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Choosing 500-series Modules

Variety Show By Matt Houghton
Published November 2020

With so many modules on the market, how do you make the right choices?

Various 500-series modules in API rack.There are, fittingly, more than five hundred 500‑series modules to choose from. The format is best known for its preamps, EQs and compressors, and there’s a huge number of them, ranging from the clinical to the characterful, the simple to the feature‑laden. You’ll find miniature versions of studio stalwarts and out‑of‑production classics, as well as new designs that aren’t available in other formats.

But there are plenty of other modules, including other dynamics processors and some seriously high‑quality effects. You’ll find handy utility devices such as reamp ‘boxes’, reverb‑tank drivers, headphone amps, Bluetooth receivers and audio interfaces. There are Mid‑Sides encoder/decoders, parallel processing mixers and distribution amps, and more besides. Bereich03 Audio even make a full mastering console, with everything including meters, faders and monitor controllers delivered as 500‑series modules. And taking modularity in the opposite direction, DIYRE’s Colour format comprises a range of miniature modules which sit in a host that is itself a 500‑series module.

Make It Easy On Yourself

Where do you start? Well, first, remember that you don’t have to fill your rack right away. We might joke about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but although there are some temptingly affordable modules, there’s little point snapping up ‘bargains’ that merely replicate what’s already offered by your audio interface and plug‑ins. Part of the beauty of this format is that you can approach investments in piecemeal fashion, adding the next part of the jigsaw only when you need or can afford it. For some, that allows access to the sort of processors they wouldn’t normally contemplate: big‑name channel strips, made of modules that tend to hold their value pretty well. That said, price (whether high or low) isn’t necessarily linked to quality, so don’t overlook things simply because they’re inexpensive.

Ask yourself what you really want from your system. For example, if your aim is to build a portable recording channel with a preamp, EQ and compression, can it be mono or should it be stereo? If stereo, is a single set of controls better, or a dual mono strip with switched controls for easy matching and linkable compressors? Also consider whether versatile modules are desirable, potentially saving you space and money, or if it’s more important that each module does one thing perfectly.

Part of the beauty of this format is that you can approach investments in piecemeal fashion, adding the next part of the jigsaw only when you need or can afford it.

For the majority who invest in a 500‑series system, the sound character is all‑important. More specifically, it’s about being able to achieve that sound quickly and easily. Whatever marvels are offered in the plug‑in world, I’ve used plenty of hardware preamps, EQs, compressors and various other ‘vibe’ boxes whose sound I just couldn’t replicate quickly or easily in the box. The longer you fiddle around to achieve a sound, the longer you keep artists waiting, and the less point there is in coming out of the box when mixing.

As you whittle down your choices, consider the layout, and particularly how much space is left for your fingers to access controls. An overcrowded front panel makes modules almost unusable for me. I much prefer it where a manufacturer either keeps things simple, trusting that their sound will win me over,...

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Published November 2020