As a confirmed Windows Pro Tools user I've looked on with slight envy at some of the peripherals that have traditionally only been available to Mac users. If there has been a Windows version it has generally only been FireWire, and that presents problems for laptop users.
So it was great to see Universal Audio launch the USB3 versions of some of their DSP Accelerators and Audio Interfaces. I've been sent an Apollo Twin USB3 and a Satellite Octo USB3 to have a play with, specifically on Windows.
What I'm about to say shouldn't matter at all, but as part of the overall owner experience it's very important. The packaging and presentation is superb. It reminds me of the packaging for the first iPhones - sturdy and beautiful, along with great protection for the unit inside. It gives you confidence in the units from the moment you open them. As I said, it shouldn't matter at all, but overall it does for some reason.
Both units have a decent weight and lovely build quality. I have one minor issue with the Satellite though. The external power supply plugs in to the Satellite using a very sturdy 4-pin XLR, which nowadays is a reasonably proprietary connector. If your PSU were ever to fail or you forgot it, it's not the sort of thing you'd be able to quickly source from your nearest electronics retailer. The Apollo Twin uses the far more common power jack as used on many devices.
On Windows 10 Pro, this was a total breeze, just requiring a restart after running the installers. Windows recognises the audio interface, and then also the DSP ( two in the Apollo and eight in the Satellite ) as two sets of Westlake processors. Once the drivers are installed, it sees it as a pair of Audio DSP Accelerators.
Native VS DSP
As I predominantly use Pro Tools for post production rather than acquisition, I thought it would be best to test how much UAD DSP plugins load the host system, vs identical plugins in their AAX64 Native form. A variation on the classic D-Verb test. For this I chose the Sonnox Inflator plugin, as I had it on both platforms.
I had 24 mono audio tracks at 48KHz 24bit, each with a -20dB 1KHz tone clip and then four instances of Inflator, making a total of 96 instances. I turned up the effect controls to maximum, and measured the load on the host system using the Pro Tools system meters.
What happened next surprised me, as it seemed counter intuitive. This was the system load using 96 instances of Sonnox Inflator AAX 64 Native.
NOTE - this is during playback, as due to the dynamic plugin resource allocation in Pro Tools 11 onwards, you get a negligible reading with playback stopped.
This was the system load using 96 instances of Sonnox Inflator UAD -
Five times the host system load!
So I got in touch with the guys at Universal Audio to see what's going on. Apparently, this is down to the way Pro Tools moves data between Native processing and any DSP, whether that's UAD, Avid HDX or the likes of SoundGrid.
The more plugins you have in series on a channel, the more "Native to DSP to Native to DSP to Native" round trips the data has to make. This is very much a stress test, which doesn't have a lot of grounding in real life situations, so it isn't something you'd normally have to worry about. However if you are fond of cascading plugins on a single path, it might be something to keep in mind, and it might possibly be worth sorting out an alternative workflow.
The other thing to keep in mind, is that no matter what load the UAD DSP accelerators add to your Native system, this is totally outweighed by the advantages of having the DSP acceleration.
A lot has already been written about UAD plugins, particularly in Julian Rodgers' excellent A-Z of UAD series, but not a lot has been said about their use in post production. I think this is partly due to none of the UAD plugins being available in true 5.1 or 7.1. I say "true" as it is of course now possible to process link multi-mono plugins, especially after Avid sorted out the phase coherency issues that used to exist with multi-mono plugins. This is more useful for dynamics (though with the linking controls available nowadays not so much of an advantage), but with reverbs it's a bit of a deal breaker.
This means that the plugins have to be used in either mono, stereo or multi-mono, before being routed around the surround space. When you're talking object based mixing such as Dolby Atmos, this is actually an advantage as there is not so much bus dynamic range control and more of an in-line workflow.
My Favourite UAD Plugins
The UAD AMS RMX16 and UAD Lexicon 224.
I had the pleasure of having both these as hardware around 15 years ago, connected to an early AMS Neve DFC. As soon as I fired up these two plugins, happy memories of their sound came flooding back. To me the AMS always sounded a little brittle, which could be a real advantage in the right circumstances, and the Lexicon was always beautifully warm, but as with the AMS, incredibly versatile. Listening to these plugins made the hairs on my neck stand up - lovely!
The UAD Oxford EQ.
After my time at the DFC facility came to an end around 2002, I was dropped in the deep end of "in-the-box" fixed bit depth mixing. This was in the era of Pro Tools 5. Sony Oxford plugins were the closest I could find to the beautiful EQs on the AMS Neve DFC. Not only much nicer to look at than the stock plugins, their user interface was far more intuitive to me, and seemed to be doing exactly what it said it was doing on the display - a distinct advantage over other plugins of the day! The UAD Oxford has the same ease of use and same easy sound as the TDM versions I remember.
The UAD Oxford Limiter
The other feature I really missed from the DFC was the incredible dynamics section. Digidesign's stock compressor / limiter at the time sounded dreadful, Maxim was just appalling and the often bundled Focusrite compressor was nowhere near as versatile or transparent as the Neve. This was also in the dark days of "loudness wars", so having a good dynamics section was vital.
I was starting to despair until I found the Sony Oxford dynamics plugins. Again they came the closest to the transparency and ease of use of the Neve. Now they have updated the capabilities to include true peak limiting. Simply enable the "Auto Comp" feature, and the plugin will enable an additional processing stage which dynamically corrects true peak events that breach the threshold that you want. I have tested this and it does indeed work. Checking with Sonnox, they have the V2 AAX Oxford Limiter in development, which will have True Peak limiting capability, and hope to have it released in the tail end of this year. For the moment, the only way to get a True peak limiting Oxford Limiter, is on the UAD platform.
Apollo Twin USB3
This is a "2x6" interface with built-in UAD-2 DUO processing. Other features include...
- Realtime UAD Processing
- USB 3 connectivity for Windows-based systems
- Unison™ technology for stunning models of classic mic preamps and stompboxes
- Includes UAD-2 DUO DSP Processing onboard
- 2 mic/line preamps
- 2 line outs
- front-panel Hi-Z instrument input
- front-panel headphone output
- Digitally controlled analog monitor outputs
- Includes “Realtime Analog Classics” UAD plug-in bundle
- Runs UAD Powered Plug-Ins via VST, RTAS & AAX64 in all major DAWs
While the Satellite Octo is simply a "black box" that could be located anywhere in your setup, the Apollo Twin is very much designed as a tactile control surface with IO easily accessible. Whilst this is good for recording on the move, in a studio environment I've found that long term having audio I/O, power and data leads coming up to your work area can be an annoyance. That's just my opinion though.
The Apollo Twin appears to be mostly for use in a single room, self record scenario. While you can expand the inputs using ADAT optical, you cannot expand the outputs in the same way.
I've done extensive AB listening tests against my RME Fireface 802, and I am hard pressed to tell the difference. On headphones I can detect a slight extra high end sparkle on the Apollo, but it's extremely subjective.
Universal Audio have put a digitally controlled analogue attenuator on the monitor outputs. This means that until the volume control, your audio is at full level, taking full advantage of whatever bit depth you are working at. Received wisdom says that if you reduce volume in the digital domain, you also by virtue of maths, reduce resolution. I must be getting old and my ears possibly a bit worn, but again I've been hard pressed to tell the difference. Other interfaces I have compared to my RME have been dramatically different, indeed worse in my opinion, so I can only view this as a good thing.
What I do like a lot though is that all the controls on the Apollo are "soft" - you don't control the mic gain or the headphone level with a physical pot. Not only does this cut down on the likelihood of component failure, but all the controls are also available on the Universal Audio Console software, which gives you far better flexibility as to where you can locate the main unit and allows you to store setup snapshots.
The UAD USB3 System
Universal Audio's USB3 system allows up to six sets of DSP accelerators to be used at one time, if you have enough USB3 ports. Unlike Thunderbolt, USB3 does not allow daisy chaining.
At the time of writing there are no Mac drivers for the USB3 devices, and there are no Windows drivers for the Thunderbolt devices. This means that if you need to move your session from one platform to another you have to have both types of hardware. Because I use my MacBook Pro for my mobile work, it means I wouldn't be able to open my sessions that I've been doing on my Windows system, on the go. Mind you, as none of the interfaces are bus powered, this in itself limits the mobile possibilities.
There are also so far no Universal Audio USB3 interfaces that go beyond stereo operation. For Windows users you are limited to the FireWire Apollo. FireWire is almost totally extinct now on Windows machines and indeed Macs without an adapter, and certainly not a "factory" option. It is also feature limited compared to Thunderbolt.
I'm reviewing these in the context of using them for Post Production, as that is my main line of work, and the vast majority of the last 26 years of my life.
In music recording and mixing, this is more often than not confined to one facility. Whether you're recording using the real time processing, or mixing using the UAD plugins, that mix or session often stays in the same room.
In Post we already do an awful lot of collaboration, meaning that our sessions need to be able to open easily in a variety of configs. This is what's so great about iLoks and Native processing.
Third party DSP has a really hard time getting established. I regularly start mixes in one studio and finish them in another, often on a different platform. It's enough of a task checking that the other studios have the right version of Pro Tools, the right version of plugins and enough HDX cards (if applicable), without having to rely also on them having the same third party DSP. While I can obviously commit the plugins using Pro Tools 12 it still restricts compatibility and flexibility.
Surround capability is another thing that I'd like Universal Audio to address. While I said that in-line processing could be an advantage in immersive systems such as Dolby Atmos, we still have to be able to create 7.1.2 "beds", for which there are some great but processor hungry plugins available. If UAD could somehow port the likes of Nugen Halo, Exponential Audio PhoenixVerb or any of the Audio Ease reverbs, that would be a great advantage for "external" DSP, for post production users.
The Universal Audio hardware is well built and sounds great, as do the plugins. For my own usage, I would have to limit my use of UAD plugins and hardware to projects that I know are only going to stay within my own studio. Some project based or "one stop shop" facilities might be able to accommodate this workflow, but for the moment it doesn't fit in to mine.
There are certain things, like cascading processing and interfaces, that are possible using Thunderbolt, but not possible using USB3. As things stand, there has been more development of the Thunderbolt standard for Macs than there has been for Windows. That's not to say it's impossible, it's just that as Apple had a head start, they are ahead in terms of driver support for Thunderbolt. Now that Microsoft have drawn a line under older operating systems, there is renewed hope that better Thunderbolt support will be coming.
Universal Audio didn't lend me a Thunderbolt unit to see if I could get it working on my Windows Thunderbolt setup. If anyone can lend me a Thunderbolt Apollo 8 I'll happily try it out!
If you're an exclusively Windows user, doing lots of live recording, or even an artist wanting to be able to track with plugins on the go, then the Universal Audio USB3 system would be well worth a look at. The advantages over the hardware equivalents are numerous, and by including a monitor control on the Apollo, Universal Audio have made a very neat one box solution.