“What’s the one thing our UAD system doesn’t do . . .
yet?” Universal Audio’s Amanda Whiting quizzed me some weeks before the
Apollo was first announced. I first
wondered if maybe they were adding soft synths to their stable of
DSP-powered plug-ins, but that wasn’t it. Once she was satisfied I was
stumped, she affected a perfect Mona Lisa smile and said, “Tracking.” As
in, front end recording. My next thought was that if anyone could be an
exception to the rule that the universe doesn’t need more audio
interfaces, it’d be Universal Audio. After living with the Apollo for
the better part of a year, that once-cautious optimism has been rewarded
on so many levels that my own smile when I use it is less Mona Lisa and
more Cheshire Cat: ear to ear and the only thing you can see.
The Apollo combines a two- or four-chip UAD-2 system—which runs audio effects and processing on dedicated DSP hardware, freeing up your computer’s CPU—with a full-featured audio interface.
Only this audio interface sounds so good that you’d have to step up to
dedicated converters from the likes of Prism or Apogee to get
appreciably better. Most compellingly, the Apollo lets you do something
you can’t do with a card-based UAD-2 system: Treat the UAD plug-ins as
“hardware” upstream of your “tape machine”—the signal can pass through
them before it arrives at your DAW and you can print the results to
your audio tracks.
The Apollo connects to your Mac or PC via FireWire 800 or
Thunderbolt, the latter of which is now well established on current
model Macs (except for the Mac Pro, grrr . . . ) but still somewhat
nascent in the PC realm. Thunderbolt promises far greater speed and
bandwidth, and enables two Apollos to act as one. That said, throughout
this review, I connected to my Mac Pro (first-gen quad core) and a 13"
MacBook Pro via FireWire 800 and had a largely great experience.
We don’t have the space to review or even list UAD
plug-ins in here, but they’re at least half of what makes the Apollo so
desirable. Briefly, they fit into two categories: Spot-on emulations of
coveted classics of analog recording gear (Teletronix limiters, Pultec
EQs, Neve console circuits . . . the list goes on), and things that
aren’t emulative but no less great sounding and useful (DreamVerb, for
example). For sheer variety and sonic excellence, Waves is the only real
competitor, but since we’re talking DSP-powered plug-ins that don’t
drain your CPU, their TDM versions running on Pro Tools HD would be the
fair comparison—and that’s a whole other price league.
The faceplate and controls of the Apollo ooze quality in terms of both look and feel. A detented,
endless Preamp knob controls a digitally stabilized analog gain stage
on inputs 1 through 4, which can take mic or line level. Pressing this
knob in steps through the input channels, and a green LED collar around
the knob shows its position on the current channel; the continuous,
no-segments look of this is a nice touch.
Phantom power is switchable independently per channel, as
is a low cut, 20dB pad, stereo linking, and phase reverse (though you
can’t reverse just one side of a linked pair). Since these channels have
separate XLR and 1/4" jacks instead of the now-usual combo jacks on the
rear panel, the mic/line switch can function as a source switcher—you
won’t need to unplug a synth to plug in a mic. Likewise, plugging a
cable into either Hi-Z input on the front takes over channel 1 or 2 and
switches to guitar-appropriate impedance, which can also provide a nice
boost for recording an old passive Rhodes.
The Preamp knob doesn’t tweak the gain on inputs 5 through
8, which are line level only but can be independently switched between
-10dB and +4dB in the included Console software (see below). But in a
keyboard-based studio, we’d marry synths (or patch bay jacks for synths)
to those inputs, and synths famously have widely divergent output
levels at maximum volume. I know almost no audio interfaces do this, but
given the Apollo’s premium positioning, it’d be nice if the Preamp knob
were a one-stop shop for trimming all your signals as you set up your session.
The monitor output knob is the best studio volume control
I’ve ever had, moving both stereo channels in smooth and predictable
lock step (I can’t say the same for my Mackie Big Knob or TC Level
Pilot). Next to it, two headphone outputs can each have their own mixes,
and stay clean while getting plenty loud—though not as loud, I found, if you happen to like higher-end headphones that have 600-ohm impedance.
On the rear panel, eight analog inputs enjoy separate mic and line inputs for the first
four channels. Lightpipe inputs support S/MUX for sample rates above
48kHz, and the Console software can do realtime sample rate conversion
on an incoming S/PDIF signal.