Whenever I’m booking a commercial studio, one of the first things I look out for when scouring their equipment lists is to determine if they have any of the original Red series of processors from Focusrite. I’m particularly fond of the Red 1 preamplifier, but these have become vintage collector’s items whose current prices on the second-hand market are testimony to the high regard in which engineers hold them. Unfortunately, this kudos has also meant that I’ve never actually managed to purchase one!
You can therefore imagine the excitement I felt on opening the box containing the new 500 series version of the Red 1 preamp and gingerly slipping it into a spare slot of my API lunchbox. The preamplifier features the same circuit design and components as the original Red 1 neatly wrapped up into the 500 series ‘lunchbox’ format. This feat of miniaturisation is, of course, made possible because the power supply, microphone input, and line output for the Red 1 are provided by the 500 chassis itself. The preamplifier ships with a 12-page manual – which you probably won’t need as the concept and control of this device is so simple – some tools for securing the preamplifier into the lunchbox, and an invitation to access a free download of Focusrite’s useful ‘Midnight’ suite of plug-ins.
As you may expect, the Red 1 500’s front panel is, well, red! The beautifully finished – and uncluttered – anodised aluminium frontispiece features a nicely milled ‘1’ logo, an analogue backlit VU meter, a sturdy Grayhill gold-plated military-grade 12-position stepped rotary gain switch, and push buttons for +48V phantom powering and phase. The rear panel sports the lunchbox edge connector and a switch to allow the meter to display 0VU as -4dBU or +10dBU. Internally, the design is as identical to the original (some of the components don’t exist anymore, but have been replaced with newer, better-sounding options), complete with a Lundahl LL1538 transformer on the input and a custom Carnhill transformer on output stage. The input transformer provides 14dB of the total 60dB of gain available, leaving the active amplifier stage to handle the rest. The bandwidth of the unit – as specified by Focusrite – is 10Hz to 140kHz with low harmonic distortion. The labelled positions on the gain control are in 6dB increments and there’s enough headroom to cope with some ribbons and most capacitor and dynamic microphones, with low noise levels even at high gain settings. The output stage was perfectly capable of driving the converters on my Metric Halo and RME interfaces and the Red 1 should slip into most systems with no interfacing problems.
The 500 series unit has that clean yet weighty sound that I recall from my use of the original Red 1 preamplifiers. It also doesn’t like being overdriven, which again is a characteristic of the original – this isn’t a preamp you’d want to use if you wanted to add some ‘colour’ to your recordings. The Red 1 is one of those microphone preamplifiers that simply allows you to produce a high-quality amplified signal from the microphone you’re using – and which also reminds you just what a good microphone the humble Shure SM57 is! I often find that using high-quality preamplifiers helps a lot when mixing, as they somehow allow the differing recordings to ‘gel together’ – and the Red 1 is no exception in this area. In comparison with the (extremely good) microphone preamps on my Metric Halo ULN-2, the Red 1 felt just that bit ‘rounder’, with a slight mid-low boost that gave the sound a touch more body.
I tried recording vocals, guitars, and cello using an AKG 414 ULS II microphone into both the 500 series Red 1 and my ISA 430 Mk I channel strip. There are significant audible differences between the two preamplifiers, even when the latter’s EQ and compressor sections were bypassed. The Red 1 retains the richness and clarity that I’m used to from the ISA 430 however and, if I had to stick my neck out, I’d have to say that I prefer the 500 series unit in this particular recording scenario. Over the period of a week I put the Red 1 though its paces in several different situations, including recording drum overheads, snare and bass drum, piano, guitar, vocals, and a string section. The preamplifier performed impeccably. Having one of these in your lunchbox enables you to stop fretting about having the best preamplifier for the job – it just works well and is almost completely transparent in operation.
You may have noticed that there has been no mention of instrument or line inputs, filters, equalisation, limiters, compressors, or digital interfaces in this review – that’s because there aren’t any! This, of course, makes the Red 1 microphone preamplifier something of an expensive choice when compared to some of its all-singing, all-dancing 500 series competitors. However, if you’ve always wanted access to the Red 1 ‘sound’ and have a spare slot in your lunchbox, Focusrite has created an almost exact replica of the original preamplifier, complete with all of its strengths and limitations, wrapped up in a modern format and at an affordable price. I hope this release is just the start of a new range of 500 series units from Focusrite – personally, I can’t wait for the Red 3 compressor to appear.
Stephen Bennett has been involved in music production for over 25 years. Based in Norwich he splits his time between writing books and articles on music technology, running Chaos Studios and working in the Electroacoustic Studios in the School of Music at the University of East Anglia.