Modular Analogue Part Two: The (Hopeful) Future of Pro Audio Modularity?

In Part One of this series I provided an abbreviated history of API’s popular 500-series modular format for analogue audio hardware and addressed a couple of concerns people have voiced over the format as well. In this installment I’d like to take a rather dramatic turn and begin a discussion of an entirely new, more comprehensive modular format for pro audio hardware – one that doesn’t currently exist, but one that would truly love to see developed.

With the gradual adoption of the 500 format, modularity has proven its appeal to the market, and I believe that now it is time that we, the pro-audio community, come together in an effort to realize a more flexible, open-format modular system that does away with the limitations inherent in the currently accepted format. This new format will allow for the creation of both analogue and digital audio hardware with greater complexity and with a full compliment of controls and connectivity than is currently possible. To succeed in the marketplace a new format must have efficiency of space, be open-ended with regard to physical connectivity, provide flexible, stable power rail options, and must (very important!) fully support all currently existing 500 series modules, so those with a considerable investment in the current norm can move fluidly into more engaging equipment afforded by the newer format without having to walk away from their favorite pieces. Without this compatibility any discussion of a new modular format would be almost certainly in vain.

You may be asking, “what do you mean by ‘come together’ (one of my favorite Beatles songs, btw :) to design a new format?” Well, proprietary (i.e. single manufacturer) modular formats have come and gone (from the likes of dbx, Aphex, ADR, and more recently SPL) with varying degrees of success (though all are now obsolete). These endeavors can cost a company a great deal of money to design and build a new modular format in additional to all the modules to create a product line. It also takes additional resources to try and persuade your key audience to adopt a format that only accepts modules from one company. To ensure a new format’s success in the marketplace it must be supported by worthy contributions from many manufacturers for a broad product range. Thus, a tag-team approach for design is warranted.

No worries, such a process has already been done before:

Back in 1981 the president of Roland Corporation began discussions with Oberheim and Sequential Circuits about standardizing a synthesizer interface protocol, so one brand’s keyboard or sequencer could communicate with those from other brands right out of the box. These talks were joined by Yamaha, Korg and Kawai, and two years later, in 1983, the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) standard was introduced to the world. MIDI went on to revolutionize music and, indeed, the music industry. While what I will propose in these next few articles won’t, I believe, have quite the same immense impact on the music industry as the creation of MIDI, I do believe that by working together for a commonly accepted, and much more flexible modular hardware format, manufacturers will be able to produce more creatively powerful and inspiring devices for their customers than we have been able to so far, and still offer an appealing, cost-effective and convenient format for small and large facilities alike.

Many folks may be wondering why another format is warranted at all, so perhaps we should start here. Please understand that as a 500-series user myself (having 16-slots’ worth in constant service in my own facility) I have no desire to throw the format under the bus. The 500 format has made personalization and portability of audio hardware simple and effective while organically becoming the most broadly utilized modular format the pro audio world has ever seen. Yet the 500 format, as originally constituted, was only ever intended to provide physical mounting, power and I/O for single channel solid state EQ or compression in the smallest practical real estate possible at the time (3ru high x 1.5” wide). In the last few years we have seen many products from many manufacturers jumping through proverbial hoops trying to adapt more complex circuits to this format. Some, such as Speck Electronics have, through the use of physically tiny components, packed a great deal of facility into a single slot. Their ASC-V equalizer module, mentioned in Part One of this series, is feature rich, but pray for tiny fingers to get around safely on a rack of them. Other manufacturers have expanded their 500 series offerings horizontally (including my own Rascal Audio Two-V dual mic preamp) to better match the limitations of the format (in my case my output transformers are too wide for a single slot, but by staggering their placement in a double-wide chassis I can still fit two channels into two slots, so there is no wasted real estate). Going ‘wide’ also gives designers access to additional I/O connectors, but it is a shame to have to eat up adjacent slots just to allow for additional functionality.

Other companies have designed their 500-series modules with additional, proprietary functionality such as additional I/O and summing capabilities, but those functions aren’t accessible when you use their modules in someone else’s rack.

Personally, I don’t believe companies should have to jump through hoops in order to embrace modularity. As a designer, I have circuits on the drawing board that simply can’t be effectively bent enough to work well with the limitations of the currently accepted format unless I scale the functionality down tremendously, and I must believe I am not alone in this regard. If we can, by discussions with one another, manufacturers and end users alike, create a format with the ability to support more comprehensive designs while maintaining the space and cost efficiencies and signal path personalization that has made modularity such a beloved practice, I believe the best products are yet to come!

Modularity is wonderful, so let’s give it improved functionality across the entire platform to make it truly flexible for everyone, so we can really have gear we want to use, (including gear most people haven’t even considered for our current format). I’ve got some valid ideas (if I do say so myself) that I believe will allow modularity to really work for all of us. I just need some like-minded folks to help make it a reality.

I’ll begin unpacking the details in the next article. Please share this, and stay tuned. Thanks!

-Joel