Advance Music Systems) launched the RMX16 after already making a name for themselves with the DMX 15-80 - the world's first 15-bit digital delay line. But the thing is, this new reverb unit had an algorithm in it called non linear which sounded just like gated reverb. Every studio engineer wanted some of this new sound, and pretty soon every studio had one – and for good reason!

Being that these algorithms were a simulation, and not based on sampled environments like today's modern reverbs, they had space around them, they were based on the idea of what reflections might do in a given room or hall - but above all, they were all incredibly musical. And just like Lexicon, the AMS had its own characteristics and admirers.

During the '80s when I was on the road for the most part, this unit would sometimes find its way into touring FOH outboard racks and, provided the headline band's engineer was okay with me stealing a preset or two (there were only nine storage slots on the original unit), I would have yet more opportunity to play.

Sadly, they were built for studio use, and didn't adapt well to life on the road, often suffering cracked boards and dry joints - which is a huge pity because nothing ever sounded the same as an RMX16 - and up until recently, nothing ever had.

I recently changed my audio interface to a UAD Apollo, and have some very useful UA plugins at my disposal including the brand's AMS RMX16 plugin which I spent far more time playing with than I should have, when I was suppose to be writing a review!

The plugin is good - very good - and I could have written a review of that plugin alone, but there is something to be said for actually pressing the buttons and turning the dials. Clicking your mouse to engage the rotary encoder and then trying to drag it around is not quite the same as the original! Having said that, it did sound lovely and a really accurate substitution for this all time classic. But what of my review box, how does it fair against the original rack unit and UA's plugin?

I have a Cranborne Audio 500ADAT lunchbox style housing which is a handy bit of kit for 500 series modules as analogue summing box. You can get into the Cranborne either through a couple of TOSLink cables in and out or directly from the back of the unit via XLR; in my case, XLR to D-Sub 8-way cables attached to the Apollo insert and line-in D-Subs.

After much searching, I could only find one of my optical cables so I hooked it up via the XLRs. After replacing the plugin in the FX bus with Logic's I/O plugin from the utility menu, it was simple to just select the correct line out and returns back in to the Apollo and then press the ping button.

In Logic, just remember to go to preferences, audio, and then in the audio: general, and page, making sure compensation is set to 'all' so everything will be in sync. Also, very important is that you set the mix value to zero, otherwise the ping is subject to whatever effect is currently on the screen, so will not give a true compensation value for the round trip signal path.

The RMX - like the original - is mono in, and left/right out. The 500 module is three units wide and uses the first slot for the mono input and left out, and the third slot for the right out. With four small crosshead retaining screws to hold it in place, that was pretty much it. Plugging it up just like the original unit was very satisfying, and I could feel my cheeks aching from all the incessant smiling. I powered up the Cranborne!

Plugging it up just like the original unit was very satisfying...

A Nod To The Old

In a complete twist of irony, the 500 module is actually far easier to use than the original rack unit: just press the program button and turn the dial to the desired program, and then press one of the parameter buttons to alter that, again with the rotary. It actually feels more logical and obvious - especially with the key parameters displayed next to their corresponding labels on the retro style red LCD screen.

Also a nice touch that the in, out, and mix levels are on a second screen, as in most instances, if you're inserting this unit on an effects bus, those values are unlikely to change.

My earliest recollection of the original unit was the slightly confusing Echo programme, and I remember having to ask how you got into the different delay times between left and right, as entering a time delay value in pre-delay appeared on the left side of the stereo spectrum only. And then it came back to me. Its a left bus (A) value and a right bus (B) which you just page between from the keypad. When I first encountered this unit I think my only experience of microprocessors was Space Invaders and Pacman.

At this point as I'm writing, I just looked up and noticed the AMS logo playing ping pong with itself on the screen; that's so very '80s! As is still the case, the keypad is pretty redundant bar the A/B buttons, as unless you knew exactly what range of delay or reverb parameter you wanted, it was always much easier to turn the dial and listen to the subtle changes as you went.

The exception to this is the pre-delay which on the nudge and rotary knob is in 10ms steps, but you can enter a custom value, press pre-delay a second time, and it will change to that value. In reality, the keypad will now enter values for all the available parameters. Back in the day it was the nudge buttons (up or down) that changed from program to program, and adjusted the decay Low and High filters. But now it's easy to dial everything in with the rotary. A nod to the old, but I kind of found my way around the new unit in a couple of minutes.

The Power Of Nine

The RMX had nine programs when it first appeared, all of which were groundbreaking - and they're all here.

Each program algorithm has a maximum of four parameters: Pre Delay, Decay Time, and Low & High Decay Filters. These original programs are: Ambience, with control over all four parameters; Room A1, with just three parameters; Hall C1, with all four again; Plate (four); Hall B3, this time a smaller hall reverb with all four parameters; Chorus (three); Echo (four); Nonlin (three); and Reverse, with just two parameters.

What's rather nice about all the preset programs is that they're very useable off the bat - but even some extreme tweaking of parameters still leaves you with an appealing result. When you select echo, there is no value in any parameter, and to create an echo you first need to enter the time using the pre-delay button, then how often the echo repeats using the decay time. Just remember there are A and B channels, left and right, so you can set independent echoes for each side.

'A' gives you delays up to 400ms, and 'B' up to 1200ms. The chorus program is also an incredibly good algorithm, and can fatten up any sound: make a six-string a twelve-string, and it just sounds great.

The Ambient programme has a huge range from a real in your face, sharp reflection through to chamber type sounds which, with a reduction of the high and increase in low parameter, can sound very cathedral nave-like, to big thunderous, and out and out preposterous!

The room programme was a particular favourite of mine, as it's probably the first time I remember being able to place a drum kit in a precise location within a mix. What I mean is that with the use of the level you set each drum, hi-hat, and overhead together with their placement in the stereo field by the pan pot. If you closed your eyes, you knew exactly where each drum was on the stage in front of you; it was so good, in fact, that you could watch the drummer playing while your ears were listening! Bit of a eureka moment for me, this was, while recording a demo for Polydor back in 1983.

Then we have the legendary programme 8, Nonlinear Reverb. Just listen to Phil Collins' No Jacket Required if you're not sure what I'm on about - this programme is on everything including some of the programmed drums. Just check out tracks like Don't Lose My Number and Sussudio - but it's pretty much on everything!

The 2 Hall and Plate programmes are amazing examples of their intended environments and are just as hard to better today as they were groundbreaking in 1981. 3, Hall C1 is the smaller of the two halls, and has some lovely defineable bright reflections which give you a lovely mental picture of the hall you might be playing in.

5 Hall B3 is a little taller and wider and has a generally smother spread of reflections. There is also a programme which introduced an effect only previously available by some clever manipulation of tape, 9 Reverse, which found its way onto a number of recordings from the likes of Trevor Horn.

And Nine More..!

The original unit only had nine program algorithms when it was first released, but they produced a remote control unit and a bar code reader and booklet of bar codes which provided additional programmes that could be swapped in and out of the mainframe as required. I'm sketchy at best on how these additional programmes were exactly loaded and saved, as unfortunately I only ever saw the remote a couple of times, and never got to use it.

Our modern unit comes with the best of these additional programmes, giving you a total of 18. Programme 10 is a second Reverse algorithm which smooths out some of the differences that the original programme had from left to right and gives a less electronic stutter to the reverb.

There are also two additional Room programmes (12 and 13). 12 (Room A0) is a brighter more obviously reflective space like a mirror, windows, or other hard shiny surfaces. 13 (Room B1) gives the feel of a higher ceiling and a warmer space. Programme 14 (Hall A1) is an even larger hall and much more intense than 5 (Hall B3). 15 (Plate B1) is again a more intense programme than Plate A1 which emphasises the shimmering high end plate character with the added bonus of pre-delay, something not available on original plate reverbs.

16 (Delay) is a mono version of Echo giving you a delay of up to 810ms, but this is only available from the second output, right hand side. Programme 18 is another great nonlinear algorithm that produces different reverb characteristics in the left and right channels, so this is one you can blend, pick one side or the other, and generally experiment with.

New program 11 (Freeze) is a continuous reverb of whatever you feed it, so needs to be planned on how how it receives source audio as well as how you bring it in and out of your mix, but it's a very interesting effect and I would say this was also a first for this unit's original counterpart.

Lastly, 17 (Image) is a non-linear type reverb that appears first in the right side of the stereo image and then in the left, thus giving the impression of moving across the stereo image. I've numbered the Programs as these were the original numbers on the rack unit, and have also been carried across to the UA plugin versions. The AMS Neve RMX16 500 doesn't have program numbers, but the programs occupy the same physical slots - or to put it simply, are in the same order.

I always promised myself that if I got into a position where I stopped touring and could afford to set up a small commercial studio, the RMX16 would be one of the first things I would buy after a new Mac. Well, now that wait is over and I have one. It might not be the original but it sounds every bit the original, with some really nice touches that make it look distinctly like the original but are even more user friendly and fit into today's microprocessor-driven world perfectly.

It's intuitive to use, and anyone can find their way around this new unit in seconds rather than minutes. The decision to re-issue this unit as a 500 module is genius. Most modern studios have a hybrid analogue component to them, and many I've been into have 500 series lunchbox style racks for those special modules of analogue kit they simply can't live without. And I should imagine the RMX16 500 will fall firmly into that category.

Having the RMX16 500 in my Cranborne rack has been a real pleasure. Out of all the reviews I've done, this has taken the longest - not because it took time to install and setup, quite the opposite. Not because it took time to familiarise myself with its settings and programmes. Again, completely the opposite. It's because I can't stop playing! It is inspirational and creative just like it was in the 80s, and more importantly it's clean, noiseless, and simple to operate.

I can't help but try it on this track and that - and not just drums. Its Room and Plate reverbs are just as at home on vocal tracks as they are on all kinds of instrumentation, from acoustic guitars to sax.

It takes you back to the days before the world was full of hissy digital FX processors with multiple parameters, most of which were just down right painful; a time when you listened to music on a flat disk of plastic and went round to your local record shop on a Saturday morning to find out what great new album artwork was out, containing another disk made of plastic!

The point is, having ditched my rack effects 14 years or so ago for onboard digital effects and plugins, that thankfully are now clean and fit for purpose, it's a real joy to have a top quality rack effect at my disposal again. It's that tactile hands on approach I've been missing. And now you can have one too, at around £1,000 – that's a fraction of the price of an original, and worth every penny.

Having the ability to dial in the few parameters there are to create beautifully musical reverbs is truly magical and inspirational. In fact so much so that I can't wait to get another rack unit. Another RMX16 500, that is!