Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of the first commercially produced 10-slot powered 500 series module rack. Commonly known as the “lunchbox,” the rack has spawned an industry, inspiring everyone from boutique operations working out of garages to major pro-audio manufacturers to produce 500 series modules of modern and vintage circuitry.
Once API formed the VPR Alliance in 2006, making its formerly proprietary specifications available to all-comers, the 500 Series industry, which takes its name from API’s 500 series console modules, took off. The VPR Alliance webpage currently lists 85 approved modules produced by 42 member manufacturers.
The lunchbox concept originated because of individuals removing API and other modules from consoles and handcrafting rackmount and carrying cases for them. The business has now come full circle, with a cottage industry springing up to make modern recreations of mic pre, EQ and other processing from hard-to-find classic British mixing consoles, as well as vintage outboard gear.
A glance at the 25 best-selling 500 series modules of last year at the Vintage King Audio website, to take just one retail example, indicates that reinterpretations of the classics are popular. The list includes API four modules (512c, 550A, 550B, 560); reboots of vintage Neve EQs, including the 1073, from the likes of Avedis Audio, BAE and Neve; SSL’s Listen Mic Compressor, previously only available—other than on a console—as a plug-in; Helios, TG (EMI/Abbey Road) and Trident console components; and new and classic outboard in a smaller form factor from Maag Audio, Pultec, Retro Instruments, Rupert Neve Designs, Shadow Hills and others.
Such has been the growth of the 500 series module industry that in 2015, the NAMM TEC Awards added a new category for the format. Nominated this year for Signal Processing Hardware (500 Series Modules) are the BAE G10, Big Bear Audio MP1, elysia mpressor 500, Serpent Audio Splice MKII FET Compressor, Sphere Recording Consoles Fab 500 Series and WesAudio TITAN. The winner will be announced during the NAMM Show in January, 2018.
The 500 format has shown signs of pushing into new technological territory. For instance, Moog’s Analog Delay, the company’s second 500 series module, along with Polish manufacturer Bettermaker’s vintage EQ emulations, pioneered a mash-up of plug-ins and 500 hardware. Both companies offer digital control of their modules, bringing convenient and familiar instant recall and reset of software to outboard analog hardware.
The do-it-yourself ethos of early console module rack-makers has also come full circle with the SSL Beta. A hardware development kit in the 500 format, introduced in 2015, it includes a unique, self-illuminating Perspex faceplate and a kit of components—switches, pots and LEDs—that allows enthusiasts to breadboard their own circuit designs.
The Achilles heel of the 500 series for a while was its power provision, which was found to be insufficient to support some collections of modules, especially tube and transformerless designs. The original 500 series spec also sets out audio input and output connections that some manufacturers have found limiting or insufficient to comprehensively access the capabilities of their modules.
Consequently, 500 series powered rack options have grown in parallel with the modules. Over the years, Radial Engineering has introduced perhaps the widest selection, including enclosures that house 10, eight (with or without an onboard mixer), six or three 500 series modules. Purple Audio was also an early entrant into the 500 rack field.
More recently, Swedish manufacturer Lindell Audio launched its 506 Power, which holds up to six 500 series modules. Midas, too, has introduced a six-module rack, the L6, with advanced audio routing and compressor bus linking options. BAE’s 500 series racks are available in 11-and six-space rackmount options and a six-space lunchbox. The Empirical Labs EL500 houses two modules horizontally in a 1RU rackmount. Chameleon Labs’ CPS503-PWR is a 1RU, half-rackspace unit accommodating a single 500 module.
At the 2017 NAMM Show, Rupert Neve Designs’ 10-space R10 joined the R6 six-space rack in the product line. According to the company, the R10 offers more than 150 percent of the required current, supporting a full complement of power-hungry modules.
Also at NAMM 2017, Trident unveiled its Deca-Dent 10-space rackmount chassis. The unit offers XLR, quarter-inch and D-Sub connections as well as stereo linking features.
In a sign that the 500 series has truly matured, various FOH and monitor engineers have deemed the format roadworthy. Jim Ebdon, working FOH on a Maroon 5 tour, took along a Radial Workhorse that included an electrodyne 501 for guitarist Jesse Carmichael’s channel. Dan Housel, monitor engineer for Lionel Richie, used a Radial PowerPre along with a Q4 four-band EQ and Komit compressor/limiter for his principle’s vocal chain. Coldplay’s longtime FOH mixer Dan Green packs a pair of Radial Workhorses loaded with Neve 1073s, Helios Type 69-500 EQs and Shadow Hills Mono GAMA mic preamps. As a result, 500 series modules may become as firmly entrenched in the live world as in the studio realm, further ensuring the continued relevance of a format nearing its 40th anniversary.