Staff Picks: 500 Series Modules

Outside of shop hours, the KMR team are often burning the midnight oil in their own studios. We ask the guys to tell us about their favourite 500 Series processors and why you might want to check them out yourself...

1. API | 512c

API 512c
API were the originators of the 500 Series format so it’s probably only fair to include them here! The 512c was developed from the original 312 preamp and first appeared in early 1970’s consoles designed by founder Saul Walker. The 512c uses API’s unique transformer and 2520 op-amp design and has the same characteristic bite found in all their variants. The 512c is a fast preamp and, when pushed, has a huge amount of character with bags of detail and presence – particularly effective on drum and electric guitar recordings. Tracking my Fender P-Bass through the 512c DI allows me to easily capture the energy and musicality I’m after. If you want a clear, crisp punchy recording then look no further. API are sometimes referred to as the “American Neve” but sonically it’s a very different thing, which is why you’ll find both in any big studio. It’s an established classic and one of the most popular preamps of all time with good reason – one of those things you’ll never regret buying and a useful colour in any 500 rack. More info

2. Rupert Neve Designs | 551

Rupert Neve Designs 551
This really is one of my favourite 500 Series EQ’s. With the Rupert Neve heritage you’re always going to get something musical, but I feel the 551 really is a vintage style EQ with modern sonics. RND say themselves that this is not a clone of a previous equaliser, but the distinctive sound and character does comes from the fact that it’s an inductor-based EQ which featured in Rupert Neve’s much earlier designs. Inductors bring out lovely harmonics when they saturate and the RND 551 is definitely a sweet sounding EQ. I wouldn’t use it to notch or fix tracks in the way you’d use an SSL style, or any "in the box" plug-in - but I’d use the 551 afterwards to add some musical ‘mojo’. Much in the same way the Pultec, another great inductor EQ, works. Whether used on the mix bus or individual channels it’s easy for the RND 551 to push some musical punch in the mid band, warmth in the low end and air with presence - even with only the two high frequencies options of 8 or 16 kHz. The RND 551 features the same Class A discrete electronics as the larger Shelford Series 5051 and Shelford Series 5052 channels, but designed for the 500 format, and for me, never sounds bad on whatever you throw at it. No matter what plug-ins you may have, this will effortlessly add some magic to your mix bus or channels, and with Rupert Neve on the front panel, a clone it is not. More info

3. Standard Audio | STRETCH

Standard Audio Stretch
If there is one 500-series unit I keep recommending to people who “only have one slot left in their lunchbox”, it’s the Standard Audio Stretch. This thing is just amazing! It’s inspired by the old Dolby A trick used in the 1960s and 1970s, and there is nothing else like it to add air to vocals without harshness. But it does way more with 7 different modes that can be used on virtually any source to add bite, presence and depth. A must have! More info

4. Crane Song | SYREN

Crane Song Syren
I am a massive fan of valve preamps. I feel they are a great way of softening the transients and add significant vibe to any source. In the world of 500 Series, the Crane Song Syren stands out. This 500 Series tube pre-amp is exceptionally versatile, capable of giving clean tones with a hint of musicality or a coloured sound without overdoing it. I love recording vocals through it and often find that switching between the Open or Color modes give me just what I need to have the vocals sit where they should. More info

5. Acme Audio | OPTICOM XLA-500

Acme Audio Opticom XLA-500
When I’m creating, I want things to sound good quickly. The Acme Audio Opticom XLA 500 does exactly that. Two knobs and one switch is all I really need to be honest. Whether I’m taming a vocal, or giving a kick drum extra punch, I never need longer than 20 seconds to get it set up right where I want it to sit and then let it do its thing. The sound of the Opticom XLA can be described as warm, thick and musical. I work mostly in the box, so running my tracks through this compressor instantly gives me a very nice analogue sound, especially when you drive the tube a little more than you should! It’s extremely good at what it does, and is also affordable... everybody should have at least two! ;-) More info

6. Buzz Audio | ELIXIR

Buzz Audio Elixir
The Elixir microphone preamp/DI has been around for over 10 years and (IMHO) is a strong contender for “if you only had one preamp..?”. The comprehensive feature set offers everything I could want in a preamp... 70dB gain (on a detented pot), super-low noise floor, 20dB pad, phase reverse, mute switch (yes!), meter and a couple of impedance settings which adds extra tonal options when using dynamic and ribbon mics. So far, so normal – so what does it sound like? The fundamental tone is clean and open with a very fast transient response (the mic input is transformer-less), but it’s the inclusion of a Lundahl LL1517 output transformer that is at the heart of the Elixir’s mojo – adding a gorgeous sweet richness without overly colouring the audio. I regularly use the Elixir on acoustic sources – it particularly shines on acoustic guitar and voice – resulting in detailed natural-sounding recordings with a welcome splash of musical “glow” that responds really well to EQ. If you’re familiar with Rupert Neve’s later designs, this is in a similar sonic ballpark, but the Elixir has a lovely weight in the low end that I really enjoy (again, probably down to the Lundahl transformer). And the DI is just amazing on bass. I’ve never really understood why Buzz Audio aren’t more popular in the UK. Designer Tim Farrant (a lovely guy BTW!) offers properly useful kit that combines comprehensive thought-through features, excellent build quality and (most importantly) great sonics. Strongly recommended! More info

7. Radial Engineering | EXTC-500

Radial Engineering EXTC-500
Radial’s EXTC simply converts a balanced line level signal to instrument level and back again. Not much to get excited about I hear you mutter, but this unit is all about what it allows you to do, rather than the unit itself. In short, the EXTC makes it possible to interface guitar pedals into your line-level signal chain opening up a whole world of, well… FUN (yee-har)! If you’re a guitarist you’ve very probably got a collection of old pedals gathering dust on a shelf and this is a great way of breathing new life into neglected kit. Sticking a Tubescreamer over a snare track or a Small Stone phaser over vocals is guaranteed to put a smile on your face – and if you have an old bucket brigade analogue delay pedal lying around – crank up the Intensity knob into feedback and it’s like you’re Lee Scratch Perry on the controls. It encourages experimentation and a creative spontaneity that is a lot more enjoyable than twiddling with plugin parameters on a screen, that's for sure! More info

8. Shadow Hills | MONO GAMA

Shadow Hills Mono Gama
If you were stranded on a desert island, which 500 series preamp would you bring with you? Of course, this hypothetical presumes that technology on the island has progressed to the point of warranting a decent recording chain, not to mention the development of a 500 series chassis, but not so far as to supply the preamp itself. Stretched analogies aside, it would be hard to argue against the Shadow Hills Mono GAMA (Golden Age Mic Amp) as the very first mic preamp you should reach for when you embark into the format. Spectacular sounding and spectacularly versatile. Versatility is often conflated with blandness or a lack or conviction. This just isn't the case with the Mono GAMA. It's three very different, very usable preamps - each one with an abundance of character and potential applications. Not to mention that trademark theatrical appeal that comes with all Shadow Hills gear. Borrowing its Nickel and Steel output transformers from the full-sized GAMA preamp and leaving the third selection as Shadow Hills' proprietary discrete op amp, there's enough gain behind it to push pretty much anything. The addition of a front DI along with Phantom, Polarity and Pad switches make it rather sensible and practical too. More info

9. Maag | EQ2

Maag EQ2
The EQ2 is often overlooked in the Maag product range. The EQ4 is only marginally more expensive, so why wouldn't you pick that? And the EQ4M is only a small step up from a stereo pair of EQ4s - so why wouldn't you just buy that? Simple reason, in its own right, the EQ2 is a properly handy and competent little EQ. It has the Air Band, which is what we're all here for, and has the malleable yet musical nature we've come to expect from all Maag gear. However, it's secret is that, with two fewer bands than the EQ4, it actually has more headroom. And therefore allows for more mindless (read: "creative") boosting without having to think about where all that gain is going. Just a handy pocket of the best bits of Maag. The EQ distilled in to its essence. Plus if you wanted to go more surgical than its bands will allow, you should really be thinking about the EQ4M anyway. Everyone should have a Maag - even on a desert island! More info
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