500-Series Preamp on top of Console

Why I Chose 500-Series in 2020

As a console and rack gear guy to the core, I decided to take a journey into the 500 series realm. In this article, I'll take you through why I decided to do this and what gear I have and am planning on getting. Let's get started!

Why did you get into 500 series?

I fought with this decision for a long time. 500 series always interested me because of their configuration versatility and honestly, it just looks cool. But it seemed so expensive to start with. I had also heard lots of negative things about 500 series racks and modules not having enough power, headroom and overall quality to compete with anything serious. 

Long story short, I acquired a Yamaha PM-1000 and overhauled it to sound Neve-ish. The console sounds great and I'm satisfied with my work. I really wanted to be happy with just those preamps, but the more I record different kinds of bands, the more I realized I need some preamps with less noise (vocals), some preamps that are cleaner (some guitars) and some preamps that react faster (some drums). In some cases, the console is just too thick and makes everything take up too much space. Thus began my search for outboard preamps.

I looked high and low for good deals on API, Focusrite, Manley and so many more. Even with good deals, these pres are quite the investment. They also take up real estate in my rack. Not as big of a deal, but still something to consider. Due to cost and space concerns, I began to look more closely at 500 series.

In my studio, I don't want to compromise. My clients pay me for a reason and they deserve the best audio path I can give them. In the past few years, many improvements have been made to 500 series racks and modules. I had also found out that the API 500 racks have the same power as the ones in the consoles. Famous studios around the world have used 500 series for decades and I shouldn't be afraid to either. 

(Of course, not all 500 racks and modules are created equally)

What 500 rack did you get, and why that one?

For a rack, I chose the Chameleon Labs 880 for a few reasons. I have a lot of respect for Chameleon Labs and the direction that the company has gone in recent years. Improving designs, manufacturing in the US and overhauling the support team are exactly the things that will get me to buy from a company.

I also needed something that was going to power all of my modules, and the 880 delivers plenty of juice. Most 500 racks supply between 200 and 275 mA to each module. If my math is correct (it sometimes is), then the 880 rack supplies 375 mA to each channel. This is enough so that when I get more modules in the future, I won't run out of power. If you are looking to get into 500-series, you need to look ahead at the modules you plan on using and double check that the rack can handle the load.


Another reason, however superficial, is that it came with 4 awesome faceplate covers and a sturdy handle. This way, I don't have to worry about dust and cat hair filling the insides and I can easily bring the lunchbox to my band's practice space. 

What modules are you going to fill the rack with?

Finally we can talk about the gear! If we have met, or if you have seen me on the show, Pixel Pro Audio Unfiltered, you probably noticed that I'm a complete gear nerd. I obtained hundreds of hours of soldering experience from working here and through overhauling my console, so I thought it would be fun to do some DIY preamps.

I started off with the Hairball Audio Lola. This build took a few days, but it was well worth it. It fits the bill for a lot of things I was missing and I would like to build another eventually (because of course I need a pair). 

The Lola is kind of a mix of Neve and API tones. It has a dual op-amp stage with a 1073-type transformer on each end. A pair would be great for things like overheads or rooms, stereo acoustic guitar and stereo gang vocals. I do a surprising amount of gang vocals, so that would really come in handy. 

The Lola is all I have at the moment. In the future, I'd really like to get a nice preamp selection to fit the needs I stated above. My wish list includes 4 API-style preamps, another Lola, possibly a saturation module (not sure yet) and possibly a really good EQ.

I like the idea of having 4 API-style preamps because it's a good contrast to the fat Neve-ish tone of my console. API pres react faster to transients and work well for busy drum parts and in-your face guitars. I will probably build some of the CAPI modules unless Chameleon Labs comes out with a really solid API clone. (Please do 😉)


I'm also considering the Chameleon Labs 560EQ. I don't like to EQ a whole lot, but I think lead vocals should be pretty much mixed by the time they reach the converter. A hardware 3-band inductor EQ with a HPF could easily do that and sound better than any plugin on the market.

I'm looking forward to using my 500 rack in my upcoming sessions and I'll be sure to keep you guys updated. I'm literally just scratching the surface on this, so I am very open to your tips and tricks if you've got them! Reach out to us on our Facebook page and let us know what you guys think of the modern 500-series offerings!

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