As the new owner of a 500-series rack, I've been keeping a close eye on what's available in the modular format. This article will highlight the best 500-series modules in 2020.
SSL has to be right at the top. The VHD Mic Pre is one of the most versatile preamps you can find. In its standard form, the VHD Mic Pre delivers squeaky clean recordings similar to that of SSL's SuperAnalogue preamps. Unlike many 500-series modules, the VHD has a variable high pass filter up to 500Hz.
Where this preamp really shines is the Drive knob. Of course, there is nothing bad about a clean preamp. But sometimes, you need some fatness or warmth. Flip in that VHD switch and you can get just that. Turning the knob further left adds 2nd order harmonics. Turn to the right, and you get 3rd order harmonics. If you've ever used HEAT in Pro Tools, this will be a very familiar layout.
Even though this preamp is a few years old, it still holds up and is one of the most versatile pres out there.
Black Lion Audio Auteur MKII - $199
Black Lion Audio made a name for themselves by modding pro-sumer recording gear into top-shelf pieces that belong in any studio. Eventually, they started making their own gear. The Auteur MKII made its way to fame in professional and project studios alike for the incredibly quality at such an affordable price.
For starters, it's hard to argue with 67dB of gain at only $199. Many preamps for double that price struggle with such a feat. BLA's Auteur will work great with super quiet mics like ribbons or the SM7B. Overall, the Auteur is fairly clean, but gets a little extra weight from the Edcor output transformer. Generally speaking, Edcor transformers are typically gooey and lack clarity. The ultra clean signal path loaded with Nichicon's Hi-Fi FW-series capacitors make up for that and create and great combination with the saturation of the Edcor transformer. These are particularly great on vocals, bass and acoustic guitar.
Lindell 7X500 - $299
If you're looking for 1176-style compression, there is no more affordable option than Lindell's 7X500. It may sound odd, but the limited, yet classic options for attack, release, sidechain filter and ratio will make this module easier to use. The standard 4:1 rocks on vocals and bass. Acoustic guitars kissing the meter at 12:1 sits perfectly in a mix. And of course, 20:1 on a drum room mic will make the snare explode.
One of the coolest parts of this module is the mix knob. This blends the dry signal with the compressed signal. This is very useful when you want to get the excitement of the compression without all of the pumping.
DBX 560A - $219
For nearly 50 years, DBX has dominated the market in terms of compression. The original 160 compressor was released in the mid 70's and became instantly famous for it's punch and insane gain reduction without distortion. Since then, the 160A was released at a much more affordable price point and has become a studio staple. I like to compare the 160A to a watered down Distressor. Yes, this is a huge compliment.
To make this natural and punchy compressor even more affordable, DBX now offers it in the 500-series format as the 560A. I really believe this is the most versatile compressor at the price point. Not only that, but the program-dependent attack and release make this easy to use.
For acoustic guitar and vocals, the Overeasy mode at a 3:1 ratio sounds natural and smooth, even over 10dB of gain reduction. For drums and bass, you can't beat the punch of 4:1 (overeasy off) just shaving off about 3dB. The 560A sounds familiar on any source because it's been used for years on records you've heard.
SSL Stereo Buss Compressor - $2,199
It's nearly impossible to look for a compressor and not see Solid State Logic. This version of the famed buss compressor was used in the G-Series consoles. When 500-series racks began to take off in the marketplace, SSL saw a great opportunity to take the legend, make some improvements (added ratios and sidechain HPF) and offer it to a massively larger audience.
Understandably, the price is pretty high for many engineers. SSL is the crème de la crème of buss compression and is typically reserved for those at a certain level. If you're at that level and need to solidify your spot, the G-Series compressor saved a seat for you.
A quick disclaimer about outboard EQ:
I don't think outboard EQ is totally essential. If you're getting outboard EQ, get a really good one for a specific purpose. Mic preamps and outboard compression make a bigger difference than software vs. hardware EQ's.
Onto the suggestions!
SSL E-Series EQ - $899
Again, you're seeing SSL because they are king when it comes to gear. In the hardware EQ world, the E-Series is the best tone-shaper you can find. An 8kHz boost (on vocals especially) is pure magic and can be heard on countless records. A mid range boost on the E-Series between 1kHz and 2kHz makes a vocal cut through a dense mix in a way no other EQ can achieve. Lots of engineers believe that the vocals should be pretty much mixed before hitting a converter. If you're in that camp, here's your ticket.
Heritage Audio 73EQ JR - $299
Heritage Audio is a brand that more people should be talking about. Their goal is to recreate vintage units and "bring back the Golden Age of Recording." There is a reason that NEVE, SSL, API and the like have been around for nearly half a century - their gear was built right from the beginning. Even though you can still find the vintage units, they often need to be serviced frequently due to internal heat and power issues. Heritage Audio uses similar designs to the vintage gear (much better than the usual cloning suspects) in the audio path, but have used modern methods of power consumption and heat distribution to keep the gear in the studio and off of the repair bench.
Their 73EQ JR is one of the most colorful and punchy EQ's on the market. It has revived a classic 1073EQ with an added line amplifier. The purpose of the line amp is to adjust the level post EQ to match the incoming signal. Keeping a consistent level helps to not trick your ears into thinking that just because a sound is louder, it's better. If you wanted to, you could even use the line amp to drive the massive Carnhill output transformer for some glue and saturation.
These units are not cheap, but for the right engineer, it's worth it. At a whopping $999, you can have a piece of modern history in your 500 rack.
Chameleon Labs 880 Rack - $649
A 500-series module is only as good as its power supply. I looked far and wide for the best 500 rack and came up with the Chameleon Labs 880 Rack. In this video, I tell you exactly why I chose this rack:
This is our list for the best 500-series modules available in 2020. Let us know what you're going to fill your rack with!