The modular hardware format known as the 500 Series continues to be popular with musicians and engineers, both in home studios and full-size facilities. For anyone with a desktop DAW system, a rack of well-chosen modules can improve that system's audio quality in a minimal amount of space. And the wide array of products available means engineers can dial in a sound that is more personalized, while tapping into functionality that goes a lot further than that provided by a mixer or audio interface.
I spoke with four pros—Ross Hogarth, Marc Alan Goodman, Warren Huart, and Sam Seifert—who rely on 500 Series modules as part of their workflow. In this article, we will learn about each of their journeys into the land of the Lunchbox and beyond, to find out what products they use and why they chose them.
If you’ve been listening to the radio over the past four decades, you’ve heard the work of Ross Hogarth (hoaxproductions.com). In addition to engineering and mixing for scores of major artists—Van Halen, John Mellencamp, the Doobie Brothers, Keb’ Mo’, Mötley Crüe, REM, and Lyle Lovett among them—the Grammy-nominated engineer’s credits include feature film soundtracks, tour production, and live sound. Not surprisingly, Hogarth has witnessed the evolution of the 500 Series format.
“I have a really long history with them,” he explains. “Originally, you didn’t think of them as 500 Series. Back in the early ’80s, I started using API and Aengus EQs, from an Aengus console, in the old Aphex 4B1 rack, which had only TT and TRS connections on the back. The only way to power them was with this Aphex rack. It was just the easiest, most transportable thing.
“But this allowed me to take the EQs that I love out of those consoles and take them somewhere. For me, that was Indiana—particularly to John Mellencamp’s studio—and use them on kick and snare. The Aengus EQs had a specific sound: They’re gritty and great on bass. However, the [API] 560 has been my go-to EQ on kick and snare for my whole career, and the 550A EQs for anything—drums, guitars. The sound of the EQs from those API consoles is so distinctive, and you could have a few of these racks with those EQs piled into them.”
And how does he view the format today? “Now you have so many choices of what to put in your rack, and there are so many racks to choose from—it’s insane.”
I asked Hogarth if he has noticed any differences between the racks made back then and the ones being produced now. “I’m a big fan of correctly powered 500 Series modules. Some of the older racks, which didn’t have the power supplies upgraded, were under-powered and didn’t sound that great once you piled in a bunch of modules. The 4B1s were fine to power four APIs, but there was a time in the mid-2000s as this format took hold, when the power supplies were not sufficient to power a larger rack of modules. Some of the people using them went back to the manufacturers and asked them to make improvements. Most of the racks are good now. There’s API, BAE, Empirical Labs, Purple Audio, Radial, just to name a few.
“I still have some 4B1s that I occasionally throw a couple of 560s and 550As into,” he continues. “I went in and changed some components on the supplies, because they weren’t all that wellbuilt originally. I also have BAE 6- and 11-space racks, and a 2-space Empirical Labs rack for certain things because it’s horizontal, not vertical. The two racks I have my eye on are the Radial Workhorse, which has the busing matrix in it that comes out to a DSub: Radial’s all about solving problems. And the Purple Audio Sweet 10—it’s a rack that a lot of people who build modules use because it’s so stable. All of these companies are definitely pushing each other. Like everywhere else in the industry, if someone is doing good work, you have to keep your game up.”
As you would expect from an engineer of his caliber, Hogarth is partial to certain sounds, many of which come from products he has used throughout his career. I was curious to find out what he uses for tracking.
“The 312s are the great workhorse preamp that you can’t get away from,” he says. “Brent Averill was the first guy to take a 312 out of a console and put it into a rack [Brent Averill is now BAE/British Audio]. I still have a bunch of them.
“A new one I use is the 736-5 Preamp by Skibbe Electronics, which is a copy of the preamp found in the custom Flickinger console that Sly Stone used. Wade Chandler, who was Brent Averill’s tech, started his own company [Chandler Limited] and has some killer 500 Series pre’s—the Germ 500 and the Little Devil. Great River has the 2-space MP- 500NV and the Avedis MA-5s are terrific.
“I have a reason for everything I use,” Hogarth explains. “One preamp, I might find is really open and clear. Another I might like for its harmonic distortion: That’s really cool, but if you’re doing something where you want a really clean preamp, that’s not the one. And, of course, now they’re adding EQ into some of the preamp modules, creating something that is more like a channel strip.”
Ross Hogarth behind the desk in Blackbird Studio A, Nashville. When mixing, Hogarth starts with a few favorites and then chooses his palette from there. “It depends on the mix,” he explains. “I’ll go to my 560 or 550As for specific things if I don’t want the plug-in. As an aside, I lent what I call my ‘famous 560s’ to Will Shanks at Universal Audio. So the 560s they have in their UAD-2 bundle are my specific EQs."
For mixing, Hogarth likes the Retro Instruments Double-wide Tube Compressor, “which is like a mini Sta-Level,” he says. “In addition, I have a Standard Audio Level-Or, which, like the [Shure] Level-Loc PA limiter, just smashes the heck out of stuff—very aggressive, weird, and distorted-sounding. The Level-Or can just destroy a room sound—it’s certainly not pretty—but it’s a JFET limiter and, basically, a distortion processor that they build into a little 500 Series module.
“Although a lot of de-essing is done in the box, I processed David Lee Roth’s voice completely analog, using one of my favorite de-essers, the Empirical Labs Derresser, which really works well on his voice,” says Hogarth. “Going back to the first few Van Halen records, the famous engineer Donn Landee used the API 525 compressor: They made those early Van Halen records on the Sunset Sound consoles with the APIs in there, and so I held true to some of the compression that David likes on his voice.
“I also have the TB Audio TBDD module, which is based on the Roland Dimension-D stereo chorus. It sounds really good. That’s one of the more obscure things I have in my rack.”
With such a wide variety of modules available, I wondered what Hogarth would recommend to somebody who wants the flexibility of the 500 format, but who isn’t sure where to start. “It comes down to what you’re looking for and what you want,” he says. “That goes for anything outboard. So people have to figure out the kinds of sounds they want before they make a decision.
“In the days of making records, we would come into a studio and use the console. And then that console—whatever it was: a Trident, Neve, or API—was the sound. Now, with all this outboard gear and everyone doing this pick-and-choose, it goes back to the core sounds: Is it an API mic pre, or a Nevetype mic pre, or is it based on a germanium transistor? Or, you can have, say, an API EQ being driven from a germanium pre or a Neve-like pre. It all comes down to sonics and what you’re looking for.”
Marc Alan Goodman at work. MARC ALAN GOODMAN
“The thing with the 500 Series is the convenience,” explains Marc Alan Goodman, owner/operator (with partner Daniel Schlett) of Strange Weather recording studio (strangeweatherbrooklyn.com) in Brooklyn.
I asked Goodman what he likes most about the 500 Series: “The shared power supply in a small format, he says. “I can fit 10 channels, with power, in three rackspaces and mix and match what those channels are. There are very few other products you can do that with. That’s the biggest advantage.”
I asked what lured him into the realm of 500 Series modules. “That is a pretty big question. We have a 48-channel API 1608, which I chose in part because I could use 500 Series modules in it,” he explains. “I was also looking for something that was a vintage design.
“I was getting sick of working on vintage desks and having them never work properly. Around 2006 or 2007, there wasn’t really much on the market that was viable as a console, in my price range, and sounded good. I ended up going with the API on those grounds. The fact that it had 500 Series slots, as opposed to their other desks that support the thinner series, seemed like a big advantage to me, because I wanted to be able to try some different things.”
So, what was he sonically interested in at that time? “The desk I was working on in another studio was an old Auditronics and I loved the EQs in it. But the thing was pretty fussy. However, Ed Anderson at Purple Audio had cloned them: It’s his redesign of the inductor EQ, but with the Purple amplifier. So I thought I could get an API desk and fill it out with these EQs that I love, which I did over a period of a year.
“When my tastes changed, I swapped them out and tried tons of different options. The advantage of the 500 Series in general is the size: We’re in New York, and nobody has a lot of space. Comparatively, we have a ton of rack space and it’s always full. And we’re always trying to figure out what we can pull out to try something new. The 500 Series helps alleviate that a little bit by sharing a power supply. I know a lot of people frown on that, thinking that a shared power supply is going to disrupt the quality of the products in the rack. That seems completely ludicrous to me, because we’re sharing an original power source for everything in the studio.
The API 1608 at Strange Weather recording studio, Brooklyn. “As long as there is enough current there to power the modules, there is no reason they shouldn’t run just as well,” Goodman continues. “Obviously, if things are poorly designed you increase the possibility of noise. But we’re talking about companies like API, Purple, and some of my favorite ones, the Avedis E27 EQs. They’re extremely well-designed.”
I asked Goodman if he has ever run across compatibility issues. “I haven’t run into significant problems with anything in my 500 Series, really. Every once in a while I will find something that is a little quirky; a level will be down in one rack, but the module will work great in another rack. I have to assume that is a rack issue, not the gear itself.”
To meet a variety of needs, Strange Weather’s racks include stationary as well as portable models. “We have the API desk and there’s a producer’s desk in there, so we have another bucket of 16 patchable slots. And we have a Purple Sweet 10 now, and another API 6-space Lunchbox.”
When asked whether the modules are used for tracking or mixing, Goodman notes that “they get used for everything. Primarily we have EQs in there, and we have a couple of compressors. I used to have a bunch of mic pres, but now that we have the API desk, we don’t need a lot of outboard mic pre’s.
“My business partner, Daniel Schlett, is doing a record up in Canada in August, and he is scrounging together 500 Series racks and pre’s from friends because it’s going to be more convenient to carry them up there. And he knows what sound he’s going to get: He’s trying to find a bunch of 512s.”
Part of the allure of this kind of modularity for Goodman is that he’s able to pick external EQs to fit different projects and get a variety of sounds. “At one time we had a 16-channel desk but eight different types of equalizers in it. And you could pick by the channel. We’ve expanded that: Now that the desk is bigger—it’s 48 channels—we really only have 4 different EQs in the channels on the desk.
“When I’m deciding to track drums and [figuring out] which channel I want to use for the kick drum, I can select based on the EQ and still have the full functionality of the desk. That is really nice.”
Huart with his BAE preamps—a pair of 312As, a 73MPL, and a 1073D. WARREN HUART
“I don’t rent my studio out. It’s only for the projects I produce, even though it’s comparable to the best studios I’ve been in.” Warren Huart (warrenhuart.com) adds that he’s not being a snob: It’s just a fact. As an in-demand producer, songwriter, and mixer with artists such as Aerosmith and The Fray, as well as for film and television work (including The X Factor), he knows what he’s talking about. For starters, Huart’s well-appointed Spitfire Studio includes an SSL console, a Cadac board (for tracking drums), six Pultecs, as well as a Studer A80 tied to an Endless Audio CLASP, which he used on Aerosmith’s Music from Another Dimension exclusively.
With so much gear at his disposal, why did Huart invest in a 500 Series system? “Initially it was traveling,” he says. “And one of the biggest problems I found, even in some of the best studios in different parts of the country, was that they’d have ‘a console.’ But if it didn’t have the mic pre that you wanted to use on the vocal, then you were out of luck.
“Ten or 15 years ago, if I flew to Indiana to make a record with The Fray or bands like that, I would usually get an equipment budget and the record company would pay to fly stuff out. But as you’re probably well aware, that doesn’t really happen that often anymore. What I do now is go out with a couple of 500 Series racks. That makes it significantly easier to bring the handful of pieces I need.”
Not surprisingly, he puts his modules through their paces at every stage of the production. “I use them for mixing, tracking, and everything. I occasionally use EQ going in, but it’s only a tiny amount. I try not to overly EQ. My setup here is pretty extensive. I have an SSL console and a lot of mic pre’s. But I use the SSL only for mixing.”
But while many engineers see the 500 Series as a way to explore a wide variety of flavors, Huart is also looking for a specific sound for his work, particularly when tracking. “All the pre’s I use are a combination of 1073s and 312s. The sound of a 1073 is pretty much rock ’n’ roll, especially if it came from England. You put a 57 into a 1073, with maybe an 1176 on the other side, and you’ve got every guitar sound you can imagine. That on a Marshall cab is the sound of Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page: It just sounds like music. Whether it’s because that’s what we’re used to or not, who cares? That’s the sound.
“When I first started over here, BAE were the only people making 1073s, having come from England and knowing what they were. I have one of the original 19" rackmount 1073s, which I’ve used on everything: It’s on The Fray’s vocals, Steven Tyler’s vocals.
In the rack, Warren Huart’s favorite EQ modules for kick, snare, and guitar: The API 560b and 560, and the Phoenix Audio DRS-Eq. “Now, with the 500 Series BAE 73MPL, I can fly with a 1073 pre mixed in with all my other toys. And, of course, when I get back to the studio, I’ve got two racks of 500 Series sitting here. It’s got all different flavors of stuff in it. I use it all on a daily basis. But the convenience of bringing that much equipment in one little unit is a big deal.”
When asked about his primary modules, Huart didn’t hesitate. “I use a 560b on the kick and a 560 on the snare. For guitar, I use Phoenix Audio DRS-Eqs. For the bass and the vocal, I love the BAE 1073D. The toughness in the lows that you get is really good.”
“I keep all the BAE pre’s on the right-hand side of my console because my tracking room is on the right-hand side, and I keep all of my EQs on the left-hand side because I’m using them only on the mix. So it’s kind of a combo platter.”
I asked Huart if he thought the format would be of use to someone who is starting out and setting up their first high-quality system. “In the new world we live in, with smaller studio footprints, a 500 Series rack, a computer, and a pair of speakers are pretty much all people need today. I work with a lot of people who are significantly younger than me who have grown up never having seen a console or understanding what it is. And they’re making great music because those are the tools they’ve been given.
“So, if you’re a kid and starting to put together your own system it makes perfect sense to use the 500 Series, rather than buying a whole bunch of rackmount. After the initial investment of a couple hundred bucks for a certain amount of units, you can just cherry-pick the different pieces of equipment that you want.
“I don’t think the 500 Series was designed by API with the future in mind: It was just designed as a modular system for their console, so you could switch out EQs, etc. But that design is definitely a very important part of the future. Which is probably why every manufacturer now is figuring out how to make its products fit into it.”
Sam Seifert in the control room of Bismeaux Studio, Austin, TX, in front of the classic API console originally used in Nashville’s RCA Studio C. SAM SEIFERT
Based in Austin and built by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, Bismeaux Studio (bismeaux.com) caters to a wide range of projects, from record production to advertising and film work. The studio is based around an SSL AWS900 SE and a vintage 1968 20-channel API console that originally sat in RCA’s Studio C in Nashville. I asked Bismeaux’s studio manager, Sam Seifert, what drew him to the 500 Series format.
“Flexibility. The ability to cater to your needs for that session, whether you’re working here, in another facility, or in a house someone is renting to make a record,” he says. “Just being able to mix and match what you need for the session, that’s the main reason why I started using 500 gear.
“We have also had some 500 slots built into our console, in the sidecars, for our in-house work. That’s useful because other producers and engineers can bring their favorite modules that we don’t have in-house and are able to utilize them in the session.”
With two classic consoles in the control room, I asked Seifert where they used the modules most. “We use them primarily for tracking. But there’s always a record that you’re mixing where that stuff can jump out and the outboard gear comes into effect.
“The preamps I have are the Millennia Media HV-35s. The EQs are the API 550A, 550b and 560, and the Maag EQ-4. The dynamics processing we have situated in another manner.”
Because Benson and Asleep at the Wheel tour regularly, I wondered if they took their 500 Series rig on the road for recording, but Seifert says that it was just too much for their needs. Nonetheless, the portability of their modules gets tested in other ways.
“We do a lot of remote recording,” Seifert explains. “We have a TV show that we do the audio production for called The Texas Music Scene. And I’ve had clients that have rented out a house for a whole month to make a record and would take the Millennias and the EQs out for tracking like that.”
“The rack that we travel with is an API; one of the Lunchboxes. But in the studio we built our own console into the sidecar. We were able to power it appropriately, and we have a good tech. We just took the connectors and powered them ourselves, and made our own 500 rack. So we’re able to pull and swap modules over there pretty liberally.
“It’s fun for a session to be able to pick and choose. And all of these companies have figured out how to make them sound great in such a small frame.”