My studio in San Francisco is built around an Avid control surface instead of an analog console. Because of that, I rely exclusively on outboard to get sounds before I leave the "infinite sample rate" of the analog realm. Over the years I've come to really appreciate the economy of outboard channel strips. With one patch, I can get everything I need done with an integrated preamp, EQ, and compressor. All this useful gear in one metal box also means I save money, because it's usually cheaper to bundle everything than to separate each piece out. The 500CS channel strip is a wonderful example of this: it's a top-notch preamp/DI, with an incredible EQ and compressor, forming a flexible workhorse of a channel strip. Best of all, the preamp can be used separately of the EQ and Dynamics. As a two space 500 Series unit, you can almost think of this as two separate, fully functional pieces of outboard. The 500CS really looks great in my 500 chassis. The knobs feel expensive, and the controls don't feel crammed together. There's a nice multi-function VU meter that is easy to switch between preamp, gain reduction, and output, which helps suss out gain staging quickly when you're juggling a ton of channels. The controls are clearly laid out with the preamp on the left and EQ/Compression on the right. They each have their own input and output, but unless the magic Module Split button is engaged, there's no need to reach for a patch cable to use them in tandem.

The preamp delivers a clean, clear signal, with minimal noise or coloration. It's not exactly oozing with sexy character, but I have enough of character preamps already. I found it particularly useful for voiceover sessions, paired with a Neumann TLM 107 mic. The sound was not hyped, there was very little noise, and the client was impressed with the tone. The DI is also a nice addition, and I've used it for bass several times by patching straight from the preamp into an Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor [Tape Op #32] with an aggressive, in your face sounding compression – the DI always gives me plenty to work with.

What I find most exciting about this strip is the EQ and compression. The EQ is so smooth sounding! I love using it with kick drums (both acoustic and electronic). On a Roland TR-909 kick sound, the low band of the 500CS helped me dial in a huge extension that felt focused and deep, while the midband allows me to push the beater without making it feeling thin. The compressor has two speeds, although you have to pull it out of the rack and switch the speed internally. Out of convenience, I've just left it on the slow speed, which feels perfect for adding some snap to my kick. I've also had great results using the 500CS with vocals. The high shelf on the EQ section can boost a ton of air without feeling harsh, while the compressor (again, on the slow setting) adds transparent control that really brings a vocal to the front of your mix.

Aside from the frustration of hiding the compressor speed inside, the only other complaint I have is the high-pass filter – it's a 6 dB slope, set pretty high at 142 Hz. For only including one option, that feels a little too high for most situations. I've found myself leaving it off and using the HP filters built in to my condenser mics instead. Those complaints both feel minor in the context of everything that I love about this channel strip: a ton of features all wonderfully arranged, with a great sound that helps me work quickly... and it's priced aggressively low.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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