I have long been a fan of the 500 series format. It is a relatively cost effective way to have a variety of modules at your disposal and portable in the right rack. I often recommend it to friends looking to expand into hardware, because even with a small rack, they can track with preamps and then swap in compressors, eq’s or effects when mixing. I am constantly in need of more rack space, so if you can swing it, go ahead and get more than you think you’ll need. I promise you’ll fill it up more quickly than your pocketbook will like. Here are a few of my favorites.
RacksCranborne 500R8. This is my home rig 500 series rack, interface, monitoring and summing all in one box. Love it.
Also worth taking a look at:
Black Lion Audio PBR-8
This rack has a patchbay that let's you route audio in any order without having to have modules in a certain order. Great idea!
For those looking to save a few bucks on the rack and module side check out the Lindell line of products.
An old standby with tons of character. A nice tonal variation from the leathery tone of the Burl B1D. To my ear, APIs always sound like those classic records from the 70's. When I record upright piano on a rock track, this is what I always use.
For budget considerations the Camden mic pre is a versatile module with a unique "Mojo" tone/saturation circuit that makes it useful in a variety of situations. It doesn’t cost a lot, but do not let that make you think it's not well built or doesn't sound great. I use it all the time.
Just like everything Phil Moore and friends over at Retro Instruments make, the 500Pre is an incredible sounding module.
Transparent compression. Love these units on both electric and acoustic guitars. Great value for the money and they get used on every mix. Not sure if Daking is still producing these units so you may have to find them used on Reverb or elswhere on the used market.
The 535 is a direct descendent of the revered Neve 2254 compressor/limiter found in many vintage or classic Neve consoles. Known for smoothness and ease of use, they have ended up on countless recordings – they just "do that thing." The 535 borrows much of the design elements of these revered classics, but they have been modernized for today's demands. This in partnership with its sibling the 551 EQ add tons of character and tone shaping possibilities.
Classic sounding Vari-mu compression in a small package. Yes, it takes up two spaces in the rack, but it is fantastic on bass, vocals or anything else you’d like to make shine. I have two for stereo use and they get used all the time.
This dynamics processor is like a hacked Dolby A301. I mostly use these for giving vocals an extra bit of magical airiness that EQ cannot quite achieve. Try Stretch on a whole mix if you have two. Oh yeah, good on bass as well. Eli Crew's review (above) is great and will get you going in the right direction.
The TG Opto Compressor in my rack pretty much lives on snare. I kick myself for sending back the companion (TG12345 MKIV) to this unit after I reviewed it. Both are brilliantly simple and musical tools for shaping tone.
Both the DBX 560A compressor and it’s companion DBX 530 EQ are simple, very useable tools. Because I have lots of options, my most important tracks don’t get run through these modules very often, but for the $$$ these VCA compressors are a great value and sound good on a ton of different sources.
SSL G Series Compressor
The console compressor from the SSL G Series can be yours in a mere two space module. I really like the updated version with the high-pass filter for letting your low-end go unseen by the detector. One was sent in the SSL XL Desk I reviewed and I absolutely loved it. I like having a few flavors for the mix bus compressor around and this is a must have IMO.
The 551 EQ is a lift out of the stunning RND Shelford Channel, broken out into a 500 Series format, giving those who do not need the mic pre or compressor sections of the channel an option for some of that Neve EQ magic at a greatly reduced price. It has the tone mojo of its Neve-designed predecessors, but also adds some nice features like the Hi Q that can get you into more surgically precise removal of trouble frequencies. I love that the modules in this range of products are not simply clones, but new designs meant to meet the demands of modern music production while still maintaining a healthy dose of the famed modules from yesteryear.
Kush Audio Electra Transient EQ
4-band EQ with two sweepable proportional-Q midbands, and high/low shelving. These unique units are great on all sorts of sources but I tend to lean on them for electric guitars duties. Also really cool across a drum bus.
An updated version of the classic API 550 and 550A EQ, this "B" version adds a extra filter band and some additional frequencies. Bands overlap significantly, making this a very musical EQ with many applications. What's not to like?
Not much to these units. Just a faceplate, board and some knobs without any additional casing, but wow do they sound great.
Little Labs VOG
Sort of an EQ but more of a low frequency resonance manipulator. Love this module on vocals, weak kick drums or bass. If you’re a podcaster with a crappy mic, this unit will help add some 70’s Radio DJ oomph to your voice.
Ask anyone with good ears "What are you grabbing in case there is a fire?", and they all say "My (Avedis) MD7s and E27s, then my kids, and then the dog (in that order)." John Baccigaluppi says about the E27, "I can safely say that this is the best-sounding 500-series EQ I’ve heard." Add the E12g graphic EQ to that list as well. Avedis makes incredible high-quality gear, the customer service is excellent and they are great folks.
The EXTC module allows you to interface guitar/bass effects pedals into your recording and mixing rig by converting a balanced line-level signal to a guitar-level effects loop, and back again to balanced line-level. It boasts Class A circuitry and is transformer-isolated for quiet and clean operation. The XAMP is a reamping device that has two transformer-isolated outputs to drive two instrument amplifiers. Both are simple to use, well built and have held up over time. Everyone should have a device like this. Super handy.
This little beast lets you use the spring reverb from your guitar amp (or one that you perhaps made from a Tape Op tutorial) when you mix. You’d be surprised how quickly you can make a mix unique by using a funky hardware verb.
With the Ottobit bitcrushing/manipulation module you can go Super Mario Brothers or opt for the sound of exploding robot dinosaurs. There are no presets, and the interaction of one feature with the others makes for an infinite array of sonic possibilities. In a world where everyone is using the same plug-ins and mixes are becoming more same-same, it is precisely this sort of device that can add a unique element to your mix. I have never found it reliably recallable and that's what I love about it.
AMS Neve have reissued the RMX16 in a three-space 500 Series module; this mono in/stereo out processor. Although not an exacting replica of the original units, it is a fantastic piece that will take you right back to the 80's!
Plug- ins have their place, but can't really compete with complex algorithms optimized to run on dedicated, real-time chips. With that in mind, the Mercury7 utilizes a full DSP chip for each channel of reverb. These mono modules may be individually controlled or control-linked for stereo or surround use.
"The only digital part of the Eventide's DDL 500's audio path is the delay line itself. The rest of the DDL-500 employs high-quality analog components, which makes for a richer sound than most modern digital delays have. Even as a simple space-creating slapback on a vocal, the DDL-500 sonically stands above many other choices. But the extensive abilities it has to interface with expression pedals and control voltage sources take it to the next level, making it an extremely powerful and unique effects box."
Enjoy your 500 series journey!