I'm seeing more and more new units for the API Lunchbox. Why is this, and what's so special about the format?
Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns replies: API's console channel strips were traditionally built from individual modules for mic preamps, equalisers, compressors and so on. The success of the consoles lead to demand to use these '500 series' modules independently, so a rackmounting chassis was designed to house a number of units, the current version housing 10 modules. The idea was that a rack of just preamps, perhaps, could be used to supplement a console's inputs, or to make a convenient location-recording rig, for example. However, not everyone wanted a large 19–inch rackmountable solution: some only wanted a handful of modules, so a more compact and self–contained unit was conceived. That was the original Lunchbox, which had space for just four modules. Its name comes from the size and shape of the case, and the provision of a carrying handle.
The current version of the Lunchbox (the 500–6B) is a little larger and can can hold up to six standard-width 500–series modules (partly to make it easier to combine single and double–width modules). It contains an integrated power supply, and provides a full set of XLR connectors to handle all the inputs and outputs. The convenience and inherent modularity has made the API Lunchbox system extremely popular, although there is nothing particularly 'special' about it — it is just well thought–out and easy to interface with, so much so that many third-party manufacturers now make compatible modules, as you suggest, to take advantage of this very flexible and well-designed system, whose backplane connectors provide all the necessary standardised power rails, grounds, I/O buses, and so on, in a well-known format.
In fact, there is a 'sticky thread' on the SOS Music Recording Technology forum where forum members have gathered information about the various compatible Lunchbox modules — and the list of manufacturers making suitable units is surprisingly expansive. A–Designs, API, Audient, Avedis, Brent Averill, Buzz Audio, Chandler, Daking, Dane, Eisen Audio, Great River, JLM Audio, Lachapell, Old School Audio, Purple Audio, Roll Music, Shadow Hills, Shiny Box, Speck, Vintage designs... and I'm sure many more besides. Several of these companies also make their own alternative module chassis units. For example, A–Designs make a unit that will take two 500–series modules on their sides, to fit a 1U rack space, as well as a little 'mini–console' that holds 16 modules. There are also several different bespoke modular systems around, which are similar in concept but incompatible.