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Universal Audio Apollo Audio Interface and Softube Amp Room Bundle

January 30, 2014
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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- sounding enough.

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; uaudio.com.

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