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Equipment Review - Universal Audio Apollo Quad

Posted by Zed Brookes on 10 September 2012

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: UNIVERSAL AUDIO APOLLO DUO REVIEW :

In this Blog Zed Brookes reviews the new Universal Audio Apollo Duo High-Resilution Interface with Realtime UAD Processing.

Zed Brookes is a Producer, engineer and songwriter. "Creativity vs technology in the crazy world of writing and recording music."

It's no secret I've been a fan of UAD since I purchased the little UAD-2 Solo/Laptop card. Since the Solo has only one of the SHARC plug-in processing chips in it, my plug-in demands quickly overloaded it. This was usually accompanied by the fiddly and annoying juggling of said plug-ins and bouncing or freezing of tracks in Logic.

So when UAD's Apollo emerged as their new flagship product, I was excited (and after 25-odd years in the music industry, I don't get excited by much anymore). Not only did the Apollo come with some reputedly rather nice preamps, it contained either a Duo or Quad SHARC chipset for running UAD's rather tasty plug-ins as well. Even better, you could have some of those UAD plug-ins in between those preamps and your DAW. This means you could have the virtual equivalent of a very expensive vintage tracking chain of effects with a usefully-low recording latency. That's pretty damn cool.

So I managed to get my hands on an Apollo Duo for a try-out (Thanks Leon at NZ Rockshop!) since all the Quads sold out instantly in NZ on hitting the shores.

A big potential selling point for me was that the Apollo is supposed to be able to be fitted with Intel's new Thunderbolt interface. (More here) This involves purchasing an extra add-on card which hasn't been released yet at the time of publishing, but I really look forward to checking out the performance when these become available. The Thunderbolt transfer speeds are supposed to be blisteringly-fast - actually similar to connecting directly to the PCI-express port on your computer (and there's two channels of that per Thunderbolt port). This means even lower latencies between the interface and the computer, with none of the Firewire-bus wrangling. This is really only an issue anyway if you have external Firewire drives daisy-chained to the Apollo.

UAD have a solid reputation in the audio industry - they make great "vintage"- quality hardware, and have also pretty much nailed the "accurately-modelled vintage studio hardware" DAW plug-in market. I have found the UAD version of classic vintage units such as the Pultec and LA-2A to be several steps above other versions I have tried. They model each component of prized representative units of vintage hardware to capture all the non-linearity that made the originals so musical and desirable. Then they add any extra handy functions to make them slightly more usable in modern DAW production.

As you can imagine, all this extremely detailed modelling takes a ridiculous amount of extra processing power - hence needing some heavy-duty plug-in engines to do all the hard work. This is why UAD plug-ins only run in UAD hardware (and no doubt also for copy-protection reasons). Although you can buy duo or quad-chipped UAD Firewire and internal PCIe units, the Apollo conveniently includes the chips in this tasty preamp/audio interface unit.

Apollo Front Panel


The build on these units is solid. They are only one rack unit high, but are quite long.  They are well-perforated for good ventilation, and the finish is impeccable. Simple front panel controls make operation easy, and probably help keep the cost down. Large gain and output volume knobs have an LED ring around them to indicate current level, and each has a push-switch included. For the gain knob, this selects between the four microphone preamps, and for the master volume knob, it is also a mute control.
Power is supplied through a fairly chunky external power pack that handles the various international voltages.

Apollo Rear Panel


Despite all the digital gear packed around it, the analogue side remains completely silent and clear.

: Review of features :

Sound quality; I couldn't fault it. This is a very nice unit. Very low noise and no obvious colouration in the mic preamps. Plenty of gain. Full 48 V Phantom power for mics. Pad, low cut and phase switches. All controlled by a fancy rotating knob with surrounding lit ring showing current gain, and some selector buttons.

I tried recording and playback at various sample rates up to 192kHz. I didn't find that much difference between them really. Just correspondingly lower latency and perhaps a touch more "silkiness" on some instruments in the higher frequencies. I'm guessing the Apollo oversamples for the lower sample rates anyway, so there's not much in it. (And some of the UAD plug-ins themselves are upsampled as well).

I tried recording some acoustic guitar - first without any UAD plug-ins inserted - the preamps sounded open and clean-sounding. Very transparent and very low noise. About what I expected from UAD. Very nice.

I then tried inserting some plug-ins into the Console app that comes with the Apollo.

UAD Apollo Console App


Some gentle compression with the 1176SE, Pultec adding small amount of top, and LA3A as peak limiter. Beautiful - now the guitar was sounding shiny and firm, with no nasty artifacts, and no noticeable noise problems despite the compression.
I had to pull the fader down in Logic and just monitor through the UAD console app to avoid the latency-induced comb-filtering.

Next I thought I'd try one of the High-impedance instrument inputs on the Apollo's front panel. The input automatically switches from Mic/Line to Instrument when you plug in. Handy. Oh - and it sounds really good. I'm not suprised - UA has an excellent reputation with not only audio quality, but also pro-level usability design.
As I'm guilty of pretty much always just plugging my Fender Jag-Stang straight into my interface to capture ideas as fast as possible - I could tell that this immediately sounded better than my old interface ever did. A LOT better. Winding the gain knob up gave a really nice creamy analogue distortion too. I'm really liking this unit so far. Clean on mic inputs, nicely coloured analogue on the Hi-Z inputs.

Let's try the dodgy acoustic guitar piezo bridge pickup. Plugging straight into the Hi-Z jack. Wow - same thing again. A huge improvement - in fact the best I've heard it sound from the pickup. It's normally quite clicky and overly percussive. This sounds much smoother and fatter.

And my Jaguar bass sounds great plugged straight into the Hi-Z input as well - as much as I love my old Drawmer 1960 tube preamp on bass, I have much more control with the Apollo.

So - it seems like we're getting 4 very good quality mic preamps with this unit. The mic inputs can be switched to the line inputs on the back, with the first two inputs automatically switching to Instrument when something is plugged into the Hi-Z jacks in the front.
There's also the usual S/PDIF I/O (with auto sample rate conversion if you like), and an S-Muxed dual ADAT I/O that can do either 8 channels of regular 44.1 or 48kHz sample rates or handle up to 4 channels of 192kHz audio.
There's two headphone outputs that can be fed from various parts of the Console app.

The controls are simple and clear - each of the four preamp inputs can be selected by pressing the gain knob, and rotating to set amount of gain. A circular light ring surrounding the gain pot shows the amount of gain added. Switches apply 48v Phantom Power, Pad, high-pass filter etc to the selected channel.

The Console app shows much more detail, reading out in decibels and showing the state of everything all at once. It has its own built-in headphone busses and effects monitoring setup.
Because this is a digitally-controlled preamp, all settings may be saved and recalled - as I mentioned, there is a Console plug-in (in all the typical plug-in formats) that can be inserted into the session that can recall all these settings automatically if you like.

: Conclusion :

A great unit overall. Sounds fantastic and is, without doubt, value for money - especially the Quad version.
Not quite perfect yet - there's still a few very minor things to iron out with the interface software, and the Thunderbolt adaptor is still absent (as at July 2012).

For this price (just under NZD$4,000), the question is why woudn't you buy one.

I did.

PS. I forgot to mention, for those of you who know little about UAD yet; like most of their plug-in based devices, the Apollo comes standard with the UAD-2 Analog Classics plugins collection (the 1176LN, LA-2A and PultecEQP-1A) and a voucher for $100 worth of plugins.
That's pretty cool value - especially if you wait until one of their fairly regular online sales to use it.

Plus - when you install your plug-ins, it installs every UAD plug-in, and the others (that you haven't purchased yet) can be demoed for two weeks from whenever you click the little "demo" button on the plug-in. I've also noticed that all the demos seem to be reset every time you purchase a new plug-in. These guys are very canny yet professional with their marketing, and they certainly know how to look after their customers.

Zed Brookes


CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE UNIVERSAL AUDIO APOLLO HIGH-RESOLUTION INTERFACES