NAMM 2013 Wrap-Up: Professional Recording Products

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NAMM has traditionally been viewed as the venue for introducing musical instruments including guitars, drums and keyboards, PA systems for gigging musicians, venue lighting, along with every conceivable musical accessory. While the NAMM show still caters to this side of the business, professional audio has steadily increased its presence in the vast convention spaces that host the show. This year has seen a burst of activity in the world of 500 series processors, both in functionality—and perhaps more importantly—in pricing, making some of the previously expensive items infinitely more accessible to a larger audience.

In the early 1970s, API was building consoles using modular EQ and compressor sections. Soon engineers began to take the bare modules and string them together to create custom configurations. Adapting power sources to what would become the 500-Series modules was clunky, until Aphex and several other manufacturers began making dedicated power supplies that could house multiple units. This allowed engineers to carry around their own processing from studio to studio in what became known generically as Lunchboxes, although the name is now officially owned by API.

In the early part of this century, several boutique manufacturers of high end audio equipment started to offer their rackmount products in 500-series formats, a move generally well received. But it wasn’t until recently that the whole 500-series concept was embraced by many of the larger and more established professional audio companies. Which brings us back to this year’s NAMM show.

Aphex is back with 500-series products, but with a twist that firmly belongs in the “why didn’t someone think of this before” category. Their USB-500 series rack can function as a stand-alone, 4-space rack. But with a built-in USB 2.0 interface, the rack and modules can function as a 6 x 8 front end for Mac or Windows computers, converting audio at up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution to/from any DAW. Use a favorite microphone preamp to input directly to a DAW, or use analog compressors and EQs as hardware inserts, with monitoring available via a monitor section that includes Mono and Dim functions, along with two independent headphone amplifiers.

While the rack will host any 500-series module, the company has also announced six of their own. They include the COMP 500—an optical compressor featuring an electronically balanced input and Jensen JT-11DL transformer balanced output. The Dual RPA 500 is a two channel tube microphone preamp and takes up two spaces in a rack, while the single-channel A PRE 500 microphone preamp uses a custom designed Aphex input transformer and adds a Jensen JT-11DL nickel output-balancing transformer. The J PRE 500 microphone preamp is inspired by the 1788A remote-controlled preamp and provides affordable access to that sound. The EQF 500 is a three-band, semi-parametric EQ that includes independently selectable variable high- and low-pass filters. And finally, the EXBB 500 delivers the mono version of Aural Exciter and Optical Big Bottom with independent buttons for enabling each process.

Focusrite has decided to stake out their position in the 500 series with a recreation of the original Red 1 microphone preamp. The single channel Red 1 500 offers 60 dB of gain and features a custom-wound Lundahl LL1538 input transformer and a custom Carnhill output transformer. Other original features include switchable phantom power, polarity invert and the classic illuminated porthole VU meter. Audio performance is maintained over a wide range of input impedances, making the preamp suitable for almost any microphone, be it ribbon, dynamic or condenser.

Lindell Audio was started in 2010 by Tobias Lindell, resident record producer at Bohus Sound Studios in Sweden. Among his offering are three 500-series modules which, while delivering professional-level performance, are priced within easy reach of many enthusiasts. The 7X-500 is an FET style compressor and represents the company’s interpretation of the classic ”1176 sound,” but with additional features such as a variable mix control for precise parallel compression. The PEX-500 is another module designed around a classic processor, the passive Pultec equalizer, albeit in a solid-state form. And the 6X-500 is a single channel, transformer-coupled microphone preamp that includes a passive two band Pultec style equalizer. However, the one piece missing from this lineup has been the power supply. Rectified at this year’s show, the company announced a no-frills, 6-space 500-series power supply. The 506 Power is not rackmountable, but features a universal power supply and overload and short-circuit protection, is attractively priced, and expected delivery commences in May, 2013.

Rupert Neve Designs already has two 500-series modules in their lineup, the 517 microphone preamp and the 543 mono compressor/limiter. Additions to the line include two new modules, the 542 Tape Emulator and the 511 Mic Pre with Silk. The 542 simulates the sound of recording to tape using genuine tape drive circuitry, while also utilizing new methods for adding analog color to individual tracks and mixes. The 511 incorporates preamp circuitry from the 517 module, adds a sweepable high-pass filter from the 5012, and the variable Silk circuit derived from the Portico II Channel. According to the company, other than slightly lowered headroom, the 500-series modules are nearly indistinguishable from the standard Portico Series modules and are perfectly suited for studios of the highest caliber.

SM Pro Audio provides a complete system with three modules and four rackmountable power supplies. MBC502 is a multi-band optical compressor housed in a dual-slot 500-series module. Both the low- and high-frequency channels offer control over level, compression amount and attack and release times. PEQ505 offers five bands of fully parametric equalization, also housed in a dual-slot module. Each of the channels features continuously variable level, frequency and bandwidth controls, an off/on switch, and a switch for selecting the frequency operation range. Tubebox is a tube microphone preamp housed in a single-slot module. The unit features a Class A tube preamplifier, phantom power, phase invert, -20 dB pad, and an in-line optical compressor. The tube is easily accessible, allowing for experimentation with different tube types.

In terms of power supplies, the company offers four options. The JuiceRack 3 is a 19” single rack space (1U) power rack designed to house up to three single-slot modules in a horizontal configuration. A 48V phantom power switch is located on the back of the rack, along with three sets of balanced XLR inputs and outputs and three sets of unbalanced 1/4” inputs and outputs. The rack also features built-in signal routing, allowing for either sending the audio output of one module into another, splitting a single balanced input and sending it to multiple modules simultaneously, or splitting a single unbalanced input and sending it to multiple modules. Built-in status LEDs highlight which modules are using these features. The JuiceRack 8 has all the features of the JuiceRack 3, but is a 19” 4U chassis housing up to eight single-slot modules (or an equivalent mix of two and single-slot modules) in a vertical configuration.

The JuiceBlock3 is a portable, stand-alone power block designed to house up to three 500-series modules (or a combination of a two and a single slot module) in a vertical configuration. The back panel includes three sets of both balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4” inputs and outputs, and a 48V phantom power switch is located on the front panel. Like the previous two power supplies, the JuiceBlock3 also features built-in signal routing. The JuiceRack1 is a single-slot power source for powering a single 500-series module. The back panel includes both balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4” inputs and outputs, and a 48V phantom power switch is located on the front panel. The enclosure is a half-rack format, and includes a connector that allows two units to be mounted into a single 19” 1U rack.

In other news, Avantone announced two tube-based large diaphragm condenser microphones that adhere to the company’s philosophy of providing quality product at attractive price points. Both the Pro BV-1 and the BV-12 ship with a power supply, shockmount, a twenty-foot, 7-pin microphone/power cable, a wooden microphone box and a custom case. The Pro BV-1 features a single 34mm gold spluttered Mylar diaphragm, with the ability to select nine polar patterns. The BV-12 uses dual 34mm capsules and also delivers nine polar patterns.

The Telefunken M82 Dynamic is an end-address dynamic microphone featuring two EQ switches, KICK EQ and HIGH BOOST that function independently for tailoring the microphone’s response. The M82 is a robust microphone with a large 35mm diaphragm and excellent low-frequency response. Though designed primarily with the kick drum in mind, use of the two EQ switches makes the microphone equally suitable for other sources, such as vocals, percussion, broadcast voice, guitar and bass amplifiers, organ and brass instruments.

To facilitate getting sources from these or other microphones inside a computer, Focusrite showed the Scarlet 18i20 USB cross-platform interface. The 19” 1U rackmount unit includes eight microphone preamps as part of the total eighteen inputs and twenty outputs, and with JetPLL jitter-reduction at sample rates up to 96 kHz and 24-bit resolution, the interface delivers quality audio into and out of all major DAWs. A generous collection of digital audio software is included, allowing for recording, mixing and processing multi-mic’d projects. And with the addition of the optional Camera Connection Kit from Apple, the interface can connect to iOS devices for even greater creative flexibility.

Roland goes one further and packages twelve microphone preamps in their STUDIO-CAPTURE USB 2.0 audio interface, albeit in a larger but still compact housing. A total of sixteen audio inputs, ten audio outputs, and MIDI I/O offer comprehensive connectivity for all types of professional studio or live setups, all packaged in a tabletop unit that can easily fit into a travel bag. Other features include 24-bit/192 kHz conversion, front-panel metering, XLR monitor outputs with dedicated level control, dual headphone outputs, and solid drivers with VS STREAMING technology.

To be able to listen to all this aural goodness, Presonus revives a speaker tradition with the use of coaxial speakers in their Sceptre S6 and Sceptre S8 CoActual studio monitors. Coaxial designs combine the low-frequency driver and the high-frequency transducer into a single unit, with voice coils aligned. This design provides the advantages of a consistent acoustic center, along with a symmetrical dispersion pattern, but the manufacturing of these single-point drivers is usually expensive. DSP technology and custom transducers have allowed Presonus to overcome the usual design problems of coaxial systems using Fulcrum Acoustic’s TQ algorithms running on a 32-bit/96 kHz, dual-core processor. All speakers are bi-amplified, with each transducer powered via a 90W RMS, Class D power amplifier with an internal heat sink. Each speaker has its own internal power supply and balanced XLR and 1/4” TRS line-level inputs with A-taper level control.

This is by no means an exhaustive look at all the products announced at NAMM 2013, but does highlight what are hopefully interesting products that would normally be labeled high end but which, in many cases, defy the label’s usual high cost of acquisition.