The idea that a design format would become such a discussion shows how far the 500 Series has come. Originally designed as a way to supply mic pres, EQ and compressors from desks to those without a console, it has now turned into a monster format, with massive appeal both to end users and designers. In fact the 500 series has become such a popular format that it spawned the creation of hundreds of boutique manufacturers worldwide as well as an incredibly vibrant DIY community.
But is it the way to go?
I’ve had many conversations about the format, and thought I’d share some of the dilemmas, questions and suggestions I have found useful to help when looking into the 500 Series range.
What is the 500 Series format?
API (Automated Process Inc) began in 1968 and started designing their own modular consoles in the early 1970’s. Throughout the 1970’s API developed many recording advances we still use today, one of which was a system known as Total Recall! Nearing the end of the 70’s though, API went out of business and Datatronics, who were contracted to make API products, designed their first 10-slot rack to house API modules in.
Many audio engineers in the 1980’s were using API modules from consoles in a DIY way, taking modules apart and linking and creating various chains. This was due to the only modular racks available at the time being made by other companies and were incompatible due to the differences in design.
Aphex designed their own 4 module and 10 module chassis which was compatible, and it was actually one of their custom modular systems that coined the phrase ‘Lunchbox’. When Aphex decided to discontinue their 500 Series racks, Paul Wolff, who bought API from Datatronics, received permission to manufacture a similar 500 chassis under the API brand through until 1996 when API was sold to ATI.
This meant that for the first time you could mix and match API modules in a portable unit taking them from studio to studio, or room to room. Connectivity on the current 500 Series ‘lunchbox' range is made up of XLR, D-Sub, or a mixture of both, allowing easy integration to the modern studio, and more traditional audio paths we’re used to.
The format has since been adopted by an ever-growing number of manufacturers but API has trademarked the name ‘Lunchbox’, although it is still widely used throughout the audio industry as a generic term for the 500 Series format powered chassis. The reason for its success is it allows high quality equipment to be purchased gradually piece by piece creating original paths, mixing and matching manufacturers and modules with flexibility and all at a fraction of the price of 19” racks equivalents.
API introduced a VPR Alliance program to provide a consistency guideline for those manufacturers wishing to use their 500 Series racks, and whilst this is a great idea to help create a standard there are many more modules out there than on this list!
To find out more about API VPR approved units
Is the power as good as in a 19" rackmount unit?
So can a format so affordable give you the performance of those large racks, which cost often substantially more?
A question I always get asked is about power. Can the shared power provided by a 500 Series chassis perform as well as a dedicated power supply?
A power supply in 19-inch rack unit is always something an audio engineer can rely upon. The dedicated power in a piece of hardware has been designed with the components inside in mind and specified to provide the power these parts require. If the unit requires extra power to drive say a Tube/Valve stage this is designed hand in hand with the type of transformers, capacitors, op-amps, with everything that makes the unit sing. The power has been designed to drive it without compromise.
When the 500 Series racks were first released the power was shared between each slot. This meant that one power supply was providing all the current for all the modules, regardless of design, manufacturer and what they required. Most of the time all the modules were working okay within the spec of the chassis, but by its modular and ‘open’ nature some units are designed out-of-spec and require more power to function at their best.
As a result, sometimes chassis were starving some units of their required power to function correctly, especially if you had a fully loaded chassis or alongside other equally demanding units. The power would be shared across modules, and some more ‘power hungry’ units would perhaps not sound the same. Likewise if there was a power surge, as each module was not protected from each other, an issue could affect not just one module but the adjacent modules as well.
Now modern designers such as API, Rupert Neve Designs, Purple Audio, Lindell, IGS Audio and Radial have taken all these previous power questions in mind and have focused on removing any suspect feelings we had about the power being a “bit flaky” and have designed chassis that offer far more power than required by even the most power hungry modules. Certain designers like Mercury Audio and Heritage Audio have even gone to great lengths to ensure each slot receives the right amount of power regardless of the modules, using new rail designs offering total isolation for each module.
With models such as the API Audio 500-6B Lunchbox, Rupert Neve Designs R6, Lindell Audio’s 506, Mercury's D Series G810 Rack System 1, Heritage Audio MCM-8 and Radial’s Workhorse Cube there is no reason a modern chassis cannot provide the power required for stable sonics of your chosen modules.
These upgrades have also allowed designers to overcome the limits of the original chassis and they can finally hear the realisation of their designs without any power compromise.
However, due to the 500 Series design format and its low currents, there are always going to be certain manufacturers who will not adopt the format, as their designs just will not work within the 500 Series limitations. Manley, Summit Audio, Universal Audio and Tube-Tech are such examples. Tube-Tech though, makes its own portable Tube-Tech RM-8 Rack system to power its own design of desktop modules, however, this is completely unrelated to the 500 Series format.
Does it sound the same as the rack version?
Another concern many users have before getting on the 500 Series journey is a question of sound quality. Does a 500 module sound as good as the rack equivalent?
Whether this is about a preamp, compressor or a type of EQ, I feel a module can usually be attributed to one of three categories:
1.) There is no 19” Rack Equivalent, as this is only available in a 500 Series version.
Many small boutique designers have adopted the 500 Series format as way to bring their products to market without having to incur such extra costs as more metalwork, a large PSU and screen printing. For the end user the 500 Series is a brilliant way to get something unique with many amazing products now being designed specifically only for this format.
Some examples are: Shadow Hills Dual Vandergraph , Retro Instruments Doublewide, Chandler Little Devil Compressor, Audio Maintenance AML54F50, Crane Song Falcon, Crane Song Syren and Crane Song Insigna, Electrodyne 511, Maag Audio EQ2-500 and Maag Audio EQ4, Purple Audio Action, Purple Audio TAV, AWTAC Awesome Channel Amplifier and AWTAC Channel Compressor, Standard Audio Level-Or, Inward Connections The Brute and Radial Tank Driver to name but a few.
This is a modern solution for the modern studio offering great quality, boutique units, which have been designed especially for this format and the 500 series restrictions.
2.) It sounds the same but some features may have been removed.
Some designers have adopted this as way to get a flavour of their rack units, or perhaps get the preamp, compressor, EQ or a section from a channel strip into the individual elements. This is useful when requiring either just some elements or adding extra elements to run alongside those featured their rack counterparts.
Manufacturing costs may be a factor for doing this, but also by the very nature of only taking elements of the traditional rack version into the 500 Series range it’s a good way to adopt some or part of the sonic character without paying for sections you may not need.
3.) It’s based on the same sound, but due to 500 design restrictions it’s manufactured differently.
This is probably the most contentious point, as whilst many designs work excellently in the 500 Series, there are just some classic rack units that cannot be beaten. In order to access those classic units there is no option but to buy the rack versions that have been either re-released or updated to modern manufacturing standards.
Some manufacturers have decided to make 500 Series versions of their own ‘classic’ hardware to provide a more cost effective route to their desired sound, and also because the 500 Series market is, and always has been, full of clones or DIY kits made to try and replicate their prized designs.
This has meant that re-designs have had to happen, sometimes using Surface Mount Technology (SMT) over larger (too large for a 500 rack) design methods that were traditionally used. Whilst it could be seen as a case of ‘ if you can’t beat them, join them ’ it has meant that lucky 500 users can now have tonal options that would have been uneconomical and unwieldy in any other decade.
The debate about whether these 500 versions are true to the originals only the end user can judge. What may work for one situation and environment may not work for another. But I do know that a lot of care and attention has been paid to these 500 Series designs by manufacturers determined to carry on the history and heritage of their classically designed equipment and they should be taken very seriously.
So, to 500 Series or not to 500?
I feel it doesn’t need to be as cut and dry as that. These days with production budgets not as they were, the 500 Series format makes sense when helping to create your own unique sonic pallet that you can take with you. It allows studios, producers and engineers to run both their traditional rack units and fill some gaps (or even start) with 500 Series units in conjunction.
This is the way I work, whether it works for you I can’t say, but as the 500 Series is here to stay sooner or later it may be a format to look at, or perhaps expand what you may already have in a direction yet to be explored.