Sunday 3 March 2013

API 500 series …what’s that all about, then?

Eccentric's Blog

API 500 series …what’s that all about, then?

Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s (here I go again…) just about every major studio had a rack of SCAMP modules in their control rooms. Made by the excellent Audio and Design company (best known for their F760 ‘Compex’ dual/stereo compressor limiter) these were slim processing modules designed to slot into a 19” ‘mother’ rack or lunchbox, capable of taking a dozen or four units respectively.

Modules included an excellent compressor (based on the Compex), a couple of pretty useless gates and some very useable deesser, panners (based on the ‘Panscan’), phasers, flangers and miscellaneous goodies.  And the concept was very logical; in that much of the cost of a piece of outboard comprised the power supply and metalwork, driving multiple units from a single power supply and sharing a single rack bought down costs, reduced space and offered a mass of processing in a relatively compact space.

For a decade or more, the Scamp Rack rules the roost and then, almost overnight, fashions changed and the system seemed to become redundant. Which is actually a real shame, as I think a whole generation of recordists would be delighted to rediscover the quality, variety and astonishing value to be had by ferreting out, dusting down and resuscitating a long forgotten Scamp rack. After all, they could probably pick up four or six top class compressors, a panner, deesser and other goodies for less than a grand. The trouble is, fashions have changed and their ignorant, elitist friends on Gearslutz would not be impressed.

Audio and Design were not alone in promoting the mother rack/sub-unit concept. In the UK, a company called Rebis made a budget version and in the States DBX offered their excellent 900 series modules, now best known for the 902 deesser, although the 903 compressor is a well-kept secret (and original 160X in subrack format). Other proponents included the original Inwards Vac Rac, now highly collectable, and…API.

API offered subrack systems pretty much by default. Like the early Neves, API console design incorporated separate eq and compressor modules into a ‘building block’ design (API mic pres tended to be built into the routing modules, so were never available as stand-alone modules). Fans of API consoles started to demand these modules for  processing purposes apart from the consoles, so a basic ‘lunchbox’ was produced to house two or four modules (the lunchbox was so called as it resembled the compact sandwich-boxes builders and others took to  work). As well as API modules, these would accept compatible ‘thumbnail’ eq’s made by related companies (APSI, Angus etc) and some small volume eq’s from a few bespoke manufacturers. So the API lunchbox format came into life by default, in order to provide a convenient home for existing modules, rather than by design as did Scamp and others.

When API was taken over by the current owners in the mid 1990’s, the company was a shadow of its former self. Indeed, Funky Junk were the first pro audio company to become involved with distributing and promoting the range, either here or the States, and grew API sales from a pathetic £8,000 turnover in Europe in 1996 to over £250,000 by the time that we surrendered distribution for personal reasons in the early 2000’s. Along the way, we persuaded API to open an account with my friend Mike Nehra at Vintage King, who has since gone on to become the world’s largest API dealer.

So API became a market leader in the outboard eq, mic pre and compressor market, with the 500 (lunchbox) series leading the way. A few other companies had always made compatible modules, particularly Brent Averill (now BAE), who’s 312 mic pre was closely based upon the original API design. And then, about five years ago, a few companies realised the potential of offering their own designs to fill the thousands of empty slots in existing API lunchboxes and racks around the world. API finally agreed to ‘approve’ 500 series modules from other manufacturers (an academic exercise really, as no approval was needed – the format had no copyright or patent) and the floodgates opened. Now, barely five years on, there are countless 500 series modules available, a veritable sweetie shop of confusing choices for the bedazzled buyer.

I have no intention of reviewing the options here. Maybe I’ll do a comparison one day when I have a spare millennium on hand. The main purpose of this examination is a simple examination of why the 500 series has merit, why for some it may have no merit and generally what to look for when choosing suitable units.

As we saw earlier, the economics of subrack systems make sense. Sure, entry level costs are quite high, in that a rack and power supply (or powered rack/lunchbox) are required before any modules can be used, but costs have come down a lot over the last decade (partly at our suggestion. When we distributed API throughout Europe we suggested a dramatic reduction in lunchbox prices as an incentive for customers to buy into the platform).  However, once a rack has been acquired, a variety of relatively low cost modules can be fitted, and the more purchased, the greater the economy of scale becomes.

But is this a logical way to go? Here my feeling are mixed.

The original imperative for 500 racks was that by and large, the superb API eq and mic pre could ONLY be purchased in a 500 series format. Of course, API do now do four channel mic preamps (3124+) and two channel rack mount eq (5500) but by and large, API remain committed to marketing their products in 500 series format. So if you want a selection of API eq’s and mic pres (and the odd compressor), then the only realistic choice is a lunchbox or 500 rack. But with many other choices, the logic is less clear cut.
In my experience, most professional engineers require ‘one box, one job’. So if, for example, they want A-Designs (Quad 8) mic preamps, most would buy a Pacifica 2 way rack mount unit.  However, there’s no doubt that the 500 series offers a bewildering degree of choice for those who want more variety.

Personally, I’m a bit ‘old school’ and subscribe to a growing body of opinion that the glue that gave so many classic albums of old such a well-balanced sound was the fact that all the mic preamps and much of the eq was consistent – the engineer used the desk preamps and equalisers for pretty much everything, giving the finished result a unity and consistency of sound that knitted everything together in the mix. So whereas I’d be happy with a 500 rack of, say, ten API 550 512 preamps or ten 550A (or B) equalisers, I’d become frustrated with half a dozen different preamps or eqs competing and giving  different flavours on a recording.  Going back to the classic Scamp racks, for example, I think it’s no coincidence that most we see are fully loaded with largely compressors and gates. In the pre SSL and Neve VR days (manufacturers who incorporated gates and compressors into their later desk channels), the need for an outboard rack of compressors and/or gates was obvious and this is where the Audio Design units came into their own.

Having said this, we’re now seeing some excellent modules designed for 500 series racks that are not available in stand-alone format. The Retro Double Wide, for example, or the new BAE Neve style 1073 offer compact format quality processing in an easy size that can add real muscle to the audio armoury. Similarly, like good chefs, all audio engineers have their own recipe for sound, so the option now exists for either mixing and matching a variety of processors in a compact space or for multiple compressors, eqs or processors on a cost effective basis. Once upon a time, if you wanted (say) ten good compressors in your rack, this might occupy 20U and cost £15000. Now a ten way 500 rack will cost less  than half that at occupy three U, a very important consideration in today’s scaled-down control room. But there are compromises. Firstly, some 500 racks won’t offer sufficient power to deliver juice to the more sophisticated units, which is why BAE and other produce racks with external power supplies. Secondly, accessing side chains, direct outs, links etc can be limited and thirdly, some units are scaled down or electronically compromised, despite the manufacturers claims.

I’ve been very unimpressed with a number of the Gearslutz blather about some 500 modules, and wonder whether those posting glowing reviews have ever actually used the units (or alternatively, whether they’ve got much experience of decent pro outboard).  As with every bandwagon, many of those hurtling onto the gravy train are destined for a short life as the true wheat is gradually sorted from a plethora of chaff. And finally, please be aware that build quality and serviceability are crucial with audio equipment. A broken module is no more use than an empty slot. Some 500 series modules are too miniaturised, lack decent transformers and try to pack too many components into too small a space.

Hopefully, this overview helps to explain the history of the current fad for 500 series modules. In the coming weeks and months I’ll put a bunch of modules through their paces up at SNAP! Studio and jot down my own opinions and comparative reviews.

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