Several famous console manufacturers now make their preamps available ‘to go’. Here's a handy round-up...
Most modern audio interfaces are equipped with very capable mic preamps that can deliver a commendably clean and transparent signal into your computer, but many engineers crave the sound associated with classic recording consoles, and often still look to mixers or outboard preamps to impart some of this ‘character’ when tracking or mixing. There’s a bewildering array of standalone preamps to choose from now, but the modular 500‑series format offers a particularly convenient way to access the input sections of several classic mixing consoles. As well as taking up far less space than consoles or rackmount preamps, they’re usually more affordable, too, putting them within reach of those with tighter budgets.
In this article, we shine the SOS spotlight on 500‑series options available from companies who have designed and built some of the world’s most iconic studio consoles.
Originally designed in 1970, Neve’s 1073 is one of the most popular preamp circuits of all time. With the 1073LB, which we reviewed back in SOS December 2011, the company have managed to squeeze the original Class‑A circuitry, including the input and output transformers, into a single‑width 500‑series module. An Elma rotary switch provides up to 80dB of gain in 5dB steps, and ‑20 to +5 dB of fine adjustment is offered by a variable Trim control — so the module offers up to 85dB of gain in total, and is capable of delivering the harmonic saturation for which the 1073 is renowned. Switchable impedance settings of 300Ω and 1.2kΩ provide useful tone‑shaping options with vintage and modern microphones, and some other handy features include a polarity switch and selectable front‑panel or host‑rack input connections.
£882 including VAT$1095
The 88R LB (reviewed in SOS November 2012) features the preamp circuitry employed in another Neve classic, the 88RS large‑format console. A transformer, manufactured to the exact specification of the Marinair designs used in early Neve mixers, is used to balance the input stage, though as there’s no output transformer this time, the character tends to be more subtle than that of the 1073LB. Up to 70dB of gain is available, and the module is capable of accepting microphone, line‑level and high‑impedance instrument signals, whilst a Regeneration function expands on the capability of the original console preamp by allowing line‑level and instrument sources to be routed through the input transformer — an appealing feature for musicians and engineers alike. A variable high‑pass filter ranges from 31.5 to 315 Hz, and there’s polarity inversion, front/rear input selection, a 20dB pad and a ground‑lift switch.
£702 including VAT$790
Based on API co‑founder Saul Walker’s early designs, the 312 (reviewed in SOS November 2020) remains one of the world’s most sought‑after microphone preamps, having been a key element in API’s consoles throughout the 1970s. With a circuit design featuring the company’s 2520 discrete op‑amps and proprietary input and output transformers, the module aims to offer access to the classic API sound for rather less than the cost of a mixing console. Up to 69dB of gain is available, and the module is equipped with a 20dB pad and polarity inversion buttons, as well as an option to tap the output transformer at a 1:1 rather than 1:3 ratio, reducing the level by about 10dB and making it easier to accommodate hot signals. The front panel also sports a vintage‑style analogue VU meter.
£745 including VAT$795
Another API offering, the 512v (see SOS December 2016) has much in common with the 312: its discrete circuitry also employs the company’s proprietary transformers and 2520 op‑amps, so again it promises to deliver the rich‑sounding, musical tone associated with API’s early consoles. The 512v, though, provides some useful additional features, including a variable output level control that allows you to drive the preamp harder in search of character, without overloading the next device in the chain. Up to 65dB of gain is available, and it is equipped with a 20dB pad, a polarity inversion button and the same output transformer ratio switch as is found on the 312. There’s also a front‑panel XLR/TRS combi socket that can accept instrument or line‑level signals.
£995 including VAT$995
The VHD+ features SSL’s SuperAnalogue preamp circuitry, which offers the clean, transparent sound of the preamps in their modern consoles, but also incorporates the Variable Harmonic Drive (VHD) circuit that was originally introduced in their flagship Duality console. (We’ve not reviewed the 500‑series version separately, but you can find out more about the preamp design in our review of SSL’s XL‑Desk console in SOS January 2015). In essence, the idea is that the user can turn the Drive control to add as little or as much of the ‘grit’ associated with SSL’s older consoles as is desired, ranging from a tube‑like warmth to obvious distortion. The module provides up to 75dB of gain, and a ±20dB Trim knob is present to keep the output level under control. A variable 18dB/octave high‑pass filter (15 to 500 Hz) is joined by a 20dB pad and a polarity inversion button. Instrument and line‑level sources can be connected to the front of the module, and the Hi‑Z switch raises the input impedance to a guitar pickup‑friendly 1MΩ.
£598.80 including VAT$599
The S1P Tutti (reviewed in SOS November 2014) is based on the input section of the custom API/DeMedio consoles in Hollywood’s legendary Sunset Sound studios. The current module is the result of a collaboration between the studio’s owner Paul Camarata and Paul Wolff, the designer who created API’s original Lunchbox rack. True to the original design, the module employs dual John Hardy 990c op‑amps and a pair of custom Cinemag nickel input and output transformers, and it’s said to be sonically indistinguishable from the original units. Up to 60dB of gain is available in 10dB steps — this can be fine‑tuned with an additional ±6dB trim control — and an output control allows the overall level to be pulled back when driving the preamp harder. A polarity switch is provided, and the module will accept a microphone input either via the host rack’s input or through the front‑panel combi socket, which can also accommodate high‑impedance instrument signals.
The popular Series 80B consoles, designed by Trident Audio Developments in the late 1970s, were popular for many reasons including their clean‑sounding, low‑distortion preamps, which offered bags of headroom. The recently announced 80B‑500 is said to be a faithful recreation of that preamp circuit for the 500‑series format. It has a Lundahl transformer‑balanced mic input and electronically balanced line input (with separate gain controls for each), and a Lundahl transformer‑balanced output. A front‑panel high‑impedance input hooks your instrument signals up to the line amp circuit. The 80B‑500 can accommodate signal levels from ‑60dBu to +15dBu with no need for a separate pad, and while it uses pots rather than switches (for up to 65dB of gain), Trident say there’s none of the ‘gain cramping’ exhibited by cheaper pot‑based designs. Adding considerably to this model’s versatility is the pair of variable high‑pass (30Hz to 350Hz) and low‑pass (2KHz to 20KHz) filters. There’s also a polarity invert button, switchable 48V phantom power and an eight‑LED meter. Trident have also recently announced a 500‑series version of their A‑Range preamp, though full details weren’t yet available when going to press.
No discussion of classic consoles would be complete without a mention of Abbey Road Studios. With the introduction of eight‑track recording in the late 1960s pushing the studio’s REDD consoles to their limits, Abbey Road’s engineers joined forces with the Central Research Laboratories at EMI Hayes to develop a replacement. Their efforts resulted in the EMI TG12345. Officially licensed by EMI and Abbey Road Studios, Chandler’s TG2‑500 (reviewed in SOS January 2015) recreates the TG12428 preamp section of that rare and coveted console. The unit employs discrete, transformer‑balanced amplifiers, and when driven hard exhibits some distortion and a rise in its high‑frequency response, helping to deliver the warm and punchy sound associated with the console. A Coarse Gain switch offers 50dB of gain in 5dB steps, whilst a Fine Gain pot provides ±10dB of variable gain. A polarity inversion switch is present, and users are able to choose between input impedances of 300Ω and 1.2kΩ.
£1049 including VAT$995
The late, great Rupert Neve was involved in several companies over the course of his life and the last of them was Rupert Neve Designs (RND), which he founded with Evelyn Neve and Joshua Thomas in 2005. They created the 5088, a magnificent modular console — a real modern classic. The 5088’s preamps are too big to condense into the 500‑series format, not least because of the enormous transformers that are a key part of its sound. You can find them in the company’s larger Shelford modules, but RND do offer a different Rupert Neve‑designed preamp for the 500 series. Called the Portico 511 (reviewed in SOS May 2018), it couples a clean, transparent preamp with their Silk feature. A development of Rupert’s Amek designs, Silk increases the amount of harmonic distortion present in the mid and high frequencies, to emulate the sound of Neve’s early Class‑A designs. A Texture control allows users to determine how much distortion is introduced, with the results ranging from almost inaudible to well beyond the levels found in vintage units. Up to 66dB of gain is provided in 6dB steps, with some fine‑tuning possible thanks to a ±6dB Trim control. A continuously variable 12dB/octave high‑pass filter (20‑250 Hz) is present, along with a polarity inversion button.
Electrodyne currently manufacture the 501 preamp, which is based on the original engineering notes for their vintage consoles, which were common in high‑end studios during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Aurora Audio offer the transformer‑coupled Class‑A GT500 module, as a compact alternative to their Sidecar console. And Alice also offer three Ted Fletcher‑designed modules, the 503, 504 and 501T, each of which is based on the circuitry used in the company’s studio and broadcast consoles.
Some other companies who offer recreations of units that are now out of production include H2 Audio, who produce the Helios 2128, which recreates the preamp circuitry used in the legendary Helios 0011 console; and Spectra, whose 1964 STX100 module provides a modern alternative to the Model 110 preamplifier section of the Spectrasonics console at Ardent Studios in Memphis. There’s also the DAV Electronics BG501, designed and built by Mick Hinton, an ex‑Decca Studios engineer whose designs were used in much of that legendary studio’s equipment. There remain plenty of classic consoles with no obvious 500‑series equivalents, though — names such as Studer, Cadac, Calrec, MCI, Neotek and Amek spring to mind — so there seems to be plenty of scope for more modules in this market!
Additionally, there’s a wide variety of modules available that are more loosely inspired by the circuitry and sounds of classic consoles, either offering alternative takes on popular models or providing a modern alternative to designs that are no longer in production. Notable examples of the former include the likes of Heritage Audio’s 73 JRII, the Golden Age Project Pre‑573 and BAE’s 1023L, all with roots in vintage Neve designs, whilst products such as the Warm Audio TB12 500 and BAE’s 312A and 312B modules draw their inspiration from early API designs. For those who have soldering skills, companies including CAPI (Classic Audio Products, Inc) and Sound Skulptor offer high‑quality DIY kits based on API and Neve preamps, among others.