IT WAS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE Universal Audio merged its renowned audio hardware
and UAD Powered Plug-In technologies—and the result
is the Apollo, available in both Duo ($2,499 retail/$1,999
street) and Quad ($2,999 retail/$2,499 street) versions.
The two are identical other than for the number of SHARC
DSP chips they contain—the accelerator muscle used to
power those powered plug-ins so your computer’s DSP
doesn’t have to.
An exhaustive review of the Apollo appears in the May
2013 issue of our sister publication Keyboard, and an abundance
of information is also available at uaudio.com. Here,
I’ll just present a thumbnail overview of the unit, including
some of the latest features, and then move on to the
Softube Amp Room plug-ins.
Simply put, the Apollo is a professional 18x24 audio
interface that sports exceptional converters, four superb
microphone/instrument preamps, an impressive array of
analog and digital I/O, a dual headphone section, FireWire
800 connectivity (an optional Thunderbolt card is also
available for $599 retail/$499 street), support for sample
rates up to 192kHz at 24-bit word length, and a super-flexible
Console application. Add to that its UAD Powered
Plug-in capabilities, and you have one super-powerful unit.
The Apollo’s elegant front panel is a marvel of simplicity.
One large endless knob with a cool illuminated LED
collar adjusts the input level for the mic preamps (pressing
it cycles through them), while another adjusts the
monitoring level (press to mute). There are also two Hi-Z
instrument inputs, the headphone outs and level controls,
and various preamp switches, along with an uncluttered
display for monitoring audio levels and function status.
The mixer-like Console application serves as the Apollo’s
remote control center. It is packed with features, including
a robust monitoring section, two aux channels, headphone
cue mixes, four plug-in inserts per channel, and the all-important
Insert Effects Rec/Mon switch. These latter two
are key to fully unleashing Apollo’s superpowers.
Previously, if you wanted to monitor through a plug-in
while tracking, an appreciable amount of latency was inevitable
because the input signal had to travel from the interface
to the DAW (where the plug-in was hosted) and back
out to the monitors or headphones. When tracking with
Apollo, the plug-in processing is done within the interface,
using its DSP, essentially eliminating the latency. Besides
being great news generally for those who prefer to hear a little ’verb or other effects while recording, it’s a
game changer when tracking through amp simulators,
as even a little latency can wreak havoc
with timing and feel. And that Rec/Mon switch
lets you record either the dry or effected signal!
The Apollo ships with what amounts to a
UAD Powered Plug-Ins starter kit comprising
the LA-2A Classic Leveler, 1176LN/SE Limiting
Amplifier, Pultec EQP-1A EQ, RealVerb Pro, and
CS-1 channel strip (along with a $50 coupon).
I tested the Apollo with a six-core 3.33GHz
Mac Pro (OS 10.7.5/20GB of RAM) and JBL
LSR28P reference monitors connected directly
to the interface with Mogami cables. Recording
was done within Pro Tools 10.
After working with the Apollo Quad for several
months, I was so blown away by its performance
that I scrapped the setup I had been
using and made it the centerpiece of my studio.
To cite just a few things that won me over,
everything about the design of the hardware
and software is extraordinarily well thought out
and user-friendly, the mic preamps are exceptionally
transparent without being clinical, and
the overall audio quality is stunning. The Apollo
would be an excellent value if it was merely an
audio interface, but the addition of onboard
UAD Powered Plug-In processing puts it in a
class by itself.
And speaking of Powered Plug-Ins, version 6.5
introduced full 64-bit architecture for both Mac
and Windows, along with several new bundles
(14-day demos of all UA plug-ins are included):
The Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection
($299 direct) of legendary compressors, the API
500 Series EQ Collection ($299 direct) that
includes the equally legendary 550A 3-band
parametric and 560 10-band graphic equalizers
used to craft killer guitar sounds on countless
records since the ’60s, and the Softube Amp
Room Bundle ($299) reviewed here.
SOFTUBE AMP ROOM BUNDLE
|The Apollo’s rear panel boasts myriad connectors, including mic inputs, balanced 1/4" I/O, S/PDIF I/O (with realtime sample rate conversion), Lightpipe that support S/MUX for high sample rates, and Word Clock I/O.
Softube’s Vintage Amp Room, Metal Amp Room,
and Bass Amp Room plug-ins have been around
for years, but these Powered Plug-In versions run
on any UAD-2 system, including Apollo. They utilize
Natural Harmonic Technology (also used in
the Marshall JMD:1 amplifier, and Ableton Amp),
designed to generate the same overtone spectrum
as the amp being modeled. They take a
minimalist approach, focusing on just a handful
of amp, cab, and microphone sounds, rather
than providing myriad models, effects, presets,
etc. This will be either desirable or undesirable
depending on your needs (though everyone will
probably agree that the lack of an onboard tuner
is an unnecessary limitation). I tested the plugins
with a PRS Custom 24, a Fender Stratocaster,
and a Gibson Les Paul Custom.
VINTAGE AMP ROOM
This plug-in provides three amp models, roughly
corresponding to a Marshall JCM800 2203 with a
1960 4x12 cab (White), a ’66 Fender Twin (Brown),
and a mid-’60s Vox AC30/6 Top Boost (Green).
They are represented graphically in a room, with
a single mic (presumably a Shure SM57) placed
before them on a moveable boom stand. The
virtual mic may be positioned along a straight path,
from a few “feet” away to directly on the cone or
slightly off axis, offering lots of useful variations.
The controls are reminiscent of those found on
the actual amps.
The White amp produced some nice Marshall-
like tones, though I sometimes had to really
work with the controls and the mic positioning
to craft specifically what I was looking for. Getting
a truly clean tone proved a challenge, but the
crunch and highly distorted tones were authentic-
The Brown amp also sounded very good,
particularly when set for cleaner tones, and the
Vibrato (actually tremolo) is a nice touch—but why
not also include spring reverb, which for many is
as much a fundamental component of the real
amp’s sound as vibrato?
The Green amp was my favorite. Being able
to blend the sounds of the Vib/Trem, Normal,
and Brilliant channel volumes, combined with
the various mic positions, yielded an impressive
array of options, and the Vibrato and Tremolo
are, well, vibey.
All three amps have a satisfying feel, respond
well to playing dynamics, and clean up realistically
when a guitar’s volume control is rolled back. The
one thing I didn’t dig, however, was an un-amplike
“fritzy” sound that intensified when the gain
was increased, and was especially noticeable on
decaying chords. The Preamp gain control for the
Hi-Z input was all the way down (10dB), so input
overload likely wasn’t the culprit.
METAL AMP ROOM
This plug-in has only a single amp (an Engl Powerball/
Marshall JCM800 hybrid), but there are
two cabs, two pairs of mics (dynamic and condenser),
and an ingenious stereo mixing system
that, taken together, offer a truly amazing range
of high- and higher-gain tones. Switches for Deep,
Scoop, and Lead (gain boost) lend additional
flexibility, and there’s also an excellent Gate for
eliminating noise between your chunka-chunkas.
I preferred the cab and miking options in this
plug-in to those in VAR, and because you can
defeat the amp and cab sections in both plugins
it is possible to use, say, the White amp in
VAR with the MAR’s cabs within your DAW (but
not together on a single Console channel, as it
“exceeds the DSP level”).
Given the many high-quality tones available
in Vintage Amp Room—the fritz factor notwithstanding—
and Metal Amp Room, and the fact
that you can play through them with negligible
latency while tracking via the Console application
(recording only the dry signal if you choose),
guitarists using the Apollo should definitely audition
them for the 14-day trial period. They aren’t
cheap, but when bundled with Bass Amp Room,
which also offers some nice sounds, they’re a
good value. Universal Audio, (877) 698-2834;